Youth group fight to save indigenous lands on Palawan Island in the Philippines – IDN-InDepthNews
By Nena Palagi
PUERTO PRINCESA, Palawan, Philippines (IDN) – This is a feat unimaginable by any modern standard. Six young people from this remote island of Palawan, Philippines, faced the landowner goliaths and won. They have secured over 40,000 hectares of land legally declared as protected habitat with the direct approval of indigenous custodians.
The small nonprofit Center for Sustainability PH (CS) spearheaded the campaign, helping local indigenous Bataks since 2014. How did they do it? CS co-founder and advisor Karina May (KM) Reyes says it’s been thanks to courage and “resilience day in and day out,” over the past seven years. They implement their mission through land conservation, reforestation and citizen science.
They recently brought their story to the world stage, to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). And then, will be the great COP 26 world forum in Glasgow from October 31st, in which Reyes is participating.
At COP 26, Reyes will embark on a new role with the global NGO, A planted tree. Advocating for the climate change agenda in the ASEAN region (South East Asia), their story of Palawan Island and the Philippines is going global.
The leadership of CS’s six-member youth team was between 17 and 28 years old when they began lobbying for the protection of Palawan’s rainforests. Most grew up swimming in the pristine rivers and lakes of Palawan Island, which won the title of “Best Island in the World” (Travel and Leisure Magazine).
Reyes – KM as she is affectionately called by indigenous peoples – was born in Australia of Filipino descent. When she visited Palawan ten years ago, she fell in love with the island and never left. Now committed as ever to sustainable development and long-term environmental protection, it is determined to carry their story to the international alliance High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People (HAC), which represents at least 70 countries. .
In preparation, CS recently hosted an online forum attended by 740 young people in the Philippines, with a keynote address by Ambassador Zakri Abdul Hamid. Mr. Hamid is Ambassador and Scientific Advisor to the Campaign for Nature, a global expert on the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity, which was first launched at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.
The CS project in Palawan, titled CRITICAL HABITAT OF THE CLEOPATRA NEEDLE (CNCH) has garnered support from local and national governments and international and business organizations, helping them get to where they are now.
The importance of earning the protection of “Cleopatra’s Needle” in 2016, as critical habitat cannot be underestimated. It is the largest critical habitat in the Philippines and the ancestral home of the endangered Batak tribes on the island. It is home to 61 Palawanic animal and plant species found nowhere else in the world, and 31 globally threatened species.
“We protect our forests and lands because they are the source of our livelihoods and the key to our survival. We Bataks live in the forest. And we have a tradition that we move from one part of the forest to another. Organizing sacred rituals and gatherings is part of our cultural practice, ”Teodorico Villarica, former tribal leader from Sitio (district) Kalakwasan told IDN.
“For example, for the good harvest of Almaciga resin (sacred tree) and honey, we offer rituals before using and harvesting forest products. In our forests there are many sacred animals and plant species which are also essential for our future survival. Many indigenous communities among us depend on the forest for their food and also for our source of fresh water, ”he added. Kalakwasan is the gateway to the forest of Cleopatra’s needles.
The Philippines, along with Indonesia and Malaysia, is one of the only Asian countries among the 17 in the world to boast of having the most diverse forests, oceans and wetlands. The western border of CNCH is with the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, considered one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
CS’s work for the 41,350 hectares of protected land at Cleopatra’s Needle contains the last remaining rainforest in the Philippines near the island’s capital, Puerto Princesa. In addition to Chief Villarica’s community, CNCH also grapples with six other important districts. However, the Batak tribes, mostly hunter-gatherers, living in the forest, rapidly dwindle to just 200 members. Therefore, there is a sense of urgency among the youth team to protect the last remaining tracts of rainforest land in Palawan.
Before Spanish colonization, 90 to 95% of the Philippine islands were covered with forests. Currently only 3% of forest remains in the whole country, mainly in Palawan. Forest covers have been severely depleted by surface mining, extreme use of agricultural land, poaching of wildlife and logging.
The guiding values of CS in their work are to start from the community and come back to the community for everything they do. KM believes that without communities, environmental development is not sustainable.
“To achieve the goal of saving at least 30% of our planet by 2030, we must invest in indigenous peoples and local communities. We need to be able to recognize and defend indigenous land rights and indigenous and community conservation areas, ”Reyes told IDN. “We also need to be able to provide simple cash transfers to indigenous communities to carry out conservation measures so that they can play their role from time immemorial,” she adds.
Reyes points out that indigenous peoples make up 5 percent of the world’s population while protecting 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity. Additionally, indigenous lands represent 37 percent of the world’s natural land and store 25 percent of the world’s remaining airborne carbon.
“As Indigenous people, we have witnessed first-hand the damage caused by over-harvesting the Almaciga tree to the detriment of our livelihood. Our sacred resources such as the Almaciga tree, rattan wood and honey, we Bataks are careful not to abuse. We believe that in the future there will be nothing left if we abuse it, ”says Villarica.
He argues that their harvesting practices will benefit future generations. “We apply in our practice the right time to plant and harvest, to ensure that the Almaciga tree is mature before harvest. We only tap its resin when it’s ready to do so, ”explains the former chef. He added that together with CS, they planted 3,000 trees to prevent soil erosion and regenerated 10,000 seedlings for their “precious tree that takes a lifetime to grow”.
“Indigenous communities spend only 16 to 23 percent of the budget of global conservation institutions with the same results,” says Reyes. Due to her hard work, KM has received a National Geographic Explorer grant since 2018. While working with CS, she also received the Ten Accomplished Youth Organizations of the Philippines (TAYO) award.
Reyes, who has a background in peace and international studies with a degree from the Australian University of New England, believes indigenous peoples are the best stewards of sustainable development on their lands. And that is why she continues to pressure anyone who is ready to listen to her and become her partner.
“For the first time, the indigenous Bataks have a legal document that says that as custodians of the land, they have the first rights to the area through the declaration of critical habitat of Cleopatra’s Needle,” emphasizes Reyes. “We are breaking down barriers by telling our decision makers that due to the original expertise of Indigenous peoples from time immemorial, we continue to preserve our last pristine forests. And that they need to tap into and invest in that Indigenous expertise.
“KM and his CS team have worked patiently to understand our Indigenous culture. So we really appreciate what they have done for us, ”says Villarica. “CS was with us from the start (of the campaign) and when Cleopatra’s Needle was finally declared legally critical habitat, it was one of our greatest accomplishments together.”
CS has trained many Bataks as wildlife control officers and they are now preparing for further battles to save other native lands on Palawan Island. CS continues to navigate wildlife poaching, illegal logging, land grabbing, large-scale mining and now developer encroachment.
“It’s really a race against time for a lot of us kids. We are keenly aware that indigenous Palawenyos, affected by climate change, cannot even participate in global debates that directly affect them, ”notes Reyes, adding that“ our Palawan Island is located on a geopolitical hotspot ”.
The Palawan Islands border the disputed South China Sea and the Philippine government had officially designated the area as part of the country’s exclusive economic zone. “(This area) is now included in the area disputed by China. This makes our work on this beloved island even more urgent, ”concludes KM Reyes. [IDN-InDepthNews – 29 October 2021]
Photo (top): Cleopatra’s Needle, Sitio (district) Kalakasan, gateway to the Cleopatra’s Needle (CNCH) critical habitat site. Credit: Julian Plack
Photo (in text): Young members of the Center for Sustainabilty (CS) team with co-founder and advisor KM Reyes on the far left. Credit: JR Lapuz
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