Environment Secretary Gina Lopez has issued a special order formally creating an inter-agency task force led by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to help ensure economic, environmental and social justice among indigenous peoples (IPs) in the country.

DENR Special Order No. 2016-761 establishes the Indigenous Peoples Inter-Agency Task Force composed of the DENR, its corporate arm, the Natural Resources Development Corp. (NRDC), and the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP).

The task force was created pursuant to the government's mandate to protect the rights of IPs to their ancestral domains and the agreement forged by the DENR, NRDC and NCIP last September.

The three agencies committed to providing the IPs "cohesive and quality of life, and environmental and social justice" and upholding their self-determination and development.

Under the special order, the DENR, NRDC and NCIP are expected to "build skills for all parties and for the IPs' communities, as well as assist [IPs] in taking full advantage of their opportunities."

The task force is also in charge of making sure the IPs are "not subjected to undue pressure and influence from unscrupulous businessmen or other industries intending to extract natural resources" from their ancestral lands.

The special order provides a new mechanism to protect the rights of IPs as they exercise their Free and Prior Informed Consent (FPIC).

FPIC is the principle that an IP community has the right to give or withhold its consent to proposed projects that may affect the lands they customarily own, occupy or otherwise use.

"...the [FPIC] process shall include a determination or the alternatives and options to the business to be introduced that will produce comparable benefits but reduced adverse consequences on their resources and culture and ensure the continuous benefits to future generations of the non-renewable resources therein," the special order stated.

The directive also enumerated the roles and responsibilities of the DENR in the task force, foremost of which was to "ensure the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity within ancestral domains."

The DENR shall employ strict policy of verifying the genuineness of the FPIC by validating with NCIP the authenticity of the Certification Precondition, and closely coordinate with the commission on matters pertaining to titles with ancestral domains.

It shall also support the process of recognizing Indigenous Community Conserved Areas within ancestral domains, and develop incentives for the protection and sustainable management of these areas.

The DENR is also tasked to reactivate an IP Desk that will focus and coordinate with concerned agencies to make sure that resources in ancestral domains will benefit IP communities and will facilitate the issuance or Certificate of Non-Overlap in connection with the registration of Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title with the Register of Deeds and other interventions for the protection of IP rights.

The department shall also provide opportunities for NCIP to access the Enhanced National Greening Program, the government's massive reforestation initiative that doubles as an anti-poverty measure, for the empowerment of the IPs.

For its part, the NRDC shall provide human resources and facilitate capital resources to enable IP communities make optimum use of their land and resources.

The NRDC will likewise assist in consultations, planning, product development and marketing for any social enterprise an IP community may wish to undertake through the recruitment and matching of volunteers, as well as in-house facilitators.

“The bottom line is that the IPs need money to sustain their livelihood. If we can show them a way to make money without cutting the trees that protect us from climate change, that’s better,” Lopez said.

Whenever available, the NRDC shall provide the capital funding or mobilize resources to support biodiversity-friendly social enterprises.

The NCIP, on the other hand, was given a free-hand to formulate its counterpart roles and responsibilities pursuant to the agreement it earlier signed with the DENR and NRDC. ###