In describing her journey to become a lawyer and land rights activist, Nonette Royo cites the influence of her father – an Indigenous healer, linguist, educator and court clerk – and the variety of peoples she encountered growing up in Northern Mindanao, in the Philippines.
“I saw beauty in diverse Indigenous cultures, their practices, their forests – and defending these domains and forests killed some of my very close friends,” says Royo, now the executive director of the Tenure Facility. “I was sure I would become an alternative lawyer [a lawyer that supports historically marginalized groups] – to use the pen to fight, not the gun.”
Preserving the land rights of Indigenous peoples is increasingly recognized as crucial to protecting forests and nature in the fight against climate change and environmental degradation. But these rights are often unrecognized by governments or, even worse, Indigenous-held lands are forcefully taken from their longstanding custodians. As such, the Tenure Facility supports Indigenous Peoples, local communities and Afro-descendants to use existing legal opportunities to secure their tenure rights and monitor their territory. With this approach, the Facility has already helped groups advance their rights, thrive and protect nature in up to 14 million hectares of land, despite having only existed for a few years.
Royo sees these early successes as just the beginning of a long but fruitful journey. “Akin to sailing a waka traditional canoe, we have left the harbor and trust that the sail is powered not by us but by the effort and wisdom of the very protectors of the forests and ancestral domains, the Indigenous peoples and local communities themselves – and on their own terms, we help them work and sail smoothly.”