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More than 200 key leaders from various sectors converged at the First National Conference on Indigenous Community Conserved Areas (ICCAs) held recently at the University of the Philippines to declare support for sustaining the sacred sites or indigenous community conserved areas (ICCAs).

Undersecretary Analiza Rebuelta-Teh of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) said the holding of the ICCA conference was specifically aimed to map out a national strategy framework and direction for ICCA in the country in consonance with the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

“The recognition we are giving our local ICCAs under the New Conservation Areas in the Philippines Project (NewCAPP) is one of our pioneering efforts in support of the goals of the CBD, to which the country is a signatory. And, we are happy that this has attracted strong interest from the international community,” Teh said.

The Executive Secretary of the CBD himself, Dr. Braulio Ferreira De Souza Diaz sent a message during the Conference commending the Philippines as a recognized leader on indigenous rights and recognition of ICCAs; and that there is much other countries can learn from the Philippine experience. He encouraged the country to continue to involve and inform the CBD Secretariat of this ground breaking work on ICCA so that good practices can be promoted to other regions.

One of the international supporters of ICCA and biodiversity conservation, Dr. Grazia Borrini-Feyerabend, Global Coordinator of the ICCA Consortium came all the way from Europe to give a global overview of ICCA. She shares that ICCAs hold the “biodiversity jewels of the world.” These areas retain most precious biological resources and cultural richness, protected not because government said so, but because the tribes had said so, emphasized Feyerabend. She explained that the decisions taken by these IPs have led to “conservation” which means “preservation of biodiversity, sustainable use of biodiversity and restoration whenever there is damage to ICCAs.”

The concept of ICCA is not really new as far as the Philippines is concerned, explained UP President Alfredo Pascual in his speech. The last remaining forests, he said, are inhabited and managed by indigenous communities. “It is time to afford stronger recognition to ICCA as a cost effective and equitable way to protect our remaining forests, our biodiversity, our natural resources while supporting the IPs in strengthening their bond to their culture and tradition that have kept these ICCAs in the condition they are in today,” said Pascual.

 

According to Undersecretary Manuel Gerochi of the DENR, ICCA in the Philippines are sacred mountains, sacred lakes, burial grounds, place of ritual, among others, which are important to the culture and traditions of indigenous peoples (IPs). These areas hold wide array of threatened plants and animals and provide stable ecosystem services owing to the traditional conservation practices of IPs, he said.

 

“ICCA is seen as a traditional conservation model that decentralizes and diversifies the governance of the country’s key biodiversity areas,” Gerochi explained. The DENR supports ICCA because it sustains culture and biodiversity through the voluntary management practices and decisions of IPs, he said.

The National Commission on Indigenous Peoples, according to chairperson Zenaida Brigida-Pawid, is also supportive of ICCA, but wants full implementation of Free Informed and Prior Consent of IPs for projects and programs in community conserved areas.

“The estimated ICCA coverage in the country is almost comparable to the government’s protected areas” according to Dave De Vera of the Philippine Association for Intercultural Development (PAFID), a co-convenor of the Conference. Most of these areas are located within critical watersheds and protected areas, which provide water to downstream communities, said De Vera. ICCA are sources of livelihoods for millions of people, securing resources and income for survival, he added.

 

Senator Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III, the keynote speaker during the event, noted that the Conference established that our indigenous peoples have been at the forefront of protecting our natural environment; and their contribution must be recognized by aiding them in their desire to preserve the sacred places in their ancestral land. He committed that as a legislator, he will work for the better appreciation and institution of policies which would protect the rights and lands of the indigenous peoples.

Ending the Conference on a positive note, Deputy Speaker Lorenzo Tañada said he saw the urgent need to articulate anew the government policy towards indigenous communities, especially with respect to particularized problems such as the threat of extractive industries; recognize the role of indigenous peoples as leaders in their own right, and respect their customs and practices, especially the fact of their unique relationship to the natural habitat; and extend concrete support for indigenous communities that adequately reflect our commitment to the recognition of indigenous communities as the stewards of our national identity and sovereignty.

The First National Conference on ICCA, with the theme “Nature Conservation in the Footsteps of our Ancestors”was organized by the PAWB-DENR-NewCAPP, with support from GEF through UNDP, in collaboration with the University of the Philippines and partner NGOs such as PAFID and the Coalition of IP Organizations in the Philippines (KASAPI).