Protect Sierra Madre Movement volunteers follow 'Laudato si' to help Dumagat tribal people in conflict zone
Tribal girls perform a dance to welcome the visitors during the Protect Sierra Madre Movement mission in the village of Umiray in Aurora province. (Photo by Mark Saludes)
It was past two in the morning and the team were supposed to be hitting the road, but they were still busy trying to fit in extra sacks of rice on a pickup truck.
The missionaries and lay volunteers were on their way to a tribal community in the hinterlands of conflict-stricken Aurora province in the eastern part of the Philippines.
Since May, more than 600 tribal people have been displaced because of military operations following an armed encounter between government forces and communist rebels.
On their way to the mountains on June 29, Redemptorist priest Alex Bercasio warned that anything could happen on their way to the hostile zone. "We might be caught in crossfire or banned from entering, but we have to try," the priest told volunteers of the Protect Sierra Madre Movement.
Father Bercasio and his 40-member peace and humanitarian mission team had two goals: to provide food for the Dumagat tribe and to identify the people's urgent needs.
The Redemptorist congregation established the movement in September 2015 in response to Pope Francis' call to bring to life his encyclical Laudato si' in which he called for global action against consumerism, irresponsible development, environmental degradation and global warming.
"Defending the environment includes protecting the indigenous peoples because they are the vanguards in ecological defense and our guide through ecological conversion," said Father Bercasio.
It took the priest's group 10 hours to reach the banks of the Umiray River in Dingalan town, where eight motorized boats were waiting to take them to a village 24 kilometers south.
The river is the only mode of transport for the Dumagat people who live in the forests of the Sierra Madre, the longest mountain range in the Philippines.
"If this river could talk, it would bear witness to the profound but disturbed peace and human rights conditions of the region," said Father Bercasio. "There are enough compelling reasons for the church to come to this place aside from our mandate to deliver the Good News."
More than 150 families from different villages were waiting at a school where the mission was held.
On May 14, two tribal men were arrested by soldiers from one village and accused of being members of the communist New People's Army. At least 70 families fled from that village after witnessing what they later described as the torture of the two men.
Petty Enriquez, spokesman for the Kalikasan People's Network for the Environment in the southern Tagalog region, said the Dumagat people are generally peaceful and nonviolent. "These tribal families who saw how soldiers tortured and paraded their fellow Dumagats have experienced trauma," said Enriquez.
Most displaced families sought shelter along the banks of the Umiray River while some went deep into the forest.
"Their normal lives were disturbed," said Enriquez, adding that the immediate concerns of the mission were vulnerable women and children.
The families have built shelters made of grass along the river, offering hardly any protection from harsh conditions in the forest.
Mariana, a 22-year-old mother of two whose youngest is five months old, said she had been in her temporary shelter for two months. "I am worried for my children. We have nothing to eat. I don't know how long I can breastfeed them. I might run out of milk," she told ucanews.com.
The young mother walked about five kilometers carrying her two children to the mission to receive five kilograms of rice, cans of sardines, packs of instant noodles and a pack of condensed milk. "This is comfort for us. We will have decent meals for at least a week," said Mariana.
Food is scarce since the Dumagats left their villages. The soldiers prohibited them from going to the forest or from harvesting their crops.
Daniel Ramos, a 62-year-old tribesman, was anxious because he wasn't able to bring his harvest of rattan to the lowlands. "No one dares go into the mountains. The soldiers might mistake us for rebels. It is unwise to wander in the forest these days," he told ucanews.com.
The Dumagats rely mainly on the forest for food and crops that they sell in town. In the meantime, Ramos makes charcoal out of timber he collects. He produces two sacks of charcoal in four days, earning him about US$3.
He said his problem is not the selling rate of charcoal but the price of a kilogram of rice, which is a little more than a dollar.
"My family consumes two kilograms of rice in two days," said Ramos, adding that it is very difficult to make ends meet. "If we need four days to produce two sacks of charcoal, it means we will not eat for the remaining two days until the charcoal is done and has been sold."
Members of the mission cross a rice paddy on their way to a village where tribal people were displaced by fighting between government soldiers and communist rebels. (Photo by Mark Saludes)
Conflict and forced migration
Katribu, a national alliance of tribal organizations, has recorded at least 25,000 tribal people who have become victims of forced evacuation from July 2016 to June 2018.
The group also reported 1,200 victims of illegal arrests and 41 extrajudicial killings since Rodrigo Duterte became president in 2016.
Coordinator Joan Jaime said tribal people are the most affected by the stalled peace negotiations between the government and communist rebels. "The areas where armed encounters take place are tribal ancestral lands where indigenous communities are situated," she said.
Jaime stressed that if the talks resume and both parties pursue a stand-down agreement, "it will be a great relief for the tribal people and will save a lot of innocent lives."
In June, Duterte postponed the scheduled fifth round of formal talks in Norway after the military asked for a three-month delay to further look into the ramifications of the stand-down agreement.
The Philippines has about 11 million tribal people, or 10 percent of the total population, based on records of the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples.
Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, said rights abuses against tribal people in the context of armed conflict cause trauma and irreparable harm. She said conflict destroys their culture and rips apart the social fabric of tribal communities.
Conflicts affecting indigenous peoples are often traced back to long-standing historical injustices and discrimination, she said.
The village of Umiray is only one of many places in the Philippines where tribal people are facing hunger, displacement and social injustices.
Father Bercasio said saving one tribal family from hunger is "a huge leap in the promotion of the protection of Our Common Home and all creations."
He added: "We are part of the environment that God created. It is our duty to protect life even if it means that we have to cross dangerous rivers and forests."
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