Carmen D. Padilla
Chair, Culture Committee, UNESCO National Commission, Philippines

Within indigenous communities throughout the Philippines, traditional crafts continue to be practiced despite the limited market opportunities. Considering this situation, government and non-government institutions have taken responsibility and initiated an income assistance program while also exploring possibilities for expanding markets for these communities.

The Non-Timber Forest Task Force (NTFTF) is a non-government organization (NGO) that has done extensive research and field work resulting in a network of organizations who share the same idealism and objectives to protect indigenous communities from exploitation and assist them on issues of land tenure, resource management and livelihood. To ensure the practice of fair trade, the NTFTF established CustomMade, an organization that implements the objectives of NTFTF through handicrafts produced by indigenous communities. CustomMade also focuses on capacity building that ensures product quality without sacrificing traditional systems and designs used in weaving and basketry.

An important component of CustomMade’s policy is their commitment to environmental protection, which helps to put communities at ease regarding any intentions toward their natural resources, a common cause of suspicion toward NGOs entering indigenous communities. Gender equity is another issue emphasized due to the reality within indigenous communities where women are generally relegated to less important roles. The demand for crafts for an expanded market has given the women an important role in the production, which has resulted in more opportunities for their livelihood.

Through the work of NTFTF and its subsidiary, CustomMade, the indigenous communities involved are producing higher quality products that are highly marketable and in demand both in the Philippines and abroad.

Some examples of these products are the woven materials of the Higaonons of the northern region of Mindanao, most southeastern island in the Philippines. This indigenous community was originally divided between warrior and peaceful clans who now peacefully coexist focused on life in the forest and the production of the handwoven material, hinabol, in addition to other crafts.

While the traditionally woven fabric has become a form of income, traditional needs are prioritized over commercial use. Hinabol holds a central place in Higaonon culture. Traditionally, hinabol is given as a gift at weddings, rituals and gatherings. It is also used as a peace offering in resolving conflicts.

On Mindoro island, the indigenous Mangyan produce a traditional fabric called ramit. Ramit is made by the women of the community and was traditionally woven from indigenous cotton seed materials. Women wear the ramit as a skirt with a blouse called balukas while men wear a traditional loincloth or ba-ag. Nowadays, ramit weaving uses cotton threads obtained from commercial and industrial garment producers, mainly of jeans. This recycling of waste threads to use for weaving may not be indigenous, but the skills used in making the cloth are still indigenous. In addition to the ramit, the Mangyans also weave baskets made with buri palm leaf and nito vine strips to create specific Mangyan designs.

A province situated in southwestern Mindanao, Maguindanao is the name of the former ruling dynasty that ruled most of Mindanao island. The woven fabric produced in Maguindanao is the inaul, in which the two ends of the material are sewn together to create a malong, a traditional cloth used as a skirt for women and men, which has many uses and could be compared to a sarong. There is a large demand for malong even among non-Muslims because of the rich colors and the gold threads that are incorporated into the cloth. Like the hinabol and ramit featured here, the malong has received attention from contemporary fashion designers.

These traditional fabrics have been adapted for contemporary use in clothing and accessories, such as bags, home accessories, office items, belts, and boxes for organizers. The use of this indigenous material by creative minds has resulted in a profitable fair trade indigenous production network. Which has in turn provided access to a broad world market for indigenous communities in the hinterlands, uplands and lowlands who now have gained a viable way of improving their livelihood and earning supplemental income to help pay for their children’s education.

We must look to the UNESCO ICH Convention as a guide for the economic, social and moral sustainability of our indigenous peoples. Traditional practices should be applicable toward employment and result in poverty alleviation. Traditions are important, but they should benefit the indigenous communities that practice them. Furthermore, those who produce and deliver these traditional products for general consumption should be careful not to lose the integrity of their communities. The traditional values and beliefs that are of utmost importance to their lives should remain intact, protected, and preserved.