Project ConVERGE Indigenous Peoples’ Forum dives into stories of IP beneficiaries

No data, no story — such is the statement of author Carlos Perez-Brito in 2011. The absence of Indigenous Peoples-specific data is a staggering concern still being addressed today.

Indigenous Peoples (IPs) in the Philippines are estimated at 10% to 20% of the approximately 103 million national population, yet no official figure can be confirmed based on census data (Brito, 2021). While IPs do not lack tales to tell, with more than a hundred groups in the country, the struggle of establishing the correct information persists. In cases where data is available, it is difficult to distinguish specific ethnic groups as IPs tend to be written under a single category according to their geographical areas.

It is important that all data can be translated into stories for these to be heard and shared, especially about the IPs whose representation is wanting in the Philippines. For this, numerous programs are being conducted by government and non-government entities to identify challenges and lend IPs a platform to elevate their role in society. 

In development work, the inclusion of IPs is a must. This is why for Project ConVERGE, a value chain development program funded by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and implemented with the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR), IPs comprise 10% of the project beneficiaries targeted. Since its birth in 2016, ConVERGE has been present in IFAD’s annual Indigenous Peoples’ Forum while conducting its own project-wide programs to offer indigenous beneficiaries the avenue to make connections, express issues, and exhibit culture on a larger scale. 

In the most recent project-wide IP Forum, indigenous tribes Subanen, Mamanwa, Manobo, Mandaya, Higaonon, Talaandig, and the Kamigin tribes engaged in the knowledge exchange sessions and presented substantial outputs to the plenary. The activity was held last July 28-29, 2022 at Dipolog, Zamboanga del Norte which covered multiple topics, including (1) assessment of the quality of IP participation, (2)  experiences and best practices by the IPs, and (3) sustainability planning for the project-supported enterprises.

IPs and their experiences

A Subanen beneficiary from Region 13 shared about the stigma she suffered during her childhood days because of her ethnicity. Lilian Desinilla of Mabuhay Kahayagan Coffee Growers’ Cooperative (MKCGC) in Surigao del Sur said that she was judged by her peers when she was young because of misconceptions about her tribe.

“I remember being treated as an outcast at school because of who I was,” she said as she recalled her youth. “Parents of my classmates would warn their kids not to befriend me because they said Subanens were innately harsh or destructive,” she added.

This led to Desinilla’s gap between herself and her roots. As she grew, she admitted that she was estranged from her Subanen origins. That was until in recent years when she started to accept it finally, upon realizing that being a Subanen was not what her childhood memories make it to be. She learned that Subanens are known to be gentle-minded people, who are peacemakers and never aggressive — a polar opposite to what she used to hear when she was younger. With this, she began to reclaim her ethnicity. And cue the entrance of projects like ConVERGE, she came to appreciate her roots further due to the IP-related events she joined.

“DAR and ConVERGE always include indigenous peoples. And with all the interventions we received, not only am I thankful that they have aided in the improvement of our commodity and enterprise but also, these helped us embrace our own culture and utilize it in farming,” she added. 

Another Subanen representative from the Malagandis Indigenous Farmers Association (MIFA) in Zamboanga Sibugay echoed the sentiments of Desinillo. Faustino Tumitay revealed that land disputes plagued their locality in the past. “There are people who will take advantage of our lack of information. I thought – if I fight them alone, it will be a sure defeat. But if we move together as a group, we stand a better chance,” Tumitay said.

The crowd nodded their heads as Tumitay narrated. But the bigger marvel was how MIFA was formed through this predicament. However, as the Subanens of Titay were not expert rubber farmers, they went off for a rough few years. With grit and determination and their link with Project ConVERGE, the group was named lead consolidator ARBO for their town in 2019.

Tumitay added that while they have slowly adapted the good agricultural practices for rubber, profitability has still been an issue due to low production. “Before, we used to just focus on quantity and less on quality. But when DAR and ConVERGE came into the picture, we are now focusing on ensuring we achieve both quantity and quality rubber products. We learned a lot through the activities given by Project ConVERGE,” he said.

In the end, not only did the indigenous rubber farmers find a robust group in MIFA, they are now slowly progressing as traders and businessmen of their products in their locality.

Meanwhile, another Subanen representative from the Jo Rubber Farmers Beneficiary Cooperative (JARBECO), an organization consisting of 95% IP in Naga, Zamboanga Sibugay spoke about how she was molded by the project to be who she is today. Marlyn Razo, a secretary from JARBECO, said that she had been an ‘IFAD baby’ with a chuckle, expressing that her exposure to bigger events and activities made her an asset to her organization.

“I was exposed to different events as a member of the youth, women, and indigenous sector. That’s why I am deeply grateful to DAR and Project ConVERGE for always pushing us to dream bigger,” she said.

Support provided, support continues

The Camiguin IP Youth present shared that they were able to attend various workshops. They also received warehouse units which were helpful for their enterprise. Lailani Duran, a Youth IP representative from the Nagpakabana Multipurpose Cooperative, stated that through the project’s assistance, more people in their community were encouraged to engage in abaca farming.

Meanwhile, Project Manager Gomer Tumbali also chimed in with his thoughts about Indigenous Peoples. Being a descendant of the Ibanag Tribe from Cagayan Valley, he expressed full support to the IP beneficiaries: “I am more than happy to know that you have maximized the knowledge you received from Project ConVERGE. It makes me proud to hear that not only did you receive them, but you internalized these by heart. Most importantly, you passed these on to your co-farmers and members. For that, it has come full circle.”

As Project ConVERGE draws to a close by December 2022, some participants were apprehensive about the future of their enterprises. The worry comes from the possibility of opportunities being discontinued. However, the host region’s assistant director Agnes Maata assured them that they will not be left hanging by the project or the agency.

“What ConVERGE gave to you will be further supported by DAR even when the Project has already ended. DAR also has more annual programs that our IPs can participate in. So please be on the lookout for that,” she added.

Inclusivity should always be a goal for everyone. To this day, discrimination against indigenous peoples exists. One step to push this back is by providing a stage to magnify the concerns and ideas of the IPs. Just like Lilian, Faustino, and Marlyn who shared anecdotes as indigenous peoples, the ethnic groups of the Philippines have more to share… if given a channel to do so.

Big actors in the development work should go beyond the surface to understand further the lives of the IPs and explore creative solutions so that they can be fully integrated into society while preserving their culture. And until ConVERGE draws close its curtains, it shall be one with the sector in this pursuit of inclusive development for the indigenous people – from their data and on to their stories.



By: Jullienne Tuazon, Katrin Anne Arcala & Charlemagne Kierra Rubillos