Indigenous women at the frontlines of environmental protection efforts

Wawa dam in Rizal
Indigenous women at the frontlines of environmental protection efforts

Across the world indigenous women are rising up to protect their rights and way of life from land grabs, armed violence and environmental destruction – resulting both from climate change and large-scale development. In many communities, it’s these women who lead the fight to manage their natural resources with great strength and leadership, despite the threats facing them. To mark International Women’s Day, Imelda Abano spoke with indigenous women, environmental activists and female reporters covering their stories in the Philippines.

Fighting for their environment and culture

In the mountainous Cordillera Region in the Northern Philippines, the land is rich and fertile. Indigenous people here depend on several important rivers that flow through their communities for food, income and for household and agricultural uses.

But life has changed in recent years with several large dams transforming their lush forests and pristine, free-flowing rivers. Mega-dams, such as San Roque, Ambuklao and Binga, have damaged watershed areas and silted up rivers like the Agno, one of the largest river systems in the Philippines.

In Ifugao Province, indigenous women play an important role in their communities’ opposition to a planned 140-megawatt hydro-electric power project that is projected to affect four municipalities (Mayoyao, Lagawe, Lamut and Aguinaldo) and 81 barangays.

Shirley Kimmayong of the Indigenous Peoples Major Group and a member of the Kalanguya tribe in Ifugao Province, said the planned dam may degrade river ecosystems, wipe out endangered species, ruin beautiful landscapes and submerge places of great cultural and spiritual importance to the surrounding communities.

“The dam will not only affect our land, territories and resources, but also our culture. It will not only submerge our homes but will impact our daily survival,” said Kimmayong.

“No matter how you look at it, that dam is a business and a business only benefits the owners,” Kimmayong continued. “We are not anti-development. But we want development that really benefits everyone, and that includes the environment.”

A few weeks ago, Kimmayong organized an indigenous peoples general assembly, attended mostly by women. They discussed indigenous peoples rights and how they can assert or advocate for them. The women in attendance, she said, were particularly interested in learning more about the adverse social and environmental impacts associated with big dams.

Despite the risks they face in opposing the mega-project, Kimmayong said indigenous groups in the province will continue speaking out to prevent environmental deterioration that leads to water scarcity, contaminates rivers and jeopardizes their identity.

“Indigenous peoples, especially women, have a voice, and we [will] continue our fight to protect our rivers and our ancestral lands,” Kimmayong said. “My biggest hope for indigenous women as guardians of their land and water is for them to raise their voices, to continue speaking out, standing up and taking action on the injustices that they face.”

Women as environmental stewards

Joan Carling, an indigenous rights activist and environmental defender, understands well what injustice means. In February 2018 the government labeled her a “terrorist for allegedly having links to the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing, the New People’s army. Carling, a focal person for the Indigenous Peoples Major Group, which helps address the welfare of indigenous people in Asia, eventually fled the country to avoid threats and intimidation.

“Indigenous peoples’ land and resources are the material base for their self-determination, including in defining their own path for sustainable development that is respectful of the environment to ensure the survival of the future generation,” she explained. “In spite of the commitment of governments to respect, recognize and protect the rights of indigenous peoples as part of their obligations under international human rights instruments, they still pursue full control over the lands and resources of indigenous peoples.” 

By not acknowledging the role indigenous people play as stewards of the environment, ecological destruction will continue, Carling said.

Studies show that ecosystems managed by indigenous peoples are better protected and richer in biodiversity – and indigenous women are the central actors, Carling explained. A study of the muyong system practiced by indigenous people in the rice terraces of the Cordillera region, for instance, describes how indigenous people connect with their forest and rice terraces and promote traditional sustainable forest management through upland cultivation that protects biodiversity.

“Indigenous women also play an important role in the transmission of this knowledge to the younger and future generations of indigenous peoples, which is critical in sustaining not only the protection of the environment but also the distinct cultures, identities and sustainable ways of life of indigenous peoples,” Carling said.

Though she remains outside of the Philippines, Carling continues to advocate for indigenous women across Asia to be recognized as stewards of the environment.

“This world would be a better place for all of humanity if indigenous women are treated with dignity and respect and for their knowledge and sustainable practices to prosper in protecting the only planet we all depend on,” she added.

Indigenous youth as future environment protectors

Katkat Dalon, a 16-year-old indigenous youth leader from a group of indigenous communities in Mindanao known as the Lumad, has vowed to use her education to defend her ancestral lands in North Cotabato.

“I have so many dreams for myself, for my family and for my indigenous communities,” Dalon said. “But someday, I want to be a farmer. In school, we were taught how to plant long-term crops and fruit trees for sustainable production and consumption. I wanted to put that into practice. There must be someone who is still willing to till the soil and produce food for many people,” she added.

Dalon’s community was among those caught in the crossfire of a long-running communist insurgency in Mindanao, driven-off its ancestral lands by a military offensive against the left-wing New People’s Army. In 2017, the military shut down the area’s Lumad schools, accusing them of operating illegally and teaching children to resist the government.

Dalon, now considered a leader to the 96 students attending a makeshift school for displaced indigenous children in Manila, said they experienced massive land grabbing from big mining corporations and witnessed massive forest loss due to large-scale illegal logging. The Lumad have long been resisting the encroachment of mining and logging companies on their land, Dalon said, and she hoped that someday she would be reunited with her family and continue to protect her community.

“I cannot count how many times we had to flee. I miss my family and the simple life in the mountains. I hope we can go back peacefully someday.”

Helping communities fight for their land, rights

Lia Alonzo, the Executive Director of the Philippine-based Center for Environmental Concerns, a non-government organization that helps communities address environmental challenges, said her organization is helping indigenous peoples by conducting research on the impacts of the China-funded Kaliwa Dam project, which will be constructed this year to augment water supplies in Metro Manila.

The dam, which is expected to displace thousands of people, has been met with opposition from indigenous groups and communities living in Quezon Province, Alonzo said.

“In the case of the Kaliwa Dam, water sources will be affected as well as the areas for food production,” she explained. “Families in areas that will be submerged by the dam would have to relocate, a feat that would be burdensome not only for the men but also for the women who have to help out while doing their other tasks.”

Alonzo said the dam would not only displace indigenous communities and destroy their homes, but also destroy ecosystems that communities all along the waterway and beyond depend on.

“The needs of Metro Manila for water should not be pitted against the lives of indigenous people in the upland areas,” she argued.

Forest gatekeepers and protectors

For tribal leader Bae Inatlawan, also known as Adelina Tarino, the role indigenous people play as environmental protectors is paramount.

“Nature is the extension of our life. We need to guard it for the sake of the next generation. We are the guardians of the forests and its rare and endemic species like the Philippine Eagle and the Philippine Tarsier. We also perform rituals to appease the gods to protect us from danger,” Inatlawan said.

Bae Inatlawan
Tribal leader Bae Inatlawan, also known as Adelina Tarino, the highest leader in the Bukidnon tribe in Mindanao.

As the spiritual chieftain (or baylan), she is the highest leader in her community and performs all kinds of rituals associated with her Bukidnon tribe in Northern Mindanao.

These indigenous peoples have for centuries served as forest gatekeepers and protectors of the 47,270-hectare Mount Kitanglad Range Natural Park. Mount Kitanglad, declared a Protected Area in 2000, occupies eight municipalities in Bukidnon. It is prominently known as the ancestral domain of three major indigenous communities.

Mount Kitanglad also hosts over 600 rare and endemic species. According to the Philippine Eagle Foundation in Davao City, birds like the Philippine Eagle require 7,000 to 10,000 hectares of hunting territory to survive, which is why preserving their native grounds is so important.

But Inatlawan’s role goes beyond heading the Daraghuyan Council of Elders. She also mobilized her people to build the Mount Kitanglad Cultural Heritage Center and the Bukidnon Tribal School, a learning center on traditional customary laws.

“These cultural structures are being used to teach the young generation our culture and ways of [life],” she said. “We teach them the indigenous dances, songs, rituals and ways of life so we can pass it from one generation to another. Women are also using the centers to boost craftsmanship and culinary skills, such as mat weaving, basketry, food processing and organic farming.”

Covering women’s issues and the environment

Telling these women’s stories can raise awareness of the issues they face and highlight their role as environmental defenders. But particularly in a place like Mindanao, it’s not always easy.

Kath Cortez, a reporter from Davao City, said most of her stories focus on how people in the community are being affected by armed confrontations between the state forces and the communist groups or Moro armed rebels. This includes human rights violations against civilians and their communities resulting in massive evacuation or even worse, death.

In her seven years as a journalist, Cortez said she has seen a different picture of Mindanao.

“I trek mountains and crossed several rivers to document cases of harassment and intimidations of different tribes and the communities that are against mining, logging or agri-plantations in their ancestral lands,” she said. “I even get death threats, trolling and online attacks, harassment of my news organization and being tailed by unidentified men from my house to work.”

As a community journalist, Cortez’ work is even more difficult than those who work for larger, mainstream media.

“We have a limited budget … and we don’t have protective gear in covering hostile situations,” she said.

“What needs to be done so we, women journalists, [can] withstand threats and continue reporting various issues, especially environmental issues, [is] I think we need to do more about [addressing] why journalists are being attacked for covering and reporting stories that are very significant in society,” Cortez said. “We are being silenced because there is something wrong and they don’t want the public to know about it.”

Ellen Tordesillas, president of VERA Files, said environmental journalists of any gender are exposed to danger when up against powerful, greedy and destructive people.

“But women are more vulnerable. The spectre of getting molested or raped hangs heavy when female journalists venture into unknown or hostile environments,” she said.

Tordesillas advises journalists not to take their safety for granted. Responsible reporting isn’t just about ensuring the content is correct, but also about ensuring the safety of one's sources and colleagues, she added.

If you're a journalist, you can learn more about how to protect yourself here or write to us at [email protected].

Banner image: Wawa Dam over the Marikina River in Rizal Province / Credit: Jopetsy via Flickr


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