Hometown Stories

Where the Water is Home


Dave de Vera has been working with indigenous communities for over 30 years; and he vividly remembers his role in the landmark legal victory that gave the Tagbanwa of Coron their home back, from ridge to reef.

Story by
Dave de Vera
Photography by
Katherine Jack
As told to

Ana Amistad

Read Time
Location Tag

Dave de Vera, Executive Director of the Philippine Association for Intercultural Development (PAFID), has been working with IPs for the past 40 years. Back in the early '90s, he worked with the Calamian Tagbanwa of Coron to secure tenure over their ancestral rights, from ridge to reef. Ancestral waters being a part of one’s domain was unheard of at that time.

We talk to Dave about his learnings from the case and the future he envisions for IP communities.


In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the Calamian Tagbanwa had problems. It was a different time. The local government took over their island and started bidding out the collection of bird’s nests in the caves of Coron Island; pinapagsubasta ang term nila doon.

The Calamian Tagbanwa had two main livelihood sources: First was fishing, the second was gathering bird’s nests. Each clan had inherited a cave where they have gathered bird’s nests since time immemorial. Even before the Spanish conquest, the Tagbanwa had already been dealing with the Chinese; this is a sustainable and long-running livelihood. The problem was that the price of bird’s nests has always been very high—nearly worth its weight in gold—and the local government saw that. They started bidding out, pinapagsubasta nila, yung mga caves.

The merchants—the middlemen—were winning. This island was inhabited 99 percent by the Tagbanwa, and then suddenly what they had inherited from their ancestors were being given away.

So tumakbo sila sa’min. I was sent to Coron as a very, very young volunteer community organizer; my job was to see what could be done. It was very difficult at that time just getting to the island: I would take a boat or a small airplane (and many planes were crashing). There was no airport. We would land on a cattle ranch.

  • Believed to be descendants of the Tabon Man, the Tagbanua are one of the oldest ethnic groups in the Philippines. They live within north and central Palawan, and are classified into two main groups: Central and Calamian Tagbanua. In 1998, the Calamian Tagbanua were recognized as the ancestral owners of Coron island, giving them the right to manage and preserve over 22,000 hectares of its rich natural resources. To this day, they remain in charge of implementing ecotourism efforts in the area, and continue to uphold their own indigenous customs and beliefs.

At that time, the late ‘80s, wala pang papel; there was no legal document to get tenure because almost all indigenous peoples (IPs) were located in areas classified as part of public land. We decided the best course of action was for the community to file for a certificate of committee for stewardship agreement (CFSA). At that time, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) was willing to give 25-year-long Community Stewardship Contracts which allowed IPs to live and benefit from resources without fear of getting arrested or charged.

By 1991, we secured a certificate of community for stewardship agreement for the island. That was the first win. But the Tagbanwa felt it was only half the victory.

“Bakit?” I asked. “You should be celebrating.”

They said the beaches and the lagoons that surround the island are still very vulnerable. They said: While there is a concept of ancestral land, when we talk about ancestral domain, or kabuuan, it is both land and water. Kailangan yun yung makuhanan natin ng papeles. “Half of our life is in the ocean.”

Ang hirap; I doubted them at the start. How do you get legal documents for the ocean? There was no legal precedent for that.

A lot of people don’t know how difficult it was for the Tagbanwa, the struggle it took to inform Filipinos that they own the islands.

The concept of securing a claim over the ocean was far off. It was difficult even for me to understand at first—until the International Ancestral Domain Mapping Conference in the Philippines in 1994. A Miskito Indian from South America presented a claim that included the ocean that had doodles and drawings of sharks, clams; he said this is part of our territory. The elder of the Tagbanwa was at the conference and I felt him looking at me.

Eventually, we sat down and talked about it. How do we measure the ocean? How do we define the extent? We started mapping. Then came the next hurdle: They told us that the boundaries of ancestral waters depended on the location of the panyaan, a giant four-tentacled octopus.

What the hell is a four-tentacled octopus?

A lot of their shamans have spirit animals, which is where they get their power. The most important one was the panyaan. We had to go exploring the ocean for these panyaan and the formation of corals, which they say is a sleeping octopus.

It was difficult for them because these were spots of sacred power. If you go to Mount Banawe, there is a very, very similar concept: During Good Friday, yung mga manggagamot, yung mga manghihilot, they go to Mount Banawe and pray. May mga pwesto doon na doon kayo magdadasal, magtitirik ng kandila. And when you ask the healers [why they do this]—para lumakas ulit yung aming kapangyarihan mang-gamot. It’s the very same thing.

In the beginning, I doubted them again. But I felt the effects. Sometimes I felt dizzy and they had me recite a chant or put my shirt on backwards. Slowly, naintindihan ko; it was a lot of learning for us.

Once, we were out in the ocean for about nine days when we spotted a school of tuna; they [the Tagbanwa] asked if we could stop mapping for a while to run after the tuna because the village needed food. I was worried; we had GPS technology, but it was still new and emerging; it took so much work just to mark one spot. But I gave in, because it was about food. They ran after the tuna and we got a sizable amount; sabi nila balik tayo kung saan tayo tumigil. And of course, I doubted. How would they know where we were? We were in the middle of the open ocean. But they guided the boat to a spot and told me to open my GPS. We were riding a 30 or 35-foot bangka. Alam mo yung difference nung pinatay yung GPS and after we went back? Three feet. It was precisely kung saan kami umalis. It really hit me. These guys know; they really own the ocean because they know about it so much.

“Half of our life is in the ocean.”

I was convinced. The more difficult part came next: convincing the government that what we did was legitimate. The Provincial Environment and Natural Resource Office of Palawan sent somebody to assess it and they said it was a crazy idea. It is a myth; hindi totoo, it doesn’t make sense. Sabi niya, using mythical nests of non-existent octopus will not stand the test, hindi pwedeng gamitin sa isang claim. The report was horrible. It basically said these people were crazy.

We presented again to the Provincial Board of Palawan in Puerto Princesa, and the Vice Governor actually laughed us out of the room. Everybody was laughing, like sira ulo na ata mga ‘to. But we did not stop. We kept on pushing and pushing and pushing. And we got it signed, believe it or not, two hours before the official term of the government of Fidel V. Ramos ended, and then the new DENR Secretary Riles Estrada, took his position. It was that tight. Pinirmahan yung maps namin 5 o’clock ng hapon, on the last day of Fidel Ramos’ government.

A lot of people don’t know how difficult it was for the Tagbanwa, the struggle it took to inform Filipinos that they own the islands. They went all over the province of Palawan; they went to Manila [and] kept telling people: this is our ancestral domain. Ganito yung itsura, kasama ‘yung dagat. Kasi paano mo pinatitulo ‘yung dagat? They kept explaining.

  • Also known as Republic Act No. 8371, the Indigenous People’s Rights Act of 1997 is a groundbreaking law that recognizes the rights of indigenous cultural communities (ICC) and indigenous people (IP) in the Philippines. Its authors initially had difficulty defining parameters as there was no existing model that gave substance to the meaning of “ancestral domains.” The success of the Coron case, however, set precedence for the self-delineation process. By this law, an ancestral domain is defined as “all areas generally belonging to ICCs/IPs comprising lands, inland waters, coastal areas, and natural resources therein.”

If the Tagbanwa were to be followed, there wouldn’t be tourism on the island, but they have no choice; Coron Island has become the crown jewel of tourism in northern Palawan. Walang kwentang magpunta ng Palawan kung walang Kayangan Lake. When I first started working there, Kayangan Lake was full of mosquitos. It wasn’t anything spectacular for me, because it wasn’t anything spectacular to the tribe; they’d rather bring me to a place na manghuhuli kami ng pusit o hipon ‘pag gabi, but slowly they had no choice. They also had to give in because of all the pressure.

They always came into conflict because a lot of tourists would sneak through and try to enter the lake. Do you know why that lake isn’t a tourist spot? It’s a spiritual burial ground. Kapag wala ka na, kapag yung buto mo natuyuan at namuti na, your soul will rest in the lake. That is their creation myth: Lahat ng Tagbanwa [ay] galing sa awuyok at ‘pag pumanaw ang kaluluwa, babalik sa awuyok. That is what they believe. Can you imagine the agony they had to process to allow us to agree for the lakes to be open to the public?

I always tell them: The world should know the story of the island from your point of view. Do not let others define the island for you. But the tourism industry is so big; their voices might not fit the narrative. Tourism has a narrative: It has to be sexy, it has to be glamorous. It’s so difficult to link an issue to traditional culture and social justice. When you talk about tourism, it should be fun. It should be an adventure. It should be glamorous. It’s hard. Kung tatanungin mo yung mga tribo, they didn’t look at the island in such an extraordinary way. They looked at it as their neighborhood.

It has been difficult. It hasn’t been perfect. Ang dami nilang kamalian, ang daming missteps, ang dami rin nilang victories.

I used to look at the Calamian Tagbanwa in a very profound and mystical way. I thought, “Wow, they probably have a relationship with nature that I will never be able to understand.” But I learned that it’s not that profound; it’s not that complicated.

The Tagbanwa taught me to look at it very simply. Alam mo kung ano yung relationship nila? Common sense. They are in harmony with nature because they use their common sense. Hindi siya mystical. Hindi siya profound. They’re practical.