Ben is the architect of an indigenized and parallel education system in the Philippines and is empowering indigenous people to become leaders of progress rooted in their culture & heritage.
The New Idea
Ben is the architect of a movement to bring full economic citizenship to the 14-17 million Filipinos who self-identify as indigenous peoples (IPs). The first course of action is to create access to—and government recognition of—a formal indigenized education system that operates parallel to the non-indigenous system at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels, which Ben already established and expanded through working with different organizations and the government. He recognizes that a culturally-sensitive, values-based education that is accessible at all levels is an integral entry-point in breaking through the harmful experience of exclusion and begin to shape proud IP leaders with a sense to serve and uplift their communities and nation.
The second course, which is to recruit, mentor, and promote indigenous people to positions of trust and influence across Filipino society, is well underway. His engine for this part of the movement is the Pamulaan Centre for IP Education—the first IP Tertiary College in the Philippines—wherein distinct pathways for IP scholars enable them to become leaders of positive change and community development. The courses offered focus on peace, education, environment, sustainability, and cultural preservation, which are areas identified by IPs as the most integral to improving their communities. The curriculum's design integrates indigenous knowledge and culture with standard collegiate course material to give the scholars a holistic, competent, and grounded education. Many of Pamulaan’s young graduates are now positioned to be community organizers, education professionals, anthropologists, researchers, agriculturists, development agents and staff members in influential government and private organizations.
The third course, which Ben is focusing more of his efforts on now, is promoting long-term sustainability and improvement efforts that stretch the impact of the indigenized education system. These improvements focus on establishing informal & inclusive education programs, agricultural innovation for climate mitigation, social business for sustaining communities, and good governance in rural areas. Ben’s efforts go beyond building capacity for IPs by empowering them as leading changemakers with unique skills and competencies rooted in their indigenous heritage and knowledge that serves to benefit both indigenous and non-indigenous populations.
The 14-17 million IPs of the Philippines consist of 110 ethnolinguistic groups who count as the custodians of pre-colonial Philippine heritage and culture. They reside in 65 out of 81 provinces in the Philippines—the majority live in the mountainous regions of Mindanao and Northern Luzon or the coastal areas of Central Visayas—and have a strong sense of community and appreciation for nature with “land as life” being a common indigenous philosophy. They are recognized as the legal stewards to some of the world’s most diverse bioregions that are untouched by industrialization. But despite their role in preserving Philippine cultural and natural heritage, centuries of colonization have imbued a sense of resentment in non-indigenous Filipinos towards IPs who were painted as the antithesis to economic progress and modernization. The deeply ingrained social and economic exclusion of the IPs carried over to the 21st century, leaving generations of indigenous tribes to become the most impoverished, least healthy, and least educated amongst Filipinos. Their vulnerability and marginalization are continually pushing them further into the fringes of society, forcing many IPs to grow ashamed of their heritage and succumb to urbanization at the cost of their land, rights, and identity.
The failure to move IPs out of economic despair is not for lack of programs and initiatives, but because solutions are often shortsighted and unsustainable. Hundreds of NGOs have created programs in the past decades that were ineffective due to copy-paste solutions such as scholarships or livelihood and literacy programs. Although these projects equip IPs to a certain level, they lead to further disenfranchisement due to their design being out of touch with IP sensitivities. Government interventions, on the other hand, lack alignment and continuity due to changing administrations and agendas that have occasionally derailed policy progress, and institutional support for the IPs. Both may bring substantial improvements to IP communities, but they lack the sustained, comprehensive effort needed to reverse intergenerational barriers. Because IPs aren’t co-signed in the design of their economic independence and community leadership, many of the well-meaning programs lead young IP scholars to leave their communities permanently in favor of assimilating to mainstream society and standards.
While IPs are considered amongst the most vulnerable in society with the slew of issues they face—climate change displacement, paramilitary violence or insurgencies, and economic exploitation—they also hold valuable solutions to these problems. Many consider indigenous practices that is centered on community, sustainability, and environmental protection as pillars in rebuilding a society that can combat climate change and extreme poverty. Innovative solutions guided by the values found in indigenous tradition may organically lead to more inclusive, sustainable and eco-friendly initiatives. This opportunity calls for the rise of IP leaders equipped with the skills and mindset needed to determine IP-inspired solutions for the betterment of their community and beyond.
Ben’s architecture of indigenous peoples empowerment through education uses the power of collaboration and partnership . As a result of this approach a national network of IP schools with over 400 members both from government and non-government organizations. Pamulaan as a Center for IP Education now serves as a hub for continuing learning and innovation on various facets and aspects of culture-based education. Private organizations and state departments have already sought Ben’s expertise in replicating the indigenous schools in various levels throughout the country. Through coalitions that Ben has organized such as the PSKE (Pambansang Samahan para sa Katutubong Edukasyan) and NICHE (National Coalition on Indigenous Higher Education), his primary, secondary, and tertiary models of indigenized education are being strategically replicated and scaled. In terms of policy, the Department of Education and the Commission on Higher Education have already integrated indigenous knowledge systems and practices in their curriculums. Regionally, Ben lent his expertise to an organization in West Java, Indonesia that went on to establish an indigenized education system that has sprouted 28 schools since his visit in 2017.
The Pamulaan Center for IP Education also serves as the first IP College Education Program in partnership with a State University—University of Southeaster Philippines. It employs an educational approach with a curriculum and programs that create pathways for a new generation of IP professionals that are equipped to create positive change in their communities. Courses offered are on social entrepreneurship, education, agricultural technology, peace studies, and anthropology. The curriculum's design is owed to consultations with hundreds of IP elders and knowledge bearers, who determined the most pressing challenges, aspirations and needs of their communities as anchor points to ground standard course materials. The Pamulaan formation program is mainly run by alumni of Pamulaan while academic formation is handled by the professors from the University of Southeastern Philippines. The 265 alumni of Pamulaan’s 4-year degree courses are now youth leaders working in IP communities, development organizations, government, and as teachers, community facilitators, agriculturists, anthropologists, and trainers in the private sector. Over 36% work with people’s organizations and NGOs focused on anti-poverty, 27.92% are working for government agencies such as the Department of Education, National Commission on Indigenous Peoples, Department of Social Work and Development, and Local Government Units, 12.07% work in the private sector, and 8.3% are self-employed.
Ben also envisions Pamulaan to become a hub for volunteerism and community-building initiatives. Through programs like YIPEACE (Young IPs Empowered to Act for Community Enhancement) and IP-Led (IP Leadership and Enterprise Development), he is developing capacity-building and leadership mechanisms for IPs as an alternative learning system. YIPEACE is an ongoing engagement with more than 1,200 young people and started with the IP youth coming together to create a shared vision on what they would want to achieve for their communities and the nation. It now includes non-IP youth to encourage a further breakdown of social stigma in light of a shared vision for a more prosperous and inclusive society. IP-Led, on the other hand, targets IP leaders who are mobilized to assist communities through their specialization on either rural health, government, education, women’s rights, entrepreneurship, and peacebuilding. Through learning sessions and on-the-ground training, the current cohort of 250 IP-Led fellows are identifying challenges and needs of IP communities and address them in a systematic, creative, and solution-oriented manner.
Another one of Ben’s strategies for engineering IP education and empowerment has been transforming the Assisi Foundation, a family foundation where he sits as President, into a development powerhouse that has a wide-ranging discretion towards agricultural and health projects for both indigenous and non-indigenous peoples in low-income, rural areas. Assisi now acts a proof of concept for the framework of IP leadership, which Ben has formed in collaboration with IP leaders, as a transformative tool not only in education but also in development work. Since Ben’s assumption of its leadership, the foundation has adopted an IP-inspired approach to development and has pioneered impactful programs in various communities nationwide. From the period of 2006-2019, 2,614 teachers and indigenous knowledge holders were trained in IP education; 2,110 IP farmers were trained in sustainable agriculture; and 509 IP leaders were trained in transformative leadership to help strengthen 36 indigenous people's organizations.
Moving forward, Ben is now setting his sights on two matters: 1) environmental protection through sustainable agriculture and 2) the reduction of extreme poverty through collaboration and collective impact. For the first, he is running IP-CARES—a program that is currently assisting 550 indigenous farmers and youth in creating value in their lands through sustainable agriculture technology, building green enterprises that can help their communities thrive economically, employing high-value crop rotation, and becoming leaders of anti-climate change initiatives like soil enrichment for carbon capturing and forests conservation. For extreme poverty reduction, he is one of the convenors of the Zero Extreme Poverty 2030 coalition, which has banded together 17 influential civil society organizations towards a multi-sectoral approach in addressing extreme poverty. Since 2015, they have reached over 10,000 families of the nation’s poorest, such as IPs, fisherfolk, and informal settlers, in 109 municipalities and 33 provinces.
Ben was raised as an adopted child by an elderly couple from Maigo Lanao del Norte and was self-aware from the start of the situation. His foster parents gave a lot of their time and love in raising Ben as a creative and resourceful person and his father in particular imparted in him a great sense of contentment and gratitude. In a chilling turn of events, Ben found out after his foster parents passed away that they were his grandparents. He was the son of the family’s eldest daughter, who refused to recognize him as her son even at her deathbed. Despite the somewhat unconventional childhood, Ben didn't harbor any resentment and instead, leaned on the sense of gratitude and contentment instilled in him by his foster-father-cum-grandfather.
In college, he was inspired to study sociology by his professor who hails from the Tingian tribe of Northern Luzon. He ventured into Bukidnon, Mindanao for his undergraduate ethnographic research and lived with the Manobo tribe. Struck by their simple yet generous way of living, Ben finally knew that it would be his life’s mission to serve the IPs. After college, he went on a month-long spiritual journey around the Philippines to visit numerous tribes which culminated with the Mangyan tribe in Oriental Mindoro. It is here that Ben first planted a school for the indigenous peoples called Tugdaan, as a way to address the resounding desire of community elders for a school that teaches their youth to value their culture and heritage. With no background in education nor capital, Ben formed a curriculum and school center through the counsel of the Mangyan elders and the Holy Spirit Missionary sisters. He eventually garnered the support of the local government after representatives observed the impact the school had on Mangyan people. After its first year of operation, Tugdaan hosted the first IP National Education Summit and was awarded the following year by the Department of Education as a model school. In the coming years, Ben further refined the methodology of indigenized education and IP leadership and co-established a social business with the community to cover the school’s operational costs.
After spending nine years with the Mangyans and accomplishing the dream of the elders for a competent IP school and community business that was managed by their tribe, Ben decided to join the Jesuit seminary to become a priest. However, during the arduous discernment process, Ben realized that there was more he could do outside the priesthood in light of the immediate and pressing issues. After leaving the seminary, he was recruited by the Assisi Foundation in 2000 to lead the peacebuilding efforts in conflict-ridden Muslim Mindanao. As a trusted figure of the IPs, he was integral in reaching the rural communities and instigating peace efforts during the war. It was through his peacebuilding efforts that he was able to begin replicating his model of indigenized education in the elementary and secondary levels throughout the archipelago. In 2006, after almost two decades of working with and for the IPs, Ben envisioned and established the first tertiary-level program for the indigenous peoples—The Pamulaan Centre of Indigenous Peoples Education.