The Aeta people have been in a struggle for recognition and legal ownership rights to their ancestral lands in the Tarlac province of the Philippines. Aeta people live off of subsistence culture from the surrounding forests, rivers, and mountains. Their territories are ancestrally owned and managed. According to geographers at the University of Philippines and the University of Glasgow, documents show the Aeta peoples have inhabited the lands of the Central Luzon (approximately 18,000 hectares) for generations .
Up until 1997, there was no legal mechanism for indigenous people groups to register their lands following the independence of the Philippines in 1946. The ‘Indigenous People’s Rights Act (IRPA)’ was passed in 1997, allowing for indigenous people to apply for a Certificate of Ancestral Domain Territory (CADT) to the government agency, the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) . The CADT grants communal ownership and management over the land, water and natural resources allowing for the rights to develop, manage and control . The Aeta people have made three requests in 1999, 2014, and in 2019 for a CADT including 18,000 hectares of ancestral land. These requests have yet to be granted .
In 2012, the Aquino government conceptualized the ‘smart, disaster resilient city’ to be built on 9,450 hectares in the Tarlac province of Central Luzon, with a capacity to hold 1.2 million people . In 2014, the project received government backing resolution 116 passed by Congress . The project is one part of a series of mega-projects happening in the region within the ‘Clark’ zone including another new city, an airport, the Poro Point Freeport and John Hay Special Economic Zone . The territory for the project was selected in order to create another economic zone connected to the metropolitan region of Manila. Furthermore, the landscape has been selected due to its climate resilience, to provide a geographically safe place for investors amidst the climate disasters such as typhoons and earthquakes prone to certain regions in the Philippines . The project is projected to cost 14 billion USD while generating P1.57 trillion annually, representing 4% of the country’s total GDP .
The main government entity leading the program is the Bases Conversion and Development Authority (BCDA). The role of the BCDA is to convert former US military bases into profitable investments. During the US colonization of the Philippines, constructing military bases was a key activity. Land was grabbed from Aeta people to make the Fort Stotsenburg (64,052 ha) and the O’Donnell (58,006 ha) military bases . Following independence, the Filipino government made an agreement to allow the US to establish military bases across the country . When this agreement was dissolved in the 1990s, the ownership of the land was then handed over to the government corporation the BCDA as these lands were classified as military reservations.
A spectrum of domestic and international partners are involved in the New Clark City project for funding, construction, and management. For example, the Ahli Holding Group from the UAE will sponsor projects in tourism while a French company, Vivapolis will be involved in resource management . The main financial institutions supporting the project are the Asian Development Bank (ADB) who seek to increase public-private partnership opportunities. The NCC was one of the main infrastructure projects developed under the Duterte government’s Build! Build! Build! program and a key part of the New Economic Zone . Both of these government programs look to create a safe, stable environment for local and foreign investment, promoted by international financial institutions as the pathway for the economic development of the Philippines.
The struggle over recognition of land ownership has been heightened as the NCC project overlaps on Aeta ancestral territory. Also, the Aeta people made a request to the NCIP to hold a free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) process for the mega-project. This process requires a full transparency of projects that is understandable to communities and has received a general consensus. However, many cases have shown the disregard for the FPIC process, including the NCC . The main concern of the Aeta people is not only about encroachment on their land, but a dispossession of their farming livelihoods, indigenous knowledge of the land and ancestral territory to pass down to future generations . The sacredness of the land would be destroyed according to the Aeta people, whose ancestors are buried on it.
The BCDA reported to offer $5,900 per hectare of land and relocation sites for the inhabitants. However, land is in incommensurable to the Aeta people whose identity and livelihoods come from it . Furthermore, it is unknown if the relocation site where the Aeta’s are moved to will be suitable for cultivation and hence would require a new source of income to support their livelihoods.
Since the beginning of the NCC project there have been reported experiences of forced displacement and destruction of local ecologies, including agricultural land . These claims are backed as some argue that government projects including the NCC will reduce the ancestral lands of the Aeta from 18,659 to 600 hectares . The project is estimated to impact just over 100,000 people living in the surrounding area . The local ecology of the region has been disrupted as agricultural lands have been cleared and watersheds impacted, including marine life .
There have been reported incidents of violent displacement of the Aeta people from their lands including intimidation with guns by the military . In early 2018, the as the country prepared to host the 2019 Southeast Asian Games lands were marked for clearance in order to build a sports complex. Individuals from Aeta who inhabited territories along the first phase of construction of the NCC were asked to give up their cropland in exchange for compensation .
Approximately 500 individuals experienced seven-day eviction notices in 2019 made by the BCDA . These eviction notices were justified on the grounds that the BCDA consulted the local government, however this does not include a representative from the Aeta people . Once the eviction notice period passed, the people wrote a letter to the government stating that the former military constructed is ancestral territory and they cannot be evicted without consent . Included in the document were documents from the Spanish government to prove the legitimacy of the Aeta’s ancestral claim.
Outside of attempts to utilize the legal mechanisms of the Philippines to achieve socio-environmental justice, the Aeta people have formed alliances, protested, formed human barricades to block road access and ran community campaigns against the development of NCC on their lands . The main requests are a recognition of their rights to the land and the halt of the NCC project .
As early as 2013 a social movement has formed across different groups in the region to assert their rights to the land in opposition to multiple development projects occurring in the area (see EJ atlas case: Balong-Balong dam). The indigenous struggles aligned with farmers in the area under the cause of land reform, creating the Kilusang Nagtatanggol sa Inang Kalikasan (KNIK) alliance in 2013. Different indigenous people organizations took part in this collective such as the Bamban Ayta Tribal Association, Pagmimiha Organization, and others . A broader grassroots movement has emerged to fight for indigenous land rights in the Central Luzon. They protested and mobilized against the projects such as the NCC, known back then as the Clark Green City.
In 2014, the movement of the KNIK gained wider support from abroad, resulting in an international peasant fact-finding mission (IFFM) led by the Kaisahan ng mga Artista at Manunulat Na Ayaw sa Development Aggession (KAMANDAG) and the Asian Peasant Coalition investigations of land grabs and human rights violations . Furthermore, other initiatives have followed the Aeta struggle for the land, including counter-mapping initiatives  . These organizations partnered with the Aeta people to support their campaign through reflecting land claims and dispossession of land through the co-production of different types of maps, mainly cartographic .
Despite the development project continuing, the Aeta people and other groups involved in the struggle for land rights and reform persist. Community actions continue as the everyday struggle of the Aeta people represent their resistance to land dispossession.