Davidson Solanki, International Programmes Manager with the Anglican mission agency USPG, reports on how the church in the Philippines is standing alongside marginalised indigenous communities
Large-scale mining operations on the southern island of Mindanao in the Philippines have resulted in the forced relocation of indigenous communities. These people have lost ancestral lands and with it they are losing their sense of cultural identity.
The peopletry toprotest, but how can they fight wealth and power? The government ignores their pleas while allowing international companies to mine the Philippines’ natural resources at the expense of the environment and humanrights.
But the people are not alone. The Philippine Independent Church – Iglesia Filipina Independiente (IFI) – is standing alongside indigenous communities, modelling Christ who stood with ordinary people against those in power.
In May Ivisited the Philippines where I witnessed IFI’s work in the company of Fr Chris Ablon, IFI National Programme Co-ordinator.
We were in Mindanao which is facing many challenges: the island has been placed under martial law following outbreaks ofviolence, and the rights of minority communities are being ignored.
We visited areas affected by mining and heard the stories of some of the indigenous communities.
In one community, the village leader had pain etched onto his face. He was sad because his community had been forced to relocate to make way for a mining operation that had all but destroyed the local environment. Huge swatches of trees had been cut down to make way for roads, leaving the hillsidesvulnerable to erosion,with mudslides and flooding now commonplace.
In their new location, the village leader conceded that his community had been given basic housing, a school and access to transport. But he said this didn’t compensate for the loss of their ancestral lands. This once tightly-knit community is losing connection with ancestral lands, their social and cultural fabric is being torn up, and the people are losing their sense of cultural identity because they cannot easily access their holy places and ritual grounds.
But it was heartening to learn how the church has become a part of the community’s story. IFI is standing in solidarity with the people, lobbying for their rights and promoting peace, working both ecumenically and with the local government; IFI is supporting campaigns and protests and providing legal aid.
Talking to Fr Chris, I learned how, historically, IFI was founded in 1902 following an uprising in which the Filipino people rebelled against their Spanish rulers.
“It’s in our DNA to stand with the oppressed and the minorities whose rights are being trampled on,” Fr Chris told me.
In taking this stance, the church and its leaders are risking a great deal, even putting their lives on the line because those who speak out against injustice make enemies very quickly.
A good example of this is Bishop Carlo Morales, of Ozamiz Diocese, who was accompanying a peace consultant in May 2017 when he was arrested on dubious charges. He was held in prison for over 300 days before being granted temporary release, but his case has still not been resolved. His arrest illustrates a misuse of power that has been a feature of national politics for some years.
I was greatly inspired by Bishop Carlo’s boldness and confidence in the gospel. I could see in him no remorse, but rather a steely resolve to work for peace and justice. After talking to him, I could understand the meaning of Jesus words in Luke 9:23: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.’The theology of the cross became more real and practical.
Mining and human rights abusesare not the only issuesfacing rural and indigenous communities in the Philippines. Poverty is widespread.
The Philippine economy might appear to be doing well, but not everyone is enjoying the fruits of development. There is a huge gap between the rich and the poor – and indigenous people feel their basic rights are being overlooked – so there is a lot of dissatisfaction.
In parts of Mindanao this dissatisfaction has boiled over intoviolence and unrest and, in response, martial lawhas been imposed – with ordinary people often caught in the middle as innocent bystanders.
IFI recently completed a series of fact-finding trips to gatherstoriesfrom the indigenous communities as part of their determination tostand with them in solidarity.
However, the situation is complex because there are those in the church who are in favour of the mining. I talked to one priestwhose congregation do not come from among the indigenous community. He admittedhis congregation wasdivided: while some complained about the environmental impact of mining, others workedfor the mining companiesandrelied on them for their livelihoods.
We discussed this matter further and realised there was a need for congregations to be better informed, even challenged, so they might be willing to take into account not only their own welfare but the rights of other communities also.
To do this, the church has devised a plancalledTransformational Pastoral Congregations toequip and envision local congregations to support the rights of indigenous communities.USPG will contribute some financial support and we will continue to accompany the church on its journey.
Our role is very much to be a reflective and supportive friend able to offer a valuable outsider’s perspective. In the process we will learn a great deal that we can share with churches in Britain and Ireland and elsewhere.
This is challenging work, and it needs our prayer.
Personally, I found this trip to be deeply moving and extremely humbling. I realisedafresh that taking sides with the marginalised means you can’t avoid taking up the cross – and this means be willing to walk the extra mile, to suffer, to take risks and to live outside of our comfort zone.
To me, the priests I met are heroes – putting their lives on the line and persevering in the gospel. This is what I understand to be the incarnational model of Christ.
For more information about USPG’s work in the Philippines, visit www.uspg.org.uk/philippines