Land is Life, Existence As Resistance: Reflections on Solidarity Trip to the Philippines

This week, some 133 indigenous survivors of Typhoon Pablo returned to their mountain home in Compostela Valley, Mindanao—the southernmost island of the Philippines—after being forcibly evacuated by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) for over two weeks. Last month, I had the opportunity to integrate with this community as a delegate of the 2015 BAYAN USA peace mission. As a REC staff member, I joined the mission with the objective of learning more about the relationship of militarization and counterinsurgency with mining and resource extraction in the Philippines and other countries in the Global South. Little did I know that I was going to get a much closer look than I had expected.

The BAYAN USA Peace Mission was made up of eight US-based Filipino activists and two Palestinian youth organizers from the Palestinian Youth Movement. As international delegates, we were invited on a fact-finding mission to Side 4, Barangay Mangayon in Compostela Valley to document the conditions of the Lumads and distribute school supplies to the children. “Lumad” is used to refer to the 18 ethnolinguistic tribes of indigenous people living in Mindanao, one of the most mineralized places in the world with an estimated amount of $1 trillion worth of untapped mineral resources. The Lumads are at the forefront of the struggle against climate change and imperialist plunder in the Philippines, and have put up organizations to defend their ancestral lands. Because of their active resistance against large-scale logging, mining and plantation agriculture, the Lumad peoples have been subject to increasing state violence and human rights violations in recent years.

On November 24th, the night before our arrival to Side 4, the local organizers got word that the 66th IB of the Armed Forces of the Philippines had encamped outside the school in an empty house within the community. The organizers gave us an orientation on safety and conduct, but they were not fazed and encouraged us to stay in high spirits. They emphasized that our solidarity as international delegates was even more urgent given the situation. Throughout the trip, this sentiment presented itself time and time again—by being in the community and learning the conditions of the Lumad, our biggest contribution as international delegates is to bring back the stories to our own communities and expose the truth of the Lumads’ plight to the rest of the world.

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BAYAN USA Peace Mission delegates and one of our local organizers from Mindanao during our six-hour trek to the Salugpongan School

The community was a two-hour drive from Davao City, a half-hour ride on a habal-habal (a motorcycle with wooden extensions), and a 6-hour hike uphill into the hinterlands. Once there, the students and teachers of the Salugpongan School welcomed us warmly. The school is one in a network of other Salugpongan Schools throughout Mindanao that serve primarily indigenous peasant families with high-quality, free education. They not only teach children how to read, write, and count but also provide culturally relevant education by teaching sustainable agriculture and indigenous people’s history.

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BAYAN Peace Mission delegates hanging out with the students of the Salugpongan School 

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Students of Salugpongan School lining up by for the daily morning flag ceremony

Typhoon Pablo was particularly devastating to this area, and they have received very little substantive government support. Though the storm happened three years ago, the community was still visibly struggling—many houses were still in the process of being built and many households were still working to fully recover their livelihood. We listened to these stories of hardship, but also shared in the joy of the community’s day-to-day lives. We took part in the students’ classes, community farm work, and even participated in a solidarity night of performances that ranged from indigenous dances to songs about Lumad land and life.

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Salugpongan students celebrating their new notebooks distributed by the Save Our Schools network

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Lumad performance during the Peace mission’s solidarity night

Those days of learning from the students and their families were fulfilling and enriching, but in the background was always the brooding presence of the soldiers. Their silhouettes were always within eyeshot—lean figures strapped with massive bullets and assault rifles. The house they occupied was right beside the community basketball court and there were often children playing mere feet away from deadly weapons and the men who were trained to use them.

 

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AFP soldiers of the 66th IB outside of their encampment within Side 4

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The inside of the soldiers’ camp within Side 4, Mangayon in Compostela Valley

The teachers told us that some of the students did not attend class that week because their parents were too afraid of the soldiers. Throughout the week, delegates reported strange experiences like seeing soldiers take pictures of the delegation and hearing tapping on their windows while they were sleeping. These were all forms of harassment and intimidation that the organizers explained as part of the Philippine government’s counterinsurgency program, Oplan Bayanihan. Counterinsurgency in the Philippines often takes the form of the military giving “humanitarian aid” in order to infiltrate and “win the hearts and minds” of communities, while also intimidating civilian activists and community organizers to stop their activities. Just months before, soldiers indiscriminately fired into the house of one of their leaders, almost killing a child who fortunately escaped in time.

The organizers explained that the military were often hired on behalf of mining corporations to pressure community leaders into opening up their lands to exploration. One corporation in particular, Agusan Petroleum and Minerals Corporation (AgPet), has been aggressive in its efforts to enter the region because the Compostela Valley has one of the richest deposits of gold in the country.

Finally, on the last day of our stay, the tension culminated into a highly organized and coordinated community confrontation with the soldiers. The organizers of Compostela Farmers Association and Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas explained to the soldiers that their occupation of public infrastructure was a direct violation of international humanitarian law but the soldiers insisted that they were only there to distribute humanitarian aid to the typhoon survivors. Community members testified that they did not feel safe with armed men mulling around and taking up their resources, but the platoon leader, Lieutenant Danjo Lagula, told us that they could not leave without authority from their commander.

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Community confrontation with Lieutenant Danjo Lagula and the 66th IB of the AFP

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Armed soldier standing several feet away from children and families during community confrontation

Within hours, the community—along with the organizers and international delegates—collectively decided to evacuate the community en masse, or bakwit,  to protest the militarization. It happened so suddenly—families gathered their belongings and livestock in the matter of hours, children balanced large bags on their heads, and a caravan of more than one hundred people started making their way down the mountain without knowing whether they would ever return. The trek was long and treacherous and we did not arrive to the bottom of the mountain until nightfall. By evacuating to the city, the Lumads could make their story publicly known and tell the truth of what was happening to indigenous people all over the country—they were protecting the land by leaving it.

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Caravan of more than one hundred Lumads and allies evacuating from Side 4, Brgy. Mangayon in Compostela Valley

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Empty grounds of the Salugpongan School after community bakwit

Though this community has returned home, the fight of the Lumad is far from over. About 6000 Lumads have been uprooted from different parts of Mindanao in this year alone. More than 4000 Lumads in Surigao del Sur have been in bakwit for over a hundred days because three of their community leaders were brutally killed by AFP-backed paramilitary groups. Up to this day, the killers have still not been brought to justice.

The Lumads are the keepers of the land. They recognize that a system that serves only the interests of a ruling elite and that is based on ecological and social destruction must be torn down and built anew. “We are not just fighting for the liberation of indigenous peoples,” one community leader told me, “but for the liberation of the entire nation of the Philippines.” As US-based activists fighting for environmental and climate justice, we must lend solidarity and support to People's organizations and mass movements abroad that are directly fighting repressive governments and transnational corporations. Only through international solidarity and collaboration on the ground can we truly fight for climate justice, genuine development, and a system that serves the people.

To support the Lumads and their struggle for land and life, please consider donating to Salugpongan International and supporting the Save Our Schools campaign. If you are interested in learning more about setting up or being part of a solidarity trip to the Philippines, please email me at nina@endowmentethics.org.

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