Thursday, February 17, 2005

Letter from the edge

Here is a letter I received on Valentine’s Day, from Good Shepherd Sisters who live and work both peacefully and dangerously among the lumad (indigenous people) of Agusan del Sur. Peacefully because they have been accepted by the people, they have grown roots with them and their work of 26 years has borne abundant flower and fruit in the community. Dangerously because the people and the nuns have to contend with the hazards of military presence and suspicion.

The Religious of the Good Shepherd-Tribal Filipino Ministry is flourishing in the municipality of San Luis. The place where the nuns run an ``ecology and spirituality farm’’ is called Tuburan, which means spring, which means life in those parts could indeed be joyous and abundant if only…

Dear Ceres,

We wake up to the chirping of birds and the sound of pigs and chickens asking for their morning meal. There is a forest nearby, the reason perhaps why the horizon is always wrapped in mist at dawn. It is a little slice of heaven on earth. The Banwaons and the Monobos are a peace-loving people, very simple, honest and deeply connected to the earth. Their culture is rich in tradition and steeped in spirituality. We always get inspired when we join their rituals.

However they are very poor materially. Their ancestral domain, the forests of San Luis, are rich in natural resources but the people have been deprived of these natural wealth.

Our latest concern is Barangay Balit which has been occupied by the military since November last year. Balit is 7 km. from the town center and is quite accessible. Here we have established our tribal ministry and various programs and projects in education and farming. We have also started a small infirmary.

Our ministry is open and above ground for everyone to see. We’ve had so many visitors here—top government and church officials from here and abroad, benefactors, ambassadors and their wives, our own superiors in the congregation, the media. They appreciate and support what we do. Sad to say, it seems it is only the military here that are not happy with our mission here. We and the people cannot understand.

At present, the 29th IB under Lt. Col.Johnny Macanas accuse the Balit community as an NPA (New People’s Army) barangay. We know that state security is the priority of the military so their job is to run after the enemies of the state, not after civilians. Balit is a registered barangay, its people are registered voters. The barangay officials have no criminal records.

In Sitio Minlinao, 14 people were given arms and made to surrender as rebels. They and their families were made to leave their homes and farms and resettled in a detachment at Km. 24. The children had to quit school. Two datus who were old and weak were listed as surrenderees. People say, ``this is good business for money and promotion.’’

Last month, Macanas took 12 men from Balit to undergo Cafgu training. They were again tagged as rebel returnees even if they were never with the NPA. How sad that this is being done by those who call themselves Christians, are educated and supposed to serve the people. Luoy kaayo ang mga lumad. (What a pity for the lumad.)

The people have asked the military to pull out, that the military should

• stop living in civilian houses without the community’s consent
• stop cutting trees in private and titled lands. (They never even ask permission.)
• move their camp away from the Balit community and follow the law
• stop their housing project. (They build without the consent of the barangay officials and the community.)

Are they not violating the people’s rights? Military men continue to live in civilian houses they have built at the back of people’s homes. Macanas said they have orders from ``above’’.

A fact-finding mission in Balit headed by Fr. Bench Balsamo MSC was conducted late last year and we are sending you the report. We have sent this to the civilian authorities but so far, no results. Last Dec. 27 the Inquirer came out with a story (by Ma. Kristina E. Cassion) titled ``Army project sends villagers away on Xmas.’’

Through the housing project the military has occupied the community. The soldiers, despite protests, put up a cooperative store. Nine stores closed shop.

Planting season is here but the lumad are afraid to go to their farms. They ask: ``What does the military want from us and our territory?’’ Their past experiences tell them that after military operations multi-national projects enter. The people are apprehensive. Four industrial tree plantations approved during the time of environment secretary Heherson Alvarez are waiting to be started. You know, the forests here are still thick with trees and other vegetation.

Why are the Banwaon-Manobo communities always the target? One datu said, ``If the military are after the rebels, they look for them in the mountains and not in Balit.’’ We, the Sisters are also being harassed and accused of many things but we do not want to focus on ourselves. We simply want to continue our work.

We have three main programs—education for children, sustainable agriculture for food and sufficiency, and health services. The people had asked for these and these are consistent with their efforts to develop and defend their ancestral domain. The right to till the land precedes the right to own.

We hold on together in times of crisis, when there are natural calamities and military operations. There have been threats to us and our staff—teachers, agriculturists, health workers—who have been with us for 10 to 16 years.

Our mission with the lumad is the mission of the Church. This mission is difficult but it is worth dying for.

Come and spend some time with us.

Your friends forever,

Good Shepherd Sisters
Kalilid Community