Displaced tribal people from the southern Philippine region of Mindanao are welcomed by students in Manila where the tribal people sought refuge in this 2018 file photo. (Photo by Mark Saludes)
Julia dreamt of building a small clinic in her tribal village. She dreamt of healing the sick using traditional and Western medicine. She dreamt of becoming a doctor one day.Her dreams, however, were suddenly put on hold. The 16-year-old had to stop her studies after authorities ordered the closure of her tribal school in the southern Philippines.This year is supposed to be Julia's last year in high school, the year when she is expected to prepare for college or university admission.Now, everything has to wait until the Education Department lifts a suspension order on her school, which is run by the Salugpongan Ta’tanu Igkanogon Community Learning Center.Philippine education officials ordered the closure of 55 Salugpongan-run tribal schools for reportedly teaching "subversive ideologies."
Tribal education as a threatOf all the allegations leveled against the schools, however, one thing is true. Students of tribal schools join protest rallies.In fact, students, school officials and parents staged one outside an Education Department office in the southern city of Davao on Aug. 5.Kerlan Fanagel, secretary-general of the Pasaka Confederation of Lumad Organizations in Mindanao, said it is "not the schools" that teach students to assert their rights but "the decades-long tradition of tribal communities.""Indigenous communities in Mindanao have been occupying streets to protest injustices and assert our rights for self-determination even before schools were built in our villages," he said. Fanagel said the government feels threatened by schools that produce future tribal leaders "who cannot be fooled or deceived" because they know how to read and write.Salugpongan schools are located in villages within the so-called Pantaron mountain ranges in Davao del Norte province, a mountain complex where most major Mindanao river systems flow from.In 1994, tribal chieftains in the mountain range formed the group Unity of People to Defend the Ancestral Lands to fight the encroachment of logging.The situation worsened when the military came to safeguard security for the logging companies. Several tribal leaders even declared a pangayaw, or tribal war, to defend their land.
Students of a tribal school in the town of Lianga, Surigao province, in the southern Philippines seen in this 2017 photo. (Photo by Mark Saludes)
Church-assisted schoolsAmid the conflict, the tribal communities, with the help of church-based organizations, set up schools to ensure the education of children in hinterland communities. "It was indigenous people's organizations in Talaingod that built the school for their children," said Maria Eugenia Nolasco, executive director of the Salugpongan community school.She refuted allegations by the military that tribal schools were established by communist rebels to serve as a recruitment hub. In 2003, the tribal group Salugpongan Ta’tanu Igkanugon sought the assistance of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines (RMP) to set up literacy and numeracy programs in far-flung villages. Elenita Belardo, national coordinator of the RMP, said the assistance was part of "the mission of the Church for the poor." She described the government’s allegations against the tribal schools as "baseless and absurd."The tribal schools have been striving "to empower rural communities by teaching children skills and values within the context of their socioeconomic, political and cultural conditions," she said.
Nolasco said schools in at least 10 tribal communities are still operating."We will not allow the dreams and lives of these children to be shattered," she told ucanews.com. "We hold classes because the Education Department did not give us the result of a fair investigation, which is supposed to be conducted before the issuance of any order." Salugpongan lawyer Jamail Lunar Macla said they would use all administrative avenues available. "Then if there is a need to bring the matter before the courts, we are ready," the lawyer said.
Dreams on holdBenedictine Sister Mary John Mananzan, whose congregation has adopted a tribal school in Mindanao, said she is "enraged" because the education of about 2,000 tribal children has been affected."Closing a school based on a report that is part of a campaign to ‘red tag’ progressive organizations is irresponsible and ridiculous," said the nun. A total of 135 tribal schools were closed from July 2016 to July 2019, according to the Save Our Schools Network.Rius Valle, a spokesman for the group, blamed martial law in Mindanao and the failure of peace talks between the government and the rebels for the attacks on the schools.He said these attacks and the displacement of tribal people are due to mining activities that cover the Pantaron mountain range.At least three mine explorations that could cover about 31,000 hectares of tribal lands are awaiting approval from the government."They will do everything to destroy any organization that opposes mining, including schools and church groups that assist indigenous communities," said Valle.The conflict has put the dreams of Julia and other tribal children in limbo. Her dream of becoming a doctor for her village is now in the hands of people who are supposed to be much wiser than the children in the hinterlands.