The case of Casa Vallejo in Baguio is not new. While this might be one of the few stories that became noisy enough on social media to make it to the mainstream, there are many other stories of Baguio and Cordillera lands being awarded through questionable transactions with the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP). One only has to do a Google search and one will find that much of what has been in the news about NCIP is about how it has awarded land against the interest of indigenous peoples.
The case of Casa Vallejo was also about this, too. By awarding one Acop family’s claim to the land, one is reminded about how the Indigenous People’s Rights Act, upon which law the NCIP stands, defines indigenous cultural communities and peoples to “refer to a group of people or homogenous societies identified by self-ascription and ascription by other, who have continuously lived as organized community on communally bounded and defined territory.”
It is these indigenous peoples who have a claim on ancestral land that is faced with being taken over for purported development—usually mining. But also it is these indigenous peoples who are being used and abused, when one family or one individual (with or without IP roots) decides to claim land with nary an IP community. It is these indigenous peoples that NCIP does an injustice to when it decides in favor of questionable claims to land and property.
NOT indigenous rights versus heritage
Now in this sense Casa Vallejo was lucky: it had the heritage cause to hold on to and use as weapon in relation to keeping the historical site intact—at least for now. But Mountain Cloud bookshop owner and anthropologist Padma Perez had it right when she called out Rappler.com’s Voltaire Tupaz for titling his piece on the Casa Vallejo dispute “Indigenous rights or heritage: Battle over Baguio’s oldest hotel.” This was not at all a case between the indigenous peoples and the cause of heritage; this case was about NCIP’s questionable awarding of this land to one claimant family. The task should be to look into precisely how these IP claimants are defined by law, and research should be done on who this family is exactly.
To pit the cause of heritage against indigenous rights was not only wrong, it was irresponsible. Because research on the IP Law, and the NCIP, and Baguio and the Cordilleras would in fact reveal how it is not that simple. And if we were thinking a little more deeper and better about our laws and culture we would realize two things.
One, indigenous peoples— their land, their cultures, their ways of living—are part of our heritage. If we cared about the latter, then IPs will truly be protected by all of us, their lands not encroached upon by multinational mining projects that the government too often approves. Indigenous people’s rights are part of the cause of heritage. The cause of heritage would be empty if it failed to consider indigenous peoples’ rights to their land and lives.
Two, Baguio resident and environment activist Karlo Altomonte has it right: Baguio is a heritage city, which is to say that Casa Vallejo is all of Baguio. Too much land has been given up to big business in this city, and yet if one was truly thinking about heritage preservation of historical sites, this whole city would not be touched at all. Baguio roads, its structures, its greenery—all of it is heritage.
Altomonte has since called for the publication of “all existing/pending ancestral land claims in Baguio filed with the NCIP” and that is the correct and valid level-up to the the Casa Vallejo case. There is also every reason to cease and desist from awarding all claims that are over at the NCIP, until we all agree which IP claim on which lands are valid.
This would be the perfect time, in fact, to work on getting Baguio declared as a heritage city. It will take work, yes, but it is not impossible. All of Sta. Ana in Manila is heritage, which means construction of new structures is controlled and goes through a strict process. The SM in Sta. Ana does not only blend into the landscape; it also holds an exhibit of an archeological digging right on its courtyard. There is also the example of Angono, that reminds of the possibilities for Baguio. What the city needs is for the people who rose up for the cause of Casa Vallejo to level-up too and work at getting all of the city declared as heritage.
Because then all indigenous peoples and their lands will be protected as heritage sites.
If we agree that Baguio is a heritage city, then all of its structures and non-ancestral lands will be protected from questionable claims that are premised on the twisting and skewing of the IP Law. The task is not so much to marry the cause of heritage and indigenous peoples’ rights. The task is to see that in fact they have always been intertwined.
NCIP can’t see it. I have hope that Baguio residents can and will see the cause through.