The Philippines’ biodiversity is stunning. Across its 7,000 small islands, the country has one of the greatest concentrations of endemic species in the world. With its diverse habitats and unique flora and fauna, the Philippines has long been a priority for global conservation efforts. Most of these efforts have been led by Filipino and international organizations. But recently, the voices of indigenous communities were captured in writing for the first time.
Approximately 12 to 15 million indigenous people live in the Philippines’ upland forests. Their customs are based on a respect for flora and fauna, which the tribes consider the home of the nature spirits that provide the resources on which they depend for their survival. Traditionally, tribal practices, such as how to manage natural resources at sacred sites, have been passed down orally. However, in 2015, a grant from a biodiversity project empowered indigenous people to document and align these practices with park management approaches.
USAID’s Biodiversity and Watersheds Improved for Stronger Economy and Ecosystem Resilience (B+WISER) project was designed by the Philippines’ Department of Environmental and Natural Resources in collaboration with USAID and Chemonics. B+WISER works throughout the Philippines to conserve forests and biodiversity, including in the Mount Kitanglad Range Natural Park.
The park was designated as a protected area by the government in 2000 and declared as the 28th Association of Southeast Asian Nations Heritage Park in the country in 2009. The Kitanglad Mountain Range is home to one of the few remaining rainforests in the country, harboring diverse species of rare and endemic plants and wildlife, including the Philippine eagle. But there is more to it than meets the eye.
In 2014, during a meeting with the indigenous people of Mount Kitanglad to discuss conservation activities, one of the tribal chieftains, Datu Makapukaw, shared his desire to preserve customs in their ancestral domain. He was keen on documenting these practices in a way that would also benefit the park’s management.
So in 2015, the B+WISER project provided a grant to the Kitanglad Integrated NGOs (KIN), a group that works with tribes residing in Mount Kitanglad Park to promote and conserve their cultural and natural heritage, to research and create — for the first time in tribal history — written documentation of customs, traditions, and practices related to natural resource management by indigenous people.
Using technical and financial support from the B+WISER project, KIN conducted the Kitanglad Indigenous Natural and Cultural Resource and Documentation Project. Through interviews with 15 cultural experts among three tribes residing in Mount Kitanglad Park — the Talaandig, Bukidnon, and Higaonon tribes — KIN documented stories of cultural traditions, locations of the tribes’ sacred zones, and culturally significant natural resources. They also recorded ancient knowledge about indigenous people’s traditions of caring for forests, rivers, and ecosystems.
Beyond this recording process, the grant established Mount Kitanglad’s cultural “conservation value,” which is based on species diversity, the presence of species unique to that area, sacred sites, resources used by local residents, and other factors. USAID and Chemonics had already identified biological high conservation value (HCV) areas in Mount Kitanglad Park.
This research helped them to map cultural HCVs, such as altars, sacred grounds, bodies of water, trees, and rocks. The research project showed that out of 38 sacred sites, 15 sites overlap with earlier-defined biological HCV areas. This means these areas warrant conservation efforts by USAID and the Philippines government not only based on their biological significance, but also based on their cultural importance.
KIN noted about the indigenous people: “[Their] perspectives and value on the importance of Mount Kitanglad to their survival and identity can very well qualify the area not only as a natural park but also a cultural heritage site.”
The KIN research project officially added the three tribes’ cultural heritage sites to the park’s management plan. In August 2016, KIN presented its research to the park’s Protected Area Management Board, prompting the board to adopt a resolution to integrate tribal norms and policies into its management processes. These changes fundamentally harmonized park policies and tribal policies, especially in areas where commercial or tourist activities intersect with culturally significant areas.
Sharing their long-kept secrets about tribal rituals and sacred sites with the outside world has allowed Kitanglad’s indigenous people to become a vocal partner in managing the mountain range. Mr. Makapukaw believes that this project is also a model for other tribes in the Philippines. By engaging in the public dialogue on forest preservation, tribes increase the chances that their ancient practices will continue.
"This has been a life-long dream,” Mr. Makapukaw reflected. “I would like our customs and traditions to be documented so that our children and their children will learn to appreciate what we have done and will know what to do when it comes to sustainably managing our tribal homeland.”