To save their home, an Indigenous community turns to the skies

For centuries, the Philippine eagle and hawk eagle have shared this remote rainforest with the Dumagat, an Indigenous people who call the slopes of the Sierra Madre mountains in the northern Philippines their home.

Together, they survived Spanish colonialism and American imperialism and the impinging development of the modern Philippines.

But in recent years the raptors have become perilously scarce. Fewer than 600 mature Philippine hawk eagles are left in the wild, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List, which considers the bird to be endangered.

The Pacific coast of Aurora province in northeastern Philippines.

The Dumagat people want to preserve their way of life, along with the forest and seas with which their identities and livelihood are intertwined.

The Dumagat also fear that their way of life may be endangered. The government is building a new highway through the Dumagat’s domain, threatening to disrupt their traditional communities with unregulated tourism, soaring real estate prices and ecological degradation.

But the eagles could be their salvation. The Indigenous population’s last hope may be to document the presence of the Philippine eagle and hawk eagle, and lobby for the area to be declared a protected critical habitat.

The Indigenous Dumagat people in the Aurora province of northeastern Philippines.

Roadwork was still underway when The Washington Post visited the construction site on June 23 in the capital Baler.

Dibut, Philippines on June 21.

Along the farm-to-market road, locals say soil extracted from the mountain was dumped by the roadside. Then it rained, felling trees down the mountainside and muddying the streams and the fish sanctuary below.

The Dumagat’s ancestral domain extends for 22 square miles, nestled against the Pacific Ocean in Aurora province. In 2009, they received a title for their lands.

Their troubles arose after local villagers asked for the construction of a modest roadway that could let them ferry agricultural products to the markets and fish to the provincial capital, and allow them to reach medical care in an emergency.

Instead, that the single-lane byway was to be expanded, and there are plans to connect it with a 40-mile highway leading to the provincial capital, Baler.

The government agency representing tribes like the Dumagat said it was “surprised” when it learned construction of the larger road was already taking place and demanded that work halt while the locals’ consent was obtained. While the agency said it has since stopped, it was still proceeding when Washington Post journalists visited the site in late June. In response to questions by the Post, the public works department said construction was halted in the mountainous area in July but was continuing on privately owned land.

Dumagat chief, Cipriano Dela Torre, stands along the tribe’s traditional trekking path to the nearest town.

A photograph taken in 2009 shows Dela Torre and his fellow tribesmen receiving the Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title that legally states their ownership for over 2,700 hectares of land and sea along the Pacific coast of Aurora province.

Dumagat chieftain Cipriano Dela Torre fears that the forest will become commercialized once the new thoroughfare makes it more accessible to outsiders. As locals face pressure to sell the land to developers, Dela Torre warns his people that one day “the only remainder of the land that was theirs could be the mud on their feet.”

Tribal leaders say they believe the government has capitulated to corporate and political interests, especially since the local residents, numbering fewer than 1,000, hardly need such a wide road. Members of the tribe say they are not opposed to development, but believe that Indigenous people, not settlers, should set the terms of progress.

“Roads also bring hunters, loggers, and settlers.” said Charlotte Opal, executive director of the Forest Conservation Fund, which supports a tree nursery that the highway threatens to pave over.

Dibut, Philippines

Dibut, Philippines

Dibut, Philippines

Locals fear more destruction could come to their town if a bigger road is built.

A decades-old tree is cut down on June 21 along the road from Baler to Dibut.

The Dumagat believe that if they can just prove that the endangered Philippine eagle and Philippine hawk eagle still inhabit the rainforest, the highway can be derailed.

But eagles have not been photographed in this area in recent memory. Villagers were familiar with the birds but never had a need to document them — until now.

In late June, a raptor perched on a branch about 50 yards away from the road, feathers still damp from the rain. A Post photographer snapped a picture.

Wildlife photographer Erickson Tabayag said he believes the bird in the photo is a honey buzzard. But the Philippine Eagle Foundation believes it is the elusive hawk eagle.

The ancestral domain lies within the southern part of the Sierra Madre, a 540-kilometer Pacific-facing mountain range that shields most of the northern Philippines from super typhoons.

Forest ranger Jeff Natividad has not seen a hawk eagle since he helped hunt one as a teenager, before conservation efforts were introduced. He said he believes the bird in the photo is the same as what he had seen before, and the sighting gives him hope.

“I can now tell my colleagues … and the rest of the tribe that there are still some [eagles] out there,” he said.

Jeff Natividad, a Dumagat forest ranger, wants to prove that Philippine eagles reside within their ancestral domain.

A possible Philippine hawk eagle is seen perched on a roadside tree near Dibut on June 23.

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Photos by Martin San Diego. Editing and production by Olivier Laurent, Alan Sipress, Reem Akkad. Photos by Martin San Diego.