Philippine Daily Inquirer

Tagbanuas banished by Marcos reclaim Calauit, their ancestral domain

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proclamati­on of Ferdinand Marcos more than 30 years ago.

The government on Thursday paved theway for the Tagbanuas’ return by awarding them ancestral domain title over a vast area of land and sea that has become a veritable conflict arena between those championin­g human welfare and those fighting for biodiversi­ty conservati­on.

In a ceremony attended mainly by members of indigenous tribes, the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) formally handed to the group’s elders a property title granting them communal and private ownership over the entire island, including some 50,000 hectares of ancestral waters around it.

“Now the Tagbanuas will no longer be driven away from the island. They own Calauit and it is a private title,” NCIP chair Ireneo Ensigne told the INQUIRER after the ceremony.

Dr. Pio Lledo, a local Tagbanua leader working as a provincial veterinari­an, said the grant of the certificat­e of ancestral domain title (CADT) would clear the way for the return of over 3,000 former Tagbanua inhabitant­s.

They were driven away from their land when the Marcos administra­tion transforme­d it into a wildlife reservatio­n.

Giraffes, impalas

Over the years, after it was declared a protected area in 1976 and dubbed the Caluit Game Preserve andWildlif­e Sanctuary, Lledo said most of the Tagbanuas were forced to inhabit the outlying islands.

The new settlers—giraffes, impalas and other animals brought in from Kenya—became the island’s sole inhabitant­s and its tourist attraction.

The provincial government, which has laid out an ambitious plan to boost tourism activity in the Calamianes Group of Islands with Calauit being one of the main draws, announced Thursday it would question the legality of the CADT.

“There is a pending question in the Supreme Court which was filed by the Department of Environmen­t and Natural Resources (concerning the establishm­ent of the game preserve)... It has yet to be ruled upon. We have raised these issues (with) the NCIP but they never even responded,” provincial legal office chief Elena Rodriguez said.

Consent needed

Recently, the provincial government awarded management of the island to a nonprofit entity, the United Nations Educationa­l, Scientific and Cultural Organizati­on (Unesco) Man and Biosphere (MAB), to develop the reservatio­n for conservati­on and tourism purposes. Part of the plan is to attract private investors to the island.

Provincial officials said the issuance of the CADT would complicate implementa­tion of this project since this would now need the Tagbanuas’ consent.

Under an agreement signed between Gov. Joel T. Reyes and Unesco officials last Feb. 4, the latter will put in an annual budget of P8 million for the next 25 years under a build-operatetra­nsfer (BOT) scheme to establish tourism facilities in the 3,700-hectare island.

The provincial government’s plan for Calauit, however, has no support either from its Tagbanua inhabitant­s or the NCIP itself.

“These animals are basically continenta­l animals and not suited to live in that island. But the bottom line is that Calauit is already owned by the Tagbanuas and they should be respected as owners and their sentiments should be taken into account,” Ensigne said.

Destroying biodiversi­ty

Lledo deplored what had happened to the island since it was taken over by the government.

“The animals suffered from in-breeding and they have destroyed the biodiversi­ty of the place, including its physical characteri­stics,” Lledo said.

He noted that what used to be a mangrove forest in one part of the island had been denuded as a grazing land for the giraffes and impalas. As a result, the shoreline contracted by about 30 meters, he said.

“The exotic animals have become very destructiv­e, wiping out even the medicinal plants that were important to the Tag- banuas, the rattan stands, the mangroves,” Lledo said.

“They think they have done something good because of tourists coming but they did not realize they have destroyed our lives.”

Young Marcos

Lledo recalled the “terrible” beginnings of the creation of the Calauit reservatio­n when, he claimed, their ancestors were forcibly driven away by soldiers, some at gunpoint.

“I was a little boy when I saw my grandfathe­r when he was hit by a soldier with the butt of his gun after he refused to accept the payment in exchange for vacating the island. We were forced to leave for Culion and my grandmothe­r even died there. Dirt poor, she had to be buried [wrapped] in a piece of cloth,” Lledo said.

Lledo said that before it was declared a wildlife preservati­on, the young Marcos often came to the island with his friends to hunt.

“They were hunting for local animals, the wild boars and the Calamian deer that were plenty at that time,” he said.

Win-win

The NCIP said existing government projects should now be referred to the local community for “prior and informed consent” before they were implemente­d, including the Unesco grant for tourism developmen­t.

“There should be a solution by which the Tagbanuas can co-exist with these animals. We just have to sit down and talk. But the bottom line is the government should recognize that the indigenous community are the owners of the island,” Insigne said.

Lledo said there was a need to cull the animals to protect them from in-breeding and prevent further physical damage to the island and its local biological diversity.

“There are private groups that have expressed interest in rearing some of the animals bred in Calauit. Maybe we can farm them out to them,” Lledo said.

The newly issued ancestral title covers 55,000 hectares, including a large part of the sea which is directly linked to the Tagbanua community’s cultural practices.

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