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Protecting the Rights of the IP


It’s a triumph for Norman King and his people, as the young man becomes the first Aeta to graduate from the University of the Philippines.



In a country with over 105 million Filipinos, a small band of indigenous peoples (IPs) resides in the mountainous regions of Luzon. They are the Aetas, one of the IPs of the Philippines, now resettled in Pampanga and Tarlac after the devastating 1991 Mt. Pinatubo eruption. Traditionally a hunting and gathering people, the Aetas and their culture are changing. Influences from the lowlands have crept in, along with reforms for education and struggles for ancestral domain. And Norman King, a true katutubo, is serving as the bridge, helping his people maneuver through modern society and educating the lowlanders and outsiders on the true struggles of the IPs.

Norman King graduated from the Angeles City National Trade School in 2004. Almost a decade later, he was able to enroll at the University of the Philippines in Manila (UP-Manila). This was due to the intervention of Cynthia Neri Zayas, PhD, who approached his father, Aeta rights activist Roman King, offering any form of assistance. Roman replied: “If you really want to help me, help my son get the education he deserves.”

Norman was a freshman at the age of 23. Perhaps because of his previous work experience, he had no trouble adapting to student life at the University of the Philippines-Manila. He didn’t feel any discrimination as everyone appreciated his presence and treated him normally. He recalls, “Among the students, I was just this black guy standing in the class, physically and identity-wise, like one of the natives.” He had no problems financially, as his funds came from the university stipend, the Diwang Magdalo Foundation, and his father also sent him an allowance. Sometimes, he’d visit the Office of Student Affairs to hang out and eat with the other students and faculty. They treated him like family, and he admits, they became like his family, too.

Norman only wanted to finish college to have that competitive edge when seeking employment. He had no particular university or course in mind, and credits it to divine intervention that he got into UP-Manila. “That’s already a privilege for me. So I wasn’t going to be picky on what course they’d put me in. As long as I got in, I’m good,” he shares.

Norman aims to use his multidisciplinary course—which covers Sociology, Anthropology, and Psycholog —to help his community by writing a book about their culture. The Aeta culture is handed down orally and nothing is written. This becomes troublesome when businessmen arrive, demanding land titles. Despite the land being part of their ancestral domain, the Aetas face difficulties when they neither have proof nor written records of ownership. Norman also explains: “When a person would like to understand our culture, they don’t have anything to read or refer to. If ever there’s anything written, it’s actually by scholars or westerners. But is it written from the perspective of the Aeta community or a biased perspective of the writer? I see my course as an answer to that question.” Norman wants to bring the Aeta psyche to light by codifying the culture and laws of his own community.

Most Aeta communities have a traditional value system that prioritizes their ancestral domain, but there are those with diverging value systems.

Norman coins the term “loose” communities to refer to Aetas who do not value their land unlike other tight knit Aeta communities within Porac and Tarlac. These so-called loose communities have lost their ancestral domain, because they’ve already sold their rights to lowland people.

Under the law, the transfer of property rights should only be between or among members of the same indigenous cultural communities (ICCs) or IPs. Thus, Norman’s father, as leader of Porac Aeta Ancestral Domain Federation Incorporated, buys the land of loose communities instead of the ICC selling to non Aetas. Their purpose is to secure the land for the future of the younger generation. Norman explains, “As an heir to the mountains we own, I won’t use all of those resources. My only purpose is to protect it so that no outsiders can get in.” Despite having a noble intention of protecting the rights of other Aeta communities, the Kings have been accused of land-grabbing instead. Norman says this is because the lowlanders don’t understand. In the lowlands, sale of land to a person results in sole ownership of that person. With the Aetas, however, the property becomes communal and shared by all in the community.

With the passing of Republic Act (R.A.) No. 8371 or the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act, the right of the IPs to their ancestral domain is recognized. Yet some politicians have their own personal agenda profiting from ecotourism sites on Aeta land. They will hinder any claim for a certificate or title the Aetas enforce. Norman says it has been 10 years since they sought a communal title. He reveals, “Until you claim it, the government won’t do anything. They know we’re not like other Aetas. We know the value of our land, and the politicians know, once we get it back, they’ll never own it again.”

“I can say that we’re not really that poor. Our wealth is not directly translated to money. We have mountains. People have high respect for our family. For us, that is wealth; and that is something money can’t buy,” Norman emphasizes. Other Aetas who do not espouse the same way of thinking become greedy and turn to corruption. Many private groups have tried to bribe Norman’s father; they even put a bounty on his head. Roman’s life was endangered, so he was unable to attend Norman’s graduation. These outside groups understand that because Roman is a chief in the Porac community, other Aetas follow him. Outsiders try to divide the ICC by saying they should also have a say in the matter, not just Roman. “The natives think dividing the power is better, but this is only good if everyone has equal intellectual capacity, which is not the case,” Norman says.

With modern comforts finding their way into the Aeta community, old ways are compromised, too, shares Norman. The Aetas see the short-term benefits of technologies like motorcycles, TVs or cellphones, but lack the foresight to see long-term responsibilities like maintenance and repairs. The trade-off is inordinately high because they sell their lands or carabaos in order to purchase these things. Younger Aetas also luxuriate in these modernities instead of doing common chores like chopping wood.

However, the Aetas still prefer the traditional way. “Lowlanders are okay with having four walls, but we’re not used to it,” Norman remarks. “We cannot stay long in a room. Our concept of space is pretty wide, and you cannot simply put us in a box because our view is 360 degrees; which is why we don’t have the concept of trespassing because we can go anywhere.”

Norman has a specific vision for the Aeta community, and through his work he hopes to bring greater awareness to their culture and struggles. He says, “We’re a diversified community, and while diversity is beauty, it causes us to be divided.” He yearns for people to cast away self interest and work together harmoniously. There should be a commonality of principles as individuals think of the community, regardless of diverse practices. “There is still a gap between the Aeta community and the low-lying communities. They still don’t understand our culture, and our customary laws. To link the two wherein they can work harmoniously with each other, that’s what I want to do within the next 10 years or so,” Norman declares. In addition to writing a book and sharing glimpses of the Aeta way of living through his photography (Norman is an aspiring photographer), Norman plans on pursuing a law degree to help protect his people and their lands through the teeth of the law.

A delicate balance between the uplands and the lowlands is needed, considering benevolent intervention from the latter destroys traditional values and cultural practices of the former. First, R.A. 8371 should be properly implemented as it already protects the ICCs, the IPs, and the environment. He says, “If you implement it correctly, the environment will be protected, and the environment itself is the ancestral domain where the IPs live.” Apart from the government, each individual citizen should also work towards doing something to benefit the community.

Second, Norman insists on building the identity of the Aetas starting from a young age to deter external influences. He recounts his personal struggles with his own identity. On school days, he was a regular UP-Manila student; other days, he was an Aeta. Norman envisions a pilot project, where the elders teach the younger Aetas the old ways like hunting, while explaining the reasons behind such traditional customs. “The emphasis to the young ones is that whomever you will meet, wherever you go, the only ones who will understand you are your people. When I went to U.P., I met different people but whenever I came back to
my community, they were the ones who fully understood and accepted me for who I am,” Norman maintains.

On the day of his graduation, Norman wore a bahag, the traditional clothing of his people. In evaluating his motive and purpose, he asserts, “My people were the ones who were there during the time I was having an identity crisis. I want to give them the respect they deserve. That’s why when I walked onto the stage, it’s not just simply me right there walking. Together with me, shoulder to shoulder, are my people. I held my head up high proudly on that stage representing my community, not just me as Norman King.”

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