It was 5 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 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.
Bai Ellen Manlimbaas, 55, recounts her ordeal when she and 16 other residents, including three minors, from the village of White Culanan were arrested without any warrant in August 2015. Some of them were released, but 13 leaders and members of their local organizations, including Bai Ellen, were detained on the suspicion of being rebels. They were forced to board a helicopter and brought to the camp. For the first four days they had nothing to eat. But she barely felt hunger or fear. She found strength in the knowledge she had done nothing wrong except fight for her people’s right to their resources and control over their future.
Bai Ellen is a leader of the Matigsalog tribe living in the rural village of White Culaman, Municipality of Bukidnon 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 right to self-determination.
For actively defending the environment and her people’s rights, Bai Ellen also lives under constant threat.
WOMEN OF THE EARTH
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.
Lumad, which means “born of the earth”, is a collective identity that was adopted in the late 1980s of the non-Islamized indigenous peoples of Mindanao. The Lumads, living on the last frontiers of southern Philippines, compose 63% of the total indigenous peoples 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, including their economic, political, and cultural system.
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. Although their land abounds with gold and minerals, they hardly extract them for personal gain. They consider themselves stewards of the earth, their respect of it evident in the rituals of thanksgiving they do during planting and after harvesting.
Lumad women like Bai Ellen work as farmers. They participate in weeding, planting, and harvesting, among others. Like other rural women, they disproportionately carry the burden of work as they also perform the traditional reproductive roles in the family such as tending 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. Being a Bai, or leader, Ellen provides guidance to her community. She also chairs the Nagkahiusang Mag-uuma sa Barangay White Culaman that actively resists the encroaching of corporate farming and mining that threaten their peaceful communal living and coexistence with the earth.
We have always been regarded lowly. They look down at us because they deem us uneducated. It hurts the most when they say, “They are just Lumads.” We are human like everyone else.
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 colonialization, has driven the Lumad deeper into the last remaining forests of Mindanao. Their territories are also within the terrains of the guerilla warfare being waged by the New People’s Army, and thus they are constantly tagged as insurgents and forced to abandon home to find safety during the government’s counterinsurgency 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.
But, more than distance, what keeps the Lumad from fully participating in society is the discrimination they are treated with. “Lumad lang man na sila (they are just Lumads)” and “Wala’y grado (uneducated)” are just a few of the derogatory terms that Lumads like Bai Ellen hear everyday. These stereotypes have kept the Lumads themselves from engaging with non-Lumads, further limiting their opportunities.
The discrimination and stereotypes are exacerbated by a lack of access to education and media. Bai Ellen reached only third grade in school. But through their self-organization and collaboration with non-governmental groups, they were able to build a school within the village that offers 7th and 8th grade education. But now, even the school has been destroyed by the military.
They take us out of our cell between 12 midnight and 2 in the morning for interrogation. They keep asking me, “Where are your firearms?”
During her detention for almost a month, the military repeatedly interrogated and coerced Bai Ellen into admitting she was an armed rebel. But Bai Ellen stood her ground, asserting that her only weapon is her voice and her resolve to protect the ancestral land that is inextricably linked to their identity as Lumads. Their organization has shown their resistance through peaceful means including barricades and dialogues with local government.
Across the globe, indigenous people are suffering the same plight of Bai Ellen and the Matigsalog tribe in Mindanao. Indigenous peoples who are resisting the expansion of international agribusiness in Brazil are being criminalized and killed. The recent assassination of Berta Cáceres, environmental activist and indigenous leader of the Lenca people in Honduras, only highlights these growing attacks against environment and land defenders.
The ancestral domains of Lumad people in Mindanao sit in vast natural resources. According to Kalikasan, 80% of the 131 mining agreements and permits in Mindanao are located in Lumad areas. The Lumad’s resistance to destructive “development” agendas imposed on their territories resulted in the militarization and displacement of their communities.
In Asia, there are 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 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 increases. So do the attacks against them.
According to the international group Global Witness, the Philippines is one of the most dangerous places for environmental activists in Asia. The indigenous rights group KATRIBU has documented 68 cases of extrajudicial killings of indigenous peoples since the current administration of President Benigno Aquino came into power in 2010. Furthermore, the Center for Women’s Resources cites that state forces in militarized areas in Mindanao are perpetrating sexual abuse, including rape, of indigenous women and girls.
We are still hopeful that we will return to our ancestral lands. We hope that other people, even those who are not Lumads, support us in defending our land that means life to us.
After the charges were dropped against them, Bai Ellen joined the rest of her family and other Lumads who sought refuge in the evacuation centers after the military occupied their village and controlled the movement of residents as part of their counterinsurgency measure.
They continue to live in fear. In February 24, 2016, five Lumads, two of them children, suffered burns in what appears to be an arson attack on the church compound where they had been staying.
But despite the continuing attacks, the Lumad people continue to live in hope. Bai Ellen courageously speaks to the media, to authorities, and in front of thousands of people during mobilizations to tell her story and that of her people. And as their story reaches more people, Bai Ellen hopes this will create solidarity for the defense of their land, culture, and their rights.
Chris Sibugon is a contributor from Philippines. This piece was originally published on World Pulse. Sign up to get international stories of women leading social change delivered to your inbox every month here.