Logo: Solidarity South Pacific

Background to the Philippines

Here follows some brief background information about the ecology and Indigenous peoples of the Philippines. We hope that it will help to put our work into context and make it more understandable.

Of course, we do not have the full picture, perhaps nobody does. For every campaign that we provide solidarity to there are no doubt many others equally deserving. Doubtless too there are communities and ecologies which are destroyed and others which are saved, that we never hear of. We could never hope to provide meaningful solidarity to every worthwhile struggle in the 7000 islands of the Philippines. What we can do is offer what practical support we can to those tribal and ecological struggles that we hear about, and that we are able to assist.

Photo: Waterfall in Philippines

We are aware that the realities of a situation on the ground may be very different to how it is presented, or presumed to be, half a world away in the West. We welcome any feedback and criticism of our work. If you have information that we may find useful, if you know of a tribal or ecological struggle, which needs solidarity action in the West, or if you think we have got anything wrong, please get in touch.

General background info

Map of Philippine Islands

The Philippines are home to some of the highest levels of plant and animal biodiversity in the world, including 3,500 species of trees, 2,400 species of fish and 240 species of mammals. At least 3,000 species, mostly plants, are endemic, meaning that they are found only within the Philippines, or more likely within a certain habitat there.

When Magellan, the first European to land in the Philippines, arrived in 1521, virtually the entire archipelago was covered in forest. By the end of the 20th century forest cover had been reduced to 18.6 %, of which only around 3% was old growth virgin forest.

Many other eco systems are dependent on these forests. The lack of forests has lead to flooding and a soil erosion rate of 1 billion cubic metres a year, damaging the prospects of both peasant farmers, and ecological regeneration. Coral reefs and mangrove swamps are also depleted by the resulting siltation of the rivers. Studies claim that 54% forest cover is needed to preserve these other eco systems.

Mangrove swamps are another crucial habitat. They have been reduced by over 75% of their 1918 level. In 1977, the last time that a thorough survey was done, only 5% of coral reefs were estimated as containing over 75% live coral, with another 25% containing over 50% live coral.

Mining is another blight on the ecology of the Philippines. Many struggles have been fought against mining corporations, and some of them have been won, but around 2/3 of the total land area of the Philippines is currently under application for mining.

It is the incredible bio-diversity, combined with the massive scale of its destruction that has seen the Philippines classed as one of the top three 'ecological hotspots', areas that are seeing the highest levels of biodiversity destroyed at the quickest rate and are therefore often seen as priority areas for conservation.

Indigenous Peoples

There are some 30 to 80 tribes in the Philippines, totalling around 3 million people out of a total population of 85 million. It is perhaps neither possible nor necessary to be more accurate than this as how anthropologists classify an ethno-linguistic group, might not always agree with how such a group sees itself.

The largest concentration of indigenous communities is on the Island of Mindanao in the South, where non-Muslim tribes are collectively referred to as Lumads, and Muslim tribes as Moros. Also in the Cordillera mountains of Northern Luzon where the people are Igorot, and the Island of Mindoro where they are Mangyan. Most of these cultures are traditionally agriculturalists, and many remain so, provided that they have managed to hold on to their land.

Photo: Three boys in a forest
Agta children

The Negrito tribes - Agta, Aeta, Ati, Dumagat, Mamanuwa - were the original inhabitants of the Philippines and were traditionally nomadic gatherer-hunters. Along with other gatherer hunters they are perhaps the only people ever to have had a non-exploitative relationship with the earth. These tribes look different to the majority of Filipions, having darker skin and kinky black hair. They often refer to themselves, as distinct from other Filipions, as 'kulot', meaning kinky hair.

Most of them are now engaged in farming to various degrees, and many more are reduced to begging and labouring in the towns and cities. But those who through remoteness or resistance still have access to land and forest, continue to provide for much of their basic needs independently, including through gathering and hunting in forests.

Dependent upon healthy forests, their culture is gentle and non-hierarchical. Resources are shared amongst the community and there appears to be very little in the way of authority or division of labour, even between men and women or adults and children.

Some people may wonder why we consider it so important to help preserve the land and lifestyles of small groups of people in a forest on the other side of the world. The answer is that in their relationships with the earth and each other, their existence is a reminder to us of what we have lost, and what we must one day regain.

The Agta of the Sierra Madre

Photo: Forest on rolling hills against sunset sky
Old growth forest on Agta ancestral land.
Threatened by logging.

The Sierra Madre (or Mother Mountain) mountain range runs along the North East coast of Luzon, the largest island of the Philippines. The more remote mountain and coastal areas of this region are home to the more isolated of the Agta groups. Many of them are increasingly assimilated into mainstream society but still retain a strong attachment to their land, communities and traditions. We have even heard rumours that small groups continue to live in isolation in the mountains, firing arrows at any strangers they see and interacting with outsiders only through a handful of trusted Agta from nearby.

The San Ildelfonso Peninsula is home to Friends of People Close to Nature's 'rainforest and Agta peoples conservation centre' at Dipuntian, one of the projects, which Solidarity South Pacific was originally set up to support. Other Agta (often also called 'dumagat' meaning 'by the sea') and mixed communities exist on the Peninsula. Hunting and gathering continue to play an important role here but increasingly it is not as important as slash and burn farming, begging, and the gathering / making of forest products (orchids, honey, mats and baskets) for sale in the nearby town of Casiguran. Many people earn money by small scale logging, felling a few trees that are then illegally bought by the big logging companies.

Photo: Kids sat in the sun
Agta kids at Dipuntian

Much of the peninsula was logged in the early 1990s by the Japanese multinational IDC (Industries Development Corporation). Despite a widespread hostility, including some blockading and even a few small-scale loggers being seen off with bows and arrows, only the southernmost end of the peninsula remains entirely uncut. This area, described to us by Agta as virgin forest, but denied by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, is also the main hunting ground of Agta on the peninsula. The more it is encroached upon the less the Agta will be able to hunt and gather for their needs. The less too they will be able to grow their own crops as the soil erodes and the rivers silt up. The more they will be forced to sell logs and beg as their only means of survival. Most of the peninsula is now covered in 10-year re-growth interspersed with patches of older growth and bigger trees, bordered along the coast with coconut palms. In 2003 large-scale logging resumed and (in 2004) continues.

Two days travel to the North, at the far end of the mountain range, lies the Northern Sierra Madre Natural Park, the 'last great forest'. The natural park is home to pretty much the only remaining lowland virgin forest in the Philippines, as well as the largest areas of upland virgin forest. At the last count some 1,300 indigenous people, the Dumagat, live along the shoreline and riverbanks, hunting, gathering and planting crops. Around 25,000 settlers also live in or nearby the park, concentrated in a few small towns. One of these, Divilacan, was attacked and destroyed by the indigenous Agta before being refounded at its current location.

In terms of biodiversity, as the Philippines is one of the most important places in the world, the natural park is the most important in the Philippines. Biological surveys in the 1990s showed that the area contained 240 bird species, 78 of them endemic. Several species of tree frogs were discovered for the first time. The park may also contain 6% of all the plant species found in the Philippines. Further to its importance in terms of biodiversity, much of lowland Luzon is dependent upon the forest to create rain, whilst it also provides for many of the basic needs of the Agta who inhabit it. Threatened by mining, logging, road building and settlement, this forest is under attack.

Mount Apo

Photo: Rollling green forest with snow-topped mountain in background
Forested foothills of Mt Apo.
Manobo volunteers mount monthly patrols to protect them from loggers.

Mount Apo is another area of immense ecological importance, this time situated on the island of Mindanao, in the South of the Philippines. It is the country's highest peak and the 72,000 hectare around it are protected as a natural park. The peak is sacred to the Bagobo, Manobo and other tribes that inhabit its foothills. These indigenous communities are traditionally subsistence farmers but also work for lowland companies, for example on fruit plantations. The mountain has been the scene of environmental struggle in the past, including a failed international campaign against the construction of a geo-thermal plant on Manobo land by the Philippine National Oil Company. Today the mountain and its surrounding areas are threatened by tourist development, illegal logging and the expansion of fruit plantations.

In 2004 the Manobo who live to the West of the Mountain succeeded in securing a CADT (Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title) granting them the title to some of their land. (See News item on the Manobo certificate.) Their organisation, IBASMADC, has set up a number of projects aimed at protecting the land and forests, and also in improving the economic situation of the Manobo people. These projects include communal fishponds and model organic farms. They have also reformed their tribal warriors, now called Protection Volunteer Groups, who patrol the area to prevent illegal logging and to replant denuded areas.

Photo: Several kids hang from the roof of a makeshift hut in the forest
Manobo kids

On the other side of the mountain live the Bagobo. Like the Manobo, different Bagobo communities vary in the extent of their assimilation into mainstream society. Among the more 'hardline' communities there is a strong will to hang on to their traditional ways of life and to defend their ancestral land against destruction. As of 2003/04 they are fighting the expansion of banana plantations on to their land in the more upland areas.

Earth First! and anarchist groups

Photo: Lots of people standing behind a Davao Earth First! banner
Davao City Earth First!

The Philippines is one of the few third world countries with a network of anarchist groups. In 2000 three Earth First! groups were also set up in the cities of Manila, Lucena and Davao. These are very much a part of the wider anarchist scene that also includes animal rights and queer liberation activity. The eco and anarchist scene has emerged to a large extent from the punk subculture, and also from those disillusioned with NGOs and the authoritarian left.

Eco-anarchists have protested against war, logging and mining, visited local tribes, set up info shops, been involved in the Philippine's only (?) trashing of a GM crop, and have set up "food not bombs" projects. Some activists are also involved in challenging dynamics around gender and sexuality.

A theoretical commitment to Direct Action has found few opportunities to manifest itself in militant action. Resistance is often heavily controlled by the parties, and army, of the left who would not take kindly to competitors. The potential for serious state repression is also a strong dissuader. Most activity therefore consists of lobbying, publicity, or DIY self-help projects. In Davao, there is also a focus on building links with indigenous communities with a view to supporting their struggles. There are, though, exceptions to this, perhaps the most notable was in 2002 when Earth First!ers, along with other activists, tore up a field of GM crops owned by Monsanto. Hopes of a repeat performance were dashed when Monsanto employed armed guards to defend its fields, but campaigning against genetic engineering continues.

Further information

Further information and analysis can be found in 'From Mactan to the Mining Act… We will not give up our land', a pamphlet produced by a European activist who visited the Philippines. This pamphlet also contains a bibliography for further reading. See the Resources page for electronic copies, or contact us for paper.