by Jose Ma. Montelibano
Jose M. Montelibano

A group of classmates visited the Mount Purro Nature Reserve in Antipolo, courtesy of one classmate and his wife who have dedicated their lives to both the forest and the Indigenous People, the Dumagats, who live there. I had gone to that place before but was pleasantly surprised to see so much improvement. The owners and their staff took pains to orient all of us about the expanded operations of the nature reserve and, most especially, the work to handhold the Dumagats in their inevitable journey to modernity. Their plans to soon launch bamboo planting in batches of 50 hectares were particularly exciting.

It seems that the Dumagats had in the recent decade been awarded a large tract of land, more than enough for all of them if only to be used for shelter and community structures. Ancestral domains have been processed for many indigenous tribes all around the country, and these domains have been in the thousands of hectares. Of course, these are usually in upland areas where no development had even begun, and the property values remain low. I have heard that many tribes have simply leased their lands to mining companies mostly because the areas are not yet productive. Technology, even in just agriculture, has yet to catch up with the long-isolated natives.

What struck me most was the story-telling part when some of the natives, those who had already gone to school and graduated either high school or college, would relate their more recent history and their commitment to helping their community ease into the modern times. Obviously, with all the land they had, they remained very short of money. It would take some time before productivity and steady income would be attained. Yet, they were on their way. The funny thing is that they referred to themselves as “katutubo” when they were speaking to us – as if we were not.

Katutubo means native. I do not know where it started, or who started it, calling our indigenous peoples as katutubo. It is not wrong, of course, because they are natives, they are katutubo. But when they and everyone else for that matter refer to katutubo, they invariably mean the indigenous peoples. That means they are different from the mainstream Filipino. What are we, then, we who are not considered indigenous? If we are not katutubo, if we are not natives, are we then foreigners who have become Filipino citizens?

The colonized mind is quite blighted. We are natives who refer to indigenous people as though they are different, or we are different from them. We are not. We are all natives, all katutubo, all sons and daughters of our motherland, our Inang Bayan. Our colonized mind that has yet to accept that we are not our foreign masters even though we emulate and strive to be more like them than like what we should be. It is those who colonized us that called us natives, and who call those they conquered on foreign shores as natives. Europeans, Americans, Canadians, and Australians rightfully call the natives in their countries as indigenous. These colonizers know the lands are not theirs, that they simply took these lands from the natives. But they had decided long ago not to ever return the lands to the natives and, therefore, coined a term for the natives who did own the lands. They called them indigenous people or IPs.

The funny, or stupid, part is that Filipinos continue to follow the mindset of their former foreign masters, forgetting that the colonizers left and had to leave our land behind. All our lands stayed with us, the natives, but we forgot we owned the lands. For too long, only the foreign masters and the native elite who allowed to own some land had control and ownership of properties in our country. Although the foreigners have gone, the land arrangement, the titling system that they established remains in effect. The stolen lands were never returned to the people. These did stay in the Philippines but under the custody and control of the government (except for the titled).

The funny, or stupid, part is that the lands were stolen from the people, not the government. The government had not yet existed at the time of the grand theft. The more funny, or stupid, part is that the government forgot that they do not own the land and are mere custodians for the real owners – the Filipino people. The government that followed after our foreign masters left us to fend for ourselves, one administration after another, thought like the colonizers who taught them governance. They began to govern like their foreign tutors, as though the land was theirs, as though Filipino natives were still serfs or peasants who serve their masters. That is why they forgot, or never realized it at all, that all lands in the Philippines belong to the people.

Having forgotten so, most Filipinos remained landless until very recently. Land reform did not return stolen lands to the people, it sold stolen lands to natives who have rights to Philippine land as children of the motherland. Selling stolen property, whether directly or indirectly to people who have rights to them, consequently makes the Philippine government a fence, a person or entity engaged in the buying and selling of stolen property. To make matters worse, land reform forcibly took away lands from Filipinos who bought them under a then legitimate system.

It is too late, in my mind, at least, to take away lands that are now legitimately in the control of their owners. But it is not too late, and, in fact, it is imperative, that we wake up to the fact we are all natives, all katutubo, just like any native tribe in the country, and that we are entitled to our ancestral domain. Our land and our seas are our nation, our identity. Without custody and control of them, Filipinos are no better than foreigners – and poor ones at that. No wonder we have no sense of nation.

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