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Besao’s Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Practices On Natural Resource Management: The Batangan – OpEd


The people of Besao, Mountain Province, Philippines have a unique but sustainable indigenous natural resource management system.

According to Matthew Tauli, author of the Batangan: An Indigenous Knowledge System and Practice (IKSP) on Pine Forest Management of the Kankanaeys of Besao the IKSP evolved from the dapays or Council of  Elder that ruled the communities.

The dap-ay was instrumental in maintaining peace, unity and cooperation among the people of the village (ili) and the villagers (umili) and with other tribes. Every household is affiliated with a dap-ay near his abode and dap-ay membership (dumap-ays) signified the household’s oneness with the ili.

The dumap-ays are responsible for sustaining the activities of their respective dap-ays and for providing assistance to members in times of need, from birth to death.

These  IKSP on the different ecosystems of Besao have been developed over generations and become a custom and tradition of the umili. The development of these IKSP are personified in the Besao’s values of inayan and lawa which forbids any act that causes harm or injury to anyone or anything, living or non-living, as they believe that everything is interconnected.

They believe in a Supreme Being (Kabunyan) and of spirits (pinading) that dwell in the forest, trees, rivers, stones, and also the spirits of their ancestors that are still around them and thus, must be respected and appeased for them to bring good luck to the living. These spirits are now part of nature and they must be called upon for guidance and consent in all the things to be done. The inayan or lawa is in one’s conscience to judge the rightness and wrongness to one’s plan of action and in doing such, a form of punishment or karma will beset the wrongdoer.

For example, it is not right to take advantage of another person’s ignorance or weakness to enrich oneself by exploiting it, as an untoward incident will beset the exploiter. It is actually a command of “don’t” but on a deeper level, it speaks of respect, justice, unity, ethics, sharing and helping other persons or things. Inayan or lawa is the local version of the Golden Rule of: “Don’t do to others what you don’t want others do to you”.

In IKSPs, inayan or lawa teaches a discipline or self-restraint in the use of the natural resources of the dumap-ays. It discourages destructive and wasteful practice or ayyew, another Kankanaey value which can be roughly translated as wasteful or uneconomical.

An example is on trees being cut but not yet mature, the Kankanaey will say, “inayan, lawa, or ayyew ty bebe py laeng, tay no maseken sa, ad-ado kausarana” (“Don’t cut the tree, it is still not mature, it will have more usage if it will grow bigger”). Or of food being wasted, they will say, “inayan, lawa or ayyew, kanem ty men-aga py nan makan” (Don’t waste it, eat it, or else the food will cry”). And for each example, if one still does it against the advice, an unfortunate event or something bad will happen to him/her or if it is foretold something good will happen to him/her, this will not come about.

Thus, IKSPs on the different ecosystem of the iBesao Kankanaeys has been developed over time, from the village (ili), ricefields (payeo), swidden farms (uma/um-a), pastureland (pastolan), river systems (ginawang), forests (pagpag) and pine forest (batangan), and these has been practiced since time immemorial, fine-tuned along the way, and is a code of conduct in each and every facet of the iBesao existence.

The Batangan System

The people of Besao was able to develop a very distinctive and sophisticated resource management system that is rooted in their deep awareness of their forefathers’ efforts and the respect and profound devotion to what is spiritually and morally just in their environs. In the past (circa: 1800’s up to the 1920’s) mountains near villages and its surroundings areas are bare of pine trees.

Natural pine forests are only found in small patches and far from villages such as in Mounts Buasao and Sisipitan. This has caused great difficulties for the elders whose task is to obtain fuelwood for cooking and warmth for the cold wilderness. They have to traverse great distances to be able to gather sufficient supply of fuelwood, spending a night or two in the mountains, gathering and carrying back their heavy load which they will again perform after a week or two depending on how much load they were able to carry back to the village. The male youths will be accompanying their elders carrying loads, depending on how strong they are. This became more difficult when they decided to build bigger and sturdier houses out of pine lumbers, traversing the same route but with more loads and more frequency.

These experiences eventually prompted the villagers they decided to plant pine trees in their respective swidden farms, on cogonal lands and on any open lands where there are no claimants. Wildlings and seeds are obtained from the natural pine forest and planted in these areas. To secure the trees from destructions caused by wild pigs and astray carabaos and cows, barriers were made such as planting of live fences, digging of ditches, and construction ripraps. By the World War II, pine trees have taken root on the mountains near villages.

This initiative also led to the formulation of policies and guidelines (P&G) or rules and regulation to manage and sustain the pine forest, implemented through their socio-political institutions (dap-ay). There might be some cases of non-participation of some villagers in this endeavor, but it became the elders’ responsibility to ensure everybody’s’ participation, fine-tuning policies and guidelines which was acceptable to all.

As a result, they have instituted a self-reliant and sustainable management of this pine forest, an indigenous knowledge system and practice they called batangan.

The iBesao regards the pine forest as a source of wood, water and food for the villagers as a whole. It is the source of fuelwood as well as timber for houses, furniture, granaries and other buildings. At the same time, the forest is a source for water used in domestic and agricultural activities as well as food such as wild mushrooms. But for individual dumap-ays, primary services from the batangan are firewood used for rituals, marriages, deaths or any significant activity that requires falling a tree or two, and timberwoods for construction of house, granary or other constructions that requires sizeable pieces of lumber.

Ownership, Utilization, Protection and Management

Payeo has been a village ever since documentations conducted by the Spaniards appeared, about the 1700s, when they first attempted to exploit gold in the mountains and Christianize the people. The Igorots, which means, “people from the mountains” in the Spanish language, have dwelled in these mountains rich in gold and other minerals since time immemorial. Payeo, Besao Catengan, Suquib and Agawa have been mentioned in these documents. It was only about the mid-1960s that Payeo was divided into Barangays Payeo, Padangaan and Kin-iway, which were part of its territories in the past.

At the same time, Besao Proper was divided into barangays Besao West, Besao East and Suquib and same with Agawa which was divided into, Lacmaan, Agawa, Gueday, Ambagiw and Tamboan (LAGAT). And together with barangays Bangitan, Catengan and Laylaya, they form the present 14 Barangays of Besao Municipality.

For the Batangan system of Payeo in particular, although similar with other Besao barangays, in the context of ownership, utilization, protection and management of the batangan, there are three types:

1) Batangan/Saguday/Komon di Umili — this is communally-owned by a village, segregated by the elders from the wider batangan, managed, utilized and protected by the villagers as a whole and this include the natural forest. Any need that benefits the whole villagers (umili) is accessed komon di umili like if a school building for the village is to be constructed, it will be accessed here. A tree will be selected based on what purpose it will be used and this will be identified by an elder and concurred by other elders.

2) Batangan/Saguday di Dap-ay — ownership, management, utilization and protection are by members of a dap-ay, the socio-cultural institution and structure where membership is composed by the cluster of households surrounding the structure. They claim ownership by virtue of planting an area as a dumap-ay. They can access lumber to construct and repair the dap-ay and it is also where they get firewood for making bonfire to keep warm during the cold weather or for cooking during rituals and festivities in the dap-ay. Initially there were 8 dap-ays in Payeo but as of now there are 6 as members of the two were assimilated by the remaining 6. These dap-ays that have a saguday in Mt. Mogao are Pap-ayangan, Anonang, Balaan, Tampogo, Bangbangoan and Bayongasan.

3) Batangan/Saguday di Pangapo — ownership, management and utilization are descendants of one family either through affinity or consanguinity or a clan. Ownership is by virtue of planting pine trees and other permanent improvements or developments done in their uma/um-a by clan members like firebreaks either through ripraps, ditches or crops planted, which also serve to prevent animals from encroaching to the property, and planting of annual crops like coffee or other fruit trees.

A dumap-ay can access pine in the batangan: firstly, as a member of a clan, from the saguday di pangapo, secondly, as a member of a dap-ay, from the saguday di dap-ay and thirdly, as a villager, from the saguday di komon. But with such privilege, he/she also has the responsibility to adhere to the P&G as stipulated in the batangan system.

From the saguday or komon di umili, firewood and lumber needs will prioritize activities that benefits the village as a whole and same with the saguday di dap-ay, prioritizes activities for the particular dap-ay and dumap-ays and the saguday di pangapo for the benefit of the members of the clan/family. And within each saguday, individual members who will benefit will also be prioritized. But for deaths and marriages, firewood and lumber needs will be accessed first, from the saguday di pangapo where he/she is a member. But if firewood or lumber is not available or lacking in his/her saguday, then they look for it in the saguday di dap-ay where he/she belongs and if none or lacking in there, then from the saguday di umili.

For the saguday di pangapo, all the pangapo members have equal rights to extract timber. However, in most cases, the saguday does not contain enough trees to provide the timber requirements of its members. Thus, prioritization for services from the batangan are as follows: for deaths and marriages, firstly it will be accessed from their saguday and it follows as stated above. And for need of lumber for 1 housing materials which requires at least three full-sized pine tree, newly married couples who plan to build their house in the village are prioritized.

In saguday di pangapo, cutting trees from somebody else’s saguday without the permission of the owner is illegal and socially unacceptable. And persons without pine lots can request free timber or buy lumber from the owner. The owner may borrow (and commit to return the favor) from other owners with mature trees while waiting for his trees to grow.

These forest resource management practices have been sustained for many generations and ensured the maintenance of the iPayeo’s forest cover. There is the prevailing practice of selective tree cutting (cutting mature trees or gnarled or stunted trees only), and the replanting of pine seedlings on the cleared area or simply allowing wildlings to regenerate naturally.

The mendepdep (putting off forest fires), especially if there are private properties like granaries, timber, and fruit trees or animal fences that may be destroyed by the fire are still practiced. The maintenance of the batangans is also based on the belief that many of these areas are sacred grounds, areas identified as dwelling place of gods or spirits and the site of the sacred tree or patpatayan.

Ways Forward

But this indigenous sustainable forest management is however, seriously compromised by the lack of land tenure security. The Forestry Code of the Philippines or PD 705 which mandated that lands not classified as alienable and disposable are public lands and will categorize the iBesao and other Cordillera communities dwelling in mountainous terrains, virtually squatters in the lands they have occupied, utilized, and developed since time immemorial.

This has led to communities perceiving the government as insensitive and has discouraged some community members from sustaining their traditional forest resource management practices.

Certificates of tax declaration became the formal documentation of land ownership claims. But this is also taken advantaged by some community members who made tax declarations under their names over communal lands, even without introducing improvements in these areas, resulting in the “privatization” of communal forests and other communal resources.

This IKSP on environmental stewardship is also endangered by an influx of exploitative development. Besao and most of the Cordillera is covered by a Financial and Technical Assistance Agreement (FTAA) application of mining corporations. During consultations in 1996, the iBesaos have expressed their opposition to this mining application because of the destruction mining operations would cause on their lives, environment, and culture.

Without land tenure security, the decision can proceed over their opposition. And the “free, prior and informed consent” (FPIC) required of such projects by the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA) only comes in areas that are formally considered as Ancestral Domain, which is not granted yet to Besao.

It is vital that IKSPs must be well understood as it could inherently impede contextually-relevant social development and governance mechanisms as proposed by indigenous communities, like the batangan system of the iBesao, which must be taken up seriously by the government (DENR) as the management system of their forest. This also implies that policies and institutions that would involve indigenous people should adapt to their culture and traditions and not the other way around.

The Source, Matthew Tauli, is a member of the Batil-ang Peypeyan Clan, the indigenous Kankana-ey Igorot community .

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Dr. Michael A. Bengwayan

Dr. Michael A. Bengwayan wrote for the British Panos News and Features and GEMINI News Service, the Brunei Times, and US Environment News Service. In the Philippines, he wrote for DEPTHNews of the Press Foundation of Asia, Today, the Philippine Post, and Vera Files. A practicing environmentalist, he holds postgraduate degrees in environment resource management and development studies as a European Union (EU) Fellow at University College, Dublin, Ireland. He is currently a Fellow of Echoing Green Foundation of New York City. He now writes for Business Mirror and Eurasia Review.

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