Cecilia V. Picache
Head, ICH Unit, National Commission for Culture and the Arts

The Philippine archipelago is home to at least eight y ethnic groups that branch out into more than four hundred subgroups. While each group may be distinguished by common traditions, practices, and beliefs, a complex set of variations occurs among the subgroups. The result is a country with diverse culture that is continuously changing through time. The truth is many of its intangible aspects have evolved unnoticed, others forgotten, some irreparably lost, and many remain undocumented.

As the physical manifestation of Philippine culture became easier to comprehend, national laws and policies were crafted for its preservation and protection. Although relevant Philippine laws may not have articulated the term “intangible cultural heritage,” there are specific cultural laws that have already encompassed the concept albeit in broader terms. Republic Act No. 7356, the law that created the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, for example, mandates the formulation and implementation of policies that shall “conserve and promote the nation’s historical and cultural heritage,” and “preserve and integrate traditional culture and its various creative expressions as a dynamic part of the national cultural mainstream.”

The National Museum System, established through Republic Act No. 8492, has the important function of “carrying out research among the different people of the Philippines to define the ethnography of each group, to establish the ethnology and to document for posterity, and to exhibit to the public their traditional and existing cultures, practices, and artistic forms expressive of their culture.” People may be awed by the objects and artifacts they see in exhibition halls, but the knowledge and the entire process that went with creating these objects remain in the memory of the objects’ creators. While heritage advocates would raise their voices against the destruction of a Spanish colonial bridge, not much of a whisper can be heard about saving a dying chant.

UNESCO’s Proclamation of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity was a timely affirmation that helped raise awareness about the value of living cultural traditions all over the world. After that, the concept of intangible cultural heritage became much clearer with the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. The Convention reiterated the call of the Proclamation, encouraging countries to establish national inventories of their intangible cultural heritage and to work towards safeguarding intangible cultural heritage.

When the Philippines ratified the Convention three years later, the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, the policymaking and coordinating body for culture and the arts of the country, initiated an inventory of intangible cultural heritage using available ethnographic literature that covered the most vulnerable domains—namely, oral traditions and expressions and social practices, rituals, and festive events. The fruit of this initiative, single-handedly accomplished by one expert, is a preliminary enumeration of 233 elements that realistically speaking could not cover a very broad field as manifested in the five domains identified by the Convention. But, it was a significant leap for the nation’s intangible cultural heritage.

Even before the preliminary enumerations, the Summary Inventory Form was devised, and more detailed information has been entered into these forms. A database has been designed to incorporate the records into a systematic structure.

In 2009, Republic Act No. 10066, or the National Cultural Heritage Act of 2009, was passed. One of the mandates of the law is the creation of a national inventory of cultural property, defined as both tangible and intangible, which are now on equal footing as the act officially recognizes the concept of intangible cultural heritage. The national inventory, called the Philippine Registry of Cultural Property (PRECUP), is a list of cultural properties considered of utmost importance to the local community and to the nation. A pilot project was conducted in Abra, a province in Northern Luzon, to be used as a model guide for other provinces. The NCCA and the local government of Abra collaborated on this project with local researchers, community elders, and practitioners coming together to identify the important cultural properties of their province.

To gather more information on the intangible elements listed in the registry of Abra, the Intangible Cultural Heritage Unit of the NCCA organized its documentation team to conduct research in the different municipalities of Abra to validate data and record variations of elements as the province is composed of two major ethnic groups—the Itneg and the Ilocano. The Itneg, which submitted the registry, has eleven subgroups. The documentation team also included in their documentation the intangible cultural heritage of the Ilocano ethnic group.

While the pilot project was being conducted, more intangible elements were being documented by the unit in other parts of the Philippines.

The Intangible Cultural Heritage Unit was created by the NCCA within its structure to oversee the implementation of the provisions of the 2003 Convention as well as the intangible heritage concerns covered by the National Cultural Heritage Act.

The unit organizes a research team to document intangible cultural heritage domains in situ. The documentation includes actual processes and social processes prior to and even as consequences of an intangible cultural event. Only intangible cultural heritage elements performed in their proper socio-cultural context are documented; thus it discourages the staging of an activity for purposes of documentation.

The NCCA, through this unit, also networks, coordinates, and cooperates with local government units, educational institutions, local communities, and practitioners to facilitate their participation in drawing up the intangible cultural heritage inventory of the country.

While the registry of PRECUP is basically a list of what is considered significant to cultural heritage, the Philippine Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage (PIICH) is more detailed and comprehensive as it includes the current state and viability of elements. To date, there are 367 elements of intangible cultural heritage included in the PIICH. Some of these elements were featured in the book Pinagmulan, Enumerations from the Philippine Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage, co-published by the NCCA and ICHCAP in 2013. It is but a fraction of our entire intangible cultural heritage, which is so vast that it will take more than one lifetime to record. But the publication is tangible proof that documenting and safeguarding our living cultural traditions can and should be done.