In the far-end corner of the Bulwagan ng Dangal, a quilt hung high on the walls. An assortment of text and images, of fabrics sewn together by a common call, it extended to a length nearly half the room.

It is still growing. The work known as the quilt of solidarity, Weaving Our Unity, features contributions of 2×2 feet panels from various organizations, national minorities (NM), artists, and advocates, with construction methods varying from appliqué to silkscreens, digital prints to embroidery. According to a Sandugo flyer, the project is “a long-term cultural initiative that aims to consolidate support for the national minorities via creative expression.”

When SANDIWA, a network of advocates for national minority rights, held Sining Sandiwa on 24-29 September 2018 in the University, the quilt proved to be quite representative of the event. Its integrative nature heralds the growing cooperation among communities and cultural workers to raise awareness on the government’s complicity to abuses and infringement of human rights, specifically against people rarely mentioned in mainstream news.

Gina Cambronero, a SANDIWA representative, pointed to one of the textile panels, to some striking words of slain Macli-ing Dulag: “Such arrogance to speak of owning a land where we instead are owned by it. How can you own that which will outlive you?”

Indeed, stories of development aggression were plentiful, as Sining Sandiwa presented an exhibit explicit in its intent to push for social justice. A large piece in bold strokes and color by Archie Oclos had been displayed next to a work by Cyan Dayrit—a collection of map drawings created by farmers and elders of indigenous peoples (IPs) to represent a visualization of time, space, and memories. Both drew upon a heritage deserving greater visibility.

The Sining Sandiwa series included activity workshops, an art exhibit, and a katutubo bazaar. It had 37 official participating artists, with various works depicting acts of oppression against the Moro and IPs displayed over white-painted walls in the basement of Gonzalez Hall. Beneath the paint and between the beads, tales of the harsh realities of IPs slain or driven out of their homes were harrowing and are far from over.

In an ideal world, the Republic Act No. 8371, or the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act of 1997 (IPRA), protects IP rights to “cultural integrity, economic stability, mandatory representation, and ancestral domain”. The rest of this article explores several instances where it has failed.

Mine, mine

One artwork in Sining Sandiwa featured human faces under mud. When the Itogon landslide took more than ninety lives, mostly miners’, over land owned by Benguet Corp., it brought to the foreground the effects of the mining industry on the lives of IPs.

Towards the tragedy, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) released an explanation: Itogon had been experiencing rainfall for a month or two before being hit by Ompong. Its land composition and steep slope, inundated by constant rainfall, loosened the soil to the point of erosion. People were allegedly given enough warning to evacuate but they stayed. Though the landslide was no fault of mining operations per se, some would argue that it was still the mining industry’s fault: had there been no mining operations in Itogon, people would not be forced to live in such places.

The narrative of the mining industry destroying our IP’s lush green forests and its deadly effect remains familiar. Its consequences can go beyond deforestation. Nickel-filled soil, called laterite, gushes down from these mining areas straight to rivers and seas. Coral reefs on the sea bed are affected, resulting to their death or the migration of fish and other aquatic life. In addition, laterite may seep into rice fields and other agricultural lands near these mining areas. With meters deep of laterite soil occupying the top layer, farmers resort to using more fertilizer to temporarily rehabilitate their land for the next agricultural cycle.

Mining firms create job opportunities for locals, it is often suggested. The mining industry, however, is a capital intensive industry, not a labor intensive one. In addition, some locals prefer to remain as farmers and fishers rather than participate in the massive destruction of nature, as with cases in Sta. Cruz, Zambales and in Surigao del Norte. Still, these mining firms may bring job opportunities. In the Cordillera Administrative Region, for instance, people from the Mt. Province have migrated to Benguet to take on jobs provided by mining firms, allowing them to send money back to their families.

The fight against irresponsible large-scale mining firms is herculean. Exploitation happens even worse elsewhere, such as Congo and Zimbabwe, where the demand comes from the international market. Against multi-billion dollar corporations which have power and resources to commit bribery and manipulation, a solution is the election of public officials with strong political will who would bear down on those failing the standards of responsible mining, make them pay the price of their destruction of the environment, and rehabilitate these areas for agricultural use.

Former DENR Secretary Gina Lopez was known to be instrumental in the closure of 23 out of 41 large-scale mining firms: seven of which are in Surigao del Norte, another seven in Dinagat Islands, four of which in Zambales, three in Homonhon, one in Bulacan, and another in Benguet. Five others have been suspended under her watch.

Her appointment to the position was met with vigorous protests from the mining industry. In 2017, the Commission on Appointments rejected her.

Too big for just tubig

Imagine not just being buried in earth but also being inundated by water.

After the Marcos administration forecasted a 2021 water shortage for Metro Manila, and after the Aquino administration amplified the call for new water supply and storage facilities, plans for the New Centennial Water Source Project (NCWSP) have been set to ease the demand on the Angat Dam, currently the sole water storage facility for the area. The construction of NCWSP is projected to cover Angat Dam, whose deficiencies are currently covered by La Mesa Dam, and to meet the increasing demand until 2020. These dams alone, however, would still not be sufficient to meet Metro Manila’s high demand for water which is why Manila Water, belatedly, is proposing the Laguna Lake Project.

These “monster dams” of the NCWSP – as the Aetas, Dumagats, and Remontado call them – will be constructed in the Sierra Madre mountain range. This construction means the destruction of large ancestral and agricultural lands of NM. Jill Cariño, the executive director and convenor of the Philippine Task Force for Indigenous People’s Rights, has reported that Rizal’s NM are being harassed and bribed. With fences erected at the perimeters of their lands and security officers hired to question anyone passing through, their daily grind is at a halt.

Despite the necessity to build new water storage and supply facilities, there are modern technologies that can be adopted to avoid the destruction of Sierra Madre and the displacement of its IPs. Singapore, for instance, implements seawater desalination, which may also work here since the Philippines is an archipelago.

The issue remains: Why are we drowning out small but important voices in the bid to modernize something as basic as water?

Skeletons in the industrial closet

Sometimes, the whims of power can be constitutional but injurious.

After the release of a logo for the 2019 Southeast Asian Games, clamor against it have been loud, even creative. As far as IP issues are concerned, there seems greater urgency to discuss reports of 20,000 Aeta families being displaced, as huge portion of lands in Pampanga, in Tarlac, and even in Zambales are converted and developed into a “premier center of economic growth.” Venues for the SEA Games are included in the project.

Part of IPRA is the issuance of the Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title, legal proof of IPs’ ownership of ancestral lands. However, the process requires shelling out a huge amount of money and consistent legal counsel, both of which the Aetas do not have access to. As government grants permission for investors to buy the land, the Aetas face a fight they can only lose.

New Clark City, also known as Clark Green City (CGC), is believed to be the first “smart, green, and disaster-resilient” city in the Philippines. Its major utility cords will be housed in an Underground Utility Corridor for efficiency. The blueprint for this project follows sustainable design and technology to keep up with the ecological awareness of advanced nations. In addition to those seemingly futuristic plans, at its west is the Sierra Madre and at its east is the Zambales mountain range that will serve as its protection from typhoons. Its lowest elevation is 56-meters above sea level and its central park will be its flood catchment basin, so unlike its neighboring areas which had been submerged in flood due to the recent typhoons, flood at CGC will not be an issue. CGC is not directly above any fault lines so it will be relatively safe from earthquakes.

It is a dream city—but whose dream?

The Philippines is an agricultural country. Despite fertile lands, different bodies of water, and favorable climate for agricultural development, the nation is just about to enter the second industrial revolution while the rest of the world embraces the fourth. Most Filipino farmers are stuck in the carabao-and-plow system. The education system is designed to manufacture overseas Filipino workers instead of directing them to research and development for our own agricultural sector. Imagine the impact it would make in terms of food security, economy, and the lives of the IPs, if only government directed its efforts to initiating collaborative projects with indigenous communities, agriculturalists, and scientists.

The pressing question of the hour: When there massive non-agricultural lands owned by private individuals, why are investors and the government still developing business districts in fertile soil owned by the most vulnerable groups?

When political figures talk about economic growth, they are expected to talk in terms of its determinants such as capital goods, human resources, technology, and natural resources. Seldom will a political figure suggest something like what Gina Lopez once said in a speech for a 2017 ASIA CEO Forum: “I actually feel that the foundation of genuine economic growth is love… is love. Why? Because if you love genuinely, you won’t hurt the other; you won’t kill your rivers or streams; you will pay your people well; you will pay it forward; you will share.. It’s just a whole different paradigm of looking at things.”

Is it really that simple? Inspecting the true intentions of the government for the people–for Filipinos who give and keep them in power–may be less complicated than we realize. When the sentiments of those wronged finally make their way into those enduring expressions of our humanity, our art, perhaps collective response can finally move beyond just seen, for the benefit of those with the least, and for those who have given up the most in the fight for social justice. ■

(Featured artwork created by Archie Oclos.)

(This article was originally published in the Philippine Collegian Volume 96, Issue 1, 19 October 2018.)

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