A talk with the Tala-andig tribe: thoughts on development, deeper engagement and mutual respect
Research and development aim to benefit communities but how should researchers and indigenous people work together in projects? Here are some thoughts on development, deeper engagement and mutual respect based on discussions between the Tala-andig tribe and ICRAF researchers.
It was a cool Friday morning on 17 June 2016. Four members of the Smart Tree-Invest team—Kharmina Anit-Evangelista, Regine Evangelista-Javier, Carl Ureta and I—headed to the Tala-andig tribe’s Hall of Peace in Songco, Lantapan in Bukidnon Province in the southern Philippines. To work with the Tala-andig, we were advised that we had first to undergo a ritual with the tribal leaders.
During the solemn event, the elders asked for guidance from their highest god, Magbabaya, and spirits on whether they could allow our project to work with them or not. The ritual involved coins, cloth, chickens and other food. It seemed that approval had been granted since in the discussion afterwards the elders noted that it seemed that Smart Tree-Invest could benefit their people.
For the Tala-andig, the possibility of a ‘co-investment scheme’—in which all people interested in a watershed work together to ensure its benefits are sustainable—would not only mean an additional source of financial support but was also seen as way of strengthening their culture and introducing it to others.
According to Victorino Saway, known to the Tala-andig as Datu Migketay, ‘The project could be seen as co-investment in the culture of our tribe because it is part of our culture to preserve the environment’.
If a co-investment scheme can preserve the tribe’s culture then the people can in turn contribute to improving environmental conservation.
Yet, as the discussion continued, the elders remained cautious. Datu Migketay explained to us the importance of first building trust between the project team and the tribe. He emphasized how respecting their culture was important for the sustainability of any project. There was often a disjunction, he explained, between some developers and his people because, for example, the tribe’s definition of development differed from the definition used by some of the organizations implementing projects in their area. He gave the example of cementing roads in their village, which could be considered as a welcome development providing faster access all year round but these same roads also contributed to the fragmentation of their tribe by allowing individuals and families to disperse far from the central group.
Datu Migketay says of such development: ‘To be honest, I am tired. Tired of projects that only benefit those implementing them: projects that do not have any positive impacts for our people’.
This was not meant to altogether discourage development projects or to say that research in development would not achieve anything. However, if institutions involved in development (and research in development), such as ICRAF, wanted to truly improve people’s lives then an open, respectful approach was needed. Researchers, in particular, should be ready to challenge standardized ways of thinking—even their own—and change inappropriate practices. Putting this to the test, we decided to take the first step in growing mutual respect with the Tala-andig by obeying the directive to undergo the ritual.
Our work in Lantapan is part of the Climate-smart, Tree-based, Co-investment in Adaptation and Mitigation in Asia (Smart Tree-Invest) project, which aims to help communities create local solutions to cope with climate-change risks. We had identified the Tala-andig as important custodians of a critical watershed that was increasingly threatened by the impact of climate change. Smart Tree-Invest is funded by the International Fund for Agricultural Development, which stresses the importance of participation of marginalized groups, including women, youth and indigenous peoples; and the empowerment of smallholding farmers.
The result of our step was that the elders decided that we could return and conduct a participatory cultural impact assessment with the whole tribe to ensure that everyone, including the women and youth, can identify their roles in the project, further discuss its potential benefits and disadvantages and decide as a group if they want to continue or not.
And so whether the project will continue with the Tala-andig is in the hands of the tribe themselves. From our point of view, what is important is that we have engaged from the beginning through mutual respect: getting to know our potential partners and being flexible enough to go through their processes of engagement.
It is critical for building the trust that is needed to work together to improve the lives of the people in the ways they want.
This work is supported by the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.
We would like to thank all donors who support research in development through their contributions to the CGIAR Fund.