A screenshot from Mr. John Paul Petrola’s study titled “Mga Istorya sang Ati sa Panay: Experiences of Disrespect and Struggle for Social Justice” during a virtual presentation.

A researcher of the National Research Council of the Philippines (NRCP) shared recently the documented information detailing the different forms of social oppression and struggles of the Ati people, a cultural minority of the Panay Island.

In one of the Plenary talks during the Annual Scientific Conference and 17th General Membership Assembly of the NRCP Visayas Regional Cluster held last October 20, 2020 via an online platform, Mr. John Paul Petrola shared that the Ati people have a long history of struggles in terms of social rights and recognition such as basic social services, health and food security, employment opportunities, and rights recognition and protection as members of the Filipino society. Mr. Petrola is a member of the NRCP Division of Social Sciences and a research faculty from the Center for Heritage and Indigenous Cultures, the University of San Agustin.

The Ati people are acknowledged as indigenous people of the Panay Island belonging to the Negritos of the Philippines whose communities are distributed across the provinces of Aklan, Capiz to the north, Antique to the west, and Iloilo on the southeast. They share common physical traits with those of other Negritos such as the Aeta and Agta, having short and lean body build, kinky hair, dark chocolate-brown to almost black skin, round eyes and broad nose. They normally inhabit the mountains of Panay and settle in areas with good water supply. They have a very traditional way of life and rely on forest resources for their food, shelter, medicines and other necessities. Ati’s history and origins are traditionally recounted during the Ati-Atihan Festival; however, “their basic social rights have continuously been unmet by the government,” Petrola pointed.

The ever growing urbanization and ecotourism in the Region have swamped many of the Ati communities especially those of Malay, Aklan.

“For more than three decades, the Ati suffered from land grabbing and displacement from their ancestral domain which have been turned into commercial district,” narrated Petrola. One of the more familiar examples of land conversion is the Bulabog Beach of the Boracay Island which pushed the Ati to retreat into mountains and more marginable habitats.

These conditions have driven the Ati to landlessness and poverty and many of them resort to begging, Petrola added. Aside from poverty and low level of literacy, other documented issues of the Ati include no stable source of income, insufficient food for the family; and prone to illnesses such as TB, dengue, common colds and asthma.

Studies of indigenous societies are one important tool to understand the plights of the indigenous communities and from these, policy recommendations may be derived to improve the indigenous peoples’ socio-economic and well-being while protecting their rights.

In this particular study, Petrola and research team used ethnography, one-on-one interviews, focused group discussions, and critical analysis over the course of three years to document the social conditions of the Ati people. Among their recommendations that need urgent attention are: education of the Ati people, cultural documentation and preservation, special school for the Ati children, scholarship opportunities for promising college students, and livelihood programs for the Ati men and women.