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Tanabag Batak, Philippines


The ICCA of the Tanabag Batak tribe is located in the Municipality of Puerto Princesa and is one of the best-conserved forests and biological hot spots found in Palawan. The island is the fifth largest province of the Philippines and has the highest percentage of forest cover (Serna 1990; Kummer 1992). Overall, at least thirty-one animal species found in the province are single-island endemic, and two of them are listed in the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red Data Book (Collins and Morris 1985). The existence of rare species such as the Palawan toadlet (Pelophryne albotaeniata), Malatgan River caecilian (Ichthyophis weberi), Palawan flat-headed frog (Barbourula busuangensis), Palawan tree shrew (Tupaia palawanensis), Palawan pencil-tailed tree mouse (Chiropodomys calamianensis), Palawan bearded pig (Sus ahoenobarbus) and Palawan hornbill (Anthracoceros marchei) has recently being confirmed by an international team of researchers (Beijnen and Hoevenaars 2015). Due to its unique features, UNESCO declared Palawan as a Man & Biosphere Reserve.

The Batak people

The Batak, scattered in the central/northern portion of the island, are believed to be descended from the first wave of Australoid populations, which crossed the land bridges connecting the Philippine Archipelago with the mainland of Asia around 45,000 – 50,000 years ago (Bellwood 1985, Headland and Reid 1989). With an overall population of less than 300 individuals, the Batak are surely one of the most threatened indigenous communities of South East Asia, and continues to face demographic decline (Eder 1987, Novellino 2007a). Amongst the seven existing Batak settlements, the community of Tanabag (approx. 160 individuals divided in about 40 households) has the best standing in relation to the five essential elements, defining an ‘effective ICCA’: 
 a) the integrity and strength of the custodian community; b) the connection between the community and its territory; c) 
the functioning of the governance institution; d) 
the territory’s conservation status; e) the livelihoods and well-being of the community.

Mythical origin of the ICCA

According to the local mythology, the Kabatakan it Tanabag landscape was originally named by the ancestor Esa’ during a hunting journey. He gave names to all places while following his dogs running after wild pigs. So the landscape, as it is known today, was created through the movement of Esa’ and, until now, provides people with physical and emotional orientation (Novellino 2008).

Batak resources’ management

Through a balanced combination of foraging and farming, integrated with the collection of commercially valuable NTFPs (rattan, resin of Agathis philippinensis and wild honey), Batak have been able to manage their territory sustainably until now (Novellino 2010b). The Tanabag Batak name and recognise over 70 landraces of upland rice, of which 44 are said to be dati (old) and tunay (original) to the area. Fields, once cultivated, are left to fallow for several years and are then replanted with rice, root crops and vegetables (Novellino 2014). Commonly, the people forage for seven species of mammal, two species of reptile, one amphibian, fifteen or more species of fish, four molluscs, three crustaceans, two fresh-water turtles, more than seven types of birds, and two types of honey (Novellino 2010b, 2008, 1999a, 1999b). . The Tanabag Batak also recognize and utilize at least twenty wild plant species with edible leaves, about thirty species (mainly trees) with edible fruits and eight named species of edible wild tubers (ibid 2010b, 2008, 1999a, 1999b).

Mushrooms represent an additional source of food, especially during the rainy season, and the people can identify at least 14 edible species (Novellino 1999a). Traditionally, the Batak have also harvested wild palms for their edible hearts (Novellino 1999b). Interestingly enough, over centuries, Batak people have intervened in the reproduction of both domesticated and non-domesticated resources, transferring genetic material from one area to another. This practice, locally known as inayap, is not only limited to domesticated resources (rice, crops, dogs, chickens, etc.) being exchanged and donated between individuals, but also to non-domesticated (e.g. fish, fresh-water shells and even earthworms used as fish bait). Through the introduction of both domesticated and non-domesticates, Batak have enhanced foraging and farming opportunities in the Tanabag river valley (Novellino 2010a).

Batak social structure and decision-making processes

Batak society is egalitarian and – as far as concerning environmental-based decisions – each individual is free to use available plant and animal resources for domestic consumption. Generally, the use of certain resources (e.g. agathis resin) is regulated by individuals, who have acquired ‘tapping rights’ over time (Novellino 2008). Other decisions for more large-scale exploitation of resources (e.g. commercial gathering of rattan) are taken in the course of consultative meetings headed by the community elected chieftain (kapitan) (Ibid 2008) The assistance of shamans, as managers of natural resources, is sought only during community rituals for the propitiation of rice, honey and, on some occasion, of freshwater resources (Novellino 2003, 2009).

Challenges and Threats

Too many socio-political contingencies and environmental changes have occurred in Batak territory since then late fifties/early sixties, when increasing immigrant pressure on the coastal areas, forced Batak to abandon their lowland settlements and retreat into the interior. As of now, Batak population continues to face demographic decline (Novellino 2007a).

Decreasing agricultural production is a problem shared by all Batak communities. In some locations, upland rice plants look stunted and frail because of the combined effect of limited rain (e.g. El Niño meteorological phenomenon) and nitrogen/phosphorous deficiency. Because of government restrictions on shifting cultivation, Batak have been placed in a position that does not allow them to replicate the traditional farming regime characterized by sustainable long-fallow periods and, thus, are forced to rely on soils that have undergone short fallow periods without regaining their nutrients (Novellino 2014). As of now, local authorities in Palawan, and elsewhere in the Philippines, have limited or no understanding of how fire and long fallow periods contribute to the creation of highly diverse and biologically valuable ecosystems, which often contain more species than those that could survive in ‘natural’ forest (see Margalef 1968, Brosius 1981, Rai 1982).

Ultimately, because of decreasing agricultural production, Batak have little choice but to increase their collection of forest products for sale to compensate for the loss of crop-production. Also the meat of wild pig is no longer shared amongst community members; rather it is sold to the coastal restaurants to procure rice and other basic commodities (Novellino 2014). Overall, the people has been unable to completely curtail the entry of illegal NTFPs gatherers in their land. More importantly, Batak have no operating financial capital and thus they tend to become the victims of unscrupulous middlemen (Novellino 2010b).

On the other hand, the traditional role of shamans as ‘custodians of the natural resources’ is increasingly seen by Batak young generations as an irrelevant instrument to face and deal with the new transformations that are confronting them (Novellino 2003, 2009). Members of the young generations are not learning the old shamanic practices and when Padaw, the last shaman, will die - most of this knowledge will be lost forever (Novellino 2007b).

Due to the support received by the Coalition against Land Grabbing (CALG), a local indigenous peoples’ organization, the Batak of Puerto Princesa Municipality will soon have their upland territories and ancestral waters demarcated and legally recognized according to the IPRA law (Indigenous Peoples Rights Act). This will provide Batak with a strong and powerful instrument to defend their ICCA and to sustainably manage their ancestral domain.

For more information check out this page on The ICCA Consortium webpage: https://www.iccaconsortium.org/index.php/2018/04/1...

This case study was originally published by UNEP-WCMC. The content was provided by the custodians of this ICCA. The ICCA has been self-declared and has not been through a peer-review process to verify its status. More details on this process can be found here. The contents of this website do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of UN Environment Programme or WCMC.