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Securing Land Rights through Indigenousness: A Case from the Philippine Cordillera Highlands

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The Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (1997) offers indigenous peoples in the Philippines the opportunity to obtain title to an ‘ancestral domain’. This article discusses how leaders of the Bakun Indigenous Tribes Organization (BITO) in the Cordillera Highlands strategically used the state-sponsored indigenous-peoples discourse and political-administrative structure to acquire land rights for the inhabitants of the municipality of Bakun. Though the inhabitants did not necessarily identify themselves as indigenous, they welcomed land rights as a protection against unwelcome incursions by mining companies and other extractive projects. However, the discourse of indigenous peoples’ rights tends to essentialise the difference between indigenous and non-indigenous populations. Being indigenous has become a politicised identity whose bearers are expected to prefer the ‘traditional’ over the ‘modern’, the ‘collective’ over the ‘individual’. In Bakun, moreover, the discourse of indigenous peoples’ rights eventually became an arena in which a power struggle was played out between BITO and the municipal council, both belonging to the indigenous community.

Affiliations: 1: University of Amsterdam


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