The Diocesan Social Action Center (DSAC) of the Apostolic Vicariate of Calapan in Oriental Mindoro, Philippines, in partnership with Caritas PH, Caritas Spain & AECID, and the Mangyan communities, are collaboratively implementing a development program called IP LEAD (Promoting IP Leadership Towards Economic Action and Development).
This partnership project aims to strengthen the food security capacities of selected IP communities, ensuring the IP women’s representation and active participation in community development through agroecology and community social enterprise in two Mangyan communities in Oriental Mindoro.
It also intends to empower the IP communities by engaging leadership and collective ownership, in order to reduce their vulnerabilities and improve their social participation, livelihood opportunities, and health conditions and to alleviate poverty.
By promoting agroecology and sustainable agriculture, we try to ensure that the Mangyan communities have a secure food supply, that they protect their ecology, and that they improve the well-being of the community and the forest ecosystem.
This article is an assessment output in trying to define and understand the concept of development from the perspective of the indigenous peoples’ communities and how development interventions can possibly be integrated into the horizon of cultural perspective – into the realm of integral ecology vis-à-vis the encroaching waves of market-economy and the mainstream socio-political milieu.
Context and Summary
Acclaimed as the seventh largest island in the Philippine archipelago, Mindoro is located off the southwest tip of Luzon. The Mangyans are the original settlers and inhabitants of Mindoro. In the course of time, the Mangyans were believed to have been evicted from their original coastal dwelling and were forced to retreat into the mountainous interior.
The Mangyan indigenous peoples in Mindoro are among the poorest people in the Philippines. This article explores the factors that contribute to poverty among the Mangyan people, with a particular focus on the loss of their land.
Deforestation, driven by commercial logging, agricultural expansion, and lowland migration, has uprooted and displaced Mangyan communities. Consequently, the Mangyans endure economic marginalization, limited access to vital services, and discrimination from the dominant lowland population.
The article also underscores the indigenous understanding of development as an alternative paradigm, emphasizing the importance of holistic well-being, social harmony, and sustainable interaction with the natural environment. It advocates for a shift away from the prevailing materialistic and market-driven mindset and towards a development model that honors indigenous values, drawing wisdom from the integral ecology of the Mangyans.
Factors Contributing to Poverty of Indigenous Communities
One significant factor that contributes to poverty among the Mangyan people is the loss of their land. The forest is home to Mangyan indigenous communities. However, Mindoro has lost 40% of its forest cover since the 1960s. This deforestation has been driven by a number of factors, including commercial logging, agricultural expansion, and lowland migration.
Lowland settlers have encroached on Mangyan territory, and they have often forced the Mangyan to sell their land at below-market value. Many of the indigenous Mangyan communities are continually being displaced and, in many instances, have lost their access to their ancestral land.
Consequently, the Mangyans are also economically marginalized. They often lack access to education, healthcare, and other essential services. This makes it difficult for them to compete in the market economy, and it leaves them vulnerable to exploitation.
They also face discrimination from the dominant Filipino lowland population. They are often seen as being backward and uneducated. This climate of discrimination make it difficult for them to access opportunities and resources, and it can also lead to abuses and violation of their rights.
Moreover, the export-led industrialization that took place from the 1950s among underdeveloped countries signaled the encroachment of transnational business corporations into the territories and ancestral lands of the indigenous peoples in their ventures for logging, mining, and other extractive industries. And the Mangyans were not spared from the pressures of resource competition, for which they were always in a disadvantaged position.
Mangyan Subsistence Economy & Integral Ecology
For the Mangyans, the ancestral domain comprises interacting landscapes of the human community, nature ecosystems, and the living spirits of the land, which include also the spirits of their ancestors.
Traditionally, the Mangyan indigenous peoples believe in an integrated cosmology, wherein the Creator, linked to other deities and spirits, is considered the source of land and life. It is for this reason that land is considered sacred and cannot be sold, owned, or leased.
They live with nature and their life depends on the resources around them. In the traditional Mangyan society, what is generally practiced is the subsistence agricultural economy, wherein households normally produce only what they need for their day-to-day food consumption.
For the indigenous peoples, land is communally owned, and an individual cannot claim absolute ownership. They, as a community, are stewards of the gift of creation. As such, land and nature’s richness is meant for the community’s use and sustenance as intended by the Creator.
Clearly, the idea of owning the land by virtue of a piece of paper is alien to the traditional concept of the indigenous peoples as they did not subscribe to the idea of private ownership for they regard the land as something sacred to be cultivated by the community.
When lowlanders and corporations talk about development, they readily equate it with monetary gains, quantifying them in terms of the acquisition of visible material comforts or benefits. However, development when measured within the framework of indigenous peoples’ perspective is wider and more inclusive.
Development must consider in its purview the general well-being of the community and the healthy social interaction that should be enjoyed by all for their overall fulfillment. This should entail preserving social harmony and their collective cultural identity as a people.
Impact of Monetized Economy
The dominant legal system of ownership was imposed for the resource exploitation of the lands. The aftermath of this market economic orientation was the commercialization of the soil and conversion of the land from traditional subsistence to market-driven revenue requiring surplus production.
Consequently, among the Mangyan indigenous communities, the traditional pattern of agricultural subsistence was modified in relation to the emerging framework of market-oriented economy, which necessarily brings in the monetary form of exchange and inevitably influences the mode of social interaction in the community.
A monetized economy somehow redefines the cultural patterns and priorities of the communities engaging in market transactions. The commodification of lands, the ecosystems, and the natural environment that the indigenous peoples once considered as sacred is one of the major impacts resulting from lowland encroachment, forcing them to give up their traditional values and the very soul of their culture.
For example, when a monetized economy is introduced, social considerations, in particular, the concepts of reciprocity no longer become the primary consideration of the market economy.
What predominates in the market system is no longer the social character of production and exchange but the individualistic craving for accumulation, irrespective of the wider consideration for the overall welfare and support of the community.
For the traditional society, the acquisition of wealth is not a value in itself, but what is emphasized more is the gesture of generosity, living together, and living harmoniously with the community. But in the emerging socio-cultural system defined by market priorities, such idealized consciousness is slowly fading into the background.
It should not come as a surprise to note that traditional Mangyan communities have a different paradigm of development, which goes beyond the parameter of money but is more concerned with the preservation of the general well-being of the community and their healthy interaction with their natural environment, specifically the forest ecosystem.
Towards Alternative Development Paradigm
The concept of development among the indigenous peoples as the promotion of the well-being of the social community and the ecosystems is already part of the ongoing paradigm shift from the neo-liberal economic model. It is a turning away from the kind of development model that emphasizes financial growth as the only real measure of development.
For the Mangyans, development is the sum total of experiencing peace and harmony within the community and a sense of freedom, serenity, and security. In the early part of their history, the experience of poverty was non-existent, and simply unimaginable because their forest habitat used to provide them with everything they needed, in great abundance. Their subsistence economy did not require them to accumulate surplus “wealth” because they always had what they needed for their food from the productive bounty of the land.
Now more than ever, it becomes imperative to rediscover the wisdom of indigenous values and tradition and to harness this cultural energy in order to redeem us from our prevailing anthropocentric, materialist, and overly-consumerist mindset.
The alternative development paradigm demands that a more integrative model take into account the inseparable link of both human and ecosystem well-being as a key consideration of the genuine development process as already enshrined in the traditional cultural paradigm of the Mangyans.
The experiences and traditions of the indigenous peoples in trying to maintain harmony with their social and physical environment are needed to provide us with significant insights on how to promote an alternative vision toward the sustainable well-being of the earth.
The integral cosmology of the Mangyans offers a workable paradigm in establishing our sacred relationship to the land which is also the abode of earth spirits, and a home not only to the tribe but to all of the earth’s community – the ecosystems and the entire biodiversity. This collective ecology of nature, human society, and culture/spirit world make up the total reality of their integrated cosmos.
Reflection in celebration of the Indigenous Peoples’ Sunday, 8 October 2023.
Fr. Edwin “Edu” Gariguez was the former executive secretary of Caritas Philippines. In 2012, he was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for leading a grassroots movement against an illegal nickel mine to protect Mindoro Island’s biodiversity and its indigenous people. He is currently the social action director of the Apostolic Vicariate of Calapan.