The Philippines, a group of islands covered in lush rainforests, is a beautiful place with vast biodiversity. However, it is also a country where successive repressive regimes have systematically violated the rights of the Indigenous population. Indigenous communities are forcibly displaced from their territories and deprived of their sustainable livelihoods to make way for development projects initiated by foreign companies, including mega dams, superhighways, and economic development zones. In response to this, the BAI Indigenous Women’s Network was established to encourage Indigenous women throughout the country to make their voices heard, as they persist, react and resist.
BAI consists of regional, provincial and local Indigenous women leaders who unite to advocate for the rights of Indigenous women to land, natural resources, and self-determination. Kakay Tolentino, National Coordinator of BAI explains, “In some areas, we are fighting against mining companies that are destroying our ancestral lands, on other islands, we’re combatting large-scale logging, while in other regions we’re standing against the construction of dams along major rivers. First, it was dictator Marcos Sr. who tried to drive economic growth at our expense. Now, President Duterte defends systematic land grabs, under the belief that it will elevate the economic status of the Philippines. Nonsense, it will only enrich foreign parties, and damages our own local way of living. Indigenous people, who make up more than half of the population, rely on the natural resources in the environment where they live for their livelihoods. Without forests, rivers, and land to live and grow food on, we have nothing. As women, we always take the lead in creating economic security for our families, so it is crucial for us to nurture, manage, and defend our land and way of life.”
Tolentino highlights the long-standing history of Indigenous women’s resistance. “As far back as the 1970s, women in Mindanao fought against logging activities, confronting invaders the traditional way: with bows and arrows.” BAI itself was founded in 2004, after a number of Indigenous women leaders met at a gathering of the Asia Indigenous Women Network. They decided to join forces to enhance their organizing power strengthen activists through education and capacity training. “As BAI, we form the backbone for 11 different regional women’s organizations, and act as a loudspeaker to make the voice of Indigenous women reach much further.”
BAI stands up against ‘development aggression’ and the systematic violation of the right to basic services such as education and health care. “We address the neglect of basic social services in more remote regions, a consequence of an urban-forced approach and the historical discrimination against the Indigenous population. We lobby senators, and policymakers for Indigenous rights. One of our members has even been elected to the House of Representatives, enabling us penetrate the centre of power. We are also actively involved in both political and legal resistance against the Sierra Madre Dams. Duterte wants to build this dam to meet the huge water demands of foreign companies, particularly those from China. We’re very thankful for having sustained protests actions against the dam and have so far succeeded in halting its construction. We are trying to mobilise the entire Philippine population, because this dam could also trigger a water crisis in Manila during droughts. We reveal that the current regime predominantly caters to the interests of foreign investors, disregarding the welfare of Filipinos, and putting our national natural resources up for sale. We are steadfastly defending the national heritage of the Philippines.”
The government is trying to silence BAI by “red-tagging” the organization and its members. “We are frequently labelled as terrorists, faced with false accusations, threats, and charges from the military. Currently, five Indigenous activists are imprisoned. Nevertheless, we refuse to be silenced. We are a prominent member of a large network of Indigenous women’s organizations in Asia. If they want to kill me, there are many others ready to continue the work.” The network also provides training to Indigenous women and girls to strengthen their activist power. “We train them in areas like advocacy, public speaking, campaign development, leadership, and digital skills. Many of them have little education and feel insecure, but we encourage them to speak up. Our strength is that we do it together, in that we do not stand alone, but as a whole community, we stand up against injustice. As we always chant: ‘The People United Never Be Defeated!’”