To protect Philippine forests, may the "tribal force" be with you

deforested area in Davao City, Philippines
Indigenous people in Davao City, Philippines assert their roles as forest protectors, call on government to authorise their stewardship. Image: Shutterstock

Indigenous people in the Philippines are calling on the government to authorise a force of tribal rangers to help preserve the country’s forests and curb climate change.

Forest management and protection are an important part of the Philippines’ strategy to reduce its carbon emissions by 70 per cent by 2030, a commitment made for the new global agreement on climate change reached in Paris last December.

The Southeast Asian country aims to reduce its emissions from deforestation and slash-and-burn farming largely through a scheme called REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), in which developing countries are compensated for protecting their forests.

Martin Donato and his indigenous Mandaya tribe in the southern province of Davao Oriental want to be at the heart of REDD+ efforts - and are hoping to reap some of the financial rewards.

Donato, a member of his tribal council and representative of indigenous people in his village of Rizal, has been tapped to help oversee REDD+ activities in the tribe’s area.

REDD+ includes safeguards, negotiated at the 2010 U.N. climate change conference in Mexico, to minimise any negative effects of forest preservation activities on indigenous peoples, biodiversity, livelihoods and governance.

That includes ensuring indigenous groups and communities that depend on the forest participate in REDD+ activities.

Under Philippine law too, the government and the private sector must secure the consent of indigenous groups before natural resources on their ancestral lands can be exploited.

Carbon monitoring

Without the safeguards, indigenous people could suffer violation of their customary land rights, political marginalisation and declines in food production, experts say. Failure to implement the safeguards can lead to a country forfeiting its REDD+ payments.

Donato and other members of indigenous tribes in nearby villages are calling for a mechanism to ensure their voices will be heard and their rights protected under REDD+ projects.

“The best way to do that is by having a tribal force,” Donato said.

Local people envisage the force as a paid group of tribal members who would patrol the forests and help monitor carbon levels. They also want to be given the authority to apprehend those who illegally clear or damage forest land.

“How can we fight illegal loggers?” asked Donato. “We (currently) cannot arrest them.”

Jusvin Sumambot, a member of the tribal council in Lambog village, said any agreement on REDD+ activities in their ancestral domain should be signed not only by the mayor or local chief executive but also by the tribal chieftain, who could be part of the forest force.

Donato said the Mandaya tribe’s involvement should include measuring, reporting and verifying stocks of carbon in the trees and vegetation.

“We want to be trained on how can we actually measure the carbon and do an inventory,” he said.

Fair pay?

Indigenous people already work as “bantay gubat”, or forest rangers, in the mountains of Davao Oriental, where their work extends from forest conservation to wildlife protection.

On Mount Hamiguitan, rangers work 15-day shifts to watch over the forest, which became a focus of public outrage last year when a Philippine eagle, endangered due to habitat loss, was shot dead two months after being released into the wild. In February, another eagle was shot but survived.

The rangers are currently paid 250 Philippine pesos ($5.42) a day by the Philippine Eagle Foundation, but Donato wants tribal force members to receive at least 7,000 pesos a month for guarding the forest.

“Prices of food have gone high now, and that amount will really help us,” he said.

Mark De Claro, head of the REDD+ unit at the Forest Management Bureau, said members of a tribal force, if formed, could be trained as natural resource officers, with the authority of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to apprehend people damaging the forest. But they would have to act as unpaid volunteers, he added.

The National Commission on Indigenous Peoples, a co-implementer of REDD+ safeguards, also said it lacked the budget for a tribal force.

“We can help build their capacity. But we have no funds to provide them an allowance,” said Julius Mabini, the commission’s director for Davao Oriental.

Under REDD+, indigenous communities will receive payments based on results. The government is now exploring how to distribute payments fairly between national and local government, indigenous groups and others.

De Claro said tribal communities have the right to manage their own funds and could set aside part of the money they receive for a tribal force.

“They can do whatever they want as long as it will result in the sustainable development of their ancestral domain,” he said.


Julio Batuman, a resident of Taocanga village, said government agencies should consult the tribal force on the performance of forest management programmes such as REDD+ in their ancestral domain.

According to Batuman, the DENR failed to do this when evaluating the National Greening Programme, a flagship forest rehabilitation initiative of President Benigno Aquino III. It aimed to plant 1.5 billion trees on 1.5 million hectares (3.7 million acres) of land between 2011 and 2016.

“The DENR came up with a report without talking to us,” Batuman said.

De Claro said the department would endeavour to change that under REDD+.

“The traditional top-down way of governance will not work. You’re instituting change and REDD+ is a game-changer,” he said. “The only way you can eliminate resistance is through participation.”

For Donato, the role of indigenous peoples is straightforward - and crucial. “We will be the ones to monitor if our forests remain alive,” he said.

($1 = 46.1500 Philippine pesos)

Repulished with permission from the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit

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