June 1, 2023

My five years at the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples taught me to tiptoe on a thin line so as not to the stain my impartiality in the conduct of the free prior and informed consent (FPIC) process. I learned to numb my emotions towards proposed projects to be situated within the ancestral domains (ADs) of the indigenous peoples. My personal views towards mining, dams, logging, and other invasive projects became immaterial in every evaluation, review and/or facilitation of the FPIC process I’ve done. This, I must do to maintain the sanctity of the FPIC due the IPs for the full and genuine realization of their right to self-determination.
Some of my colleagues might not agree with this. A handful of principled colleagues will say NCIP’s partiality must be tilted for the IPs considering that IPRA, a legislation enacted solely for the IPs, was meant to protect, recognize, and respect the rights of the IPs. Unfortunately, the majority will argue they are for pro-development and pro-progress projects by taking the side of corporations wanting to use and exploit resources within the ADs. Thus, they will muster all of their connections and influence to lobby for any projects they deemed to be for development and progress, and sway the IPs into accepting or consenting to such.
IPs who will reject projects deemed to be for development will be ridiculed as uneducated and less informed or people “who cannot understand”. If they will argue or explain why they are rejecting as a gesture of their rights to self-determination, they will be vilified or worse, red-tagged.
For better understanding, we look at a co-equal government agency, the Commission on Elections.
To me, in the conduct of the FPIC, the NCIP is like the Comelec. Like NCIP, the Comelec must maintain impartiality in fulfilling their mandates in the elections. They should never, at any circumstance, show partiality to any of the candidates vying for public office. Just like the NCIP, the Comelec should desist from conditioning the minds of the electorate in favoring any of the candidates.
This is the same in the conduct of the FPIC. The NCIP must not campaign, either for or against, a proposed project. The NCIP and the Comelec must, at all times, advocate the strict and religious compliance or conduct of their respective policies.
The NCIP’s impartiality is crucial in every endeavor, apart from FPIC. NCIP officials must learn to unlearn whatever they have studied regarding projects, whether for or against. Any actions coming from the NCIP, big or small, and either for and against, can erode the very foundation of the FPIC process. Doing otherwise will strip IPs of their right to self-determination. It would mean that the fate of the IPs’ over their ADs is already pre-determined and that their right to self-determination is just mere ink on paper.
Regrettably, this is the cold reality. The IPs, before the start of the FPIC, are already indirectly pre-judged and prejudiced. They are expected to consent to every proposed project being introduced to them as if it would mean that the FPIC process, as a substantive right of the IPs, is being reduced as a mere procedural checklist awaiting compliance. With this type of mindset, it invites corporations to cut corners and encourages NCIP to a quick-fix while incidentally undermining the IPs’ right to self-determination.
It should be borne in mind that IPs was accorded by law to determine and define what is development or progress for them. Their definition to such, though may irate the five senses, must be respected. It is wrong to judge their definition or determination of development using the lens that is foreign to them. Your understanding of development and progress might be a means of destruction or can be construed as form of aggression to them.
However, notwithstanding the personal views of every NCIP personnel, it should be a warning to them that non-adherence to the FPIC process and disrespect to the IPs’ right to self-determination leave them susceptible to legal charges. The strict adherence to the rules and prevailing laws of FPIC by NCIP personnel will serve as protection against legal cases in the future. Should there be succeeding cases filed, NCIP personnel will be judged by the courts, not on their personal views. Justice will be weighed on whether or not the NCIP personnel, in the performance of his/her duties, followed and complied with the FPIC process and respected the IPs’ right to self-determination.
Time and again, we witnessed IPs filing charges against NCIP personnel due to the latter’s non-adherence to laws and guidelines. One case lodged before our courts is the irregular conduct of the FPIC process in the infamous Gened 1 and 2 mega dams. IPs cry foul due to the use of seemingly forged signatures giving authority to a few to sign a memorandum of agreement and resolution of consent, while those facilitated the FPIC process argue regularity and that complainants are influenced and are anti-development.