Cultural diversity has been one of the defining hallmarks of the Philippine society. The archipelagic nature of the country’s landscape and its unique social composition accounts for this reality (Panopio, 2005). Spanning across more than 30 million hectares of land, 112 ethno-linguistic groups numbering around 11.3 million and easily comprising 12-14 percent of the total population belong to the Indigenous Peoples or I.P. (National Commission on Indigenous Peoples, 2019). Despite their sheer number and presence, De Vera (2007) argues that they are among the most marginalized groups in the country. It should be noted that insufficient educational resources, unemployment, and incidence of poverty are significantly higher among them than the rest of the Philippine population. This situation is further compounded by the fact that IP settlements are remote, without access to basic services, and characterized by a high incidence of morbidity, mortality, and malnutrition due to lack of access to proper healthcare. This is further exacerbated by the onslaught of the Covid-19 Pandemic
Amidst this backdrop, as well as in consideration of the historical and social significance of the IPs as enshrined in the 1987 Constitution, the Philippine government spearheaded the passage of the landmark legislation, the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act (IPRA Law) in 1997 (Molintas, 2004; Doyle, 2020; Simbulan, 2016). This law has been hailed as a vital step towards a meaningful recognition of the IP rights. In fact, it was the first legislation in South East Asia to accord such importance to the IPs (De Vera, 2007). It should be held that this law goes beyond the contract-based resource management agreements between the state and the community; as it fully recognizes the ownership of the Indigenous Communities over their traditional territories which include land, bodies of water, and all other natural resources therein (IPRA Law). Furthermore, the IPRA provides tenurial security to the community with the issuance of an ownership title (Certificate of Ancestral Domain/Land Title) to the concerned Indigenous community giving them absolute right of ownership to the land which they can use and cultivate for their own benefit. On the contrary, many years after its passage, the goal of effectively recognizing the IP rights especially to their ancestral domain still remains elusive — as there are systemic and structural defects in the execution of the IPRA Law (Candelaria et.al, 2008). Based on a publication released by the Indigenous Peoples’ International Centre for Policy Research and Education, the implementation of the IPRA is impeded by the lack of enforcement coming from the National Commission for the Indigenous People (NCIP). Furthermore, the existence of laws in contradiction to the provisions in the IPRA made it more complex, weakening its capacity to completely set the mandate.
The Aetas of Central Luzon, residing in the mountain regions of the provinces of Zambales, Pampanga and areas of Bataan shall be the subject of a thorough investigation. The rights of these cultural minorities to their ancestral domain have always been regarded as a contentious issue alongside the lack of political participation and socio- economic opportunities being denied to them. Specific reforms pertinent to their current condition in the face of the pandemic should be carefully scrutinized. It is worthy to undermine the structural and operational defects of the IPRA Law and how the law failed to advance the rights of the Aeta communities. Specific problems concerning human rights, educational reforms, access to electoral and political issues as well as livelihood shall be the focal points of the investigation.