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Philippine Church slams violent land grabs from tribal people

Despite legislation to protect them, indigenous peoples in the Philippines face widespread rights violations

Indigenous people from the southern Philippines stage a protest in Manila calling for an end to attacks on indigenous communities in this file photo

Indigenous people from the southern Philippines stage a protest in Manila calling for an end to attacks on indigenous communities in this file photo. (Photo: Kathy Yamzon)

Published: November 25, 2022 07:37 AM GMT

Updated: November 25, 2022 09:06 AM GMT

Two Catholic dioceses in the Philippines have condemned attacks against ethnic tribal people who attempted to save their ancestral land from grabbing by a private corporation in the Mindanao region.

The reactions from Malaybalay diocese and Cagayan de Oro archdiocese came after guards posted by a private company allegedly fired shots at members of the tribal Lumad community at Barangay Butong in Bukidnon province on Nov. 22 as they tried to harvest root crops that they planted.

Lumad is a collective term for indigenous people concentrated in the Mindanao region of the Philippines.

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Six guards reportedly approached them while pointing firearms, forcing them to leave the area at once.

"We cannot go back to our land because their guards won’t allow us"

“More than three of them opened fire. We were nervous because we could see the soil splatter after being hit by bullets,” Angel Pilutiin, an ethnic Lumad, told UCA New.

Pilutiin’s indigenous community has been struggling to reclaim their ancestral area from a private corporation despite securing a ruling from the National Commission on Indigenous People (NCIP) recognizing them as rightful owners of the land.

The NCIP ruled in 2021 that the Lumads in Barangay Buton, Municipality of Quezon, Bukidon province were the rightful owners and possessors of 4 hectares of land considered their ancestral domain.

Analysts say the market price of the disputed land is about 20 million peso (US$352,793).

The Lumads, however, believed the ruling was a “mere scrap of paper” considering that the private corporation has been in possession of their property.

“We’ve been living in the streets because we cannot go back to our land because their guards won’t allow us. We need to harvest our crops from our land because we need to sell them for income,” another Lumad member Lito Castro told UCA News.

Land grabbing is a constant threat to indigenous peoples in the Mindanao region"

Both Pilutiin and Castro claimed that their lands were taken by force and violence about five years ago.

“They just came with their guards and engineers, and they claimed that the land was sold to them by an individual and the property was titled property. They showed a title under a name of a certain person. They told us that that person sold the property to the corporation,” Pilutiin added.

According to the United Nations Development Programme, the Philippines has an estimated 14 to 17 million indigenous people belonging to 110 ethno-linguistic groups. About 61% percent are concentrated in Mindanao, 33% in the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR), and others are based in the Visayas region.

The Catholic-majority nation enacted the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA) in 1997 to protect their rights and their ancestral domains.

Despite the law, indigenous people face violations of their rights and languish in poverty. 

Anthropologist Romeo dela Cruz said land grabbing is a constant threat to indigenous peoples in the Mindanao region.

“The full narrative about their struggles has been veiled with disinformation"

“The island of Mindanao, dubbed as the ‘Land of Promise’, hosts the largest rubber, banana and pineapple plantations as well as huge mining explorations. Around 500,000 hectares of land in the five regions of Mindanao are planted with crops primarily for export,” dela Cruz told UCA News.

He said abuses against indigenous peoples have bred “emancipatory politics” among them, pointing to the involvement of many tribals of the Communist Party of the Philippines to seek redress.  

“The government needs to make them feel our political structure works otherwise with the abuses that our indigenous peoples have been experiencing, it is very tempting for them to believe in the politics of communism,” dela Cruz added.

The Diocese of Malaybalay and the Archdiocese of Cagayan de Oro issued a joint pastoral letter condemning the attack on tribals.

“The full narrative about their struggles has been veiled with disinformation and aggravated with twisted facts leading to the incarceration of their tribal leaders,” said Malaybalay’s Bishop Noel Pedregosa and Cagayan de Oro Archbishop-Emeritus Antonio Ledesma in the statement.

“Threats have also been made to the families that have been dislocated. The community is now at a loss over the disruption of their livelihood and out of fear for their lives. The 95 families are in immediate need of food relief, temporary shelter as well as legal assistance,” they added.

Indigenous people have endured abuses and been killed in their fight against land grabbing and violation of their rights as development projects and large-scale mining explorations displaced thousands in the last few decades.

Since 2016, when former President Rodrigo Duterte came to power, a total of 98 Lumads have become victims of extrajudicial killings and 227 tribals have been arrested, and 27 were subjected to torture by police and military officials, according to the Justice Department.

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