EJN-Supported Series on New Philippine Eco-City Leads Government to Address Unjust Treatment of Indigenous Group

By Morgan Hartlein Allen

In 2018, while browsing Facebook, reporter Mariejo Ramos came across a photo in which members of the Aeta tribe—an indigenous group in the Philippines—were standing on bulldozed land. She learned that the site was the proposed location of the 9,450-hectare New Clark City (NCC), an ambitious climate-resilient city designed as part of President Rodrigo Duterte’s “Build, Build, Build” program.

Despite the project’s seemingly sustainable and inclusive vision, the photo’s caption explained that NCC would displace around 20,000 Aeta families, continuing the group’s centuries-long struggle to protect their land from threats of development.

“I knew then that I had to look deeper into the issue, and thankfully I found an ally in my fellow reporter, Krixia Subingsubing,” Ramos recalled. “We had the same visions, and both knew exactly how we wanted the story to unravel.”

Before Ramos and Subingsubing produced their story, most reporting on the NCC’s development had been business-centric, emphasizing the economic boom the project was projected to unleash. The few media outlets that were producing stories about the Aeta primarily focused on how destructive the project was to the community rather than its ability to join the conversation in a constructive and empowered way.  

Although stories about resistance are important, Ramos said, they also paint a picture of indigenous peoples “as perpetual hapless victims without agency over their futures.”

She and Subingsubing wanted to tell a different story about the development of New Clark City — one that portrayed Aeta tribes not just as observers of a process but as active participants in economic and social development, she said.

A pursuit rooted in principle

Ramos’s desire to show agency among marginalized people goes back to when she was a student.

Months prior to the start of her college studies in 2010, the Philippines was shaken by the Maguindanao massacre, the single deadliest event for journalists in recent history, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). On November 23, 2009, 58 people were killed while en route to deliver paperwork allowing political candidate Ismael “Toto” Mangudadatu to run for governor of Maguindanao. At least 34 of the victims were journalists.

That year, the CPJ named the Philippines the world’s most dangerous place for members of the media. Yet Ramos was not deterred from pursuing a journalism degree. Rather, that event taught her the valuable role the media plays in providing information and the responsibility journalists have to produce fair, accurate and representative reporting.

“I realized that I needed to be so much more than a person who writes well,” she said. “I wanted to be a storyteller for those whose voices need to be amplified.”

At the start of her reporting career at the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the nation’s most widely read newspaper, Ramos grew frustrated with the lack of time she had to write stories about how the country’s most vulnerable people were experiencing the fallout of failed or inefficient policies. Her frustrations led her to focus on developing investigative reports that could highlight those voices through the power of storytelling.

As she began reporting the New Clark City story, however, Ramos found herself stuck between two opposing narratives: the city as a symbol of the future— sustainable, smart and inclusive— and a marginalized people stripped of their rights.

With 47 percent of the Philippine population living in areas highly exposed to climate hazards, according to the Global Peace Index 2019, projects like NCC, with its sustainable, eco-friendly focus, are intended to elevate economic development and provide a safeguard against an increasingly brutal climate.

But as Ramos’s and Subingsubing’s stories highlighted, the government’s push to create a sustainable city was at odds with the administration’s professed support for the future welfare of the Aeta people.

The day after the Philippine Daily Inquirer published the first part of the story, the government agency in charge of the NCC project — the Bases Conversion and Development Authority (BCDA) — and the local government in Tarlac, the province where it was being built,  held a press conference to respond to the issues the story had raised.

“They assured [us] that the project will be inclusive and that IPs [Indigenous Peoples] and farmers would benefit from [it],” Ramos said.

The government also began to put forth press releases stating that NCC would be the “most inclusive and sustainable city in the country” Further into its construction, officials sent out additional press releases claiming they had prioritized hiring Aeta workers, to continue NCC’s commitment to inclusion.

“There are more than 300 Aeta working at our project site. And we will still employ them for maintenance after the project completion,” Engr. Patrick Nicholas David, president of MTD Philippines, a major infrastructure conglomerate based in Malaysia and BCDA’s partner in building NCC, said in a press release dated July 15, 2019.

Yet so far the commitment to inclusion has not been seen. On November 29, 2019, nearly five months after the two-part story by Ramos and Subingsubing was published, a group of Aeta said that the BCDA directed them to leave the lands they were occupying in Capas Town to give way for the NCC’s completion.

A notice sent to around 500 Aeta families stated they were occupying the right-of-way road connecting the city to Clark International Airport and faced eviction within a week if they didn’t voluntarily leave their homes, said Ramos.

“We were only able to know about this through a text message … days after the notice was served,” she recalled.

After reports of the eviction notice were circulated on Twitter by Filipino columnist and activist Tonyo Cruz, the BCDA released a statement denying any “forcible demolition” in New Clark City, an indication, Ramos believes, that their reporting is forcing a response from the government.

Their stories have also given indigenous peoples and farmers an opportunity to be heard, Ramos said.

The two-part series and subsequent media attention from major outlets such as the Philippine Star and Rappler, generated more public sympathy toward the Aeta people, Ramos believes, and has raised criticism of how ambitious government projects, such as NCC, were using public funds with little transparency.

For example, news about the displacement of Aeta families in Capas Town led Senator Risa Hontiveros to file a resolution urging the Senate to conduct a legislative inquiry into the issue. Although the Senate has yet to do so, Hontiveros and other lawmakers have been vocal about the injustices the government has committed in creating NCC.

“There is a need to ensure the protection of the Aetas and other indigenous communities from unjust expulsion from a land that has served as their home and [that they] have tilled since time immemorial,” Hontiveros told local media last December.