A College for Indigenous Peoples

Published on Page A13 of the June 22, 2006 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer
I WROTE in the future tense then, I write in the present tense now. I had some doubts then, I don’t have those doubts now.

Late last year I wrote about Pamulaan, a special tertiary school or college for indigenous peoples (IPs) that was being built in Mindanao. The target date for its opening was the opening of classes this June.

The dream has come true. Pamulaan recently opened with 47 IP students (from 19 tribes from all over the Philippines) enrolled in the college program.

Pamulaan means seedbed. The college aims to strengthen the potentials of indigenous youth for community leadership. It is a college education program for the IPs in the Philippines and a response to the IPs’ dream of an educational program that is rooted in their life, culture and aspirations as a people.

Pamulaan is under the president of the University of South Eastern Philippines. The site is in USEP’s Mintal campus in Davao City. IPs from North America recently came to visit and were surprised to find something so special and so focused.

Pamulaan is the first of its kind in the country, says founder and co-director Benjamin Abadiano, who also dreamed and founded the successful Tugdaan Training Center for the Mangyan tribesmen in Occidental Mindoro province. The center is now ably run by the Mangyan themselves with the help of the Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters (SSpS).

Unlike Tugdaan (which also means seedbed), which is for high school and livelihood training, Pamulaan offers degree programs such as BA in Applied Anthropology and Participatory Development, BS in Indigenous Peoples Education, BA in Peace Building and Multi-Cultural Studies, BS in Indigenous Agriculture. Pamulaan also offers ladderized and modular courses leading to an associate degree as well as to short-term courses for community leaders and development workers.

Abadiano, 43, is one of the main driving forces behind the endeavor. A 2004 Ramon Magsaysay Award winner for Emergent Leadership, he was recently elected president of Assisi Development Foundation, of which he used to be executive coordinator. He took the place of Ambassador Howard Dee (his mentor and model) who is now Assisi’s chair. Assisi recently turned 30.

A dreamer and doer, Abadiano pulled out all the stops to make the IPs’ dream come true. He was not disappointed. Help came quietly, like spring water flowing over seeds waiting to burst into life. Pamulaan was among the grantees of the recent World Bank-sponsored Panibagong Paraan funding campaign.

Pamulaan is the fruit of the partnership of various government and nongovernment agencies such as the National Commission for Indigenous Peoples, Assisi Development Foundation, Cartwheel Foundation, the Office of Sen. Ramon Magsaysay Jr., and Ilawan Center for Volunteer and Leadership, which Abadiano also founded.

Pamulaan aims “to create culturally appropriate and relevant pathways of professional training and formation for indigenous youth and leaders.” Assisi Foundation and other foundations have pledged scholarship funds. This means full tuition, miscellaneous fees, dorm stay and full board and lodging and travel expenses to project and practicum sites.

Important features of Pamulaan are the heritage house and library that showcase the richness of indigenous culture. The dorm within the campus gives IP students the
chance to live together, exchange experiences and go through value formation programs.

Pamulaan is not just for the IPs of Mindanao. It is open to IPs from Luzon and the Visayas and to non-IPs working for IPs.

Pamulaan is indeed a great dream whose time has come.

But why is Pamulaan attached to USEP, a government institution? Abadiano says making government one of Pamulaan’s stakeholders give Pamulaan a better chance of sustainability. Pamulaan “is not a fund-driven” project, Abadiano says. There was no funding in the beginning, but the moment the project was made known, funds just poured in. Of course, part of Abadiano’s RM Award prize money (more than a million pesos) was earmarked for this project.

Abadiano is one of a kind, a rare find indeed. Deeply spiritual, this Jesuit-educated development worker is ever on the go. The IPs are the love of his life. It is among them that he experienced epiphany and enlightenment.

There are around 12 million IPs in the Philippines. They could be classified into 120
ethnic groups. Most of them have little or no access to “a culturally sensitive, appropriate and relevant education.” It is their right, both God-given and by law, to receive basic services, including higher education.

The IPs’ rights are enshrined in the 1987 Constitution. In 1997, Congress passed the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act (Ipra) which strengthened their right to be duly
recognized and protected.

But some things are easier said than done. Many IPs continue to find difficulty in relating personally, culturally and academically with mainstream realities. It is hoped that education, such as is offered by Pamulaan, would put the IPs in step with the mainstream while being affirmed as proudly IP or PIP.

Pamulaan hopes to see the IPs proudly “owning” the education program that drew from the life-giving wilderness and communities whence they arose. So while our national leaders continue to engage in verbal and political acrobatics, and while many of us are suffering from political diarrhea and dementia, there are special Filipinos who continue to dream dreams and do their own part as if there indeed is hope for this benighted nation.