By Kathleen D. Zambas
Why are forests important?
They provide us with shelter, the materials used for buildings, and the paper we use to write in school. They also hold water and clean the air we breathe.
These are typical answers one might hear from a student, an urban dweller, or from a quick search over the Internet.
But for the Manobo indigenous group of Surigao, the forest means so much more. Not only do forests provide them with their daily needs, they also hold and represent their culture and identity. “Ang kalasangan mao ang atong kinabuhi (The forest is our life),” shared Datu Pedrito Agustin of the Manobo tribe during a consultation meeting held in Tandag City.
The Manobos of Barangay Pakwan, Lanuza, Surigao del Sur reside within the forests of Mt. Hilong-Hilong. Mt. Hilong-Hilong is the highest mountain in north-eastern Mindanao and is home to a vast range of wildlife. The ancestral domain of the Manobos can also be found within these areas.
“Ang kalasangan mao ang atong kinabuhi (The forest is our life).”Datu Pedrito Agustin
For the Manobo group, the forest is both treasure and life of the tribe. Prior to its declaration as Barangay Pakwan in 1981, the Manobos were already long-time inhabitants of the area. They lived a simple life, practicing harmony with forests through culture and tradition. They farmed crops, hunted animals, and carried out rituals and tribal celebrations for the Magbabaya (the Creator).
When logging companies entered these areas in the 70s, the Manobo struggled with rampant displacement and discrimination brought about by the arrival of migrants and lowlanders. Lifestyle changes were made, necessary in order for them to survive.
Lasting for more than four decades, the tribe witnessed the damage caused by massive deforestation, including the decline of wildlife such as the “usa” (deer), “amo” (monkey), “kayaw” (hornbill), “milo” (wild cats) and the sudden absence of species in the area such as the “Banug” (Philippine Eagle) which can no longer be spotted in these areas today. The Manobo also reported lower water levels, lower fish catch, and warmer climate throughout the years.
The passing of the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA) and the creation of the National Commission of Indigenous People (NCIP) in 1997 paved the way for the Manobo tribe members to organize their own association which enabled them to protect the forest, their ancestral domain and rights, and to preserve their cultural way of life.
When large-scale logging ceased in 2010, the Manobo began collaborating with various government agencies and non-government organizations. They were provided with different types of training which they also passed down to their children.
“Ang edukasyon ang naghatag kanamo ug dalan para maila kami ug adonay balaud na mapapasa alang sa among mga IP (Education paved the way for us to be recognized and for laws to be passed for the IPs),” shared Datu Romel Dawog, the Municipal Indigenous Peoples Mandatory Representative (IPMR) of Manobo during the Participatory Situational Analysis activity conducted by Haribon.
He added that through building capacities, the next generation will not have to experience what the older generation struggled with before. The Manobos believe that aside from planting trees and implementing forest-related policies, empowering their members through capacity-building is one of the best ways to strengthen forest protection by the community.
The Manobo tribe is part of the Forest Governance Project (FOGOP) with Haribon Foundation which aims to strengthen community voice and action in forest governance. It is a five-year program funded by the European Union (EU) in partnership with BirdLife International.