April 20, 2024

Long before the Americans discovered Baguio in the beginning of the 20th century, the great Ibaloy people, who are the original settlers of this city once called Kafagway, lived in harmony with nature and one another and tilled the lands passed on to them by their forefathers.

German historian Otto Johns Scheerer, who migrated to Baguio in 1896 on the advice of his doctor and met the supposed American founders of what would soon become a modern city, estimated the Ibaloy population at around 15,000 in 1905. The figure includes those in the southern part of Benguet.

Scheerer had documented how the indigenous peoples of Benguet, especially the Ibaloys, valued their lands.

Once a town in Benguet, Baguio became a chartered city by virtue of Act 1963 enacted by the Philippine Commission on Aug. 9, 1909 which took effect on Sept. 1 on the same year. This means it was by Act 1963 that the Philippine Commission started claiming the Ibaloys’ precious land as owned by the State.

Ironically, the Ibaloys started getting stripped of their ancestral lands a mere six months after the United States Supreme Court, in a historic decision on Feb. 23, 1909, affirmed that the great Kafagway chieftain Mateo Cariño was indeed the owner of Ypitand Lubas (Camp John Hay) by virtue of the legal concept of “Native Title” as penned by U.S. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.

It was a landmark decision because it ruled that when as far back as memory goes, if land was held in a private capacity, then it was never a public land, going against the colonial American premise that all lands in the islands that they had bought from Spain belonged to the State.

But more than a century since the Americans had crafted the charter of Baguio, and even with Republic Act 11689 that amended the old city charter, the Ibaloys, specifically the heirs or descendants of the original settlers of Kafagway, still suffer from great injustice in pursuit of perfecting their rights over their ancestral land claims.

THE GREAT CHIEFTAIN OF KAFAGWAY — Ibaloy great man, Mateo Cariño, who once held a vast tract of land in the old Baguio, was photographed by the Americans with his horse in the beginning of the 20th century. — Photo from the Worcester Collection/University of Michigan Archive

Even before RA 11689 lapsed into law on April 11, 2022 during the Duterte administration, Ibaloys and other indigenous peoples in Baguio City were apprehensive the revised charter might not be an instrument in their quest to protect their rights over ancestral lands.

Article XI of the revised charter states that RA 8371, or the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act (IPRA) of 1997, shall, in so far, as applicable, continue to govern claims related to ancestral lands and domains in the City of Baguio.

It also states the applications covering lands which are subject to pending ancestral land claims before the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples shall not be processed and shall not be acted upon pursuant to the Act from the moment the said ancestral land claims have been denied with finality by the proper court, government agency, or instrumentality.

But what does this provision of the law mean, especially to the Ibaloys?

For many Ibaloys, it means their long-time struggle triggered by the old city charter continues to be the challenge for the heirs and descendants of the 48 original settlers of Kafagway who still have to perfect their claims threatened by foreign-inspired laws.

Small victories

The long-time legal battle for the recognition of the legitimate ancestral land claims by the Ibaloys bore fruit when on Feb. 9, 2006, the NCIP en banc issued Resolution 40-2006-AD which paved the way for the issuance of a certificate of ancestral land domain title (CADT) for Barangay Happy Hallow in Baguio City.

OLD BAGUIO LADIES — A group of Ibaloy lasses were photographed outside a wooden house in the beginning of the 20th century in Baguio. The photographed individuals were among the original settlers of Kafagway. — Photo from the Worcester Collection/University of Michigan Archive

The CADT, covering 146.2 hectares, was registered at the Register of Deeds of Baguio City on June 24, 2009 as O-CALT 58 to the Ibaloys and Kankana-eys of the barangay.

The Supreme Court also affirmed a decade-old decision of the Court of Appeals (CA) upholding the NCIP’s function to issue certificates of ancestral land title to an Ibaloy elder in 2007.

In a 24-page decision dated Jan. 16, 2023 penned by Baguio boy SC Associate Justice Marvic Leonen, it denied the petition for review on certiorari filed by a group of Ibaloy and Kankana-ey petitioners invol-ving the CALT covering 77, 585 square meters of land located in Pinsao, Baguio that was issued to Maximo Bugnay, Sr. by the NCIP.

The SC decision stated it relied on the findings of the CA that Bugnay had substantially complied with the requirements for the issuance of his CALT by submitting the correct application form and it was accompanied by supporting documents and that inspections were conducted before his application was submitted to the NCIP director for evaluation.

This means the validity of ancestral land claims of the heirs of original settlers of Baguio are now being recognized by the regular courts if properly evaluated by the concerned agencies led by the NCIP.

 CALTs as valid titles

Another small victory for the legitimate ancestral land claimants in Baguio is the legal opinion of Justice Sec. Jesus Crispin Remulla, who said that all ancestral land titles in the city not contested by the go-vernment are as valid as mo-dern land titles such as original certificates of titles (OCT) and transfer certificates of titles (TCT). His legal opinion dated Dec. 15, 2022 was posted on the official website of the Department of Justice.

The legal opinion was issued in response to the question of Public Works and Highways Sec. Manuel Bonoan whether CALTs and CADTs have the same legal entitlements as regular land titles which are being required by the city go-vernment of Baguio in issuing building permits.

In sum, the DPWH wants to know the DOJ’s opinion if a CALT and CADT can be submitted for the purpose of acquiring a building permit in lieu of an OCT or a TCT.

“There are CADTs or CALTs issued by the NCIP covering ancestral domains and lands which are not part of the townsite reservation of Baguio City which were not declared null and void in a judicial proceeding. These CADTs or CALTs are therefore presumably valid,” reads the DOJ opinion.

“It is worthy to note that indigenous peoples possess and occupy ancestral domains and lands of their ancestors, communally or individually, since time immemorial. In fact, in the IPRA, among the declared State policies is that the State shall protect the rights of indi-genous cultural communities/IPs to their ancestral domains to ensure their economic, social, and cultural well-being and shall recognize the applicability of customary laws governing property rights or relations in determining the ownership and extent of ancestral domain. This avowed policy of the law covers the right of the indigenous people to build structures on their land,” the opinion added.

Legal victories versus spurious claims

While IPs suffer injustice from the non-recognition of their supposed valid ancestral land claims, the government imposes stringent measures to protect the State from supposed fraudulent claims.

To recall, the SC sided with the city government’s campaign against supposed spurious ancestral land titles issued on parks and other prime lots when it issued a 17-page order dated Sept. 25, 2019 declaring as null and void NCIP Resolutions 107-2010-AL and 108-2010-AL that paved the way for the issuance of the titles, O-CALT Nos. 129 and 130, including corresponding TCT numbers and CALTs covering 36 parcels of lot.

In particular, the SC order covered the claims of the heirs of Cosen Piraso over the Casa Vallejo property along Upper Session Road and the claims of the Abanags over the Pacdal Circle, Wright Park, and the city government’s titled property in Lualhati barangay.

IBALOY DAY — Clad in their native garbs, Ibaloy women, some of them heirs of the original settlers of Baguio and Benguet, attended the Ibaloy Festival at Burnham Park in 2015. — Harley F. Palangchao

Since 2009, former city mayor Mauricio Domogan through the City Legal Office under lawyer Melchor Carlos Rabanes had sought the annulment of said CALTs along with those issued covering claims at South Drive, Green Valley, and Loakan Airport, maintaining that the lots are within forest and park reservations and are therefore inalienable.

They worked closely with the Office of Solicitor General to pursue the cancellation of the titles.

In annulling the CALTs, the SC stated while Section 78 of the IPRA provides that the city “shall remain to be governed by its charter and all lands proclaimed as part of its townsite reservation shall remain as such until reclassified by appropriate legislation,” the same section provides exceptions, particularly those “prior land rights and titles recognized and acquired through any judicial, administrative, or other processes before the effectivity of the IPRA.

The SC also ruled that the nullified ancestral land titles do not qualify under said exceptions, citing antecedent facts and court decisions that proved that “respondents were not among the original and additional claimants” over the subject properties.

Last year, the final decision of the SC on these spurious CALTs and derivative titles were annotated on the titles to serve as notice that said titles are void and to forewarn the public against entering into transactions involving said lots.

But the First Citizens of Baguio City Organization-Indigenous Peoples Organization (FCBCO-IPO), through its chairperson, lawyer Manuel Cuilan, in an open letter published by the Midland Courier in its Aug. 20, 2023 issue, claimed that despite the SC decision, none of the CALTs involved are considered canceled by ROD Baguio because there was no court order issued and received at the ROD to cancel said documents.

Cuilan said there is no rule or provision of law, or jurisprudence, to the effect that a SC decision in civil cases shall be executed or implemented after issuance by the SC Clerk of Court of certificate of finality of the decision, as a court order is a must.

He added the SC decision cannot come into effect, since the last paragraph of Section 1, Rule 39, of the Rules of Court provides: “The Appellate Court may, on motion in the same case, when the interest of justice so requires, direct the court of origin to issue the writ of execution. (As amended by Circular 24-94.)”

More than a century of injustice

While earlier reports stated that around 192 CALTS and one CADT have been issued in Baguio as of 2022, close to 150 more CALT applications are pending before the agency.

But of these CALTs issued, descendants of the great old Ibaloy chieftain Mateo Cariño, who fought hard for the recognition by the government of the ancestral land claims of indi-genous peoples, are still seeking for the recognition of the claims over lands owned by their great ancestors.

KEEPING CULTURE AND TRADITION ALIVE — High school students in Happy Hallow barangay performed the famous “bendiyan” of Kabayan, Benguet during the Indigenous Peoples Month celebration in the barangay in 2022. The active participation of children and the youth proves that efforts by the elders to pass the time-tested culture and traditional practices to younger generation is gaining ground. — Harley F. Palangchao

Also evident is that many heirs and descendants of the original 48 Igorots with legitimate ancestral land claims remain informal settlers in their own place, with some of them dispossessed of the same lands they had inherited from the first settlers of Kafagway.

The patch of land, right at the heart of Baguio where the Ibaloy Heritage Garden is located, was once a pastureland of the great man Cariño, of which, up to now remains a public domain.

But while the city government of Baguio recognizes the claims of heirs and descendants of the 48 original settlers, this mountain resort is predominantly governed by TSA, in which alienable and disposable lands of public domain are sold to the highest bidder.

This long-history of injustice was echoed by Joanna Cariño when the University of Michigan, in cooperation with the University of the Philippines Baguio, turned over on Aug. 7 this year the digitized photographs of the original settlers of Baguio from the collection of American colonial administrator, Dean Conant Worcester.

The photographs were ta-ken during the twilight years of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, after Spain sold the Philippines to the United States under the Treaty of Paris in 1898.

Cariño is the granddaughter of first Ibaloy doctor, Jose Cariño, who was the fourth son of Mateo Cariño.

 Asserting ancestral land rights and reclaiming identity

In September 2022, Ibaloy Councilor Jose Molintas deli-vered a privilege speech urging the city government of Baguio to apologize to the IPs, particularly the Ibaloys, who lost their ancestral lands and were discriminated upon through the imposition of foreign laws.

Molintas said the formal apology to the Ibaloys for the systematic loss of lands and land rights is similar to the formal apology offered on Feb. 13, 2008 by former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples of Australia referred to as the Stolen Generations.

“The Baguio IPs lost their ancestral lands through the imposition of foreign laws implemented in a discriminatory manner, as if they were inexistent under the Spanish regime. They were recognized as owners of the land they occupied since time immemorial by the Americans, but the Philippine government kept ignoring their right over the past 120 years,” Molintas said in a privilege speech.

The councilor also decried the continued selling of city lands through TSA, commercial, and miscellaneous sales application since Baguio was chartered in 1909. The revised city charter has also failed to address the long-time concerns of the Ibaloys with supposed valid ancestral land rights claims.

The election this year of the first indigenous peoples mandatory representative (IPMR) at the city council in the person of Maximo Hilario Edwin Bugnay Jr., an Ibaloy himself, is seen as a step closer to giving voice to the IPs of Baguio in asserting their rights.

During this year’s 14th Ibaloy Day celebration in February, Ibaloy scholar and University of the Philippines Baguio professor Jimmy Fong said the IPs’ assertion of native lands could be achieved through their respective IPMRs.

He said the selection of an Ibaloy as the first recognized IPMR of Baguio is an assertion of the fact of the history of the city that started out as an Ibaloy community.  

Meanwhile, in his research entitled, “Ibaloys Reclaiming Baguio: The Role of Intellectuals” published in the Plaridel Journal in 2017, Fong wrote that “Ibaloy reclamation of Baguio can only happen at the realm of the symbolic. The celebration of Ibaloy Day on Feb. 23 is only a symbolic action. Parading on Session Road is only symbolic of Ibaloy presence in the city. An Ibaloy Festival at Burnham Park is only a sign that the daily nitty-gritty aspects of Ibaloy life are still being lived somewhere else.”

Fong added, “It is not expected that the Ibaloys will physically take over Baguio in the future. And with intellectuals at the helm of such initiatives, reclamation can only remain at the realm of the symbolic.” ¢