Championing Indigenous Peoples' Rights in the Philippines

Raymond Marvic Baguilat stands tall and proud on the University of the Philippines campus, wearing a woven cloth that shows off his upland roots. The lawyer is a Tuwali from Ifugao province that can be found in the mountainous regions of the Northern Philippines.

Ice Photo.JPGI grew up in Manila, he says. But every summer would be spent going to our home province, especially during campaign time and to vote. He recalls having load their baggage on a carabao-drawn cart to bring them to their home in Kiangan, Ifugao. "There were no cement roads back then, and when you get tired of walking, you can ride the cart, but it was a very bumpy ride," he shares. There was no electricity back then too. People relied on gas lamps for light. "When night fell, there was nothing to do. You could listen to the radio but they ran on those big expensive batteries. When the batteries ran out, there was, literally, 'radio silence'."

Today, roads have been built, and they now have power. But modernization, in the context of commercialism, has its drawbacks too. "Our farmers are now becoming gardeners, in that they are now planting what we call cash crops or high value vegetables. The use of land has changed. It is either they plant the cash crops or sell the land and leave."

He is happy that their culture comes alive especially on special occasions such as their fiesta called Gotad Ad Kiangan. "Aside from the usual basketball and volleyball competitions, we have contests on how well the Hudhud (narrative chants of ancestral heroes, customary law, religious beliefs and traditional practices) is recited." One time, though, a while batch of students were not able to participate in their fiesta activities because they were all on their Nursing internships. "There is nothing wrong with them wanting to take a course that they feel would give them more opportunities. But I also would want there to be a way for them to have economic benefits by staying within the community."

This is why his Re-Entry Action Plan after completing his Masters of Law Studies at the University of Melbourne through the Australia Awards, was about developing a Tourism Code for Kiangan, which looks into the issues surrounding tourism, keeping in mind sustainable development and the rights and responsibilities of the different stakeholders. "Tourism can be a source of income and livelihood, but we have to keep in mind environmental considerations and the people who might be affected by it, like the farmers for example," he explains. "Other tourism codes merely look into the fees the need to be paid or how to hire tour guides. It has to go deeper than that, looking into the impact that the tourism industry will have on the community and its stakeholders."

In order to prepare his REAP, he worked in close coordination with the Municipal Government's Tourism Committee, drafting a tourism code through research and consultations. It was based of the ideas he picked up on Sustainable Development and Human Rights during his Australia stint, along with the local concept on Tourism Law which he taught for one semester to Ifugao students. Aside from fulfilling his requirement, the good news is that his project is now on its way towards being actually implemented in Kiangan.

A voice for the unheard

Not one to go into politics, he likes looking into policies instead. Raymond has many advocacies, most of which are centered on Human Rights. He works with minority groups, the ones who are marginalized in society, such as Indigenous Peoples, the urban poor, and the youth. He helps tribes in Palawan and Maguindanao, whose ancestral lands are now being taken over by extractive industries for their minerals and precious metals, and by those who seek to run their domain into tourist resorts.

He is also set to release a book at the UP Law Center this February, one that looks into bullying - its psychological implications, and the rights of the child. With the prevalence of extrajudicial killings, he and the other members of a group are helping the urban poor families who have been affected. "More often than not, a victim would leave behind a family which does not have a means to bury their dead, much less support themselves."

While he teaches Legal Theory, with discussions centering on providing a moral background to the law ("my attempt to humanize the practice"), he also takes on litigation work particularly human rights cases. "These are my simple opportunities to help," he says.

The women weavers of Ifugao are empowered too, through the efforts of a social enterprise group that he supports. They are now able to supply their woven fabrics to be made into clothing. "With this opportunity to earn income, this translates to how they value themselves."

A broader perspective

He took up law to follow the footsteps of his father and his grandfather. The first time he taught was in Ifugao, to help out students there who were complaining about their teachers. "I was working at Congress then, and I would leave for Ifugao every Thursday after work, and have classes until Saturday. This went on for two years, but I felt that I needed to learn more, in order to be an effective teacher. That was when I found the Australia Awards."

"I was culture-shocked at the beginning, and I had some adjusting to do. The person who was helping us to feel our way around left us suddenly, so we had to learn to fend for ourselves," he laughs. What he did was to join organizations such as the Filipino Australian Student Council (FASTCO) of which he became a Director. "My thinking was I could automatically gain friends. It was also a good outlet for student-related stress."

As far as his studies were concerned, he felt valued as a student. "Here, you are used to being shouted at if you came to the classroom unprepared. There, they provided everything you need, with materials that are nicely-bound. All you needed to do was read them. The professors were on first-name basis, and they made you feel that you had something to add to the discussion. They are interested to hear your perspective."

Moreover, he says, he was able to see how a diverse society with different races can work together.

His hometown dreams

When asked what he wants for the Ifugao Province, he gets a faraway look in his eyes. "I want progress to come, unimpeded by politics. I want the younger generations to value their land. When their elders die, they sell off their properties, and they are selling it to those who are not from there. As my father told us once, no matter what happens, as long as we have our land, we can live off it. It is essential in our culture, where your identity in the community is tied to the land."

He also wants the youth to become more involved in promoting the culture. "They have to become our ‘ambassadors’ where they could tell other people about our place and our practices. I wish they would continue the traditions that we have such as joining the chants, and change common misconceptions connected to the Ifugao. I hope they can become aware of the need to preserve the richness of our heritage."