Lumad women clear the land for planting. Most of the indigenous tribes of Mindanao identify deeply with their ancestral lands and maintain their agricultural society.
Calls for Solidarity to End Forced Migration in the Philippines
By Christie R. House
All aspects of our lives are within our ancestral lands,” said Kerlan “Lala” Fanagel, a member of the B’laan Tribe of Sarangani, Mindanao. He is one of several spokespersons who came to the United States with the Lakbay Lumad tour. “Land is our life,” he added. “The political life, the economic life, and the cultural life—all are here in the land.” Fanagel serves as chair of the PASAKA Confederation of Lumad Organizations of the Southern Mindanao Region. Members of Lakbay Lumad represent a coalition of indigenous organizations in Mindanao that hopes to raise awareness in the United States about what is happening in their ancestral homelands. The indigenous people of many different tribes are in imminent danger of losing their lands in the remote mountains of the Philippines’ large southern island, Mindanao.
The word “Lumad” means the indigenous people—literally, “people of the land.” For centuries the Lumad have held their ancestral land in common ownership. They have raised crops, organized their communities, and taught their traditional ways of life in their village schools—in areas underserved by the public school system.
A series of events have forced people in many of these indigenous communities to flee their homes and to take shelter in evacuation centers in Davao and other more populated areas. The island province of Mindanao is home to 61 percent of the Philippines’ indigenous peoples, a population totaling more than 6 million, defined by 18 different ethnolinguistic tribal groups.
|Youth and children who have had to evacuate their homelands assemble in the bakwit, or evacuation center. PHOTO: COURTESY LAKBAY LUMAD
Since the 1990s, the indigenous communities of Mindanao have experienced harassment, torture, and death threats from military and paramilitary soldiers, all of whom are supported by the government. The official line for the presence of these armed forces is the claim that they are fighting a Communist threat, the New People’s Army (NPA). While the indigenous people have no quarrel with the NPA, they get caught in the middle of deadly military actions. In fact, their whole region has become a militarized zone, according to Argee “Pya” Macliing Malayao, a Bontoc-Igorot member from Mountain Province in the Cordillera Region. He is the secretary general of KATRIBU (Coalition of Indigenous Peoples in the Philippines). Malayao was also one of the presenters during Lakbay Lumad’s San Francisco stop.
“Our leaders, our schools, all our initiatives are under attack by state forces as well as paramilitary groups,” Malayao said. On September 1, 2015, close to 3,000 residents in Surigao del Sur fled their villages after a group of paramilitary soldiers, allegedly accompanied by regular soldiers, killed Emerico Samarca, a teacher and the executive director of the Alternative Learning Center for Agricultural and Livelihood Development (ALCADEV).
After killing Samarca, the armed men shot Dionel Campos and his cousin Datu Bello Sinzo—violence witnessed by most of the people in the village. Campos was a community leader and the chairperson of the indigenous people’s group MAPUSU, which works to protect the ancestral lands of the Lumad and exposes human rights violations that target the indigenous tribes. The Lumad say that 78 of their leaders have died in extra-judicial killings during the Aquino administration. In June 2016, Benigno Aquino III was succeeded by President Rodrigo Duterte.
“This is happening systematically,” Malayao pointed out, “because of the laws and policies of the government of the Philippines, such as the Mining Act of 1995, which allows up to 100 percent foreign ownership of our mineral resources.”
This second challenge that threatens their homeland involves vast deposits of gold, nickel, and copper. This mineral wealth has drawn Filipino as well as foreign multinational companies to the remote areas of Mindanao. The Philippines is rich in gold deposits, and more than half of these are in Mindanao. So, once the armed forces drive the indigenous people away, the mining companies move in.
|A medical mission team at the United Church of Christ, Philippines, Haran Sanctuary Evacuation Site in Davao City in 2015 included a number of members of the Filipino-American Health Workers Association in the United States. PHOTO: COURTESY SALUPONGAN INTERNATIONAL
Though the ancestral lands in question are protected under Filipino law, corporations have applied for concessions in these mountains. In 2013, the Philippine government approved 500,000 hectares (more than 1 million acres) of land for the use of mining corporations in Mindanao. The government also approved another 700,000 hectares (1.7 million acres)—mostly in the lowlands—for monocrop plantations—for rubber, banana, and pineapple production. “This journey is really about our continuing defense of our ancestral lands,” Fanagel said.
Bai Norma Capuyan, of the Bagobo Tribe in North Cotabato, is the chairperson of the Bai Women’s Network, chair of the ASLPC, another indigenous organization, and vice chair of KALUMARAN, a Mindanao-wide alliance of indigenous peoples’ organizations. She represents 138 communities in 11 municipalities. She was one of the Lakbay Lumad members who shared their stories in Portland, Oregon, at the 2016 UMC General Conference, as well as in New York City at the United Nations and at the Interchurch Center. “We are not able to go to our farms because of the military presence,” Capuyan said. She also talked about the third threat that has decimated the indigenous populations of Mindanao—climate change.
Capuyan described the long drought triggered by the El Niño phenomenon. “It has come to the point that our people are catching rats in the field so that we have something to eat,” she admitted. “This is not normal for us, but, because of the long drought, there is nothing else that we can do.” The most painful effect for the community, she said, is the knowledge that their children are going hungry.
To address some of the short-term needs of the displaced Lumad, the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) has been working with BALSA Mindanao to deliver UMCOR funded food-relief packs. These packs, designed to meet basic nutritional needs, are distributed in evacuation centers in Tandag City, Surigao del Sur, and Malaybalay, in northeastern Mindanao. The packs include rice, beans, sugar, oil, and specially fortified blended foods. In addition, UMCOR works with BALSA Mindanao to provide psychosocial support for the children living in the evacuation centers.
Demand for Justice
|Youth from Mindanao joined in with the 2015 International Solidarity Mission to Mindanao. PHOTO: COURTESY SALUPONGAN INTERNATIONAL
“What really pushed us to resort to protesting were the children,” Capuyan said. “To stop their crying, we have had to boil water for them to drink just to fill their empty stomachs.”
With failed harvests, mounting debts, and prevailing hunger, about 5,000 farmers in North Cotabato marched on the provincial capital, Kidapawan City, in April 2016, demanding that the provincial government release the calamity funds that had already been granted for relief. Donations of rice bags were being stored instead of being distributed to the hungry people. By all accounts, this protest, which shut down a highway, was peaceful. The farmers called for the immediate release of 15,000 sacks of rice, dispersal of the calamity funds, and an end to the militarization of their homelands.
This protest happened to take place on the highway in front of the Spottswood Methodist Center. This is a United Methodist church and community center that also serves as the office for the Davao Episcopal Area and its leader, Bishop Ciriaco Francisco.
Rather than receiving rice or negotiations to meet their demands, the protesters were confronted by armed police, water cannons, and bullets. In the confusion that followed, they took refuge at the Spottswood Methodist Center, which gave them sanctuary. The police action killed three protestors and injured 116—of which 21 were critically wounded. Scores of people went missing. In the aftermath, the provincial government decided to prosecute the protestors for criminal acts!
Bishop Francisco defended the role of the church. He gave this statement at the subsequent government hearings that were tasked with investigating this tragedy. “By offering our sanctuary,” Bishop Francisco said, “we are not just being hospitable to our farmers and hungry ones, but we are making them as one amongst us. When we welcome them in our home, our sanctuary, we do not only give our best but we share with them our deep kinship. By offering them our sanctuaries, we recognize their suffering and hopes, their struggles and aspirations.”
Capuyan is a survivor of the Kidapawan City protest. “For three days our cry was ‘bugas, bugas, dili bala,’ ‘rice, rice, not bullets!’” she said. “They responded with bullets.” Seventy-eight protestors were arrested, including three senior citizens, three pregnant women, and some children. Capuyan must face charges when she returns to the Philippines.
Indigenous peoples forced off their ancestral homeland so that outside interests (wealthy migrants), can plunder their resources for personal gain is an ancient story that has been played out and oft repeated across the world and throughout human history.
The remarkable chapter in this story is that the Lumad have the ability to bring together representatives from different tribes to organize responses throughout their many communities. They are not allowing fear and the threat of violence to silence their voices. The common scenario is for the more powerful forces to act with impunity in remote, isolated areas, taking whatever they want. Now, however, the Lumads are using every avenue open to them—legal action, peaceful protest, calls for solidarity, press conferences—and they are partnering with churches, human rights organizations, and other indigenous groups to make their plight more widely known.
The Lakbay Lumad USA pilgrims, dressed in their traditional clothes, have crisscrossed the United States. They have visited the Ecumenical Advocacy Days conference in Washington, DC, and have made presentations in Chicago, Portland, OR, Minneapolis, New York, and seven cities in California. They participated in the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues at the United Nations. All of these actions were pursued after they had exhausted their national channels for justice in Mindanao and in the capital of the Philippines, Manila. If they lose this battle, it will not be because they made too little effort. It will be because the world had eyes, but would not see, and ears, but would not hear.
In the words of Matanem Monico Cayog, a Bagobo tribal leader of Davao Del Sur and chair of the Alliance of Indigenous People’s Organizations in Mindanao who spoke at a press conference during the UMC General Conference as part of the Lakbay Lumad USA tour, “You get killed by doing nothing; it is better to do something.”
Christie R. House is the editor of New World Outlook magazine.
Copyright New World Outlook magazine, September-October 2016 issue. Used by permission.