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Philippines' rapid growth leaves tribals far behind

Despite analysts' optimism, many in Mindanao are poorer than ever

Philippines' rapid growth leaves tribals far behind

A family of sea gypsies begs at the port of Zamboanga City in Mindanao (photo by Joe Torres)

Joe Torres, Zamboanga del Norte

July 22, 2013

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It takes almost three hours to walk to the village of Marupay in the mountains of the southern Philippine province of Zamboanga del Norte. 

Daktil, a Subanen tribesman in his 80s, sits silently on the steps of his hut. He has just finished eating a breakfast of banana and a piece of dried fish he bought from a traveling salesman the week before.

"We can hardly eat. We have no money and we cannot go down the mountain to sell our produce," he says, adding that villagers, especially the children, are always hungry.

"The government seems to have forgotten us."

He has never heard of the projects the government has promised to help the poor. "We're too far away," Daktil says.

He also did not hear what Moody’s Analytics, a global financial ratings agency, announced early this month, that "positive domestic conditions" will continue to boost the Philippine economy at "breakneck pace."

Daktil will not feel the effects of what the International Monetary Fund predicted, that the Philippines will outpace other Southeast Asian countries with a forecast gross domestic product growth of 7 percent.

Moody’s Analytics said robust investments and household consumption would continue to support growth across the region for the rest of the year.

In the village of Teheman in Basilan province, a stronghold of the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group, Badjaos or sea gypsies live in far worse conditions than the Subanens.

Living in houses on stilts, the Badjaos know no other source of living but the sea. With dwindling catches due to overfishing in the area, the sea gypsies are left with nothing.

"What’s to eat?" asks Furayda as she sits in her hut waiting for her husband to come back from a night’s fishing. "We're worse off than we’ve ever been," she says.

Dulphing Ogan, secretary general of the Kusog sa Katawhang Lumad sa Mindanao (Force of the Tribal People of Mindanao), blames the government's pandering to foreign large scale mining firms and agri-business plantations on the island.

Because of development projects, tribal people in the southern Philippines have been marginalized and "are now deprived of sources for primary production, livelihood and food security," he says.

Indigenous peoples in Mindanao do not even have access to food and other basic commodities, Ogan says.

"[Government officials] should try to eat camote (sweet potato) three times a day so that they will know how poverty has worsened for us," he says.

"Government’s statistics cannot describe the grumbling of our stomachs,” he adds.

Nicole Curato, who is doing post-doctoral research at the Australian National University in Canberra, notes that a number of studies identify the Philippines as having one of the highest income inequality rates in Southeast Asia.

The top 20 percent of Filipino families earn eight times more than the bottom 20 percent. "Put another way, the top 20 percent account for 50 percent of the national income, while the bottom 20 percent's share is 6 percent," Curato says.

She also notes a higher rate of poverty incidence in Mindanao compared to the main island of Luzon in the northern part of the country.

"This is troublesome because unequal economic development perpetuates historical injustice, which usually erupts into social tensions," she says.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) last week released a 59-page report that accuses the World Bank of ignoring risks to the rights of the very people it seeks to benefit.

The report, “Abuse-Free Development: How the World Bank Should Safeguard Against Human Rights Violations,” documents the harm caused to some of the world’s most vulnerable people by bank-financed programs.

Jessica Evans, senior advocate on international financial institutions at HRW, says the World Bank needs to stop undermining its efforts by making sure it isn’t contributing to human rights abuses.

She describes as "fiction" government initiatives to relocate indigenous and other marginalized peoples to new villages, where there are better services and infrastructures.

Catholic Church leaders in the Philippines say "the benefits of a good economy should trickle down to the poor and unemployed."

Bishop Honesto Ongtioco of Cubao says that "as of now the poor and many other people do not feel the good economy” the government is boasting about.

For tribal leader Ogan, he says indigenous people in Mindanao "are ready to aim their bows and arrows, traps and other weapons if needed to defeat, stop and drive away the imperialists destroying their ancestral lands."

But Daktil says: "What can we do? We need to eat first."

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