Filipino Documentary Photographer

To Save Their Land, the Dumagat Look Up

Words by Regine Cabato
Full story published on The Washington Post: To save their home, an Indigenous community turns to the skies

Folktales say nature spirits and endangered eagles once roamed the woods surrounding the village of Dibut in the northeastern Philippines. Now an upcoming highway is set to pave a path from this remote settlement to the rest of the world—but it could come at the cost of a forested typhoon barrier, endemic wildlife, and the locals’ way of life.

The planned shortcut to the capital Baler, currently around an hour away by motorcycle, will cut right through the indigenous Dumagat’s ancestral domain. Tribal leaders do not believe that a village with less than a thousand residents need a road that wide, and the government is railroading corporate and political interests to reshape Dibut.

As they face pressure to give in to supposed development, they turn to the skies for a possible solution. The tribe’s last hope is a search for the Philippine eagle and hawk eagle, whose numbers are dwindling, in a bid to derail the highway by having the area declared a critical habitat.

Indigenous peoples own around 32% of the world’s remaining natural landscapes, and studies show their governance is directly proportional to environmental protection. “Once you establish roads in an area that indigenous peoples are protecting, it opens up a can of worms,” said Jing Corpuz, who represented the Philippines at the International Indigenous Forum for Biodiversity.

The Dumagats’ ancestral domain covers over 2,700 hectares of land 5,700 hectares of protected land and sea along the Sierra Madre, the Philippines’ longest mountain range. It faces the Pacific Ocean and is a frontier against typhoons, adding to concerns that paving the forest will endanger communities west of the cordillera.

Locals initially requested for a small farm-to-market road, for villagers to use for medical emergencies or to ferry fish to the capital. But they were surprised to find the single-lane path was expanded without their consultation, and the soil extracted from the mountain dumped by the roadside. When it rained, it eroded — felling trees down the side of the mountain, falling into streams and the fish sanctuary below.

Construction for the $1.6 million road has already begun in Baler, but tribal leaders say they have not provided their consent, which is required by law.

The tribe faces an uphill battle, including intimidation from local politicians and fellow Dibut residents who push through with illegal sales of patches of ancestral land. Dela Torre, the chieftain, has survived two attempts on his life in the past related to land defense. The Philippines is among the deadliest countries in the world for environmental defenders.

“There are two things that can happen with that road,” said Dela Torre. “First, it could be the road that brings development, a bright future for the Dumagat into our village — or it could be the road the road that drives the Dumagat out of their ancestral domain forever.”

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