Updated: November 08, 2017 04:23 AM GMT
Michelle Campos, a 19-year old Manobo tribal woman, leads her community in asserting their rights to education and self-governance. (Photo by Mark Saludes)
Michelle Campos was excited to go home after weeks away from her tribal village of Han-ayan in the southern Philippines.
During the two-hour trip through the mountains, the 19-year-old Manobo woman was all smiles.
"You'll know you've reached the village when your ass is already numb," she laughed.
The trip was filled with laughter as the motorcycle she was riding plied along a winding trail of mud, rocks, and fallen tree branches.
Campos had been in the capital Manila for several months to lobby for recognition of tribal rights and to protest against alleged abuses committed by soldiers in her community, including attacks on tribal schools.
Her father, Dionel, and two other elders in her tribe were killed in 2015 by militiamen allegedly backed by government security forces.
The tribal leaders were accused of promoting communism through an alternative learning center that has been supported by the Catholic Church.
After her father's death, Campos became the face of the tribe's struggle for justice. She carried on the campaign for an educational system that is sensitive to the culture of indigenous peoples.
The young woman is herself a product of the Alternative Learning Center for Agriculture and Livelihood Development, one of the tribal schools that were accused by President Rodrigo Duterte of "spreading subversive ideas against the government."
Importance of education
The president's allegation was not new. In the 1970s, church workers who introduced education programs in tribal communities were also accused of being communist rebels.
Campos' uncle, Datu Jalandoni Campos, recalled how Catholic priests told the community about the importance of education to fight discrimination.
In was in the late 1970s when Tandag Diocese launched its Tribal Filipino Apostolate that introduced literacy and numeracy programs in tribal communities.
It took more than a decade for the program to transform into an independent learning system under the non-government group Tribal Filipino Program of Surigao del Sur.
"It was the enthusiasm of the community to give children quality education that built these schools," said Bishop Emeritus Ireneo A. Amantillo.
Campos said it was through the efforts of church leaders and the several NGOs that schools were built in 18 communities.
In 2002, the Department of Education recognized the tribal schools and even named them as having the "most outstanding literacy programs" among NGO-run learning institutions.
In 2004, a high school was established in Campos' village for children from 31 tribal communities in the area.
Mining threatens community
Then the threats came, and the killings.
Since 2010, at least 93 tribal people, most of whom were vocal in their opposition to what they described as "development aggression," have been killed in Mindanao.
Campos' late father was himself the leader of a group campaigning against mining operations, large-scale extractions, and oil palm plantations in tribal areas.
In Agusan del Sur province, at least 15,000 hectares of agricultural land has been converted into oil palm plantations. Another 200,000 hectares of land are targeted for the same fate in two other provinces.
Clemente Bautista, national coordinator of environmental group Kalikasan, did not mince words in accusing big mining corporations and plantations of having a hand in the killing of tribal leaders.
"In the mid-1990s, paramilitary and other armed groups were first used as security personnel for these corporate investments," Bautista told ucanews.com.
The Chamber of Mines, an association of mining firms, denied the allegations, adding it believes in "responsible mining [and] respect for human life, human rights, and indigenous peoples' rights."
Father Raymond Montero Ambray, executive secretary of Tandag Diocese's social action program, said the military is also using an anti-insurgency program as an "excuse to harass indigenous communities."
"It is an old strategy that they keep using to terrorize communities that oppose mining projects," said the priest.
In July, armed forces chief Eduardo Ano said communist rebels use tribal schools as training camps.
Father Ambray said the allegations were "baseless, careless, and irresponsible."
Campos said the only armed group that is insisting on entering communities is the Philippine army.
Since 2009, human rights groups have documented the use of school buildings as temporary military camps, something that is prohibited by law, in many parts of Mindanao.
Today, Campos is back at her old school to the warm embrace of her teachers and fellow students. She has a thousand reasons to stay in the village but she knows she soon will have to leave again.
"I have to defend my people's future and our ancestral land," she said. "I must work to get all the support for our school. I have to protect the only treasure that our parents left us."