The Micropolitics of Indigenous Environmental Movements in the Philippines


  • Noah Theriault

    1. is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison,1180 Observatory Drive, 5240 Social Science, Madison, WI 53706, USA (e-mail: Fieldwork for this article was conducted through a Fulbright Fellowship, which was held prior to enrolment at the University of Wisconsin. For information on his research interests and publications, see
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I would like to thank the following individuals for their insightful comments on the many incarnations of this paper: Rebecca Austin, Wolfram Dressler, James Eder, Leah Horowitz, Maria Paz Luna, Kirin Narayan, Danielle Theriault, and participants in Dr Narayan's spring 2008 Ethnographic Writing seminar, as well as the referees of this journal. Any remaining shortcomings are entirely my own. In addition to those who sat through interviews and provided documents during my research, I am especially grateful to the following individuals and institutions for their assistance: Linda K. Alburo, Carinnes Alejandria-Gonzalez, Aloysius Cañete, Theodore Murnane, Cleofe Pablo, Jojo Ramos, Lizz Ubaldo, members of Taskforce Bugsuk and Sambilog, staff of the Palawan NGO Network, the Palawan Studies Center and the Center for Strategic Policy and Governance at Palawan State University, and various departments at the University of San Carlos. Funding and other support for this research were provided through a Fulbright Fellowship administered by the International Institute of Education and the Philippine-American Educational Foundation.


Indigenous movements face what Stuart Kirsch has called the ‘risks of counterglobalization’, which can distort their objectives into an all-or-nothing position with respect to development. In this contribution, I explore a case from the Philippines, where a movement originally conceived in terms of indigenous rights grew to include a more diverse mix of constituents and claims. This trajectory has made the movement vulnerable to charges of inauthenticity, particularly since the corporation it opposes has sponsored a parallel indigenous group and fashioned itself as the noble custodian of a threatened marine ecosystem. Nevertheless, the movement's constituents do not evaluate their activities exclusively in terms of its formal objectives or identity politics. For them, organized protest is entangled with the ‘serious games’ of everyday life, including, for example, local elections, struggles to achieve upward social mobility and efforts to redefine ethnic identity. As a result, some constituents see their involvement primarily as a claim to socioeconomic parity and others as a pursuit of the exceptional rights that indigeneity confers. Without attention to such local-level variation, we risk obscuring some of the most important motives and outcomes of indigenous movements — and, as a result, we may overlook the alternative visions of socio-environmental justice that emerge from their day-to-day struggles for livelihood, dignity and empowerment.