Filipino tribal activist can't go home despite UN award

2018 Champions of the Earth award winner among over 600 Filipinos tagged by authorities as a 'communist terrorist'
Filipino tribal activist can't go home despite UN award

Joan Carling, a tribal activist, was one of the recipients of this year's Champions of the Earth award, the highest environmental accolade bestowed by the United Nations. (Photo courtesy of Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact)

What does Joan Carling, a Filipino tribal activist from the northern Philippines, have in common with French President Emmanuel Macron and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi?

Answer: She is a co-recipient of the 2018 Champions of the Earth award, the highest environmental gong handed out by the United Nations. Carling received the accolade in recognition of her work as a defender of environmental and indigenous peoples' rights.

"Her tireless and selfless fight for the environment has made her a champion to peoples and communities all over the globe," the United Nations said in a statement.

Carling received her award at the Champions of the Earth Gala in New York City on the sidelines of the 73rd U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 26. However, she cannot return to her homeland, at least for now, as she is among 600 Filipinos branded "communist terrorists" by the military in a proscription petition filed by the Department of Justice last February.

Carling was also alleged to be a rebel leader in a May 28 memorandum issued by the Philippine police.

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The activist has struggled both at home and abroad to defend the ancestral rights of indigenous peoples and protect the environment for nearly three decades.

Her key concerns include protecting the land rights of minorities, ensuring the sustainable development of natural resources, and upholding the human rights of marginalized people.

Carling served as chairwoman of the Cordillera People's Alliance in the Philippines. She was also a two-time secretary-general of the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact.

In recognition of her expertise, she served as a member of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues from 2014-2016. She is also a member and co-convener of the Indigenous Peoples Major Group for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

"I have dedicated my life to teaching about human rights. I have spent much of it campaigning for environmental protection and sustainable development, so I was surprised to learn that I was labeled a terrorist," she said.

She said it has been hard living in de facto self-exile. "It has uprooted me. I fear for the safety of my family and friends. But I need to stay more motivated than ever. I can't give up the fight for my people," she said.

Carling hails from the Kankanaey tribe in the country's northern region known as the Cordillera or "the land of gold."

"Our land sits on a mineral belt, rich in gold, copper and manganese. It belongs to us, the indigenous peoples of the Cordillera. Yet our natural resources and way of life are threatened by mining companies," she said in a recent interview.

Having spent her childhood in a logging concession, she developed a respect for a diverse range of indigenous communities and cultures.

When she was a student at the University of the Philippines, she took part in immersion activities in indigenous communities, where she learned a vital lesson. "When we destroy our landscape, we destroy ourselves. By defending our land, we also defend our future and the generations to come," she said.

Indigenous peoples are not against development, she noted. "We are conserving our environment for the future of humanity. But we cannot do this alone. The global community, governments, companies and civil society must act in solidarity and assume responsibility for realizing sustainable development for all." 

Threats to their safety and security are also what the "lumad," the collective name of the indigenous people in the southern Philippine region of Mindanao, also face when they openly protest against mining companies that have taken over their ancestral lands, or urge the government to stop protecting mining and logging interests that despoil the environment.

The Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines works with groups defending tribal Filipinos through its Episcopal Commission on Indigenous Peoples which works with indigenous peoples in their effort to secure justice for themselves, protect their ancestral lands and preserve their cultural heritage.

At the same time, it helps foster among the Christian majority better appreciation of the indigenous peoples to lessen, if not totally eradicate, the prejudices against them.

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