Last night, Rodrigo Duterte gave the shortest State of the Nation Address (SONA) of his presidential career. Clocking in at a brief 50 minutes, he avoided off-the-cuff remarks, veered away from obscenities, and also declined to mention the ongoing plight of the indigenous people of the Philippines’ southernmost island of Mindanao, the Lumads.

On Monday, July 15, some 1,607 Lumads were displaced from their rural communities in northeastern Mindanao's Surigao del Sur province after the military had set up camp in their villages for a month. Soldiers had conducted regular patrols, harassing villagers and distracting students as they roved around school campuses, resident Nelson Binungkasa told Davao Today, adding: "The horrors brought by the massacre of our leaders in 2015 are still fresh in our minds."

That summer, Philippine government soldiers allegedly killed eight indigenous people, including Emerito Samarca, a head teacher at a tribal school, and two children aged 13 and 17. The killings marked a low point in relations between Philippine authorities and Lumads, who have long sought to protect their ancestral lands from what they see as an unfriendly central government and a military which does its bidding.


Photo Credit: Phil Warren / Flickr

A Lumad man smiles for the camera in Bukidnon, central Mindanao, Philippines.

Lumads were optimistic when President Rodrigo Duterte was elected in 2016, but the good vibes quickly wore thin. The year 2017 saw 41 extrajudicial killings of environmental defenders, many of whom were Lumads in Mindanao.

As martial law continues in Mindanao, so do forced displacements of Lumad communities.

Duterte has threatened to bomb Lumad schools, offered 100,000-peso (US$1,870) rewards to Lumads for killing suspected rebels, and in March forced UN Special Rapporteur Victoria Tauli-Corpuz – an indigenous activist from Luzon – to flee the archipelago after being accused of links to banned leftist groups. And as martial law continues in Mindanao, so do forced displacements of Lumad communities.

Jomorito Guaynon, the chairperson of Kalumbay Regional Lumad Organization (KRLO) in the northern Mindanao city of Cagayan de Oro, said that while this pattern of government and military behavior is “nothing new,” he feared it would only get worse. The country is in the midst of an evaluation of constitutional changes that may open the doors for foreign investment. These changes, however, scare Lumads who believe their resource-laden lands, coveted by multinational agricultural and mining firms, will be stolen rather than protected.

“Lumad communities are the most vulnerable to the impact of foreign investments, particularly extractive industries,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) Asia Division researcher Carlos Conde told The News Lens. “Unbridled, unregulated foreign investment will be a bane to these communities.”

Bounties and bombs: The persistent NPA link

In a dispatch following Duterte’s bounty announcement, Conde said that offering rewards for killing suspected rebels “encourages war crimes.”

“Such rhetoric is especially dangerous,” he said, “because the Philippines has a history of Lumad community members being on both sides of the country’s many internal conflicts, as both fighters and victims.”

Lumads are frequently falsely accused of being members of the communist New People’s Army (NPA) by military members in a practice known as “tagging.” The Lumad leaders I spoke to for this story all recounted personal experience of being “tagged” as leftists.

Joseph Paborada spoke about his experiences from the humble offices of his group, Pangalasag (meaning “Indigenous Shield”). Based in Opol, a short drive from Cagayan de Oro, Paborada and his group have fought the incursion of palm oil plantations on his land for years – a position which earned him the wrath of the military on an October morning last year.


Photo Credit: Nick Aspinwall

Joseph Paborada, chairman of Mindanao-based Pangalasag, in his group's Opol office.

Paborada, speaking with a quiet forcefulness, recounted that morning, when two 6x6 military trucks pulled up to his home. He was interviewed for about two hours by a battalion commander, who accused him of having ties to the NPA. “I was frightened,” he said, “but I knew that their accusations were not true. Why should I be afraid?”

The encounter caused a local barangay (community) meeting to be postponed, which may have been the intent of the officers. “The battalion commander threatened me,” Paborada said. “He said that if I do not stop being the chairperson [of Pangalasag], my children will be killed.”

Paborada’s brother, Gilbert, was killed by an assassin in 2012. According to the Philippine Inquirer, he had left Opol after being continuously targeted by attacks and death threats.

Paborada, while disavowing any personal links to the NPA, said that bounties would only lead to more killing. He and Goaynon both said that Lumads were already being recruited into government-backed paramilitary groups, such as the Alamara, which targeted those falling on the vaguely defined line between communist rebels and troublesome tribal leaders.

Conde told The News Lens that, should rights abuses continue, “the Lumads will grow ever closer to the New People’s Army" – aside from the NPA, the Lumads often find themselves short on friends. “Unfortunately,” he said, “the government facilitates the dispossession of the Lumads.”

Constitutional changes: A pending crisis?

The Lumad leaders I spoke to in Mindanao and Manila come from distinct communities with diverse backgrounds, but they all agreed that their most pressing issue was the protection of their ancestral lands.

Duterte has long pushed for revisions to the 1987 Philippine Constitution, drafted after the downfall of longtime dictator Ferdinand Marcos, which Lumads believe will threaten their claims to their homelands. Duterte’s ruling PDP-Laban party has staked its proposal for constitutional reform, known locally as Charter Change (or “Cha-Cha”), on the removal of the so-called 60-40 law, which limits foreign corporations to a 40 percent ownership stake in certain industries.


Photo Credit: Nick Aspinwall

Demonstrators participate in a rally against 'charter change' (or 'cha-cha') in Manila on Feb. 24, 2018.

The rule change would be welcomed by foreign investors seeking to ride the wave of the country’s soaring GDP – potentially including those in Taiwan, which in 2017 was the second-largest foreign direct investor in the Philippines.

But Lumads, who see foreign corporations as natural enemies in their fight to preserve their lands, do not trust the government and military to act in their best interest. Leaders I spoke to often accused the military of acting in conjunction with business interests on fertile Mindanao, rich in valuable natural resources.

Lumads will “become even more vulnerable” if safeguards are not put in place to protect their lands, said Conde. “Without improving the existing systems to make sure that Lumads are empowered and are not hoodwinked by the government and businesses,” he said, “there will be conflict and unrest.”


Photo Credit: Nick Aspinwall

Protesters rally against 'charter change' in Manila on Feb. 24, 2018.

Back in Cagayan de Oro, KRLO chairman Guaynon fiddled with the straw of his drink as we sat in a quiet corner of a Krispy Kreme doughnut shop, trying not to be overheard.

“The new constitution would allow [Duterte] to assign dynasties in [Lumad] areas,” he said. “They are already allowing foreign investors to grab the ancestral domains of the Lumads, and they are doing it themselves.

“This constitutional draft would legalize exploitation, legalize land grabbing, and expedite these violations,” he added.

Like Paborada, Guaynon has faced the wrath of Philippine authorities for his role as an advocate for Lumads. He was charged with double murder in 2015 in what he called “trumped-up charges” (which were eventually dropped) and has been tagged as an NPA member. According to the Manila-based Center for Environmental Concerns, Guaynon was arrested again on July 4, along with other environmental defenders, at a regional development conference.

Despite the constant threats – and the relative inattention of the country at large, including Duterte himself – the decision to keep fighting is an easy one. “I'm not afraid,” he told me, speaking calmly and evenly as he twirled his straw. “If we don't continue the struggle, we'll die.”

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