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February 7, 2008

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On Making the Legal System Accessible to Indigenous Peoples

The Cordillera Peoples Alliance (CPA) welcomes the recent move of Chief Justice Reynato Puno to hold a workshop on socio-economic rights of marginalized sectors, including indigenous peoples in the light of making the justice system accessible to the poor.

For the CPA, this move may help in giving the indigenous peoples the justice that the State has denied them. It may help in giving justice for the decades of national oppression they have suffered under the past and present regimes that have systematically denied them of their right to ancestral land and self determination. While addressing socio-economic rights, this initiative also looks into making the law and the courts accessible to all especially the poor and marginalized sectors. One, it should look into impediments such as the high cost of litigation including standard filing and appeal fees and lawyer's fees. Two, it should find out why the wheels of justice grind very slow. As it is, the courts are jammed to the brim.

However, for such an initiative to be truly meaningful, it should address the issue of ancestral land rights. This would involve a review of existing government laws, policies and programs that impact on indigenous peoples. Specifically, it would call for the review of the application of the Constitutional provision that institutionalized the Regalian Doctrine that declares all lands within the archipelago as belonging to the State. Government and private businesses have exploited this provision to their advantage, and to further dispossess indigenous peoples of their ancestral lands on the mere absence of paper titles. In fact, the Regalian Doctrine has failed for generations to give recognition since time immemorial possession and development of ancestral lands by the indigenous peoples.

This Constitutional provision has been the basis of laws on land and resources such as the Philippine Mining Act of 1995 (R.A. 7942) that allows the unhampered entry of mining corporations and plunder of indigenous territories. Another law is the P.D. 705 or the Revised Forestry Code enacted during the time of the Marcos Dictatorship that classified all lands above 18% in slope as forests thus public lands. Given the terrain of the Cordillera, this law made at least 80% of the Cordillera lands as forests. This made the Igorots squatters in their own lands.

The recognition of indigenous peoples' rights entails the recognition of their indigenous socio-political systems, especially the existing and effective indigenous justice systems. This must be regarded, over the imposition of the legal justice system in areas where it is not effective or applicable. #

Beverly L. Longid
Cordillera Peoples Alliance


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