• Indigenous peoples in Philippines

    Indigenous peoples in Philippines

    The number of the Philippines’ indigenous peoples remains unknown, but it estimated to be between 10 per cent and 20 per cent of the 102.9 million national population.

Indigenous World 2020: Philippines

The population census conducted in the Philippines in 2010 for the first time included an ethnicity variable but no official figure for Indigenous Peoples has been released yet. The country’s Indigenous population thus continues to be estimated at between 10% and 20% of the national population of 100,981,437, based on the 2015 population census.

The Indigenous groups in the northern mountains of Luzon (Cordillera) are collectively known as Igorot while the groups on the southern island of Mindanao are collectively called Lumad. There are smaller groups collectively known as Mangyan in the island of Mindoro as well as smaller, scattered groups in the Visayas islands and Luzon, including several groups of hunter-gatherers in transition.

Indigenous Peoples in the Philippines have retained much of their traditional, pre-colonial culture, social institutions and livelihood practices. They generally live in geographically isolated areas with a lack of access to basic social services and few opportunities for mainstream economic activities, education or political participation. In contrast, commercially valuable natural resources such as minerals, forests and rivers can be found primarily in their areas, making them continuously vulnerable to development aggression and land grabbing.

The Republic Act 8371, known as the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act (IPRA), was promulgated in 1997. The law has been lauded for its support for respect of Indigenous Peoples’ cultural integrity, right to their lands and right to self-directed development of those lands. More substantial implementation of the law is still being sought, however, apart from there being fundamental criticism of the law itself. The Philippines voted in favour of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), but the government has not yet ratified ILO Convention 169.

The situation of Indigenous Peoples in the Philippines is worsening under the regime of President Rodrigo Duterte. Development aggression has intensified, with various mining, energy and other so-called ‘development’ projects encroaching on Indigenous territories. Human rights violations are likewise escalating, with Indigenous activists comprising most of the victims.1 In 2019, the UK-based international watchdog Global Witness has declared the Philippines as the world’s deadliest country for environmental defenders, with 30 deaths recorded in 2018.2

China-funded projects violating Indigenous Peoples’ rights

After the Philippine government signed numerous loan agreements with the government of China in 2018, various issues hounded the loan agreements for the Chico River Pump Irrigation Project (even though construction started the same year) and the Kaliwa Dam project.3 Both projects are located in Indigenous territories in the Cordillera and Calabarzon regions affecting at least 3,765 Indigenous people. The loan agreements for these projects have not been disclosed to the public and have stirred criticism when leaked copies reached the public in 2019. Cordillera Peoples Alliance (CPA) denounced the onerous and lopsided loan agreement between the governments of the Philippines and China for the project, which CPA characterised as a debt trap for the Filipino people and a sell-out of the country’s sovereignty.4

Meanwhile, opposition to the China-funded Kaliwa Dam project has intensified as the project will displace over 1,400 Indigenous Dumagat families and affect more than 100,000 peoples.5 Despite the threats to Indigenous communities and the massive damages to the environment and biodiversity6 that the project may cause, President Duterte declared he would use ‘extraordinary powers’ to ensure that the project will push through.7 Indigenous Peoples and various groups also criticised the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) for issuing an environmental compliance certificate despite stiff opposition to the project.8

On April 4 and May 9, petitions were lodged by the Makabayan Bloc, KATRIBU national alliance of Indigenous Peoples and environment advocates at the Philippine Supreme Court. The petitions were attempts to stop the implementation of the loans for the Chico River Pump Irrigation and Kaliwa Dam projects, since several provisions of the loan agreements violate the 1987 Philippine Constitution.9 These violations include the confidentiality clause, the choice of Chinese law as governing law, the selection of an arbitration tribunal in Hong Kong and the waiver of sovereign immunity over Philippine patrimonial assets of commercial value.10 On the Chico River Pump Irrigation Project, the Malacanang Palace said it will comply with the Supreme Court’s order11 for the government to respond to the petition against the project but insisted that the loan deal is constitutional.12 To date, Cordillera Indigenous Peoples do not know if the government has made any response. Another China-backed flagship project of the Duterte administration that outrightly disregarded Indigenous Peoples’ rights is the New Clark City, which is envisioned by the government to be the first smart and green city in the country. The first phase of the project, which housed a “state-of-the-art sports facility” that was used during the 2019 South East Asian Games, has already displaced over 27,500 members of the Aeta Indigenous people. Expansion of the project threatens to displace around 500 Aeta families.13 The Bases Conversion and Development Authority (BCDA),14 a government-owned corporation under the Office of the President that is mandated to strengthen the country’s Armed Forces while building cities, maintains that the Aetas are not displaced as there are no Certificates of Ancestral Domain Titles in the area.15

The latest deal between the Chinese government’s Belt and Road Initiative and the Duterte administration’s Build, Build, Build infrastructure program is the proposed 250-megawatt South Pulangi Hydroelectric Power Plant (PHPP) project, which will flood 2,833 hectares   of Indigenous lands in four towns near Davao City and will affect residents of 20 communities. The USD$800 million contract agreement between PHPP CEO Josue Lapitan and China Energy Engineering Co Ltd  Chairman Dong Bin was signed in April 2019 without the consent  of the affected communities. For many years the Indigenous Peoples’ opposition to the PHPP has been met with militarisation, harassment, indiscriminate firing and extrajudicial killing.16

Mining and other energy projects

Large-scale mining remains a constant threat faced by Philippine Indigenous Peoples. In August 2019, Cordillera Indigenous Peoples formed the Aywanan Mining and Environment Network in opposition to the mining applications of the Cordillera Exploration Company, Inc. (CEXCI), a subsidiary of Nickel Asia Corporation in partnership with Japan-based Sumitomo Metal Mining Co. Ltd. CEXCI’s mining applications cover 72,958 hectares of land in the ancestral lands of the Indigenous Peoples in the Cordillera and parts of Ilocos Sur.17 Petition-signing against the mining applications of CEXCI started in August 2019 and is continuing. In Didipio, Nueva Vizcaya, a people’s barricade which started in

July 2019 led to the temporary suspension of the gold and copper mining operations of multinational company OceanaGold.18 The company’s mining permit (Financial and Technical Assistance Agreement) expired in June 20 after 25 years of operation. Pending the renewal of its permit to operate, the company appealed to continue its operations but this was denied in a regional trial court. Communities affected by the mining operations opposed the renewal of the company’s mining permit. They have long been complaining of the environmental destruction and human rights violations committed by OceanaGold.19

In Mindanao, the Lumad Indigenous Peoples continue to oppose at least three mining tenements that were approved by the government and cover around 17,000 hectares in the Pantaron mountain range, which straddles the provinces of Davao del Norte, Davao del Sur, Bukidnon, Misamis Oriental, Agusan del Norte and Agusan del Sur. The Pantaron range is the main source of the major watersheds in the region.20 In the energy front, aside from hydropower projects that the Duterte administration continues to build, the Kalinga geothermal project of Aragorn Power and Energy Corporation and Guidance Management Corporation, in partnership with global energy company Chevron, is about to complete its exploration stage. The project covers 26,139 hectares in Kalinga province.21

Escalating attacks against Indigenous Peoples’ organisations and human rights defenders

Following the issuance of Executive Order 7022 by President Duterte in December 2018, the Duterte regime has intensified attacks against Indigenous Peoples through the formation of the Task Forces to End the Local Communist Armed Conflict.23 Executive Order 70 is part of the government’s “whole-of-nation” counter-insurgency operation plan which has an “Indigenous People-centric” approach.24 The attacks are meant to quell Indigenous Peoples’ resistance to development aggression and government policies that violate Indigenous Peoples’ rights, and results in further marginalisation of Indigenous Peoples in the country.

In the implementation of Executive Order 70, the Department of Education ordered the closure of 55 Lumad schools, leaving 3,500 students and more than 30 teachers out of school and jobs.25 The closure order was on baseless claims of the government that the Salugpongan schools are teaching students to rebel.26 The Lumad Indigenous Peoples decried this injustice that only deprives Lumad children of their right to education.

Strategies of disinformation are being used by other government agencies, such as the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) and Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), and presidential agencies like the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO), Office of the Presidential Adviser for the Peace Process (OPAPP) and the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (NICA). Political dissenters are politically vilified and tagged as communists or members of the New People’s Army (NPA).27

In a series of briefing sessions on the Whole of Nation Approach to government agencies in Baguio City, NICA has been presenting Indigenous Peoples’ organisations and Indigenous Peoples human rights defenders as Communist Terrorist Groups and members of the NPA. UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples, Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, and some leaders of the CPA were accused of being infiltrators to the UN on behalf of the Communist Party of the Philippines and the NPA.28

In a congressional briefing on 5 November 2019, Indigenous Peoples’ organisations such as the CPA, humanitarian organizations such as the Citizens’ Disaster Response Center and Oxfam Philippines, and the National Council of Churches in the Philippines were labeled by the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Department of National Defense as communist terrorist groups.29

The dangerous labelling of Indigenous Peoples’ organisations and human rights defenders as communist terrorist groups and members make them vulnerable to various forms of human rights violations. As of August 2019, eighty-six Indigenous people have fallen victim of extrajudicial killings (at least nine victims in 2019), 66 Indigenous people were victims of frustrated extrajudicial killings (at least eight victims in 2019), 36 are political prisoners, and 31,004 were victims of forced evacuation since Duterte assumed the presidency in July 2016.30 Many of the victims were opposing development aggression, human rights violations and the policies of the government that violate Indigenous Peoples’ rights.

Indigenous Peoples’ advocates were not spared from the tyranny of the Duterte regime. Brandon Lee, a Chinese-American volunteer of the Ifugao Peasant Movement in the Cordillera region, has been branded as an enemy of the state and was shot in front of his house in August 2019.31 He is now back home in the United States for his recovery.

The criminalisation of Indigenous human rights defenders is continuing. From 2016 to August 2019, trumped-up charges caused the arrest and detention of at least 196 Indigenous people, 36 of whom remain unjustly imprisoned.32 Datu Jomorito Guaynon, chairperson of Kalumbay Regional Lumad Organization remains in prison after he was arrested due to fabricated criminal charges.33 Rachel Mariano, a health worker of the Community Health, Education, Services and Training in the Cordillera Region, was acquitted in September 2019 after a year of detention. However, the judge who acquitted her, Mario Bañez, was shot dead two months later.34 Mariano still faces other fabricated charges and is out on bail.

After two-and-a-half years, the Martial Law in Mindanao was lifted on 31 December 2019. However, according to the Armed Forces of the Philippines, it will remain under a state of emergency35 by virtue of Proclamation No. 5536 which was issued in 2016. Indigenous Peoples thus fear that the situation will not change much since the proclamation allows military and police forces to impose checkpoints and curfew. They fear that the continued significant presence of the government’s armed forces in Mindanao and military operations will continue to protect investments in Indigenous territories.37

Bringing the issues to the United Nations

Indigenous Peoples in the Philippines look forward to the UN probe on the human rights situation in the country.38 In preparation for the UN probe and for other international engagements, Indigenous Peoples human rights defenders representing various Indigenous Peoples’ organisations gathered in November 2019 for the national consultation workshop on the issues faced by Indigenous Peoples.

The national consultation workshop consolidated the data on the situation of human rights and economic, social and cultural rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was presented during the Asia Consultation with UN Special Rapporteur Vicky Tauli-Corpuz in November 2019. It also served as the basis for the Philippine Indigenous Peoples’ submission to the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights to contribute in the UN Human Rights report on the Philippines.

The struggle continues

Indigenous Peoples in the Philippines are further strengthening their organisations and their struggles for human rights and Indigenous Peoples’ rights towards facing the challenges in the next year.


Notes and references

  1. Indigenous Peoples Rights International. “Documented Incidents of Criminalisation Against Indigenous Peoples” Accessed 26 February 2020: https://www.Indigenousrightsinternational.org/index.php/en/facts-and-figures
  2. Simeon, Louise Maureen “Philippines is most dangerous country for environment defenders – ” PhilStar Global, 31 July 2019: https://www. philstar.com/headlines/2019/07/31/1939403/philippines-most-dangerous- country-environment-defenders-watchdog.
  3. IWGIA Indigenous World 2019, Philippines: https://www.iwgia.org/en/ philippines/3416-iw2019-philippines
  4. Cordillera Peoples Alliance, “Chico River Pump Irrigation Project loan agreement, a sell-out of ancestral land Philippine sovereignty”. 7 March 2019: https://www.cpaphils.org/crpip.html
  5. Philippine Task Force for Indigenous Peoples’ Rights, “Joint Statement to the 12th Session of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples on Borders, Migration and Displacement”. 6 November 2019: https://philtfip.org/ category/dams/
  6. “Kaliwa Dam will destroy Sierra Madre biodiversity” Philstar Global, 29 November 2018: https://www.philstar.com/business/science-and-environment/2018/11/29/1872521/kaliwa-dam-will-destroy-sierra-madre- biodiversity
  7. Ranada, Pia “Duterte to use’extraordinary powers’ to see Kaliwa Dam project through”. Rappler, 28 October 2019: https://www.rappler.com/nation/243601- duterte-use-extraordinary-powers-for-kaliwa-dam
  8. “ECC for Kaliwa Dam project assailed”. Inquirer.Net, 24 October 2019: https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/1181082/ecc-for-kaliwa-dam-project-assailed
  9. Buan, Lian “After Chico river, Makabayan goes after Kaliwa dam at Supreme Court”. Rappler, 9 May 2019: https://www.rappler.com/nation/230105- makabayan-goes-after-kaliwa-dam-supreme-court
  10. Ibid .
  11. “SC orders gov’t to comment on petition China-funded Chico River project”. CNN Philippines, 10 April 2019: https://cnnphilippines.com/news/2019/4/10/ Supreme-Court-order-China-Chico-River-petition-.html
  12. “Palace: Chico River irrigation project constitutional” GMA News Online, 10 April 2019: https://www.gmanetwork.com/news/news/nation/690843/palace-chico- river-irrigation-project-constitutional/story/
  13. Macaraeg, John Aaron Mark “SEA Games 2019 displaces Aeta communities”. Bulatlat, 8 December 2019: https://www.bulatlat.com/2019/12/08/sea-games- 2019-displaces-aeta/?fbclid=IwAR2e-WStKZGwL_g2nfwHANMV52dB_ pNXpuTmv38jmVFowV96FUkiot3hfMc
  14. See Official Website of the Bases Conversion and Development Accessed 26 February 2020: https://bcda.gov.ph/about-us
  15. “Senate urged to probe displacement of Aeta communities by New Clark City”. PhilStar Global, 11 December 2019: https://www.philstar.com/ headlines/2019/12/11/1976180/senate-urged-probe-displacement-aeta- communities-new-clark-city
  16. Aspinwall, Nick “China-backed dam threatens Indigenous people in the Philippines”. Aljazeera, 19 January 2020: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/01/china-backed-dam-threatens-Indigenous-people- philippines-200115050855015.html
  17. Cordillera Peoples Alliance, “’Mine Safety’, an oxymoron under corporate greed and government corruption; Enough of mining plunder! Enough of unsafe, irresponsible large-scale minig in our ancestral lands!”. 24 November 2019: https://cpaphils.org/mines-unsafety-2019.html
  18. Macaraeg, John Aaron Mark “Nueva Vizcaya folks celebrate as Oceanagold suspends operations”. Bulatlat, 17 October 2019: https://www.bulatlat. com/2019/10/17/local-folk-celebrate-as-oceanagold-suspends-operations/.
  19. Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, report. “Philippines: New report alleges human rights & environmental violations by Australian-Canadian miner OceanaGold”. Accessed 26 February 2020: https://www.business- humanrights.org/en/philippines-new-report-cites-oceanagold-of-human- rights-environmental-violations
  20. Cagula, Ken E. “Lumad, peasant groups unite to defend Pantaron Rang”. Davao Today, 22 April 2019: http://davaotoday.com/main/environment/lumad- peasant-groups-unite-to-defend-pantaron-range/
  21. Balocnit, Peter A. Philippine Information “Kalinga geothermal project set to complete exploration phase” 30 November 2019: https://pia.gov.ph/ news/articles/1030451
  22. Presidential Executive Order No. 70 “Institutionalizing the Whole-of-Nation Approach in Attaining Inclusive and Sustainable Peace, Creating a National Task Force to end Local Communist Armed Conflict, and Directing the Adoption of a National Peace Framework.” Accessed 26 February 2020: https://www. officialgazette.gov.ph/downloads/2018/12dec/20181204-EO-70-RRD.pdf
  23. Facebook Post: Sandugo Movement Of Moro And Indigenous Peoples For Self-Determination. “Stop The Attacks Against Indigenous Peoples And National Minorities. Report of Joanna K. Cariño To The Commission On Human Rights”. 10 September 2019: https://www.facebook.com/SandugoNatMin/ posts/937911556562877? tn =K-R
  24. Ibid
  25. See Rappler, “DepEd formally shuts down 55 Lumad schools in Davao” at https://www.rappler.com/nation/242052-deped-shuts-down-lumad-schools- davao-region
  26. “DepEd shuts down 55 ‘lumad’ schools”. Rappler, 8 October 2019: https://inquirer.net/1141670/deped-shuts-down-55-lumad-schools
  27. Op. Cit. (23)
  28. Op. Cit. (23)
  29. Cepeda, Mara “Red-tagged Oxfam, NCCP slam military for ‘malicious, careless’ attack”. Rappler, 6 November 2019: https://www.rappler.com/nation/244252- red-tagged-oxfam-nccp-slam-military
  30. Cit (23)
  31. Fonbuena, Carmela “Philippines: US rights volunteer branded ‘enemy of state’ shot outside home”. The Guardian, 8 August 2019: https://www.theguardian. com/world/2019/aug/08/philippines-us-rights-volunteer-branded-enemy-of- state-shot-outside-home
  32. Op. Cit. (23)
  33. Lagsa, Bobby “Cagayan de Oro rights groups slam arrest of two activists”. Rappler, 30 January 2019: https://www.rappler.com/nation/222292-cagayan- de-oro-rights-groups-statements-arrest-activists
  34. Buan, Lian “Ilocos Sur judge killed in ambush in La Union”. Rappler, 5 November 2019: https://www.rappler.com/nation/244231-ilocos-sur-judge-killed-ambush- la-union
  35. “Martial law lifted but Mindanao still under state of emergency” Philstar Global, 2 January 2020: https://www.philstar.com/headlines/2020/01/02/1981465/ mindanao-still-under-state-emergency-amid-martial-law-lifted
  36. Ranada, Pia “Palace releases proclamation on state of nat’l emergency”. Rappler, 6 September 2016: https://www.rappler.com/nation/145346- proclamation-state-national-emergency-lawless-violence-released
  37. Aspinwall, Nick “Martial law is lifted, but “state of emergency” persists in Mindanao”. The Interpreter, 7 January 2020: https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the- interpreter/martial-law-lifted-state-emergency-persists-mindanao
  38. “UN council adopts resolution calling for probe into PH human rights situation”. CNN Philippines, 11 July 2019: https://cnnphilippines.com/news/2019/7/11/UN- council-probe-human-rights-resolution-PH.html

Sarah Bestang K. Dekdeken is a Kankanaey Igorot from the Cordillera region in northern Philippines. She is the current Secretary General of the Cordillera Peoples Alliance, a federation of progressive people’s organisations, mostly grassroots-based organisations among Indigenous communities in the Cordillera region.


This article is part of the 34th edition of the The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2020 in full here



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting and defending Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Read more.

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