Philippines. The Lumad people: guardians of the earth.

Much of their land has been bought by multinationals and Filipino entrepreneurs. Nevertheless, the Lumad people continue their struggle to defend their lands and culture. We met Bai Ellen Manlimambaas, leader of the Matigsalog tribe, one of the Lumad groups in the Mindanao island.

“We live peaceful and free. We respect the earth, the mountains, and the rivers. They give us our food, our shelter, and our medicine. Our land is our life”. Bai Ellen, 55, is a leader of the Matigsalog tribe in the island of Mindanao. As a tribal leader, she has been at the forefront of the Lumad and rural people’s struggle for resources, land, and the right to self-determination. For actively defending the environment and her people’s rights, Bai Ellen also lives under constant threat.

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She recounts her recent arrest: “It was 5:00 in the morning, and it was still dark. I was already up, building a fire to cook our breakfast. My daughter and her two children stayed with us the night before because one of the children was sick. Our house is made of bamboo and cogongrass (a species of grass) and it has no door, so I noticed the approaching men while they were still a few yards away from the house. I went outside and saw that they were from the military. When they reached me, I asked, “Sir, what do you need?” One of the men asked me, “Are you Bai Ellen?” I said, “Yes.” Then, suddenly, they grabbed me and tied my hands with twine”.
On that day, she and 16 other residents, including three minors, from the village of White Culanan were arrested on suspicion of being rebels.  For the first four days of detention they had nothing to eat. But Bai Ellen barely felt hunger or fear. She found strength in the knowledge she had done nothing wrong. Her detention lasted about a month: the military repeatedly interrogated and coerced Bai Ellen into admitting she was an armed rebel. “They took us out of our cell between 12:00 midnight and 2:00  in the morning for interrogation. They kept asking me, “Where are your firearms?” the woman recalls. “I firmly answered them that my only weapon is my voice and I only want to protect the ancestral land that is inextricably linked to our identity as Lumads”.

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The ancestral domains of Lumad people in Mindanao sit in vast natural resources. Eighty percent (80%) of the 131 mining agreements and permits in Mindanao are located in Lumad areas. The Lumads’ resistance to destructive “development” agendas imposed on their territories resulted to the militarization and displacement of their communities.
In Asia, there is an estimated 100 million indigenous people. Indigenous women face the same challenges brought about by mining projects, monocrop plantations, militarization, and worsening climate change that threaten their survival and way of living. Land grabbing gave way for dams and exploitation of the natural resources by transnational companies, devastating indigenous communities such as in Malaysia, Cambodia and the Philippines. As exploitation of resources intensifies, indigenous women’s participation in the defense of land, culture, and their rights also increase. So are the attacks against them. According to international group Global Witness, Philippines rank the most dangerous place for environmental activists in Asia, and third worldwide

Solidarity and sharing

“Nagkahiusang Mag-uuma sa Barangay White Culaman”, the activist organization  of the village, chaired by Bai Ellen, strongly resists the encroaching of corporate farming and mining, through peaceful means and dialogue with local authorities. Lumad, which means ‘born of the earth’, is a collective identity that was adopted in the late 1980s by the non-Islamized indigenous peoples of Mindanao.

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The Lumads, compose 63 percent of the total indigenous population in the Philippines, which is estimated at 14 million. They continue to practice their customs and beliefs that they have inherited from their ancestors. They live in the spirit of panaghiusa (solidarity) and paghinatagay (sharing) among each other and with the earth. They practice sustainable management of natural resources, based on customary laws and respect for the environment. They consider themselves guardians of the earth, and they perform rituals of thanksgiving during planting and after harvesting.
Lumad women like Bai Ellen work as farmers. They disproportionately carry the burden of work as they also tend to the children and their husbands’ needs. But being a woman does not keep them from taking leadership roles, retaining the customary high regard Filipino women have had in society before the period of colonialism, (second half of 1500).

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The history of the Lumad people is also a history of struggle and discrimination. The movement of settlers from other parts of the country, which started during the Spanish colonization, has driven the Lumad deeper into the last remaining forests of Mindanao. Their territories are also within the terrains of clashes between the guerilla  and the regular army, and thus they are constantly tagged as insurgents and forced to abandon home to find safety, during the government’s counter-insurgency campaigns. Living in the most remote areas, social services do not reach them anymore.
When asked where is the nearest hospital, Bai Ellen cannot tell an exact location. Instead, she quotes how much it would take to commute to get to the hospital, an amount that rural people like her can barely afford.
“We have always been regarded lowly. They look down on us because they deem us uneducated. It hurts the most when they say, “They are just Lumads”. We are human like everyone else”. Bai Ellen says, “We are still hopeful that we will return to our ancestral lands. We hope that other people, even those who are not Lumads, will support us in defending our land that means life to us”. (S.L.)



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