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‘This land is ours’

Text By: Buena Bernal || Photos By: Dante Diosina, Jr.

SOFRONIO ESPAÑOLA, PALAWAN, Philippines – Tatang (Old father) Suede walks as if carrying a heavy weight on his back, a perfect slouch for an aging man with a rare lively smile.

He tells you his story somber at first then all at once releasing a laugh with his teeth protruding. A tribesman of his stature has known life at its fullest – not wanting, finding abundance in the land gifted by a divine creator he calls Ama (Father).

Ama,” he begins his prayer. “I thank you for the food before us, for our guests and the love shared among us,” he adds in the vernacular before a meal.

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It is hard not to marvel at the beauty of the rough, beaten paths one crosses en route to Tatang Suede’s community, the daunting trees born of nature, scenes that beguile, amuse, provoke thoughts that occasionally drive action, anger, and, the universe forbid, cause desensitization out of intensity.

But when he calls on Ama to thank for their land, one understands the compulsion for gratitude.

Unlike many of the younger generation members of the Palaw’an Tribe in the village of Iraray in Southern Palawan, Tatang Suede knows what it means to not give in to the seemingly manufactured needs of this progressively consumerist society.

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“There was a time one peso can last a family for a month,” Tatang Suede, tribal chief and folk healer, shares.

But nowadays, when a member of the tribe sees a dayo (non-native) with a purchased good that was not always a household staple, one feels a want to have. The need for possession comes only after comparing life to the other.

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Suddenly, they could no longer prepare their own coffee and needed 3-in-1 pre-mixed coffee powders in sachets. Suddenly, the collective chanting was not enough for entertainment and they needed transistor radios to keep their minds off of their continuing struggle as indigenous peoples to overcome barriers to marginalization and social neglect in part due to their geographically isolated communities.

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The daily burdens faced by indigenous peoples, who are among the most marginalized sectors in their localities, are no secret.

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Some of the areas in Iraray village have yet to be distinguished as ancestral domains by law. Despite being the de facto sanctuary of indigenous peoples and their ancestors, the tribal families do no hold the title to these lands.

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The titles are crucial, as projects both of government and non-profit groups identify IP beneficiaries based on lands that are ancestral domains under law. Their community, for example, have yet to be powered by electricity. At night, they rely on battery-operated light. It’s not always a problem for them. The elders know the terrain like the back of their hand. But for younger generations who wish to review their school lessons or do homework at night, it can be quite a challenge.

In the evening, the elders form a circle and exchange stories in open space. One story stands out. It was their first and thus far only time in the city. They had no idea what escalators were for and had to march hand in hand crossing a street, what with all the jeepneys (mini-buses) and cars. Here in the forest, they say, they can never get lost. They’re not terrified at the sight of a wild animal, even a snake. But vehicles in the streets? That’s a different story.

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Tatang Suede’s slouch is an apt metaphor for the burden he carries as leader of a tribe seeking to fight what they call the unjust land-grabbing for political gains of a long-dead governor back in the 1970s.

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Tatang Suede shares that the titles to the land where they and their ancestors’ have lived were named after members of a powerful local religious sect known for currying political favors.

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Elders of the tribe swear by their ancestors that the individuals whose names appear on the land titles have never set foot on the land they proudly call their children’s inheritance.

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“All my children have tried their luck in the city, living with their families there. My favorite son is the one who chose to stay here in our land to help me till it,” explains one elder in the vernacular.

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To the tribesmen, their land is sacred and so are the blessings that emanate from this gift of nature.

Beyond issues of land-grabbing, the National Commission of Indigenous Peoples – a state agency with a comprehensive archive on tribes in the Philippines – is also beset with manpower and funding problems.

Items for the instruments needed for the prerequisite perimeter survey prior to the titling of these lands are often taken out of the proposed state budget that is enacted each fiscal year. With limited funding, this means the processing of pending applications for certificates of ancestral domain titles (CADTs) would usually be unduly delayed.

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Tatang Suede lives with no regret, as he looks to his wife Nanay (mother) Etha for inspiration.

“No matter what the papers say, those [areas of land] are yours,” Tatang tells his fellow tribesmen, who have yet to see titles bearing their names. (END)

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