Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Defending Our Heritage

Below is the full text of the address of the Rev. Rex RB Reyes, Jr., General Secretary of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines during the Cordillera Day celebration in Toronto Canada held May 7, 2011.

Defending our Heritage

I bring you greetings from your sisters and brothers in the Philippines and from the National Council of Churches in the Philippines. I wish also to acknowledge KAIROS Canada and the churches in the Canada for making it possible for me to join you on this momentous event.

I will not dwell on the Cordillera Day just celebrated in Abra. I am sure you can easily access this in some internet links. So let me share briefly the reason why I am in Canada. Two days ago I attended the Ecumenical Conference on Mining. This conference brought together representatives of the Canadian churches, Canadian first nations, indigenous peoples from various countries of the global south and a few from the United States and Europe. The indigenous peoples from the south came from countries where Canadian mining firms have either began operations or have pending mining applications. Canada is home to 75% of the world’s mining and mineral exploration companies and Canadian stock exchanges raise 40% of all mineral exploration capital worldwide.

I am told of the thirteen trans-national mining companies with applications in the Cordillera, six are Canadian firms. At this conference, the indigenous peoples’ representatives shared common stories of destruction and social erosion as a result of these mining operations. Our message to the Canadian churches was un-equivocable: “Not at our expense!”

In our country, a reason for the easy entry of trans-national mining firms is the liberalized policy on mining as shown by the Mining Act of 1995. Consider some of its features: generous tax holidays, a hundred percent repatriation of profits, and control of hundreds of thousands of hectares of land. For some reason the Supreme Court ruled some of the provisions of the Act unconstitutional only to reverse its ruling later setting the floodgates for applications. Contrary to what we have been told of a 50% share, studies have shown that mining contributed 1.2% to the GDP from 2005-2009 and 1.1% of the total tax collections. The Mining Act is a disenfranchisement for the indigenous peoples as it also declares the state as the owner of mineral resources. These resources are in mountains long inhabited by indigenous peoples.

We are not against mining per se. We are against extractive mining motivated solely for the profit of trans-national corporations and at tremendous expense to indigenous peoples and without regard to patrimony, environmental and ecological concerns as well as the future generations.

It would seem nowadays that the defense of patrimony and ancestral domain is a task only for activists and a few noisy Christians or faith-based groups. To be sure, activists are people who subscribe to genuine social change as opposed to those who prefer the status quo and thus are referred to as reactionaries.

Does this mean that indigenous peoples’ ways are incompatible with activism? In a situation like ours where the reactionary attitude allows the massive exploration and extraction of our natural resources, and therefore promotes social and economic injustice indigenous peoples’ ways is political activism. But far beyond activism is the profound spirituality that digs deep into the inviolable relationship between land and people. This is the tradition that has been passed on to us, a tradition that we parents are obligated to teach our children. This is a rallying point for indigenous peoples in affirming that they are the stewards of the land.

Were it not for this understanding the militant struggle of the Tingguians of Abra to resist the cutting of trees three decades ago would have no meaning; the equally militant struggle of the Bontoks and the Kalingas against the proposed Chico River dam in the same period would have no meaning; the current militant resistance of other indigenous peoples in the Philippines against the intrusion of profit-driven trans-nationals would likewise make no sense at all. Were it not for this understanding, our unity would have been shattered a long time ago.

As stewards, we are deeply conscious that being a part of the land, we have a responsibility for the welfare of future generations. This too, is a tradition that we have received from our parents and their parents before them. Shall we be the generation that shall dare break this tradition because of our negligence and non-involvement? We have seen how in times past and to the present day, state security forces would be used to break our resolve and will to preserve land and life against unbridled extraction and exploitation. Our mothers and fathers before us did that, too. Yet, here we are yet today, strong and resilient. Each time I make my way home to the land of my birth up in the mountains of the Cordillera, I behold the winding Chico River and as I climb to Sagada, I pass through swaying age old trees and hear their welcoming whisper. And I am grateful to our ancestors who have preserved these and I utter a prayer that our rivers, mountains and trees may remain for generations to come.

As stewards of the land, we cannot fully rely on the politicians. We have seen and continue to witness the connivance between some politicians and big business to cause us either to be disunited or to give up the cause of defending our land through deception, intimidation, outright ejection or through legal yet immoral manoeuvres. As stewards, we hold on to traditional values of community and sharing to resist the consumerism that is tearing us into individual shreds. Only the united and collective will of the people nurtured and protected by age-old values will carry us through in the struggle to defend patrimony. We neither romanticise nor idealise these. Rather, we internalise them as relational terms that continue to shape us and establish our identity. Even the churches must recover their prophetic task in this sense.

And there is hope.

There is hope when I see young people heeding the call of their elders to understand the reasons for defending the land and to rise and join the ranks of those who struggle for its preservation, if not for themselves then for those who follow.

There is hope when local governments resist impositions from trans-national corporations often through the national government and its agencies. In saying this, we do not become anti-government. Rather, we are calling government to responsibility to protect the interest of its citizens.  I am very pleased to hear that recently, the Baguio City Council passed a resolution condemning the harassment of the health workers belonging to CHESTCORE, a non-government organization involved with primary health care of the people in outlying areas in the Cordilleras for the last three decades. I am also pleased to note the growing number of local government units who have declared their provinces as no-mining zones and/or environmentally protected areas. There is hope when people who are directly affected by policies study the real and long-term implications of such policies, then unite and address those issues, resisting if need be. It is also good to see churches struggling to be relevant by taking on the people’s issues as their own.

There is hope when even you in many parts of the world are united and vigilant, acting with dispatch by studying the issues in the Philippines and sending your message to government leaders every time human rights are violated. (You are in Canada. Millions more are in other countries. At home more than 3,000 people apply for overseas employment each day.  Some of your children were born here. But, you have never really left home. To be sure, people have a right to migrate. But, it becomes a serious concern when people are forced to migrate and having to endure some of the worst indignities human beings cause to other human beings. Our country endowed with natural resources is one of the most impoverished in Asia, and with a high prevalence of human rights violations as people struggle for genuine social transformation. This is a concern that we cannot face alone in the Philippines. You cannot just watch or close your eyes to these realities. It takes worldwide solidarity.) “Binnadang” is our term to describe that solidarity. These, we have to tell our children.

These are the glorious heritage achieved not without a struggle and for which reason we celebrate today. Only then can we truly dance our dances – bowing in reverence to the land and rising for its defense, waving our arms like the birds soaring to freedom, swaying with the trees and along with the roar of its rivers resonate forever the chant of peace and justice.

Matago-tago tako am-in. (Mabuhay po tayo’ng lahat!)

General Secretary
National Council of Churches in the Philippines.

N.B. The portion in parenthesis was missed out in the oral delivery but was in the outline - rrbrjr


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