Indigenous People Struggle For Their Rights

by Fr. Shay Cullen

The leader of the community of the Aeta indigenous people proudly led me around the hillside resettlement community where the 200 or so families were establishing a new village community. Their ancestral village and lands were wiped out in a torrential typhoon and gigantic floods. My mission, helped by the German Church agency Misereor, was to help them resettle and develop basic organic agriculture, coffee, coconut, and mangos. 

As I walked the hillside, I passed dozens of small grass-roofed huts with walls of bamboo matting. Vegetable gardens and the newly planted coconut seedlings, mango saplings and coffee stood witness to the hardworking nature of these people who were once forest nomads. Their mountains are now denuded and covered with tall cogon grass. I saw how they are replanting the trees and reclaiming their
deforested ancestral lands. Their days of hunting and gathering are long gone because of the massive non-stop logging of their rain-forests during the past sixty years by the greedy logging companies of the ruling elite.

Only when there was about 3 percent of the forest left and the best land had been grabbed by coconut and palm oil plantation corporations did the government ironically granted by law  these indigenous people their “rights” to their ancestral lands, hills, and mountains but they were already stripped bare and greatly reduced in size. They are more reservations rather than ancestral domains. That bill that was passed was in 1997, Republic Act 8371 or the Indigenous People’s Rights Act (IPRA) was passed after decades of campaigning by Filipino environmental and human rights groups and international pressure. It gave them nothing what was not already theirs by ancestral right.

The laws are just worthless sheets of paper without rule of law and the political will to implement them and a corruption-free judiciary. In the Philippines, the law is what the authorities say it is, something to ignore, circumvent, manipulate to their own advantage. It’s a game to cheat at, a way to get super rich and a weapon to use against their opponents.

So the logging and the land grabbing of the indigenous communities continues to this day. It has grown worse since the demand and prices of minerals have soared to incredible peaks in recent years; extractive open pit mining has become the latest cruel curse to descend on the villages of the indigenous people.

The government and their business tycoons, in partnership with international mining conglomerates, have passed mining laws that in effect run roughshod over the rights of the people and their ancestral lands, and give the mining corporations, managed by their friends and relatives in cahoots with international corporations, permits for the extraction of minerals: black sand, gold, silver, nickel, chromite, copper ore  and many more valuable minerals that rightfully belong to the people.

Then waving pieces of paper meaningless to the people, the bulldozers begin to rip out the last remaining forests, excavate hills, pollute the rivers and drive away the people. Many thousands have been displaced and turned into refugees surviving in squalid centers.

Paramilitary groups like the Bagani hired to protect the mining sites have been armed by the military and allegedly secretly paid by the Philippine cronies of the multinational mining corporations. They are uncontrolled and are accused of assassinating dissidents,protestors and sympathizers and leaders of the threatened communities of indigenous people.

Father Fausto Tentorio, an Italian missionary of the PIME missionary society was well loved for his peaceful support and advocacy for the rights of the indigenous people who call themselves Lumads. He supported them in North Cotabato but was considered a threat by the mining interest in the area. One morning 17th October 2011, while leaving his rectory to go to the villages, two men on a motorcycle rode up, stopped and the one on the pillion fired repeatedly killing him dead. No one has been investigated or arrested.

Fr. Tullio Favali of PIME, of the same mission, was also shot and murdered for supporting indigenous people in blocking a logging company from ravaging the forest. Many pastors, social workers, and community organizers have been tagged as communist rebels and executed in a similar way.

After taking an active stand in support of the striking sugar workers at the Hacienda Luisita owned by the Cojuangco-Aquino family, the Most Rev. Alberto Ramento, Bishop of the Philippine Independent Church in the Parish of San Sebastian, Tarlac City was stabbed to death on October 03, 2006 when assassins broke into the rectory.

The communist inspired New People’s Army move into these areas supposedly to defend the rights of the people but instead the people are caught in the crossfire as the army go after the communist rebels waging a 45 year long insurgency.

In  February 2013, on Boracay island, the tourist beach for international and local tourists, community organizer Dexter Condez was gunned down while on his way home from a community meeting with the Ati indigenous people. The Ati people have been driven off most of the island by land grabbers. It was his mission. He was the parish worker defending their rights. He too gave his life for them.

This is the most authentic mission in life, being a true Christian by helping others especially the downtrodden and asking no reward other than the privilege to be a follower of the Man from Nazareth. Taking a stand for them is to stand with God.

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