Portraits of resistance: The ongoing indigenous struggle in the PH

Indigenous people (IP) remain victims of injustices despite the existence of laws that supposedly protect them. Even before the pandemic started, the Lumad have faced numerous military harassment, even extrajudicial killings, which forcefully displaced them from their ancestral lands for the benefit of private businesses. Such attacks made the Lumad abandon their homes and seek refuge in different cities where youth groups helped them continue their education. 

The intrusion of state forces in these schools, however, reveals how they have become hotspots for red-tagging. James Carwyn Candila, National Spokesperson of the League of Filipino Students, asserts that such operations are considered as “an act of intimidation” against the Lumad. Last month, at least 26 students and teachers were arrested after the Philippine National Police conducted a “raid” in a Lumad school housed in the University of San Carlos in Cebu. Though many were quick to call out the unjust raid, such allegations were denied and masked as a “rescue operation” for children supposedly being taught “warfare training”.

Wielding pens, not guns

The Lumad encompass 15 out of 18 ethnic groups in Mindanao and belong to a different group from the Moro and Christian Mindanao natives. The ancestral lands of these groups are rich in natural resources, which has drawn the attention of both the government and private entities who seek to gain legal ownership of these areas. 

Candila says that the government attempted to “legitimize” the Lumad’s ancestral ownership by giving them land titles. However, this approach, he argues, only serves as a way to commodify the land and allow the government to legally evict the Lumad by selling the same land titles at a low price.

Micah Simon, a volunteer teacher in Bakwit schools, says that the reason mining companies and the government are drawn to gaining access to the Lumad’s ancestral lands is because the area is rich in deposits of chromite, silver, nickel, brass, gold, and other minerals.

The Lumad people, meanwhile, have limited access to quality education, making it harder for them to realize that their ancestral lands were being swindled away, Former EDGE2018 Batch President Reeya Magtalas points out.

Evicted and with nowhere to go, the Lumad appealed to President Rodrigo Duterte in 2017, following the announcement to extend the duration of an imposed martial law in Mindanao at the time, to save their schools, but their calls fell on deaf ears. This would lead to the founding of the Bakwit schools, from a vernacular term that means “evacuation”, that serve as temporary educational establishments spearheaded by local and international youth volunteers from Alternative Learning Center for Agricultural and Livelihood Development, Inc. (ALCADEV) Lumad School and Save Our Schools Network. 

Both non-profit organizations have recently been targeted by the Duterte administration, who accused them of “teaching children to rebel against the government.”

Alongside fighting for their “right to education, self-determination, and right to their ancestral lands,” Bakwit schools take in Lumad children and teenagers as a short-term solution for them to continue their education, says Br. Andrew Gonzalez FSC College of Education (BAGCED) College President Leonna Gula. 

Compared to “commercialized, colonial, and anti-democratic” schools under the Department of Education (DepEd), the Lumad schools, Magtalas says, offer a “nationalist, scientific, and mass-oriented” curriculum rooted in their culture and way of life. 

“The Lumad students learn [general subjects] through agriculture, so there’s this whole notion of how can what you learn benefit your ancestral lands? It’s basically revolving around hands-on experience in the field, which makes it interesting,” Gula explains the way of teaching in Lumad schools. “They also take into consideration the textbooks and learning English properly for them to be able to better communicate what they’re advocating for.”

Oppression and current reality

In 2017, Duterte directly threatened to bomb Bakwit schools for allegedly operating without permit from DepEd. “Umalis kayo dyan, sabihin ko sa mga Lumad. Bobombahan ko iyan, isali ko iyang mga istraktura,” he remarked at the time. “You are operating illegally and you are teaching the children to rebel against [the] government.”

(Leave, I’ll tell the Lumads. I will bomb them, including their infrastructure.)

Simon says that these threats and arrests guised as rescue operations are not new. Even under previous administrations, such arrests were already happening, but “hindi siya masyadong napapaingay sa mainstream media, lalo na ‘pag ang nangyayari ay sa Mindanao,she laments.

(It’s not talked about as much in mainstream media, especially when the arrests happen in Mindanao.)

Marielle Calicdan, a member of the Alliance of Concerned Students in University of the Philippines Baguio, echoes Simon’s statements, noting that some Lumad have referred to the military as the ‘bridge’ of big companies to reach their self-serving goals by killing land defenders.”

The recent attacks on Bakwit schools seemingly empowered state forces to intrude on educational institutions. But Simon and Calicdan maintain that the government had no business intervening in the way they had. “Sila (government) yung rason kung bakit nagkaroon ng Bakwit school, so kumbaga wala ka na ngang naitulong, guguluhin mo pa,” Simon says.

(They (government) are the reason why Bakwit schools were created in the first place, so them intruding is only making things worse.)

Almost three months after the arrest, seven of the 26 arrested in Cebu are still detained in separate cells. All of them were recently reported to experience health deteriorations due to poor jail conditions. Meanwhile, the police remain to lack measures to address such concerns of the detainees.

Thirteen other Lumad children, on the other hand, were transported to Davao, supposedly without parental consent while one of the Lumad children put under the watch of DSWD in Cebu was successfully retrieved by his father last March 12 through a habeas petition. The remaining Lumad children in DSWD-7 were then forcefully transported to General Santos City last April 10.

Resist and educate

Despite the onset of the pandemic, the Lumad continue to resist injustices for the sake of their ancestral lands, culture, and access to education. Simon recognizes how social media helped raise awareness on their ongoing struggle but argues that the movement should not stop there. “‘Yung tunay na laban, labas dito sa apat na sulok ng ating internet,” she reiterates. 

(The fight [against injustices] transcends the four corners of the internet.)

The College of Education Government’s (CEG) projects for this year are centered around the vision of BAGCED students being “effective Lasallian educators” and “effective citizens of the country”. In an interview with The LaSallian, Gula discusses some of the activities that aim to raise awareness among DLSU students with regard to the indigenous communities and their struggle for quality education. 

“To be effective teachers and be effective citizens of the country is to understand why the Bakwit schools teach in this certain way and why it’s important to respect [those] teaching methods,” she elaborates.

The curriculum of Lumad schools which the government fears, says Calicdan, shall continue to carry out its mission of bridging quality education and Lumad youth amid government-backed attacks. If these and the relegation of IPs continue, she sees the government as “self-serving” and “does not serve for the interest of the masses at all.”

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