Indigenous Cultures and Forest Management

Victorino L. Saway[1]


The concept of the forests as a source of life cannot be isolated from the integrity of nature that corresponds to the integrity of the physical body and cultural personality of local and indigenous peoples. As a source of life, the forests need to be understood in accordance with the natural elements that support life, such as the earth, water, trees and wildlife, air, sun, sounds or language and the spirits.

The relationship of local and indigenous cultures to the forests is holistic. The local and indigenous peoples relate to the forests socially, economically, politically and spiritually. If the forest is destroyed, the cultures of the local people die. Local people cannot be isolated from the forests because their isolation from the forests is a critical step, not only towards the destruction of their identity and survival as peoples, but also towards the destruction of the forest itself.

A rich culture is a key indicator of sustainable forest management. Forest managers therefore need to understand the inseparable relationships of indigenous cultures to the forests in order to promote an effective and sustainable forest management.

The value of local cultures is as significant as the value of the forests. Sustainable management for the sake of forests is not significant at all. But forest management for the sake of people, especially for those who are directly affected by the forest, such as the local people, has defined the real significance of the forests as source of life.


The concept of the forest as source of life cannot be isolated from the integrity of nature that corresponds to the integrity of the physical body and cultural personality of the indigenous and local communities. As source of life, the forests need to be understood in connection with the other elements of nature that support life such as the earth, water, wildlife, air, sun, sounds or language and the spirits.

The failure of the modern world to understand the holistic relationships of local and indigenous cultures to the forests resulted to conflicts in sustainable forest management. In order to mitigate this conflict, this paper will discuss, in general, the relationships of the local and indigenous cultures to the elements of the forests. As a holistic presentation, the discussion in this paper could not avoid general statements because cultural specifics could only strengthen the fragmented knowledge that had widen the gaps between the local cultures and the modern world.

The local and indigenous knowledge are not taken from books or a product of a scientific or academic research. The conflict between local cultures and the foreign concept of forest management presented in this paper is based on actual experiences of the Talaandig people in a Philippine protected area. A written empirical or theoretical references may not be sufficient because the interventions of social scientists and researchers on the issue were too limited and even superficial. The presentor of this paper, being a local and indigenous person involved in the issue, hopes to augment the information that were apparently overlooked because of existing biases of outsiders against the local and indigenous peoples.

Views of the Forests as Source of Life

The Talaandig people of Bukidnon province sees the forest as an integral element of nature that corresponds to the integrity of the cultural personality of the tribe. The forest as source of life cannot be isolated from th earth, the water, the plants, the wildlife, the air, the sun, the language and the spirits that promote and develop the social, economic, political and spiritual cultures of the tribe.

The forest has life and spirit. It has a body and health that needs care and attention. It has language and communication and a law that sets direction of its organization and relationships. The Talaandig people relates to the forest, socially, economically, politically and spiritually. Thus, the forest serves as a worship area to the tribe, a learning center, an area of governance, a pharmacy, a market, a shelter and a territory.

The cultural relationship of the Talaandig people to nature and the forests is defined through their myth of creation. According to their creation story, the physical and spiritual composition of the Talaandig being is derived from the elements that constituted the world such as the soil, water, forest and wildlife, air, sun, sounds and spirits. Through creation, the soil became the flesh; the water as the blood, the tree, vines and grasses as the bone, veins and hairs; the air as the breath and strength; the sun as the light of the eyes; the sounds as the language; and, the spirits as the foundation of the human soul.

The preservation and survival of local and indigenous cultures is critically dependent with forests and nature and vice versa. When the local culture is disrupted, a corresponding effect on the environment happens. Similarly, when the elements of nature is disrupted, culture is also critically affected. This condition defines the inseparable relationship of culture and environment. Thus, local and indigenous cultures cannot be protected and promoted without understanding its relationships to the forest and the natural environment.

Significance of Local Cultures to Forest Management

The value of local and indigenous cultures is as significant as the value of the forests. Culture does not only provide identity to people. It is also a tool that enabled the people to survive for generations amidst adverse conditions and circumstances. The value of the forest is determined by its capability to promote the survival of people.

Through these relationships, values were developed making the local cultures and the forests equally and mutually significant.

The isolation of the local and indigenous peoples from the forests is a critical step towards destruction, not only of their cultural identity but also destruction of the forests itself. In the Philippines, the destruction of the forests in Mt. Kitanglad resulted from foreign concepts of resource utilization and management. Initially, loggers were allowed by the government to make business of the natural forests by cutting the trees. The loggers constructed roads that caused massive erosion of soil into the crystal rivers and streams. Then, "high valued" cash crops that are totally dependent on inorganic fertilizers and chemicals were introduced to pollute the rivers and spoil the lands, thus, making it inappropriate for the native crops. And, lately, a protected area was introduced not only as a manipulative instrument of divorce between the local cultures and the forests but a protection of business interests in the guise of forest protection, preservation and development.

The assertion of the Talaandig people over Mt. Kitanglad as a legitimate domain of their cultures is a critical requirement not only for the survival of their identity as peoples but a critical effort to preserve the forests as source of life. Thus, the isolation of the tribe from the forests through the manipulative efforts of the protected area managers is critical and dangerous to both the local people and the forests. These efforts did not only contradict the requirements for the active participation of the local people towards sustainable forest management but in the real sense, the annihilation of the life of the forests.

The recognition of the relationships of the local cultures to the forests makes forest management less expensive but effective. Through culture, the preservation and management of the forests can take place unconsciously as people breath air from the environment. It does not require much time, efforts and money because culture, as a way of life, is like a stream or river, by its own nature, will flow from its source. Because the survival of the local and indigenous cultures emanates from the forests, the death of the peoples' cultures will happen only if the forest is dead. Similarly, the forests as source of life will only be destroyed if the life of the cultures that emanated from it vanish. Such is the significance of the local and indigenous cultures to forest management. For this reason, if people are not involved and affected in forest management, the nature of the forests is still best to take care of itself.

Forest as Indigenous Farm Model on Food Security

The indigenous farming systems of the Talaandig people is modelled from the forest. The Talaandig people sees the forest as a community of plants, trees and vines living in harmony with each other. Each plant, tree or vine in the forest perform a role either as fertilizer provider, water provider, shade provider, weed controller, pest controller or soil cultivator. With these roles, the flora community are able to exist interdependently as the human community. By understanding the nature of the forests, the Talaandig people has defined a farming system that is free from chemicals but productive enough to support the economic, social, political and spiritual needs of the community. The indigenous farming system is more than organic because the crops take care of each other according to the role they contribute to the community of plants. It is a multi-cropping system that is based on a "zero financial requirement" scheme.

The productivity of the forest model farming can be multiplied ten times more than the single cropping system through the application of a vertical and horizontal crop multiplication approach. Basically, however, indigenous farming already takes a margin over the single cropping system because the technology simply involves nature and does not require intensive capital inputs. The produce of the indigenous farm is similar to the fruit of a natural tree that is harvested without the liability of investments.

The vertical crop multiplication approach in indigenous farming is done by practically planting several crops, whose characteristics of bearing fruits vary, in one space. For example, some crops produce their fruits under the earth. Other crops occupy the plain surface of the earth with their fruits. The rests of the crops occupy the surface above the ground either by crawling, sitting, standing, climbing or hanging. By understanding these characteristics, the competition of crops against space is minimized while their productivity is maximized.

The horizontal multiplication approach is done by cultivating crops that require different space or distance in one area. The horizontal space required by different crops varies from inches to meters. Some crops need one, two, three, five or ten meters while others need one, three, six, twelve or twenty inches. By combining crops with different horizontal space requirements, the productivity of a one hectare farm can be increased to seven, ten or more hectares. The horizontal and vertical crop multiplication approach is done by properly understanding the symbiotic relationships of plants as seen through the nature of the forests.

The introduction of modern agriculture that focused on the single production of "high valued" crops, that are totally dependent from inorganic chemicals, fertilizers and intensive capital inputs, have adversely affected the environmental requirements of indigenous farming. Today, the problem of the indigenous farmer is not only the marginalization of traditional seed varieties. Even the natural condition of the soil that is appropriate for native crops had been practically spoiled by inorganic chemicals and fertilizers. This condition is aggravated by the massive destruction of the forests concessionairesires who are engaged in making business with the resources of the natuenvironmentment. Because indigenous farming is attuned to nature, the recovery of the natural conditions of the environment is necessary in order to regain the full productivity of the crops.

The resolution of conflicts among plants, is achieved through the Talaandig farming systems, by understanding the nature of their conflicts, such as competition over space or territory, food, water, air, light and prestige or power. Crops that are not compatible have the tendency to invade or destroy each other. Through the knowledge of the compatibility of crops,

i.e., crops that serve as caretaker and host to other plants either as shade provider, fertilizer provider, water or moist provider, soil cultivator, pest controller or stalk for other plants, the Talaandig families are able to live harmoniously as a community in one house without necessarily competing against space, food, water, air, light and authority or power.

Cultural Accountability and Impact Assessment

Accountability to the forests as source of life is determined by the Talaandig people through the idea of cultural accounting. Cultural accounting is a simple process of enumerating or conducting an inventory of cultural elements, resources and values based on the Talaandig framework of knowledge called "Agpangan, meaning, frame or structure. Through cultural accounting, the Talaandig people are able to account the elements of the earth, the physical structure of the human body, the house, the family, the community and the tribe that are generally affected by human interventions.

Cultural accounting is important in the promotion of cultural and environmental awareness. It is also important in conducting an assessment of the impact of external forces and influences to the cultures and identity of the community. Most significantly, cultural accounting is necessary in promoting accountable leadership within the territorial domain of the local people.

Conflict in Forest Management

Most of the forest managers sees the forests as separate from the people and the community. Considering the forests as source of life, it is necessary to define forest management according to how life and culture emanated from it. In this regard, forest managers need to understand the cultures of the people surrounding the forests.

The conflict in forest management in the Philippines resulted from the efforts of the forest managers to control and eventually isolate the local people from the forest. The conflict is aggravated with the accommodation of resource use permits and eco-tourism business in favor of outside institutions. Moreover, conflresultedltes from the introduction of foreign concepts o forest management.

Cultural Indicators of Sustainable Forest Management

A rich environment is able to develop and promote a rich culture. When the resources in the forest are preserved and developed, the cultures of the local people attached to it are also developed. Likewise, when the resources of the forest deteriorate, the cultures of the people attached to it also deteriorate. In order to promote an effective forest management, the resources of nature must be sustained for the survival and development of local cultures.

The cultural indicators of a sustainable forest management includes a rich practice of traditional medicines, productive fishing, food gathering, resourceful hunting, honey gathering, sufficiency of materials for handicraft production and richness of environmental music, arts and dances.

The strong protection and preservation of indigenous and local cultures will enhance sustainable forest management. If the people are conscious about the significant role of the forest resources towards the survival and development of their cultures, their efforts to conserve and sustain resources of the forest become strong and effective.

A Case of Failure in Forest Management

In the Philippines, the rights of indigenous cultural communities to ancestral lands and domains within protected areas and natural parks were duly recognized by law. Section 44 of the Implementing Rules and Regulations of the National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS) Act of 1992 provides that, "Ancestral domain and other customary rights and interests of indigenous communities shall be accorded due recognition in protected areas. Moreover, the preservation of ancestral domain and customary rights within protected areas shall be a management objective."

The World Bank support to the protected areas in the Philippines is guided by Operational Directive 4.20 providing policies on the implementation of projects affecting the indigenous population. In the implementation of the protected area projects, however, the above policy was never enforced. Even after the passage of the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA) of 1997, the recognition of the rights of the Indigenous Peoples in protected areas was not accorded due recognition and respect relative to the concept on self-governance, empowerment and people participation. A concrete example of this case is the protected areas of Mt. Kitanglad in the province of Bukidnon where the local Talaandig people had suffered adverse impact of the collaborative manipulations of institutions involved in the protected area management.

The major issue affecting ancestral domain rights in the protected area of Mt. Kitanglad involves the concept of self-governance, empowerment and protection of the integrity of the local cultures. The protected area managers fear that they will lost control of the protected area once the ancestral domain rights are recognized. With this fear, the protected area managers exerted efforts to suppress and manipulate the ancestral domain issue by keeping the local community as mere subject and under the total control of the protected area management.

Another issue that prompted the suppression of ancestral domain rights in Mt. Kitanglad is the fear of the forest managers that forest will be destroyed once possessed and occupied by the local people. This fear was brought by the inadequate knowledge of the protected area managers regarding the relationships of local and indigenous cultures to the forests.This is aggravated by their lowland agriculture concept of agriculture where possession is necessarily associated with direct and physical cultivation of the land.

The apprehension of the forest managers regarding the ancestral domain issue could have been resolved by interfacing the protected area management plan with the ancestral domain management plan of the local people. This requirement, however, did not materialize despite the assertion of the community because of the strong bias of the protected area management against local cultures.

Indigenous Concept of Possession and Ownership

The indigenous concept of possession is practically different from the lowland agriculture concept. Local communities whose cultures are closely associated with the forest relate with the forest differently with the lowland communities. The concept of possession among lowland communities is physical and direct while possession among the local people maybe direct or physical, indirect and non-physical. For example, hunting communities legitimately possess a hunting ground but possession is not direct or physical. The hunting ground may appear undisturbed because the hunters ensure that wild animals will not vacate the area. The possession of a sacred ground or worship area in the forest is usually not altered but the concept of possession or ownership attached to it reaches the souls of the community.

The honey gatherers in the forests ensure that the habitat of the bees are not disturbed. The collectors of traditional herbs and medicines ensure that their sources are protected especially if the herbs are rarely found.

Slash and burn farmers regenerates the forest. The regeneration of the forests is associated with the sustainability of the local cultures. Slash and burn farming follow customary rules and procedures that ensure the survival of the local cultures and the environment.

The conflicting views of the possession of land between lowland and forest-based communities resulted to conflict in forest management. This is the reason why the cultures of the people in the forests need to be understood. Definitely, the isolation of the forest based people is not a wise measure towards sustainable forest management. Understanding the links of local cultures to the forest enhances the knowledge of the forest as source of life.

Summary and Conclusion

The views of the local and indigenous peoples regarding the forests as source of life is holistic. It involve the elements of nature that specifically relates to the social, political, economic and spiritual aspects of the life of the people. Its implication is global because it relates to the common and universal foundation of life regardless of race, color and status. Considering the significant relationships of local cultures to the forests, the active participation of the local people in sustainable forest management is necessary.

The failure of forest managers to recognize the links of local and indigenous cultures to the forests is a key failure in sustainable forest management. This condition is aggravated by the existing biases of the forest managers over the local and indigenous cultures in favor of business interests. in order to resolve this conflict, forest managers need to understand the holistic relationships between the local cultures and the forests and use it as key indicator of a successful and effective forest management. Finally, forest managers should be required to immerse in local indigenouseous communities and take courses on local and indigenous cultures before they are given their licenses to manage the forests.

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