The Native Clearing: Deceiving Indigenous Peoples through IPRA

An exhibit, dubbed Aeta’s Trail at the Zoobic Safari entertains visitors with a grand show of native dances and war rituals. But behind the contrived performances lies a deeper story: one of continuing abuse against a marginalized culture that has faced oppression throughout history.

Philippine Collegian
Posted by Bulatlat
Vol. VII, No. 33, September 23-29, 2007

The Aetas moved with subtle dexterity, spreading their arms in imitation of the dragonflies that signal the coming rains. Their footsteps descended rapidly upon the wood, creating a cacophony that resembled the
fluttering of the insects’ wings.

For P395 ($ 8.71 at an exchange rate of $1=P45.31) per head, tourists may avail themselves of Zoobic Safari’s commercial package, which features not just animals but also members of the Aeta tribes. An exhibit, dubbed “Aeta’s Trail,” entertains visitors with a grand show of native dances and war rituals.

Behind the contrived performances, however, lies a deeper story: one of continuing abuse against a marginalized culture that has faced oppression throughout history.

Displacing the natives

Umpongan, one of the elder Aetas in the exhibit, professes that his ancestors were Subic’s original settlers. He described his people to be friendly, ready to welcome outsiders who sought their help. “Nung dumating yung mga Amerikano, mga ninuno ko pa ang nagturo sa kanila kung paano mamuhay sa gubat. Itinuro namin kung paano maghanap ng pagkain at paano magsaing sa buho” (When the Americans arrived, our ancestors taught them how to live in the jungle. They taught them how to look for food and to cook rice in bamboo stalks.) he said.

Despite the amicable reception, the Americans soon drove the Aetas away from their own lands. The natives’ ancestral lands were converted to military bases and urban areas, cutting the Aetas off from their livelihood. The colonizers brought with them business firms, organizations, and armed forces, conquering Subic with the old colonial weapons of development plans, land titles, and “divide-and-conquer” strategies.

Umpongan reveals the the Aetas were especially vulnerable to these strategies – carefully planned tactics that sought to trample their resistance by employing spies and traitors in each tribe. “Naging iskwater na kami sa sarili naming lupa” (We became squatters in our own land.) he said in remorse, his forehead wrinkled in frustration.

Spectacles of the exotic

By the late 1980s, the Subic local authorities drafted a relocation plan for dislocated communities such as squatters. One of the plan’s objectives was to provide displaced Aetas with housing, training, and alternative jobs that will replace their previous livelihoods. Thus, together with other Aetas, Umpongan ended up in Zoobic Safari. He lived virtually as a zoo exhibit, working whole days and spending the night in a small nipa (palm) hut he shares with the rest of his fellow Aetas.

Although Umpongan feels a persistent shame for serving as a mere spectacle for tourists, he declares that Aetas like him hardly have any other alternative. “Kahit papaano, may nakakain kami dito. Gustuhin man namin, wala na rin kasi kaming mababalikan at maipaghahanapbuhay sa labas,” (At least we are able to eat here. Even if we want to, we have no place to go back to nor do we have any means of livelihood outside the former base.) he explained.

Similar circumstances of displacement and poverty have been decried by other members of indigenous peoples (IP). Mangyan leader Tony Calbayog, chair of the Bigkis at Lakas ng mga Katutubo sa Timog Katagalugan (Balatik or Unity and Strength of Indigenous Peoples in Southern Tagalog), blames the systematic and worsening cases of land grabbing as one of the major reasons for the IPs’ suffering.

Meanwhile, the government continues to formulate policies for “development for the common good,” while failing to provide integrated programs that will accommodate the lifestyles of national minorities. These policies include the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act (IPRA), which was signed by then President Fidel Ramos in 1997. Calbayog decries the pretentious nature of the law, as it claims to protect the rights of IPs yet lacks the necessary provisions to punish land grabbers and business corporations that encroach upon ancestral lands.

Toothless law

The IPRA states that “the State shall recognize, respect and protect the rights of the indigenous cultural communities to preserve and develop their cultures, traditions, and institutions.”

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