A Poverty Resource Hub of Focus on the Global South Philippines

FOI and the Marginalized: When Information is a Matter of Life and Survival

FOI and the Marginalized: When Information is a Matter of Life and Survival

Jan 14, 2012

FOI and the Marginalized: When Information is a Matter of Life and Survival

By Clarissa V. Militante

For a community of indigenous people in Mindanao that’s left in the dark on whether its ancestral land will soon be up for grabs for a mining or dam project, access to information is not merely a matter of news making.  For farmers who want to know if the lands they till and lease would be part of government’s agrarian reform or would the landowners be favored by the courts, information is not a matter of input in a research report.  For them who belong to the marginalized sectors, access to information is a matter of life and survival.

In a series of forums organized by Focus on the Global South-Philippines in Mindanao during the last week of November, farmers, indigenous peoples (IPs), Muslims and rural women expressed as much concern about their impoverished condition—and worsening scarcity of basic resources for living and sustenance—as about their helplessness to do something about their lot due to their inability to know what’s happening in their sectors and what government is doing about it.

In the forum “Beyond the 100 days: Prospects for Mindanao under the P-Noy Government” conducted under the project Focus in Mindanao, an advocate of IP rights, expressing both interest and concern, wanted to know how IPs can be informed of who the poorest of the poor are and how government categorizes IPs. Are IPs poorest of the poor? If not, what is the program to address the IPs’ impoverishment and lack of development? Where do we get the answers?

Rose Catedrilla, from the Kidapawan-based non-government organization Integrated Rural Development Foundation, was reacting to the presentations of speakers in the November 23 forum about the impact of the Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) and Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs), which are the cornerstone economic programs of the P-Noy government.  She said it was not a matter of whether they should be critical of the CCT or not, but of knowing more details about its implementation, which they claim has not been made clear by the P-Noy government.

Meanwhile, Ka Procopio Libaton, a farmer from Davao, wanted to know how government arrived at the decision to remove the budget of the agricultural department for seed buying and crop insurance, which he deemed would have detrimental effects on the livelihood of farmers.  He was baffled that they who would be affected have not been informed nor have been involved in the budgeting process for something that would impact on them.

During a related activity under Focus in Mindanao, the November 24 forum on “Food Sovereignty and Land Rights in Mindanao,” a leader of the Lumads was apprehensive about their lands being subjected to agrarian reform when government fails to acquire the target lands from the big landowners.  They have heard news of this kind of incident happening in Mindoro province.  Where and how do they get information on this critical issue?

Datu Bong Wilmar Ampuan, chairperson of the Lumad Federation, said that the IPs in Mindanao are afraid of waking up one day and being told that parts of their ancestral domain would be taken away to be put under agrarian reform. “Is there some sort of land classification that we could look into or review to know if our lands here are next?” asked Ka Bong.

The Buhid-Mangyan group from Bongabong, Mindoro Oriental had accused the agrarian reform department of violating their right to their ancestral domain, as upheld by the Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title (CADT) the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) awarded to them in 1998. The Mangyans have been protesting the DAR’s issuance of Certificate of Land Ownership Awards (CLOAs) from within their Ancestral Domain Claim (CADC-130). The CLOAs covered around 1,500 hectares inside their CADC for Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program, assigning these to more than 270 potential farmer beneficiaries since 2004.[i]

The DAR allegedly made this decision without any consultation with the Buhid-Mangyan and without getting their free and prior informed consent (FPIC); there had been no attempt either to coordinate with the NCIP.

In the same forum on land and food sovereignty on November 24, one of the speakers discussed a government list of lands/areas viable for Bio-ethanol agriculture being offered to potential investors. Both groups of rural women and farmers, as well as the indigenous peoples, represented in the activity were adamant about getting this list, but were dismayed when informed that they couldn’t have easy access, as the Atlas of Biofuel Areas published by the Philippine Agriculture Development and Commercial Corporation (a government-owned corporation attached to the agriculture department), is for sale at a steep price of P5, 000.

Struggle for freedom of information is people’s struggle

In India, the struggle for the right to information was borne out of the basic masses’ clamor for access to information. The struggle for the passage of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Law had been triggered by the campaign in the late 1980s for minimum wage of illiterate workers in Rajasthan who had often been denied of their claim for wages.  Records showing that they had worked had been kept from them. The illiterate workers therefore felt the need to have access to this information that had been inaccessible to them. The FOI campaign became full blown in 1994.

The workers together with farmers organized themselves into a group called Mazdoor Kisaan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) or the Organization for the Empowerment of Workers and Peasants in 1990, and the Rajasthani workers sought the help of civil servant-turned-social activist Aruna Roy.

In an interview with her conducted by Deepak Maahan in 2003[ii], Roy emphasized on how it was the people who had educated her and the other FOI activists.

“It was a poor people’s struggle for the right to know, the right to live, that attracted others who were grappling with the problems of implementing participatory and responsible democratic systems. Questions regarding accountability, corruption, arbitrary governance, and public ethics that were raised by the people’s movement brought the different parties together,” said Roy during Maahan’s interview.[iii]

Roy, in said interview, was critical of how “in liberal democracies as in dictatorships, people are routinely denied access to basic information that ought to be in the public domain. In India, the fight to guarantee the right to information (enshrined in international law through the United Nations General Assembly’s 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) was taken up by illiterate villagers in the state of Rajasthan. When the government cheated them of wages they were owed for work done during a famine in the mid-1990s, their anger and their determination to hold the government accountable sparked a Right to Information (RTI) movement that spread across the country, finally reaching such proportions that the Indian Parliament was forced to enact a Freedom of Information Act.”

Roy said the change from an RTI (Right to Information) to Freedom of Information Law had been a “dilution” but it was a “beginning.”[iv]

Roy was in the Philippines last May as speaker in the “International Forum on FOI” organized by the Right to Know Right Now coalition.

Here in the Philippines, as seen in the accounts of farmers and indigenous peoples, access to information may not only spell a difference in the basic sectors’ impoverished situations, but its far reaching impact would be the transformation of power relations between the marginalized and the politically-economically entrenched. The FOI advocates could just hope that Philippine legislators and government in general are not afraid of sharing power with the poor and marginalized. FoP

[i] From Land Watch Asia website: landwatchasia.wordpress.com
[ii] Interview: Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey: Transparency and Poverty in India by Deepak Maahan. http://www.worldpress.org/asia/1014.cfm
[iii] Interview: Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey: Transparency and Poverty in India by Deepak Maahan. http://www.worldpress.org/asia/1014.cfm
[iv] Interview: Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey: Transparency and Poverty in India by Deepak Maahan. http://www.worldpress.org/asia/1014.cfm

(Published in Focus on the Philippines November-December: http://focusweb.org/oldphilippines/content/view/468/52/)

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