Bringing inclusive dev't to the Casiguran Agta
AURORA, Philippines – “Where is progress?”
It had been a long day on December 2012, when Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle voiced this question in a public dialogue with farmers, fisherfolk and indigenous people (IPs) of Casiguran.
They had been trudging the streets for hours that afternoon, on the 17th day of their 350-kilometer protest march to urge President Aquino to declare a moratorium on the Aurora Pacific Economic Zone (APECO).
APECO is the Philippines’ newest Freeport, which aims to transform 12,923 hectares of Casiguran, Aurora into a commercial, industrial, agro-industrial, and tourist hub.
Shepherded by members of the Angara family to supposedly usher “development” throughout Aurora province, the project has instead been accused of violating land laws protecting the rights of rural smallholders, while funneling billions of taxpayers’ pesos on a mega-project of questionable viability.
But while the case for opposing APECO has been widely tackled elsewhere, less is still known about the alternative vision of socio-economic “progress” that has come to infuse the activities of Casiguran’s anti-APECO residents.
Since 2010, supporters of the anti-APECO movement have supported appeals of Casiguran townsfolk for inclusive and sustainable development by organizing organic agriculture, microfinance, and disaster rehabilitation ventures in the municipality.
Now, they have begun to address the Casiguran Agta youth’s lack of access to quality education, through their new donation drive entitled “Kasiguruhan para sa Casiguran: Back to School Campaign.”
Education to strengthen Agta rights
The Kasiguruhan initiative – headed by the Simbahang Lingkod ng Bayan (SLB), the social justice arm of the Jesuits in the Philippines – tackles the single biggest barrier for education among Casiguran’s IPs: their inadequate funds for schooling and supplies. This constraint to Agta education was identified in a series of community-level dialogues which SLB conducted in Casiguran from June 1-5, 2014.
To quote one Agta mother, “We used to get support for education but not anymore. We have to cut one pencil in half for two children.”
Though there have been efforts to address the education deficit among the Agtas in the past, such as the establishment of Special Agta Schools, most of these initiatives still suffer from resource constraints and other problems. This prevents Casiguran’s Agta youth from maximizing opportunities that come their way.
As with other basic sectors in Casiguran, access to quality education is urgently needed in order to improve the difficult living conditions of Casiguran’s Agtas, who live well below the poverty line. Schooling is especially crucial to enable IP communities to better protect themselves from the human rights abuses they have suffered in the past.
“Education is important to us because it empowers us to protect ourselves and makes it more difficult for others to discriminate and take advantage of us," Agta community leaders told SLB.
Ending a cycle of poverty, misery
According to the National Commission on Indigeneous People 2011 Master Plan, lack of education remains one of the central challenges to the protection of human rights among indigenous peoples. Lacking skills for dealing effectively with lowlanders and lowland-based institutions (ex. government), the lack of education of the Agta tribes in Aurora has served to reinforce a cycle of poverty and misery in the province’s IPs for most of the 20th century.
As documented by American anthropologist by Dr. Thomas Headland, who lived and worked with the Casiguran Agta for 5 decades, the human rights abuses against Aurora’s Agta tribes have included slavery, mass murder, kidnapping of children, but most especially, the takeover of their ancestral domains by outsiders.
Though the first settlers of Aurora province, the Agta have long been displaced from their very homelands by international and national logging firms, mining companies, military battalions, and unscrupulous immigrants – developments which have resulted in a 40% decline in the town’s IP population from 1960 to 2010. Last April 2013, Headland along with nearly 200 other social scientists from around the world, affirmed that this danger continued to hang over the heads of the present-day Agta, through the sustained operations of APECO.
Heightened and culturally-sensitive education for the IPs, in this sense, remains a critical part of promoting inclusive development and IP self-determination. While past outsider-driven “development” projects in Casiguran have mostly resulted in the marginalization of the Agta, the participatory approach of the Kasiguruhan initiative will better ensure that the opportunities for upliftment in well-being will be shared equitably among communities in Casiguran – but above all the Agta.
Pressing for inclusive development
The Kasiguruhan initiative has reaped a surprising show of support for the people of Casiguran and their hopes for development interventions rooted in their actual, everyday needs. For one, student groups like Ateneans for Agrarian Reform Movement, Ateneo Student Catholic Action, and the One Initiative Movement have all been active in raising funds for putting the Agta children through school. The campaign has also received donations from companies such as SMART, as well as students from the Ateneo Grade School and the Ateneo de Manila University.
With a bit more support, not only the Agta youth, but the youth from other communities in Casiguran will be able to be benefit from the supplies raised by the initiative.
The support for the initiative reflects a growing awareness that established models of development increasingly need to be changed to rights-based, demand-driven and equitable models. At a time when “inclusive growth” has become a buzzword at the highest level of policy-making, perhaps, what needs to be re-thought is not only the targets and agenda of development policy, but our very concepts of “development” and “progress.”
Against those who would label APECO critics as “anti-progress," the communities protesting the ecozone have also been championing a form of development which begins by dialoguing and respecting the rights of those whom it seeks to benefit. The aim should be at equitably heightening their capabilities as persons rather than treating them as passive and incapable actors.
Development, in the words of Vicente Convicto, the president of the Casiguran townsfolk multi-sectoral organization (PIGLASCA), means including the ordinary people in the path to progress: “If this is genuine progress, they should have included us ordinary people. They should have asked us.”
Agta spokesperson Victor Abahon in an April 2013 interview with Rappler also said, “You should know that progress for us is not the same as the concept of progress of the Tagalogs. Development for us means taking care of the mountains and seas where we get our livelihood.”
Cardinal Tagle, among others, has echoed the appeal of Casiguran residents for a more inclusive, ecologically-sound model of development.
“I hope the voice of the residents of Casiguran paves the way for an examination of conscience. We cling to models of progress which do not suit us and will not give us development,” Tagle said in his 2012 dialogue with anti-APECO townsfolk.
Amid evidence that the Philippines’ economic growth has failed to significantly alleviate poverty and the continued existence of APECO, this “examination of conscience” remains direly needed.
While the path to real progress for the poor like Casiguran’s Agtas will be long, it is increasingly clear that working with their agency, their livelihoods, and their capabilities will be the only way that “development” can be made to serve – not marginalize – them. – Rappler.com
Xavier Alvaran and Rico La Viña are members of the communications team of Task Force Anti-APECO, which is based at the office of the Simbahang Lingkod ng Bayan in the Loyola House of Studies, Ateneo de Manila University.