For indigenous voices in land use, a seat at the table isn’t necessarily enough

Research in the Philippines illustrates the stark power imbalances many communities face.
Wagi Wagi, San Mariano, Isabela, the Philippines. Photo courtesy Tessa Minter

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BOGOR, Indonesia—Formalizing indigenous people’s participation in protected area management is not enough to ensure they can actually defend their interests against more powerful actors, a new study has found.

If participation is to meaningfully include marginalized groups, we must examine how it happens on the ground, says the paper’s lead author, Tessa Minter, a post-doctoral researcher from Leiden University and the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

That’s exactly what Minter and colleagues did, studying how a group of indigenous people in a Philippines protected area participated—or didn’t—in its governance.

“All the promises of the participation of local populations in protected area management, in this case at least, do not mean much if the underlying power structures remain the same,” Minter said.

The Agta people have lived in the Northern Sierra Madre Natural Park for many generations, hunting and gathering in its dense rainforests and mountains, and fishing in its coral seas. Logging, paid work and agriculture also supplement their livelihoods, and these days the Agta are outnumbered in the park by migrant smallholder farmers from other ethnic groups.

The Philippines’ largest protected area, the park covers the last undisturbed lowland forest on the northern island of Luzon and is home to 78 bird species found only in the Philippines. But the area is now threatened by illegal logging, forest clearing for agriculture, overhunting and unsustainable fishing, Minter said.


National legislation introduced in recent decades requires the Agta to be involved in the park’s management, which takes the form of the Protected Area Management Board (PAMB), a group of directors of the park, local mayors, and representatives of NGOs and community organizations.

Twelve of the 36 seats on the board are reserved for Agta representatives—in theory, a powerful block.

Yet reality is different: The Agta are not given a realistic chance to actively participate, Minter says.

It takes a lot of time for people—they have to travel, they have to leave their families behind, they have to deal with the opportunity costs of not having an income for those days

Tessa Minter

Her study analyzed PAMB meeting minutes between 2001 and 2009, finding that when Agta representatives raised concerns—particularly about unsustainable resource extraction in the park—more powerful members tended to avoid taking any action.

Significantly, more than half the time, matters relating to the Agta were discussed and decided by the board without any input from the Agta.

How is it that 12 members had no input into matters that directly concerned them? The reasons—problems of access and understanding—illuminate the difficulties of ensuring that marginalized groups truly participate.


The study found that on average, only four of the 12 Agta representatives were present at any one meeting. That’s not because they were lazy or indifferent, Minter says.

“Most Agta live in remote areas, in the forest or along the coast, in some cases several days’ walk from any roads,” she said. “Announcements for meetings or changes in the schedule often didn’t reach them in time—if at all.”

And even if they knew about the meetings, transport is difficult.

“It takes a lot of time for people—they have to travel, they have to leave their families behind, they have to deal with the opportunity costs of not having an income for those days,” Minter said.

Once they arrived at meetings, there was no guarantee they would be able to understand the proceedings. Meetings were often held in English, a language few Agta speak, rather than Tagalog (the national language) or Ilocano, a local one.

To address some of these seemingly surmountable issues, Minter and colleagues began a project to strengthen the voting power of Agta. They held training sessions and community consultations, obtaining financial assistance to help Agta representatives attend meetings.

While these efforts had positive impacts, Agta participation did not significantly improve.

Minter believes powerful interests worked against change—and against addressing the issues of illegal logging and resource exploitation that concern the Agta.

“The fundamental part of the story is the underlying structure of power abuse in the province.  The politicians who are in charge are using natural resources to their own advantage,” she said.

Faced with this lack of progress, the team ended the project.

“If you keep pushing for people’s participation without the possibility of generating sufficient positive results, it becomes a frustration for those who are almost forced to participate. We thought it was no longer fair to the Agta to try to push for this,” Minter said.

Despite the difficulties, Minter remains optimistic.

“The key message shouldn’t be ‘Participation doesn’t matter, it’s all a waste of time and we should just give up,’ ” she said.

What is needed, she says, is better ways of measuring whether participation is actually occurring.

“I do think that when we speak of participation we do not really know how complicated it is to make it work on the ground—in terms of practical things like traveling to meetings; communication, like the language meetings are held in; and most importantly, rebalancing the power balance.”


Why does meaningful participation matter? A critical new development in the Northern Sierra Madre Protected Area throws the problem into sharp relief.

A recently approved new road that would cut right through the core conservation zone of the park would link a nearby inland city with the forest and the coast—with local authorities promising the project would boost tourism and access to education and health care for park residents without negative social or environmental effects.

Too often people assume, now we have brought these diverse groups together for discussion, things will get better

Tessa Minter

Minter, who has worked in the park for more than a decade, considers this unlikely.

“Competition for forest and marine resources is already heightened right now, and once this road is built, the whole area will be opened up for many more migrants—and there are other cases elsewhere in the Philippines where this has drastically affected the situation of the indigenous people.”

There are biodiversity concerns as well.

“There are commercially interesting—and endangered—timber species to be found there, so the chances that illegal logging will increase are huge.”

Minter is not convinced that the Agta participated in the decision-making process allowing the road to go ahead. “The situation has been very non-transparent,” she said.

“There have been community consultations, but it’s not been clear who was invited or who organized them. Some people say they have been bribed into signing agreements, or that they signed agreements that they didn’t know had anything to do with the road—they were told they were signing another document.”


The study holds important lessons for those implementing landscape approaches to rural development.

A landscape approach is a holistic approach to forest and agricultural management in order to balance social, economic and environmental goals by bringing people with different interests in that landscape together to agree on complementary strategies.

“I’m convinced that such an approach is the way forward,” Minter said. “But it shouldn’t stop at the point where you get people together—and as the story of the Agta shows, getting them together is already very difficult.”

“Once you have everyone together, you need social scientific data and analysis to learn who are all these people in that meeting room—their livelihood situations, cultural backgrounds, communication skills—and find ways to address the power imbalances that inevitably will be there,” she said.

“Too often people assume, now we have brought these diverse groups together for discussion, things will get better,” Minter said.

“But that’s only the start.”

For more information about this research, contact Tessa Minter at or Terry Sunderland at

This study was supported in part by the Regional Network on Indigenous Peoples and the Nederlands Centrum voor Inheemse Volken. CIFOR’s research on indigenous peoples and forests forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.

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