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Philippines. Fighting together

A group of religious from different congregations oppose, even at risk of their life, the indiscriminate exploitation of natural resources and the violations of tribal rights.

Sister Famita Somogod of the Missionary Sisters of Mary, 48, has been aware of risking her life every day since when she became coordinator of the Rural Missionaries’ project of the Philippines. These religious from different congregations are fighting for the defence of the environment and the rights of the indigenous peoples in the island of Mindanao, in the southern part of the Philippines. Founded in 1969 by the mothers superior of women religious congregations, the Group of the Rural Missionaries, which now also includes lay people, promotes social projects in rural areas and opposes the indiscriminate exploitation of natural resources by companies and corporations. The so-called land grabbing – the acquisition of property often by fraud or force – in Mindanao has been going on for decades. Companies and corporations have raided the forest to export timber or for large scale crops such as those for the production of palm oil, the most widely used in the food industry.

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Underground mining for the extraction of gold and copper is also another factor that has affected the delicate ecosystem in which the local people have lived for centuries. A small part of the primeval forest that once covered valleys and plains, now can only be found in the southern region of Mindanao island. Deforestation went at the same pace as the violation of the rights of the local populations. “I joined the Missionary Sisters of Mary in 1996 and over the years I have always worked in rural areas, especially next to women. – says Sister Famita – When I realised that the rights of these communities were systematically violated, I felt that their demand for peace and justice could not be ignored. My life changed when I acknowledged that the defence of the population and thatInizio modulo of the environment could not be separated, if I really wanted to be close to people, I had to fight next to them, to prevent abuses such as land grabbing, the looting of the forest and the massive use of pesticides”.

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Over the last ten years the Rural Missionaries have documented several human rights violations against tribal groups including the killing of 47 people, five of whom were community leaders. Religious are also engaged alongside the minorities in ensuring that the laws that protect both, national protected areas and the ancestral rights of the indigenous peoples, are implemented. These laws in fact entitle the indigenous groups to decide how to manage the resources of their territory. “Rules protecting Philippine indigenous people are systematically circumvented by agreements between companies and local institutions – Sister Famita complains – Timber, agribusiness and mining companies share the land ignoring the communities who have always lived there, breaking in this way, the delicate balance between man and nature”.

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Laudato Si (Praised be you), Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical has become the Rural Missionaries’ point of reference “It is a light leading our way which makes us feel less lonely”, says Sister Famita. “Loneliness, in fact, is the most  usual feeling that unfortunately we often experience when we denounce the abuses perpetrated in this land. Despite the several requests that we have addressed to the authorities, things have not really changed: companies continue to acquire, drill and exploit the land at the expenses of the population”. However, the work that Rural Missionaries have carried out over recent years has drawn the attention of the international community “We are working on two projects in favour of the indigenous peoples of Mindanao, one is supported by the European Union and the other one by UNHCR  (the UN Refugee Agency) – the religious explains – we are also carrying out  a campaign on climate justice, which at this time, results in asking the government for economic aid for drought affected farmers”. Despite difficulties, Sister Famita, would still make the same choice. “Someone told me that a religious had better care for souls and not for social issues, but at a certain moment, I felt that God was asking me to show my love for people concretely, and I trust my intuition”. (G.B.)

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