In 1991, a group of Mamanwa left their homes in Surigao, Mindanao to escape from hostilities and conflicts. They travelled to the Visayas area undaunted, holding on to their longing for a safe and peaceful refuge.

“Our community suffered enough from human conflicts. Our living condition became unbearable. We were vulnerable to attacks from the conflicting parties of the government and the rebels. This situation compelled us to leave and find a new home, one that is safe for our family,” JR Kalinawan, their tribe leader says.

Known as “first forest dwellers”, the Mamanwas chose to settle in the forested areas of Sitio Palayan in Brgy. Caucab, Almeria, Biliran. As they were settling anew in their newfound place, they lived hand to mouth. Their source of income was subsistence farming, relying solely on what nature offers. 

To sustain themselves in the days ahead, they ventured into kaingin or slash-and-burn farming. They too engaged in harvesting honey and making handicrafts like rattan baskets and hammocks.

“We cultivated the land and claimed it as our own, maximizing the natural resources of the forest in our own ways and means. We were confident that nature will always be there to provide for all our needs from food, to clothing and shelter,” says JR.

The conflict with Nature

As some puts it, man, besides being nature’s steward is also an agent of destruction. Sadly, these Mamanwas have acted limitless with nature and the forestland. 

Their practice of kaingin had become so destructive, affecting the forests that was once pristine and bountiful.

Owing to its mandate as the primary government agency responsible for conservation, management, development and proper use of the country's environment and natural resources, the DENR began to meddle.

In one occasion, a Mamanwa was imprisoned due to kaingin. Because of this, the tribe was once again displaced and was barred from returning to the Sitio they once settled.

The National Commission for Indigenous People (NCIP) looked into the issue, and with the collaborative effort of the DSWD, NCIP, LGUs and DENR, it was resolved through public consultation that this IP group needed protection and security of tenure. 

 DENR Intervention

In November 2019, the DENR through the Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Office of Biliran offered the IP group of Mamanwa with an opportunity to settle and utilize the land through a tenurial instrument. The possibility of them being awarded with a Community-based Forest Management Agreement (CBFMA) was taken into account.

Executive No. 263 provides for the adoption of community-based forest management as the national strategy for sustainable development of the country’s forest land resources and providing mechanisms for its implementation.

Forester Joefamar C. Fernandez, CBFM Coordinator of PENRO Biliran shared that the office assisted the mamanwa in organizing a people’s organization composed of 23 members, for them to qualify as a holder of CBFMA. And after completing all other requirements, the DENR awarded the Mamanwas the CBFMA tenurial instrument covering a total area of 306 hectares in Sitio Palayan, Brgy. Caucab, Biliran. This entitled the Mamanwas to develop and use the forest area and its resources for 25 years, renewable for another 25 years.

“The CBFMA ensures protection of the IP tribe’s land claim. With this they will be able to utilize and cultivate the area for their livelihood activities, provided that they ensure protection, conservation, and sustainable development of the forest area covered by the CBFMA and its surroundings,” says Forester Fernandez.

As a formally organized group, assistance from the government started to pour for the mamanwas. The DENR, through the Community-Based Forest Management - Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CBFM-CARP) provided P308,800.00 to the Mamanwa Tribe Association as cash assistance for their rattan and fruit tree Agro-forestry project.

With this amount, they also started growing different crops. They were also given training on modern and organic farming. 

They benefited from these projects and were able to purchase their own means of transportation for personal use and for delivery of their products.

“In 2009, this group was also a beneficiary of the Upland Development Program. They also worked for the National Greening Program (NGP),” For. Fernandez states.

In addition, they were educated with the different laws concerning the wildlife and forestland management through Information, Education, and Communication (IEC) materials and Communication, Education and Public Awareness (CEPA) campaigns since they partnered with DENR.

From Threat to Protection

Before the engagement between DENR and the Mamanwas, their presence in the forestland areas was perceived as a problem, a threat to nature and the environment. But through time partnering with DENR and involving themselves with the different DENR projects, their circumstances have changed and the Mamanwas are considered as dependable partners by the Department in terms of protection and conservation of the environment and the natural resources.

“To help DENR, we survey and patrol the area assigned to us every now and then, so that we can prevent illegal activities. This we religiously do because we don’t want our resources depleted and wantonly abused. This is where our lives depend on,” Jomar Kalinawan, Mamanwa Tribe Association President stressed.

“We are very thankful to DENR for the support and the knowledge we gained about farming. Now we know that the forest is vital to our existence and that we have to protect and conserve nature for our future”, Kalinawan added.

The story of Mamanwas partnering with DENR in Region VIII makes us hopeful that change and development despite conflicts, discrimination and poverty is possible, only if we don’t give up and just continue to take part in our responsibilities towards Mother Earth.

At the end of the day, we all wish for a place where people, not only the IPs, live harmoniously with nature.