The Church Journeying With the Indigenous Peoples’ Right To Self Determination

Iglesia Filipina Independiente’s Statement

“In him we live and move and have our being, for we are indeed his offspring.” (Acts 17:28)

We are no stranger to the struggles of the Lumad – how fear of harm and death lingers among their communities, how they suffer brutal conditions, how stereotypes limit them. All their hardship has been broadcast in the news.

We should not see their fight as one from the distant South. The Lumad should humanize for Filipinos the collective struggle of some 14-17 million indigenous people of the Philippines.

The Indigenous Peoples Rights Act is a landmark law not only for the Philippines but also for the international community. It is the pillar of all our laws related to indigenous communities. Essentially, it recognizes the diversity in the country, and grants the indigenous people their right to govern themselves by granting them their own territory.

There are cracks in implementation, however. Big business contests their claim to their own land, transforming them into plantations and logging or mining sites. Being bound to Mother Nature, they are most vulnerable to the impacts of environmental damage of mainstream origin.

Some communities keep evacuating because of threats to peace. Reports point to indigenous people being armed and ordered to kill their own people. Many cannot thrive because of the absence of basic social services. Projects are implemented in several ancestral territories without their input and consent, and end up damaging instead of nurturing them. Many see themselves as products and services, or engage in harmful and unsustainable livelihoods just to feed their families.

We need to look at how we, as individuals, look at the katutubo, too. Misconceptions about them abound. Many people from mainstream societies think they are dirty or uncivilized; that they have attitudes that should be feared. Some contract them for work and pay them less for the same effort as lowlanders. Not a few think the indigenous people are less than they are – that whatever these peoples do, they will never succeed or achieve more than people from the mainstream can.

We should see the indigenous people from a different, more Christian light.

First, we should treat them with gratitude, because they are our living connection to our past and, in many parts of the country, they led revolts to reclaim our freedom. Many of them resisted the power and influence of our conquerors, no matter how much danger opposition posed.

Second, we should look at them as examples. Many of them continue to live simple lives. They are not vain and materialistic; they do not overemphasize a need for personal belonging and instead look at things as a property of the group. They respect Nature as a giver of life, and have advanced knowledge we can use in agriculture and many other human endeavours.

The Bible tells us: “And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for “‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’” (Acts 17: 26-28)

Let this remind us all of a fundamental teaching of Christianity: that we are one. Strip us of our clothes, disregard where we come from, our creeds and colors, and what is left is the fact we are all human.

To make ourselves instrumental in addressing the issues facing the indigenous people, we should stop looking at their struggle as “theirs,” thinking “they” are not “us.”  We are all humans and should expect the same rights; we are all Filipino and should demand the same privileges. Ultimately, what we have, they should have, too.

It was in 1986 when some indigenous people from Mindanao thought to congregate and call themselves Lumad, to differentiate themselves from the Christians and Moros. They did it because they wanted to assert their own right to self-determination. They thought their demand was as legitimate and pressing as the Moro demand, with more and more people migrating to their land and using, even disrespecting, what they thought for centuries was theirs.

“Lumad” is a Bisaya term for katutubo, as Bisaya was the language they all understood. Originally, the term is encompassing all indigenous people. The next time we see news on the Lumad, we should think about the history of the term and how, similarly, the issues encompass all the indigenous groups of the country and all 370 million katutubo across 90 countries worldwide.

The Filipino indigenous groups – from the Lumad of Mindanao to the indigenous inhabitants of the Cordillera mountain range of Northern Luzon and the widely scattered tribal peoples of the hinterlands of Central and Southern Luzon and the Visayas – are among the poorest and most disadvantaged.

Throughout the country, the main concerns are basically the same –ancestral domains are turned into a resource base area for commercial interests, big foreign mining companies destroy the land, and indigenous communities are turned into targets of the government’s counterinsurgency operations.

Even if the government keeps on bragging about its efforts to improve and develop the lot of indigenous peoples, the state’s development policies do not really work in their favor. The sad reality is, following the state’s attempts to enforce its own framework of “development,” the more indigenous peoples are displaced from their ancestral lands.

Government programs are inadequate, and policies are merely halfway measures that fail to offer true ownership of ancestral domains. Only until ancestral domains are genuinely secured against economic and military threats from outsiders, the miserable plight of indigenous people will only turn from worse to worst.

The katutubo were the country’s poorest people, enduring human rights abuses, a lack of opportunities in health and education, and discrimination and exclusion. Indigenous peoples need hands that help, ears that hear, hearts that remind them of God’s love for all humanity.

The Iglesia Filipina Independiente declared 2016 as the Year of the Lumad, and we now carry the struggle of the katutubo as we rejoice the 114th year of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente. With “The Church Journeying with the Indigenous Peoples’ Right to Self-Determination,” we open our doors to the men and women who have lived in the country and maintained their culture, despite peril, since time immemorial.

As August 3 approaches, we keep receiving news of celebrations that reach out to the indigenous people, and continue to encourage others to identify programs to help the indigenous people, to leave comfort to liberate.

The Church stands steadfast with the indigenous peoples as they assert their rights, and will continue to engage the government in a discourse to ensure the safety and protect indigenous communities from development aggression and counter-insurgency operations.

We commend our dioceses that have already implemented projects to familiarize with the indigenous people and fight their struggle; and those that build and maintain the Church among them. We need more efforts in that direction however, if we are true to our identity as a nationalistic, indigenous Church and to the challenge of prophetic witness.

Let us develop more long-lasting ministries to the katutubo. Let us all be good neighbours to them; journey with them achieve real peace, equal opportunities and the right to self-governance. Let us pray, and together work with them that they may achieve the dignity they deserve.

† The Most Revd Ephraim S. Fajutagana

Obispo Maximo

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