08/08/2011 19:20 BST | Updated 08/10/2011 06:12 BST

Indigenous Peoples Pushed to Margins

As the UN observes the International Day of the World's Indigenous People at its headquarters in New York today, a reclusive community of indigenous people in Philippines prepares for another restless night of fear and uncertainty.

As the UN observes the International Day of the World's Indigenous People at its headquarters in New York today, a reclusive community of indigenous people in Philippines prepares for another restless night of fear and uncertainty.

Far away in the dense, dark forests of Occidental Mindoro, Mangyan tribe leaders now routinely contemplate their future in feverish debates that usually last until daybreak.

They are petrified that large mining companies will take over their ancestral land. They fear the government will grant commercial operating license to mining corporations and they will forever lose their land and heritage.

It is a battle for survival for the Mangyan, who for centuries have inhabited the rough and hard-to-reach highlands of the Philippine island. They live in remote, small communities scattered over 40,000 hectares of land which includes vast swathes of tropical rainforest.

To Mangyan, this is their ancestral domain - the land they have inhabited, tilled and worshipped for generations, and the environment that defines their existence. To big corporations, the land potentially holds reserves of gold, natural gas and minerals worth many millions of dollars.

According to local government regulations, all indigenous peoples, including Mangyan, must prove that they are the rightful owners of their ancestral land. Without the certificate of title, the Mangyan's ability to retain and manage their land and resources face the risk of being severely compromised.

But, what chance do Mangyan stand to fight their way through the morass of bureaucracy?

The majority of Mangyan are illiterate and their communities have limited contact with the outside world. In numbers, they are an ethnic and linguistic minority group of seven different tribes totalling less than 25,000. Many tribes in the highlands can only be accessed on foot after several hours trek. Not only are the Mangyan physically and socially isolated from the rest of the Filipino population, but they are also among the poorest and most marginalised.

A Mangyan family earns on average just $0.34 a day. Nine out of ten Mangyan have poor access to safe drinking water and majority are illiterate. Historically nomadic and forest gatherers, the tribes often struggle to feed themselves, particularly during the rainy season which lasts four months. It is such a routine part of their life that they refer to it as the "hungry period" like any other season of the year. The consequences are obvious as 60% of Mangyan children are malnourished and infant mortality rates are so high that a child is considered fortunate to reach the age of 10.

Faced with this, what chance do Mangyan stand to take on big corporations?

The scenes in Mindoro are heart-rending. You see dazed looks on tribal leaders' faces as they try to make sense of how rapidly their world is falling apart. Already three applications for commercial mining in Occidental Mindoro have been filed with a national government agency. Already battling extreme poverty, high mortality, hunger and isolation, Mangyan leaders are now grappling with legal text, bribes on offer and above all, a serious challenge to their existence.

Sadly, Mangyan's plight is not an exception. There are an estimated 350 million indigenous people in more than 70 countries worldwide and many are facing similar challenges today.

Over centuries, indigenous peoples have retained their unique social, cultural, economic and political characteristics that are apart from those of the dominant societies in which they live. Even though they have sought recognition of their identities, their way of life and their right to traditional lands and resources; yet throughout history, their rights have been violated.

In 2007, the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples making it the most comprehensive statement of the rights of indigenous peoples ever developed. It upheld collective rights to a degree unprecedented in international human rights law.

However, despite the progress made in recent decades, indigenous people are among the poorest, most disadvantaged, marginalised and vulnerable groups of people in the world today. They routinely face discrimination, displacement, violence, dispossession of their land and resources, and poor access to all development indicators. Since most indigenous communities live in some of the world's most fragile environments, they are also in the frontline of climate change consequences.

Faced with extreme challenges, indigenous peoples are increasingly relying on support from local and international non-governmental organisations. Mangyan, for example, are being supported by global child rights and community development organisation Plan International. Since 2005, the organisation has engaged in running various development programmes in Mangyan communities. It is also assisting Mangyan in gaining title of their ancestral land and facilitating them to document their case, survey their land and create 3D maps of their domain.

NGOs, however, can only play a supporting role and attempt to fill the void left by the State in reaching out to its entire people. In case of indigenous people, this gap is particularly wide. Even though many nations have created mechanisms to protect and promote the interests of indigenous peoples, the communities are being continually pushed to the margins.

A lot more needs to be done to protect and promote the rights of indigenous peoples as their communities face unprecedented threat from globalisation and commercial exploitation of their land and resources.

Just think about Mangyan's circumstances and imagine a big corporation's might. Mangyan tribe leaders are invoking the spirits of their ancestors and resting their hopes on prayers. That is their last, and many have come to believe, only resort.