The incessant exploitation of natural resources in the Philippines is crippling the country's rainforest and biodiversity as well as robbing indigenous people of their livelihoods.
The Philippines are part of the so-called “megadiversity regions,“ a group of 17 countries home to a significant proportion of the world's biodiversity
Considered to be protectors of nature and the environment, the dryad or tree nymph “Diwata” is worshipped as a God-like creature in some regions of the Philippines. In northeast Mindanao, the country's second-largest island, a mountain range has been named after the Diwata. But the region seems to have lost the protection afforded by its divine patron.
Once covered by an intact rainforest and home to a rich tree- and animal paradise, today the mountains are under threat. Illegal logging, slash and burn practices and mining are eroding the region's rich biodiversity.
The Eastern Mindanao Biodiversity Corridor is home to one of the last remaining lowland rainforests in the Philippines
The Diwata mountain range is part of the Eastern Mindanao Biodiversity Corridor or EMBC. It's home to an especially large number of unique animal and plant species. For instance, the EMBC is a refuge for the Philippine eagle and at least 70 other species that are at high risk of extinction.
The region is also home to the Lumad who have lived here for centuries. The group of indigenous tribes is grappling with the loss of their traditional way of life as the region, which is rich in natural resources, is increasingly plundered. It's dealt a body blow to the rainforest, a source of livelihood for the indigenous people and one of the few remaining forests of its kind in the Philippine plains.
Biodiversity hotspot in mining region
But preserving its biodiversity isn't the only challenge facing the Philippines. Man-made climate change is posing huge hurdles too. In 2013, the island of Mindanao may have been spared the damage wrecked by super storm “Haiyan.” But it's still suffering the aftereffects of cyclone “Bopha” which last year flattened entire villages and forests.
Estimates suggest that the Philippines only has between two to seven percent of virgin rainforest left. Less than a century ago, that figure was 70 percent. The Southeast Asian archipelago is what is known as a biodiversity hotspot – a region with notable biodiversity but threatened due to human actions.
Allan Delideli heads the non-governmental organization “SILDAP” in Mindanao that champions the rights of native tribes. “Without the forest, the indigenous people can't carry out their traditional agricultural activities anymore,” Delideli said. “A few Lumad people now use artificially produced pesticides on their farms; monoculture from bananas or oil palms are increasingly replacing traditional crops.”
He added that pollution is on the rise too. “Industrial waste is polluting the rivers and the ground is often contaminated through toxic mining residues such as cyanide and mercury,” he said.
Caught between protests and conformity
“Lumad” which means “indigenous” is an umbrella term for the various indigenous people in the southern Philippines. Here, a member of the Manobo tribe
Though some Lumad people have begun organizing themselves and setting up barricades in front of mining companies, many residents are left with no choice but to migrate to other regions.
Biologist Jayson Ibañez has researched the problem for years. „Mining doesn't just destroy the base of indigenous culture,“ he said. „It also adversely affects the social norms and the entire value system within the community,“ he added.
Mining activity ends up splitting a stable civil society into conflicting parties, Ibañez said. “The one strictly rejects the ecological and economic side effects, the other side endorses the exploitation of natural resources only because of the financial profits to be made.”
The Lumad people are entitled to financial compensation if their land is affected by mining activity. But that doesn't solve the problem. The indigenous tribe is still forced to move away from traditional farming and look for jobs in the mining or lumber industry.
Biologist Ibañez, however, stressed that not all indigenous people are automatically inclined to protect the environment. “They aren't a homogenous unit. Many indigenous people are very poor and still lead a traditional life,” he said. “On the other end of the spectrum, there are indigenous elites who have lost their cultural roots and follow the 'mainstream.' “
Those are the ones who become politically active and then represent the majority of the destitute tribe. “These powerful indigenous elites are often in cahoots with the lumber and mining companies,” he explained.
Tapping indigenous knowledge
In theory, indigenous people can resist giving up their land for economic projects. That's according to Philippine law under the “free prior and informed consent” principle of the United Nations.
But in practice, the law has several loopholes, according to human rights group Amnesty International, and is not always correctly implemented by the government in Manila.
The Philippine eagle is at risk of extinction, according to the IUCN. Much of the last remaining birds are found on the island of Mindanao
Jayson Ibañez works closely with the United Nations and the Philippine environment ministry to better protect the tribal areas and their unique biodiversity from external threats.
“Within those territories, indigenous natural reserves should be clearly defined and have legal recognition,” Mundita Lim, director of the “Biodiversity Management Bureau” in the Philippine environment ministry said. “A part of the process is the development of a community protection program that promotes the environment knowledge passed down among the indigenous population and turns it into practical action.”
Jayson Ibanez is convinced that it's possible to do that. As long as the knowledge and wishes of the indigenous population are acknowledged and made a part of the projects, there are good chances of protecting the rich biodiversity in the region, he said.