River dwellers who now reside in upland areas—these are the Subanens, the indigenous people (IP) of the Province of Zamboanga del Norte. Like most of their IP brethrens, the Subanens are largely marginalized. Forced to relocate upland by the migration of people from the Visayas and Luzon and by the intrusion of large mining campaigns in their ancestral domains, the Subanens suffered countless indignities, discrimination and ridicule. And for several decades, the Subanens were left with limited education and livelihood opportunities and lacked access to government services.
Their situation changed for the better recently when the provincial leadership intervened to bring them back into the mainstream of government processes. On February 26, 2008, the provincial government issued Executive Order No. 08-03-A to create the Provincial Indigenous People Coordinating Unit (PIPCU), which was primarily tasked with promoting the welfare of the Subanen people and empowering them economically, socially and politically. In 2011, the Subanen numbered 367,906 or 38.4 percent of the total provincial population of 957,230.
Subsequently, the PIPCU introduced and implemented the following programs and activities, namely: Kasalan ng Bayan Program; Free Registration of Marriages and Live Births of Children; Livelihood Activities; Documentation of Subanen Culture, Customs and Traditions, Arts and Music; and Formal Organization of the Subanen People in the Barangays. Formal organization of the Subanens aims to provide them legal personality and enable them to access government services.
The Kasalan ng Bayan serves to formalize and solemnize the relationship between common-law couples who number in the thousands among the Subanen. In conducting the marriage rite, Subanen customs and traditions are followed. To date, a total of 2,501 common-law couples have been formally married under the program.
The free registration of marriages ensures that the event and the births of the couple’s children are recorded with the Local Civil Registrar’s Office and the National Statistics Office (NSO). So far, 1,552 live births have been registered with the MCRO and NSO. This activity effectively provides legal documentation to the Subanens which they can then show when accessing government services, enrolling their children in school, getting a job or obtaining medical services.
The provision of livelihood activities is primarily carried out through the introduction of appropriate farming technology so that the Subanen farmers can increase the productivity of their farms, attain food security for their households, judiciously manage their environment, and increase their family’s income.
To facilitate the delivery of basic services to the Subanen communities, PIPCU helped organize 19 councils which were registered with the Department of Labor and Employment. These 19 councils are tasked to coordinate the collective participation of the Subanens in various development processes. The Councils of Elders were also formally organized at the barangay level to serve as mediators during disputes among the Subanens. Composed of Timuay Labis, Timuays and Salilings, the members of the Councils of Elders now total 4,343.
PIPCU has been tasked to continually document Subanen culture, customs, arts and traditions, and it now has a compilation of Subanen rituals, clothing and ornaments, and musical instruments. To further preserve the Subanen culture, PIPCU also organized Tribal Dance Congresses, Costume Parades and a Battle of Festivals showcasing Subanen art, tradition and culture.
With these programs in place, the bond between married Subanen couples have been strengthened and responsible parenthood is now more widely practiced. More importantly, the Subanens can now provide marriage contracts or birth certificates in transactions requiring such legal documents. For instance, they can now access government programs such as Philhealth and the Pantawid Gutom Program (Conditional Cash Transfer) to name a few. They now have legal instruments that enable the enrolment of their children as well as facilitate their employment and travel abroad.
With the introduction of appropriate farming technology and the establishment of formal linkages with agricultural agencies, the Subanen Indigenous Councils were able to profit from the sales of their agricultural produce. While their total earnings were modest, it was a feat that they had never experienced before.
Clearly, the creation of PIPCU encouraged the Subanen people to participate in community development and in government processes. They readily provided labor and project sites as counterparts for the government programs. This shows that the “pahina” or “bayanihan” spirit is also practiced by the Subanen people. Slowly but surely, the Subanens in Zamboanga del Norte are now getting integrated into the mainstream. And this was simply accomplished by putting in place a coordinative mechanism that elicited cooperation and participation; an innovation that can be easily replicated by other LGUs with an IP constituency.