Under the leadership of President Duterte, indigenous lands in the Philippines are being stolen for corporate development projects that displace indigenous communities. This displacement impacts indigenous women, as the most vulnerable group in the Philippines, in particular. But our grantee-partners Bai Indigenous Women’s Network are activating indigenous women around the country to come together and resist.

East of Vietnam and north of Australia lay a group of islands made up largely of coastlines and rainforests. It is one of the ten most biodiverse countries on the planet. It’s a beautiful place, but also a place that has known violence and oppression, thanks to the foreign powers – Spain, the U.S., Japan – who have fought over its resources. And until this day, albeit in new forms, they continue to do so. But Bai Indigenous Women’s Network (Bai) is working tirelessly to preserve the integrity of the land they love, and the rights of its indigenous inhabitants whose livelihoods depend on it.

Established in 2004, Bai’s mission is to secure and defend indigenous women’s rights to land, resources and self-determination. As a national network of regional and provincial indigenous women leaders, its members work together to advocate for indigenous women’s rights to land, resources and self-determination. Internally, they strengthen the ties between indigenous women’s groups in different areas through workshops and trainings, which also help develop their members’ capacities to organise and campaign. Externally, they have fought for – and won – a seat at the table when it comes to making decisions on policies that affect indigenous people. And with the support of the community they have fostered across the country, they are able to make their demands loud and clear.

Livelihoods at stake

The threat to their survival of indigenous communities and women in particular currently takes the form of President Rodrigo Duterte’s economic framework ‘Build, Build, Build.’ Elected in 2016, Duterte quickly gained international infamy due to his intensely violent anti-drug campaign, with which he vowed to wipe out criminality (the death toll is currently over 6,500). His ironically named ‘Build, Build, Build’ program, however, has garnered less critical attention. Rolled out in 2017, the program is promoted by the government as the ticket to a “golden age” of infrastructure, creating jobs and laying the groundwork for economic growth.

“We have a different concept of how we relate to the land, but to the government, the land is either private or commercial.”

The hidden cost is the rights and livelihood of indigenous people – and in particular, indigenous women. Duterte’s development initiative facilitates the ‘land grabbing’ (the otherwise illegal seizure of land) of multi-national corporations for development projects like the building of mega dams, super highways, and economic zones. National Coordinator Kakay Tolentino, who we spoke with via Skype, explains it this way:

“The government of the Philippines has categorised all lands into two groups: privately owned land or for public/commercial use. We have a different concept of how we relate to the land, but to the government, the land is either private or commercial. Where the indigenous people are situated, all those lands are declared by the government as disposable, available land. Government property. To justify this, they made many land laws stripping the rights of indigenous people to their ancestral lands. Whatever the government wants to do, since then, they can do.”

Even though in 2009 the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act passed, Kakay adds, “this law is not really the answer to the call of indigenous people regarding our rights to ancestral land and self-determination.” In other words, it doesn’t provide them the legal tools they need to intervene on the development projects displacing them.

Not only are indigenous lands stolen, but as a result, indigenous people are displaced from their homes. And as Kakay puts it, “we have no other source but the environment for our livelihood.” This affects women in particular as within indigenous communities, women tend to be the ones responsible for managing the production of food. But thanks to the networks of activist groups Bai is building across the country, indigenous women are on the forefront of the resistance.

“The most dangerous country for environmental activists”

Bai approaches the issues they face from many different angles – one of them being protests. By organising demonstrations, they raise visibility for their issues and make the voices of indigenous women part of the public discourse. This strategy has shifted dynamics within their own communities, too. “Since Bai had the strength to go out on the street, many indigenous men recognise our strength,” Kakay says. “They said we showed through these confrontations that we know how to deal with the armed forces. Since then, the indigenous men recognise us as equals.”

“Since Bai had the strength to go out on the street, many indigenous men recognise us as equals.”

This is in itself a small victory. Indigenous women in the Philippines remain one of the most marginalised and vulnerable groups: excluded from forms of public life, exposed to violence by state forces, and given limited to no access to health services, social services, and education. Particularly as indigenous women are rising up to resist the destructive ‘Build, Build, Build’ program, they are being increasingly targeted as ‘terrorists’. To carry out his so-called ‘war on drugs,’ Duterte has also increasingly militarised the government of the Philipines, even illegally reinstating martial law in some regions (recalling the corrupt dictatorship of former president Ferdinand Marcos in the 1970s). These armed forces go after activists who disrupt the progress of ‘Build, Build, Build’, jailing them on trumped-up charges. Extra-judicial killings, like in the case of Lumad leader Leah Tumbalang, occur too frequently. With 30 environmental defenders murdered in 2018, the Philippines was declared “the most dangerous country for environmental activists” last year.

In some cases, Bai has been able to activate their network to rally for the release of jailed members of their community – like in the case of Rachel Marino. “She was a health worker doing her work in the community, providing health services, but they said she belonged to the New People’s Army that counter the armed forces,” explains Kakay. “They even claimed that she killed armed forces members. They imprisoned her on these false charges – but because we were able to rally the community, her case acquitted.”

There has been more structural progress, too. Thanks to Bai’s networking and increased visibility, new indigenous women’s organisations have been established in Sierra Madre, Central Luzon and Mindanao. Bai is regularly invited to contribute in discussions about indigenous rights and development, like at the CEDAW 2016 in Geneva, Switzerland and in their own House of Representatives. In fact, Eufemia Campos Cullamat, a member of the Bai National Council became the first indigenous woman elected to the Philippines’ House of Representatives. And as Bai is increasingly able to access this right to representation in government, they are able to create space for the demands of indigenous women in the policy decisions that affect their communities. From within and without, then, they are transforming the systems and structures that decide whose lives matter.

A holistic approach

When asked if she has advice for others organising in their own contexts, Kakay has the following words of wisdom: “When we are organising, we should approach the issues women face holistically – from leadership and representation to discrimination to access to resources. With that perspective, and when we work together, self-determination can be attained.”