HomeCommentaryThe mystical Lake Tabeo of Benguet and indigenous people’s rights

The mystical Lake Tabeo of Benguet and indigenous people’s rights

“The indigenous peoples’ struggle for their rights ... is rooted in their effort for cultural and human survival"

It was in the early 1990s when I first climbed Mount Pulag, which is considered as Luzon’s highest peak at 2,928 meters (9,606 ft) above sea level (asl) and covering an area of 11,550 hectares (28,500 acres).

Mount Pulag is also the third highest mountain in the Philippines, next to Mount Apo (2,954 meters or 9,692 feet or asl), and Mount Dulang-dulang (2,941 meters or 9,649 feet asl).

It is a dormant volcano located on the triple border of the provinces of Benguet, Ifugao, and Nueva Vizcaya that meet at the mountain’s peak, which is located in Kabayan, Benguet.

Mount Pulag was proclaimed a national park through Presidential Proclamation No. 75 on February 20, 1987, and is a National Integrated Protected Areas Programme (NIPAP) site.

Mount Pulag is inhabited by different ethnic groups, such as the Ibalois, Kalanguya, Kankana-eys, Karao, and Ifugaos. It is considered a sacred ground, with the belief that they can speak to God because “it is close to heaven” and that a person’s soul goes to the mountains once he dies.

For mountain climbers, the montane forests and the grassland summit with its “sea of clouds” phenomenon are the major attractions. There are four major trails up the summit: the Ambangeg, Akiki, and Tawangan trails from Benguet and the Ambaguio trail from Nueva Vizcaya.

Kabayan is approximately 335 kilometers north of Manila and 85 kilometers northeast from Baguio City. It is home of the Kabayan mummies.

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The four mystical lakes — Lake Bulalacao or Bulalakao, Lake Incolos, Lake Tabeo, and Lake Letep-ngepos — are located in Kabayan, Benguet, at the base of Mount Pulag.

Lake Tabeo is located within the residential area while the other three are located within the Mount Tabayoc, also known as the Junior Pulag.

We went car camping last December at Lake Tabeo instead of the regular climb to Mount Pulag’s peak.

Being the most accessible among the four lakes, Lake Tabeo is like a big fish pond surrounded by pine trees, vegetable farm lands, a few barns and village houses with the campsite just near the main road.

Mount Tabayoc serves as a backdrop with its pine and mossy forest with a few clouds kissing its steep slopes.

During our stay, I had the chance to talk to the owners of the campsite, the Pedros.

They narrated that the area used to be their vegetable plantation, but it became idle when it was submerged in water due to dike constructions.

After they decided to transform their property into a campsite, they initially received a letter from the government instructing them to cease and desist from collecting camping fees for each person, vehicle, and tent. They were later allowed to continue charging the fees.

I told them that the issue is somewhat similar to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Sama vs People (G.R. No. 224469, January 05, 2021) wherein the court ruled that Iraya-Mangyans should be acquitted of the crime charged for violating the Revised Forestry Code after they cut down a dita tree without a license or permit issued by the proper authority.

The Iraya-Mangyans invoked their Indigenous People (IP) right to harvest dita tree logs, which constitute a part of their right to cultural integrity, ancestral domain, and ancestral lands. They insist that the felled dita tree was planted in their ancestral domain, over which the Iraya-Mangyans exercise communal dominion.

The Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA), or Republic Law 8371, was enacted in 1997 to support the cultural integrity of IPs, the right to their lands, and the right to self-directed development of these lands.

My former UP Law professor and now Supreme Court Associate Justice Marvic Leonon underscored that the concept of ownership introduced by IPRA is distinct in the sense that, unlike the Civil Code that puts emphasis on individual and corporate holders, IPRA stresses the private but communal nature of ancestral domains.

IPRA recognizes that IPs have a claim of ownership, not only upon the ancestral domain but also on the resources found in them. It acknowledges that the ancestral domain and the resources located therein constitute the IPs’ basis for their cultural integrity.

“The indigenous peoples’ struggle for their rights has long been enduring. Their struggle for the recognition of their rights to land and self-determination is rooted in their effort for cultural and human survival. We should honor the struggle of our people. This decision is the least we can do to correct a historical injustice,” said Leonen.

Leonen quoted Macliing Dulag’s famous quotes on the people’s reverence for the land, affirming their right to stay: “You ask if we own the land and mock as saying, ‘Where is your title? … Such arrogance to speak of owning the land when we instead are owned by it. How can you own that which will outlive you? Only the race owns the land because the race lives forever.”

Atty. Dennis R. Gorecho heads the seafarers’ division of the Sapalo Velez Bundang Bulilan law offices. For comments, email [email protected], or call 09175025808 or 09088665786

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