In the rugged terrain of Zambales, Philippines, nature and ancestral wisdom harmoniously intertwine. The integration of indigenous medical practices and biodiversity conservation stands as a testament to an intergenerational stewardship and an ever-deepening connection of indigenous people to their land.
Leading this environmental renaissance is the Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS) Project. The project aims to increase economic opportunity and biodiversity conservation for local communities and indigenous peoples in the Philippines through fair and equitable sharing of biodiversity benefits, monetary or otherwise.
This pioneering initiative seeks to uplift the Ayta indigenous people of Central Luzon, fosters their self-reliance, and endorses the Ayta youth as vanguards of change for a brighter future of their generation.
Deep within the municipality of Botolan, the sitio of Bucao in Barangay Porac awakens. Here, we met Jhosa Diago, an Ayta-Zambal. At 25, Jhosa is not merely a community member, she embodies the aspirations of her people. In a manner of speaking, she bridges age-old traditions with modern aspirations. Following the footsteps of her father, she leads a community forest management association that implements the ABS Project in Zambales.
The ABS Project aims to align Jhosa's community with broader market dynamics. This partnership seeks to harness the potential of banaba, a plant priced for its medicinal value.
Jhosa's connection to this land spans several decades. It was in 1970s when her family sought refuge here, and they have been its stewards ever since.
"Our dedication was recognized in 2010 when our land became part of the National Greening Program of DENR," she said with evident pride.
In 2018, the government through DENR issued them a Community Based Forest Management Agreement (CBFMA), a legally-binding tenurial instrument that has allowed Jhosa’s family and over a hundred other families to occupy, develop, protect, manage and utilize some 192 hectares of forest land and its resources. These resources include fruit trees, vegetables, and medicinal plants, among others.
Yet, the verdant allure of the mountains is rivaled only by the challenges that they pose. Jhosa speaks of demanding treks and hours spent on meticulous banaba harvesting and packaging, only to get a disappointing earning from a such tedious task. "Our labor yields a mere 10-20 pesos per kilo," she said, with frustration evident in her voice.
Still, beneath Jhosa's gentle exterior lies a wellspring of determination. Succeeding her father, Jose Diago, as the chairperson of the CBFMA, she manages her diverse roles with a kind of elegance that often masks the gravity of her duties.
To the Ayta community, the ABS Project is not merely a beacon; it's a catalyst for transformation. Jhosa hopes for fair trade and sustained prosperity for her community through the banaba livelihood.
Our venture into Bucao's verdant expanses led us to another young indigenous advocate, Nova Domulot. An Ayta-Zambal at 26, she works for the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP), a primary collaborator of the ABS Project.
Once a beneficiary of an NCIP scholarship, Nova now collaborates with those who urged her to pursue the scholarship. After a stint in the private sector, Nova found her true calling in serving her community. From land disputes to familial disagreements, she stands as a mediator, embracing her role wholeheartedly.
In discussing discrimination against the Ayta, Nova recalled how she witnessed her schoolmates mocking her fellow Ayta-Zambal. “I may not have faced discrimination head-on, but I witnessed schoolmates mocking my fellow Ayta-Zambal with derogatory labels like ‘kulot-salot’,” she said. "Education stands as our defense against prejudice.”
For Nova, the ABS Project signifies more than a mere collaboration between government entities and the adherence to the Nagoya Protocol's mandates. She sees the project as a rare chance for enhancing livelihoods, facilitating scholarships, and honing banaba processing techniques.
The stories of Jhosa Diago and Nova Domulot are steeped in the shared Filipino sense of community called kapuwa. Their narratives relay a compelling message: The future of indigenous communities hinges on empowerment, partnerships, and the steadfast determination of the youth to shape the destiny of their people. (ABS/ Orange Omengan)