Standing for the Rights of Indigenous People

August 19, 2021

Michelle Campos, daughter of slain Indigenous community leader Dionel Campos, leads a protest march calling for justice and the end of killings in indigenous territories in this photo taken in 2015. Photo by Mark Z. Saludes

Reflection by Father Shay Cullen, SSC, Preda Foundation

Indigenous peoples are under threat as never before and need the international community to stand with them as they demand justice, their ancestral land rights, and an end to the exploitation and abuse they suffer in many countries. 

They suffer discrimination, stigmatization, and racism. How disingenuous that is since all people in the world today descended from some indigenous tribal people through the ages.

In fact, DNA tests show that everyone in the world is descended from one common ancestor in Africa. Real science does not lie. The human species emerged in the Makgadikgadi-Okavango wetland.

It was not just any home, but the ancestral “homeland” for all modern humans today. 

Today, there are more than 476 million indigenous peoples that live in 90 nations around the world. According to the United Nations, they make up 6.2 percent of the world population.

They have their own unique languages, culture, customs, and traditions and have ancestral rights to their lands having possessed these from time immemorial. They are people that are capable of self-governance and have survived for many thousands of years before nations emerged in history.

In the last 500 years, colonialism spread across the world and foreign nations invaded the lands of indigenous people, killed millions, and stole and occupied their lands. The indigenous people were infected with western diseases against which they had no defense and millions more died. Others were massacred and driven to the edge of extinction. 

This month, it is 500 years anniversary since the Aztec civilization in South America was wiped out by the Spanish conquistadors. In the Philippines, 500 years ago the Spanish invasion began a war of extermination against the Moro people in Mindanao which eventually failed but they conquered the rest of the Islands.

The aggression and land-grabbing and the attempted extermination of groups of indigenous people are still going on. The murder and attacks against indigenous people in the Amazon rainforest are ongoing as miners, loggers and agro-farming planters have once again continued to invade ancestral lands in search of gold and plantations.

They burn and devastate the environment and drive away from the indigenous people. The Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 declared a cultural genocide was inflicted against the Canadian indigenous people.

As many as 150,000 indigenous children were forcibly abducted from their natural families and locked up in residential schools. Hundreds of children died from hunger, neglect malnutrition, disease, physical and sexual abuse.

The schools, to their eternal shame, were run by religious groups of several denominations but the Catholic Church had the most schools. The children’s human dignity was taken, their language forbidden, their family ties erased. 

“These measures were part of a coherent policy to eliminate Aboriginal people as distinct peoples and to assimilate them into the Canadian mainstream against their will,” the Commission’s final report declares. 

“The Canadian government pursued this policy of cultural genocide because it wished to divest itself of its legal and financial obligations to Aboriginal people and gain control over their land and resources.” 

The greatest moral scandal was government agents co-opting churches into running these schools when in fact what the churches did was against the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth himself. He taught that the rights and dignity of every human being are of eternal value.

Children are the most important in the Kingdom, he said, and whoever accepts a child accepts him. Anyone who hurts a child or drives a child from him or abuses a child ought to be held seriously accountable, according to His millstone statement. (Matt.18:1-7) 

In Mindanao, there are many indigenous groups that are aboriginal people of the island inhabiting their ancestral lands for thousands of years. I mention their names to give them their identity, recognition, and respect.

They are the Subanen, B’laan, Mandaya, Higaonon, Banwaon, Talaandig, Ubo, Manobo, T’boli, Tiruray, Bagobo, Tagakaolo, Dibabawon, Manguangan and Mansaka . They are collectively known as the People of the Earth or Lumad Peoples.

Indigenous peoples groups stage a mobilization to mark the 45th anniversary of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ declaration of Martial Law. The groups lambasted President Rodrigo Duterte over the spate of extra-judicial killings. Photo by Mark Z. Saludes

Although a few Philippine officials object to them being called Lumad since the most nationalistic think that the word is the same as communist. 

“Lumad” is a word associated with the Communist Party and its armed wing the New People’s Army,” the government’s National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) said in the order issued on 4 March 2021.

However, Archbishop Jose Cabantan of Cagayan de Oro, Mindanao disputed this and said the order was branding the indigenous people as insurgents and rebels. “The [NCIP’s] order only reveals its members’ ignorance as to how the struggles of the Lumad have unfolded in Mindanao over the last sixty years,” he said.

“It arose without an ideological agenda, let alone that of the Communist movement.” It arose out of a united people’s concern to defend the rights of the Lumad from the perspective of a Christian faith that is concerned with the least of our brothers and sisters, victimized by both a repressive state and businesses interested in usurping the Lumads’ ancestral domains for profit,” he said. 

All in all,  the indigenous people are estimated to comprise fifteen percent of the country’s total population of about 100 million (Journal of Philippine Statistics, 2008: 92).  As many as 71 indigenous leaders have been killed by paramilitary groups in recent years.

They are tasked to drive the people from their ancestral lands so that mining corporations and palm-oil plantations owned by agri-corporations can continue to move in and take the land for their mining and plantations and they are destroying the environment and remaining forests in the process. 

All this is against Philippine law, the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act of 1997. The law is supposed to protect the rights of the indigenous people. However, like many laws in the Philippines, they don’t apply to the rich and powerful politicians and their business cronies.

Some big business corporations supported by their “elected” cronies and puppets in government work to grab the forests, minerals, water, land, and resources of the indigenous people and grow incredibly rich.

Indigenous peoples need honest rulers of integrity who believe in the rule of law and are supported by an enlightened public that supports and lives the values of goodness, justice, and their rights. 

Irish missionary Father Shay Cullen, SSC, established the Preda Foundation in Olongapo City in the Philippines in 1974 to promote human rights and the rights of children, especially victims of sex abuse. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of OeconoMedia.

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