Pristine lands, ancestral domains in Duterte cross-hairs

Environmental, church groups line up to attack Philippine president's treatment of tribal people, mining ambitions
Pristine lands, ancestral domains in Duterte cross-hairs

Indigenous women of the Cordillera, the mountain range in Northern Luzon, call for a halt to militarization of their communities. (Karl Romano)

President Rodrigo Duterte's order to treat suspected supporters of Asia's longest-running rebellion as "terrorists" targets millions of indigenous people fighting to ward off mine and plantation encroachment, environmental and church groups have warned.

More than 100 organizations have attacked Duterte's order for all-out war and request for an extension of martial law on the southern island of Mindanao.

"In just more than a year, at least 42 environmental defenders have been killed," the groups said in a statement following the release of the 2017 Global Witness Report on Killings of Environmental and Land Defenders.

Clemente Bautista, national coordinator of the Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment, one of the main initiators of the statement, said 240 environmentalists face charges and at least 18,263 have been forcibly displaced because of their resistance to "destructive projects."

Priests and nuns said rights abuses in the countryside were linked to applications for mines and plantation operations, which peasants and indigenous people oppose.

"What we see here in the Philippines is connivance between the government and big corporations that have huge interests in these finite natural resources," said Father Edwin Gariguez, executive secretary of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines' social action office.

"These corporations are using state forces to silence opposing organizations and their leaders," he added.

The church needs to raise its voice in condemning the harassment and killings of environmental activists, the priest said.

Neri Colmenares, a former congressman and chairman of the National Union of People’s Lawyers, said a draft joint resolution in Congress would change the constitution and give the president a year with full control of legislative and executive powers.

"In that year," Colmenares said, "there will be no ban anymore on foreign ownership of land or control of extractive industries."

The draft for a new constitution would also allow future assemblies under a federal system of government to overturn current constitutional bans.



In South Cotabato province, hundreds of human rights advocates and indigenous people protested on Dec. 11 the killings of 10 tribal members in an alleged encounter with the military in a village in central Mindanao.

The protesters condemned the military for claiming the victims were New People's Army rebels who clashed with troops on Dec. 3 in the remote village of Ned, Lake Sebu town.

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Sister Susan Bolanio, executive director of Oblates of Notre Dame-run Hesed Foundation, Inc., said Datu Victor Danyan, the slain chairman of the T’boli-Manobo S’daf Claimant Organization  — an indigenous group fighting for their ancestral lands — was well known to government officials.

Bolanio, who just completed a fact-finding mission, said five other tribe members, including an eight-year-old child, were wounded in the incident.


School closure

In Surigao del Sur, a coal and gold-rich province in Mindanao, the military has asked the provincial government to disband alternative schools that serve thousands of indigenous youth.

The schools, including The Alternative Learning Center for Agriculture and Livelihood Development (ALCADEV) in Lianga, are accused of teaching the youths to resist government authority.

The schools were founded with the help of Tandag Diocese, Benedictine Sisters and Solidagro, a Belgium-based NGO working on the right to food for all.

ALCADEV’s students and teachers witnessed the 2015 killing of community elders and its executive director, Emerito Samarca.

Father Raymond Montero-Ambray, of Tandag Diocese, said the military has blocked aid to more than a thousand students and their families forced to flee their homes in November. He also expressed concern for his life, saying he and volunteer teachers of the ALCADEV school have monitored surveillance by suspected military operatives.

Education and organizing in indigenous communities have increased agricultural production threefold, a rarity among Mindanao's tribes, he pointed out.

"This allows them to resist offers to utilize their land," said the priest. "This why they are targets of military operations."

The new attacks, he added, are aimed at forcing tribes into approving coal mining in the Andap Valley, their ancestral domain that is listed as one of the world’s biggest and richest coal deposits.


Northern resistance

In northern Philippines, tribes converged in Baguio City this week, pledging to defend their ancestral lands.

Abigail Anongos, secretary-general of the Cordillera People’s Alliance (CPA), reported 15 cases of illegal arrests and detention in the region. Many of those facing cases are organizers and staff of INNABUYOG, an alliance of indigenous women’s organization in the Cordillera region on Luzon island.

The CPA said the government is helping "corporate mining companies in dispossessing the indigenous people of the Cordillera by awarding hundreds of thousands of hectares for mining exploration." It also cited plans for mega-dams and other energy projects that would destroy vast tracks of ancestral lands.

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