Lay volunteers fan out to protect Filipino tribes

Ecumenical group looks to expand project to assist people struggling to assert rights over ancestral lands
Lay volunteers fan out to protect Filipino tribes

Volunteers of the "accompaniment program" of the Philippine Independent Church cross a river to visit tribal communities in Mindanao. (Photo by Christopher Ablon)

A program to protect indigenous farming communities in the southern Philippines is expanding to other areas where tribal people struggle to protect ancestral lands.

The ecumenical group Promotion for Church People’s Rights is looking at the program of the Philippine Independent Church (PIC) as a model in working with tribal people in Mindanao.

The PIC project involves church workers in pink-colored vests living in tribal communities in what the Protestant Church described as an accompaniment program.  

Discussions have already started among various groups to adapt the two-year old "Lumad Accompaniment Program" of the PIC.

Benedictine Sister Mary John Mananzan said Catholic congregations are already drafting their own programs that will ensure the "protective presence" of church people in tribal communities.

Sister Mananzan said the presence of "outsiders" sharing the tribal people's life "does give some kind of protection" to the community.

The idea to integrate with the tribes came about after a recent spate of attacks against tribal schools and communities that are suspected of harboring communist rebels.

Father Christopher Ablon, who introduced the concept of "protective presence" after being inspired by the experience of Palestinian communities, said at least 30 "accompaniers" have already been sent by the PIC to three communities.

The volunteer "accompaniers," who were trained in conflict resolution and reporting, share their skills with local leaders even as they take part in the daily life of the community.

Father Ablon said the presence of the "accompaniers" cools down tempers and encourages some degree of cooperation from hostile parties.

This month, the PIC teams will fan out across Mindanao and the island of Palawan to introduce the program in new areas.

"The concept of accompaniment goes beyond the prevention or reduction of violence," said Father Ablon. "It means to walk with the people in their journey towards self-determination."

The priest said the program will not end with the end of hostilities. "We’re here for the long term," he said, adding that they will also help in the empowerment of the community.

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