Indigenous peoples represent about 10 per cent of the Filipino population and are found throughout the archipelago. The largest groups, the Igorots and Aetas, are concentrated in the mountain ranges of Luzon Island. Thick forests have enabled them to preserve their unique customs and maintain a subsistence economy in relative isolation from the rest of the world. However, between 1960s and 1980s the country’s economic development caught up with indigenous peoples as their traditional lands began to be seized and their survival put at risk.
“We cannot benefit from front-line services and difficult communications prevent us from telling the government what we need,” said Carling Dumulot, Aeta leader in Zambales.
Extreme poverty and marginalisation among indigenous peoples led the Catholic Church to set up in 1995 the Episcopal Commission on Indigenous Peoples (ECIP) to defend minority rights and help indigenous groups find ways to bridge the gap between their cultures and the rest of the world.
Non-formal Education (NFE) is one such way. It involves teaching reading and arithmetic by using non-traditional methods that rely on elements of indigenous cultures.
Offered for free, classes have no age limit, can be held in the open and are flexible schedule-wise with up to three sessions per week, which enables people who have work commitments to attend.
In place in Zambales province since 1983, the programme has been used by Franciscan missionary nuns to educate Aetas, deemed the oldest indigenous community in the country, with its own language and traditions found nowhere else, and traditionally isolated from the wider society.
However this came to a stop as a result of the devasting eruption of Mount Pinatubo of 1991 which forced the entire group, about 40,000 people, to abandon their original territory for the lowlands and the ctiies, a step which serious social consequences for the group.
In a situation in which the authorities have been completely absent, the NFE has proven the only means by which indigenous people can get some education and try to overcome their marginal status.
In 2006, with the assistance of an NGO, Project Development Institute (PDI), and funds from a Swedish ball bearings company, Svenka Kullager Fabriken (Sfk), the NFE was extended to an additional 11 Aeta communities.
In 2007 108 students completed the course and are now able to pass on their newly-acquired knowedlge to other members of their group, thus helping them to step outside of society’s margins.