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Aetas of Tarlac vow to defend tribe’s ancestral land from government’s new city project

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when Jose Capiz had to leave his village in the town of Capas in the northern Philippines for fear for his and his family’s life.

Jose, a member of the Aeta tribe, had to escape to the province of Pangasinan during the years of martial law in the 1970s when soldiers tagged him as a communist rebel.

Years later, the family came back to Capas only to be displaced again, this time by an erupting Mount Pinatubo volcano in 1991.

Every time Jose and his family leaves their village they would always promise to return home. “Why wouldn’t I want to be here? This is the land that we inherited from our ancestors,” Jose said.

In recent years, the landscape of the Aeta tribe’s ancestral land, Jose’s homeland, has changed.

The mountains have been flattened, roads and bridges have been built, and a massive “state of the art” sports complex rose in the middle of nowhere in time for the Philippines’ hosting of the 2019 Southeast Asian Games.

At least 300 Aeta families were reported displaced by the holding of the games.

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Jose’s parents and their parents before them have named all the hills and plains and the rivers and streams in the land before outsiders started calling it “New Clark City.”

The “city” is one of President Rodrigo Duterte’s “flagship” infrastructure projects under his “Build Build Build” program.

Aeta children play in the village of Sapang Kawayan in Capas, Tarlac. (Photo by Bernice Beltran)

The construction of the new city is expected to displace at least 65,000 people in 12 villages, including about 18,000 indigenous Aeta people.

“We don’t want to get in the way of any form of development,” said Jose clarified.

“If Filipinos are going to benefit from the project, then we will cooperate. But we don’t even know where [the government] will relocate us,” he said.

Growing up in the mountains, Jose hardly enjoyed the few times he was able to go to the city, saying that he always had to watch his back when walking in the streets.

“We never dreamed of living in gated subdivisions or condominiums,” said the 74-year old man. “City dwellers always look down on indigenous people. They think we’re primitive and stupid.”

For Jose, his ancestral land is the safest place to live in.

As an “Aeta Hungey,” or “old blood,” he and his siblings are responsible in overseeing the ancestral land and in resolving conflicts in the tribe.

“Without our blood, the Aetas here would not be alive today,” said Jose’s sister, Petronilla Capiz-Munoz.

“When a member of our clan wants to use a plot of land to farm, they need to get our permission as part of our tradition,” she said.

“We rarely refuse because this ancestral land belongs to all of us,” said Petronilla.

A sign that reads “Respect the rights of the Aeta” is planted at the boundary of the tribal land in Capas, Tarlac. (Photo by Bernice Beltran)

Since the 1990s, Jose’s tribe have been trying to secure a Certificate of Ancestral Land from the government, but to no avail even after meeting all the requirements.

On Dec. 2, 2019, Jose’s sister, the leader of the Apung Mek tribe, received a letter from the government’s Bases Conversion and Development Authority.

The notice instructed residents of the village of Aranguren to evacuate their homes within seven days to make way for a road construction project.

The letter also stated that the Aetas are living in a land owned by the government inside the Clark Special Freeport.

In 1992, former President Corazon Aquino signed into law the Bases Conversion and Development Act, mandating the Bases Conversion and Development Authority to manage lands inside the former US military base.

The law had no mention of the indigenous peoples living in the former military reservations.

While the agency offered the affected communities about US$5,900 per hectare of land and a a promise of a “relocation site,” there was no mention of where the tribe would be transferred.

“Land is more valuable than money,” said Jose. “Once you spend your money, it’s gone. With this land, we will never run out of fruits and vegetables to plant and harvest.”

With the help of a human rights lawyer, the Aetas in the village of Aranguren replied to the letter, claiming that the land where their homes stand is their ancestral land.

Aeta women sit by a bonfire in Sapang Kawayan, a tribal village in Capas, Tarlac, during a family gathering. (Photo by Bernice Beltran)

According to Philippine laws, tribal people have to give a “free, prior and informed consent” before the government can start as development project in ancestral territory.

Attached to the letter are records obtained by researchers showing that the tribe lived in the area long before the Americans established the military bases and reservations in the country.

One document obtained in Spain was a report by the General Directorate for Civil Administration of the Spanish government in the Philippines, dated March 7, 1881.

It informed the King of Spain that a Spanish missionary priest had created a “barrio” of about 50 families of Negrito Balugas or Aetas.

“Our ancestors lived here long before the Americans arrived,” said Jose.

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the Aetas are worried that the lowlanders will come back soon to once again claim the land.

“I’m not afraid to speak up,” vowed Jose.

“Our fathers and grandfathers have fought alongside the Americans against the Japanese during World War II. We will always fight for the Philippines,” he said.

Unfortunately, the man said “the Philippines has never fought for us.”

He said he and his tribe will do everything to protect their ancestral land against all odds.

To raise awareness of the needs of indigenous peoples, the United Nations marks every August 9 the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.

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