ZAMBOANGA SIBIGAY, Philippines - As the sun sets, the caretaker closes the wooden door of the building that served as the office of the indigenous peoples in the province in Simbol village here. Alone, he walks the grassy path towards the national highway for a ride home.
He threw one more look at the building as the shadow of the setting sun grows longer. Silence engulfed the place literally when the indigenous peoples’ representative to the Sangguniang Panlalawigan (SP) Datu Wilfredo Sanggayan was “inhibited to assume office” October last year under the new administration of Governor Rommel Jalosjos.
Sanggayan took office as member of the provincial board member of the previous administration of Governor George T. Hofer by virtue of Section 16 of Republic Act 8371, also known as the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act of 1997 (IPRA).
Section 16 of IPRA provides that the indigenous cultural communities (ICCs)/ indigenous peoples (IPs) shall be provided mandatory representation in all policy making bodies and in local legislative councils and shall enjoy the same privileges as the regular members of the local legislative bodies.
Last December, the indigenous peoples’ representative to the Sangguniang Bayan of this town was also “inhibited to assume office”. Timuay Libon Rosiana Adan assumed her office as municipal councilor in 2007.
The building that was once bustling with activity now appears a sleeping elephant in the middle of the two-hectare lot owned by the Provincial Indigenous Peoples Organization (PIPO).
The Unmaking Of History. The province made history when it implemented the mandatory representation of the indigenous peoples to the different legislative bodies and local councils in 2005. It was the first province in the country to implement Section 16 of Republic Act 8371, also known as the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act of 1997 (IPRA). Compostela Valley province followed its example.
Datu Wilfredo Sanggayan was the first provincial board member to represent the indigenous peoples of Zamboanga Sibugay since 2005.
The succeeding years saw some towns followed suit by allowing the representatives of the indigenous peoples to sit in their local councils.
At least three of the 16 towns of the province followed the example set by the provincial government, namely: Kabasalan, Ipil and Naga. Fourteen of the 16 towns of the province are identified as presently inhabited by a sizeable population of indigenous peoples.
Few months after the 2010 elections, however, things turned out differently.
In its September 20, 2010 session, the provincial board passes a resolution “to inhibit Honorable Wilfredo Sanggayan from assuming the office of the IP representative until such time the legitimacy of his selection shall have been resolved by the Committee of the Whole”.
Resolution No. 4038-2010 of the provincial board stated that “there is now pending in the Committee of the Whole… an issue on the legitimacy on the assumption of office” of the indigenous peoples’ representative.
Board member Wilborne S. Danda, also a Subanen and cousin of the Sanggayan, questioned before the provincial board the process by which Sanggayan was chosen as representative of the lumads.
“There is nothing personal here but I am questioning how he (Sanggayan) was chosen by the lumads in the province,” Danda said.
Sanggayan went to court to question the resolution inhibiting him from assuming the office of IP representative but was denied due to lack of jurisdiction.
Ironically, Sanggayan said, when the province made history by being the first province to have mandatory representation in its provincial board it also made history when the new set of officials “barred my services as representative of the indigenous peoples.”
To No Avail. Despite of the certifications issued by the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) and the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) affirming and recognizing the process of selection of both Sanggayan and Adan by their respective communities, but to no avail.
NCIP regional director Abdul B. Puengan issued a certificate of affirmation for both as the “legally selected ICCs/IPs representative… and shall hold office until October 29, 2012 subject to the terms and conditions as provided by the IPRA and all other related laws and customary laws.”
DILG provincial director Wilhelm M. Suyko also issued a certificate of recognition to both that recognizes them as “the duly selected representative of the ICCs/IP whose terms expires on October 29, 2012.”
Danda said the certifications are by itself does not hold water because “it does not answer the question how the supposed IP representative was chosen.”
The same opinion was echoed by the members of the Sangguniang Bayan of Kabasalan on Adan’s selection. The municipal council in its resolution said it will continue to inhibit Adan “pending completion of the necessary documents” showing the legitimacy of the process of her selection.
The provincial board member, who was also the resource person of Kabasalan municipal council when it deliberated upon Adan’s petition, told the tribal chieftains present at the audience that they “should not be misguided by their blind loyalty to their leader to avoid being misled.”
“You blindly obey the one leading you now when you do not know what is happening,” he said, in an apparent swipe at the leadership of Sanggayan in the PIPO.
He vaguely hinted that millions of pesos have been disbursed by the provincial government to PIPO that still needs to be looked into.
Open Book. Sanggayan is however open to any kind of investigation on the disbursement of funds made by the provincial government to PIPO.“We have nothing to hide here,” the provincial tribal chief pointedly said.
He said that during the time he was serving as the indigenous peoples’ representative “we have made a difference not only in the lives of the indigenous peoples but also to the general welfare of the province.”
Records showed Sanggayan authored some 14 provincial ordinances since assuming office in 2005 and was responsible for the “approval of funding allocations of various projects and programs for the indigenous peoples from the 20 percent Economic Development Fund (EDF).”
Traditionally, the EDF of the local government units does not have specific allocations for indigenous peoples. The EDF is an allocation from the Internal Revenue Allotment (IRA) intended for programs and services that will spur economic development.
“We do not simply sit there in the provincial board but we work hard to fulfill the intent of both letter and spirit of the law,” the 57-year-old tribal leader said.
Lost In Translation? There may be a fine thread that delineates between the spirit and letter of the law governing the mandatory representation of the indigenous peoples to local legislative bodies.
Councilor Jose M. Cinco, Jr., the floor leader of the local council of Kabasalan, asserted that the decision to inhibit Adan was made in good faith in order to protect the interest of the local government.
The NCIP guidelines itself, he said, made it clear that the representation of the indigenous peoples to legislative bodies be implemented only in areas where there is “pure lumad population but not in Kabasalan where is mixed people residing in the municipality.”
“The administrative order of 2009 talk of indigenous cultural communities or ICCs but the town is not only populated by Subanen but also of other ethnic groups,” the councilor said.
Another councilor, David Bragado, butted in jest: “If that is the case that the Subanen has a councilor they select by their own, it is better then for us to have a councilor for the Chinese, Ilonggo, Cebuano, and all other ethnic groups in the town.”
Lawyer Roman Muyargas, the hearing officer of the regional office of NCIP, however explained that although the law speaks of ICCs but the fact remains that the law still requires “mandatory representation of the IPs to the local legislative bodies in proportionate to their population”.
“The law is very clear when it stipulated that this mandatory representation be implemented in local government units where there are indigenous peoples residing,” he added.
When confusion arises on the matter of interpretation, the NCIP hearing officer clarified, “the rule of interpretation says that the law must prevail over administrative orders or circulars emanating from any government agency, which in this case is very clear.”
In response to Bragado, the lawyer said “it would help to remind the members of the local council that IPRA is not just a piece of legislation passed by Congress but it is a product of social justice borne out of long years of struggle by the indigenous peoples in the country.”
Or Lost In Transition? The meat of the matter, Sanggayan believes, is “not about interpretation of the law but (it is) about politics.”
He said: “It all started when the new administration of (Gov. Rommel) Jalosjos took over from the previous administration.” The 15 out of 16 incumbent municipal mayors of the province are politically aligned with the new governor.
The PIPO is closely identified with former Gov. George T. Hofer and was known to have supported the gubernatorial bid of his daughter, the then Rep. Dulce Ann Hofer against Jalosjos.
“We threw our support to the former administration last elections as a gesture of our gratitude for their untiring support to all projects and programs of the indigenous peoples,” Sanggayan explained.
The indigenous peoples’ representative in Kabasalan also joined Sanggayan in supporting Hofer last elections.
He said, in Ipil and Naga local government units where the indigenous peoples’ representative played “neutral and supportive to the new administration during the last elections remain in office until now.”
For Sanggayan and the tribal leaders of PIPO, the “color is politics behind the move to stop the lumad representation” – a claim denied by most of the local chief executives.
In an interview, Jalosjos said “I would be happy to have the Subanen be represented in the (provincial) board but the issue being raised is about the legitimacy of the process of selection.”
He added: “Besides, I am not privy to that because the matter belongs to the legislative department while I am in the executive branch.”
The same opinion was voiced out by Kabasalan municipal vice mayor Freddie Chu when he said that “ma’am Adan must address first the issue of the legitimacy of the process of selection because it is the issue and not because of politics.” Chu ran under Jalosjos’ political party as vice mayor after serving three consecutive terms as mayor.
NCIP Director Cresensio Patnaan, however, acknowledged in a text message the problem arises when the sitting chief executive does not give support to the indigenous peoples’ representative.
Patnaan, who heads the Office of Empowerment and Human Rights, said “it is important to get the full support of the chief executive because he is the head of the local government unit.”
He urged the concerned tribal leaders to bring the issue to the NCIP for “whatever aid we can provide to settle the issue.” He did not elaborate.
In the meantime, the voices of the indigenous peoples in the halls of legislative bodies of the province remain silent.
For the ageing caretaker of the PIPO office, he has to contend the humdrum of daily task hoping that the place will come alive after all these issues will be resolved.
Before boarding the public vehicle, he smiled and muttered in Subanen dialect with a hint of hope: “Bos ya ah (Maybe, it will.) (Antonio M. Manaytay)