By Nena Palagi
It is a feat unimaginable by any modern standard. Six young people from this remote island of Palawan, in the Philippines, have taken on the goliaths of land ownership, and won. They got over 40,000 hectares of land legally declared as protected habitat with the direct endorsement from the Indigenous custodians.
The small non-profit Centre for Sustainability PH (CS) had been spearheading the campaign, helping local Indigenous Batak people since 2014. How did they do it? CS Co-founder and Advisor, Karina May (KM) Reyes, says it is through sheer grit and “resilience day in day out”, for the last seven years. They implement their mission through Land Conservation, Reforestation and Citizen Science.
They recently took their story to the global stage, to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). And next, will be the big world forum of COP 26 in Glasgow starting on October 31, which Reyes is attending.
At COP 26, Reyes will be embarking on a new role with world NGO, One Tree Planted. Carrying advocacy for the climate change agenda in the ASEAN (Southeast Asian) region, their story from Palawan Island and the Philippines, is going global.
The leadership of CS six-member youth team ranged from the ages of 17 to 28 years, when they first started out lobbying for the protection of Palawan’s rainforests. Most have grown up swimming in the pristine rivers and lakes of Palawan Island, which earned the title as the “Best Island in the World” (Travel and Leisure Magazine).
Reyes—KM as she is affectionately called by Indigenous people—was born in Australia to Filipino heritage. When she visited Palawan a decade ago, she fell in love with the island and never left. Now, committed as ever to long-term sustainable environmental development and protection, she is determined to take their story to as far as the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People (HAC) international alliance, which represents at least 70 countries.
In preparation, CS recently held an online forum attended by a massive 740 young people in the Philippines, with a keynote address from Ambassador Mr. Zakri Abdul Hamid. Mr. Hamid is the Ambassador and Science Advisor for the Campaign for Nature, a global expert in the UN Convention for Biodiversity, which was first launched at the Rio Earth Summit in1992.
CS’s project in Palawan, titled CLEOPATRA’S NEEDLE CRITICAL HABITAT (CNCH) garnered support from local and national governments and international and commercial bodies, which allowed them to get to where they are now.
The significance of winning the protection of ‘Cleopatra’s Needle’ in 2016, as a critical habitat cannot be underestimated. It is the Philippines’ biggest critical habitat and the ancestral domain of the disappearing Batak tribes in the island. It is home to 61 Palawan animal and plant species found nowhere else in the world, and 31 globally threatened species.
“We are guarding our forests and land because it is the source of our livelihood and key to our survival. We the Bataks live in the forest. And we have a tradition that we move from one part of the forest to another. It is part of our cultural practice to hold rituals and sacred gatherings,” Teodorico Villarica, former Tribal Chieftain from Sitio (district) Kalakwasan, told IDN.
“For example, for the good harvest of Almaciga (sacred tree) resin and honey, we offer rituals before we use and collect forest products. In our forests there are many sacred animals and plant species that are also essential to our future survival. Many Indigenous communities among us rely on the forest for our food and also our fresh water source,” he added. Kalakwasan is the gateway to Cleopatra’s Needle Forest.
The Philippines along with Indonesia and Malaysia is one of the only countries in Asia among 17 in the world that boasts having the most mega-diverse forests, oceans and wetlands. CNCH’s western border is with Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, considered as one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature, and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
CS’s work for the vast 41,350 hectares of protected land at Cleopatra’s Needle contains the Philippine’s last remaining pristine forest near the island’s capital Puerto Princesa. In addition to Chieftain Villarica’s community, CNCH is also saddled by six other significant districts. However, the mainly hunter-gatherer Batak tribes living in the forest, are fast dwindling down to just 200 members. Hence, there’s a sense of urgency among the youth team to protect the last swathes of rainforest land left in Palawan.
Before Spanish colonization, 90-95 per cent of the Philippines Islands were forest cover. There’s merely 3 per cent of forest left in the whole country at present, mostly in Palawan. The forest coverings have been heavily depleted by open pit mines, extreme agricultural land use, wildlife poaching and logging.
CS’s guiding values in their work is about starting from the community and going back to the community for everything that they do. KM believes that without communities, environmental development is not sustainable.
“For us to reach a goal of saving at least 30 percent of our planet by 2030, we need to invest in Indigenous peoples and local communities. We need to be able to recognize and defend Indigenous tenurial (land) rights and Indigenous and community conserved areas,” Reyes told IDN. “We also need to be able to provide for simple cash transfers to Indigenous communities to spearhead conservation measures so they can perform their roles since time immemorial,” she adds.
Reyes points out that Indigenous peoples represent 5 per cent of the global population yet protect 80 per cent of global biodiversity. Also, that Indigenous lands represent 37 per cent of the world’s natural lands and store 25 percent of the world’s remaining above-ground carbon.
“As Indigenous people we’ve directly witnessed the harm done by overharvesting the Almaciga tree over our livelihood. Our sacred resources such as the Almaciga tree, rattan wood and honey, we the Bataks are careful that we do not abuse its use. We think that in the future there’ll be nothing left if we abuse its use,” says Villarica.
He argues that their harvesting practices will benefit future generations. “We apply in our practise the right time to plant and harvest, to make sure that the Almaciga tree is mature before harvesting. We only tap its resin when it is ready to do so,” explains the former chieftain. He added that along with CS they have planted 3000 trees to avoid soil erosion and regenerated 10,000 seedlings for their “precious tree which takes a lifetime to grow.”
“Indigenous communities only spend 16 to 23 percent of the budget of global conservation institutions with the same outcomes,” says Reyes. Because of her unrelenting work, KM has been awarded a National Geographic Explorer grant since 2018. While with CS, she was also awarded the Ten Accomplished Youth Organizations of the Philippines (TAYO) Award.
Reyes, whose background is in peace and international studies with a degree from Australia’s University of New England, believes the Indigenous peoples are the best custodians of sustainable development over their land. And this is what she continues to lobby for to whoever is willing to listen and become their partner.
“For the first time the Indigenous Bataks have a legal paper which says as the land’s custodians they have first rights to the area through the Cleopatra’s Needle Critical Habitat declaration,” points out Reyes. “We break barriers by telling our decision makers that because of Indigenous people’s original expertise from time immemorial, we continue to preserve our last pristine forests. And that they must tap into this Indigenous expertise and invest in it.”
“KM and her CS team have been working patiently to understand our Indigenous culture. So, we really appreciate what they’ve done for us,” says Villarica. “CS had been with us from the beginning (of the campaign) and when finally, Cleopatra’s Needle was declared legally as a critical habitat, it was one of our greatest achievements together.”
CS has trained many Bataks as wildlife enforcers and they are now gearing up for more battles to save other indigenous land in Palawan Island. CS continues to navigate wildlife poaching, illegal logging, land grabbing, large-scale mining and now encroachment from developers.
“It’s really a race against time for many of us young people. We are very conscious that Indigenous Palawenyos, affected by climate change, can’t even participate in world debates directly affecting them,” notes Reyes, adding, “our island Palawan is situated on a geo-political hotspot”.
Palawan islands borders the disputed South China Sea and the Philippines government had officially designated this very area as part of the country’s exclusive economic zone. “(This area) is now included among the contested area by China. This makes our work in this beloved Island even more urgent,” concludes KM Reyes.