Thursday, April 26, 2012

Goldman prize for anti-mining priest

HE AND Mangyan leaders put their lives on the line and went on a hunger strike in 2009 to protest mining operations in Mindoro. I saw this for myself and wrote about their do-or-die move. Their sacrifices paid off.

Filipino Catholic priest Fr. Edwin “Edu” Gariguez, 49, was one of the six recipients of the 2012 Goldman Environmental Prize awarded last April 16 in San Francisco. These green heroes’ collective efforts are indeed crucial to the survival of our common home, Earth. In distant places out there, as well as here, individuals without much wealth and lofty positions can make crucial changes. Here are the “fearless emerging leaders working against all odds to protect the environment and their communities.”

Edwin Gariguez, Philippines. This Catholic priest is leading a grassroots movement against large-scale nickel mining to protect Mindoro island’s biodiversity and its indigenous people.

Ma Jun, China. He is working with corporations to clean up their practices with an online database and digital map that shows Chinese citizens which factories are violating environmental regulations in their country. (I had written a front-page story on him in 2009 when he came to receive the Ramon Magsaysay Award.)

Ikal Angelei, Kenya. Risking her life, she is fighting the construction of the massive Gibe 3 Dam that would block access to water for indigenous communities around Lake Turkana.

Evgenia Chirikova, Russia. Challenging rampant political corruption, Chirikova is mobilizing her fellow Russian citizens to demand the rerouting of a highway that would bisect Khimki Forest, Moscow’s “green lungs.”

Caroline Cannon, USA. She is bringing the voice and perspective of her Inupiat community in Point Hope to the battle to keep Arctic waters safe from offshore oil and gas drilling.

Sofia Gatica, Argentina. A mother whose infant child died as a result of pesticide poisoning, Gatica is organizing local women to stop indiscriminate spraying of toxic agrochemicals in neighboring soy fields.

The prize includes a whopping $150,000 for each one of them with “no strings attached.” Established by philanthropist couple Richard and Rhoda Goldman in 1990, the prize is the first and largest award in the world for grass-roots environmentalists who often work at great personal risk.

The Philippines’ own green hero is the pastor of the Catholic Church’s Mangyan Mission in Mindoro and now executive secretary of the National Secretariat for Social Action, Justice and Peace. Born in Quezon province, Gariguez has been working in Mindoro for decades. He cofounded Alliance Against Mining (Alamin), a coalition of Mindoro residents, civil society groups, church leaders and indigenous peoples who oppose mining on the island.

Uniting thousands of Mangyans, farmers and even political leaders, Gariguez and Alamin led protests that led to the island-wide moratorium that stopped Norwegian mining company Intex from operating. The company had proposed an open-pit nickel mine close to a biodiversity area and within Mangyan ancestral domain. It was within the watershed that feeds the island’s four major rivers that provide drinking water and irrigation.

The priest even went to Norway to address parliamentarians and Intex shareholders. That was a watershed moment. A Norwegian group helped Gariguez file a complaint with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Gariguez’s continuing advocacy and leadership to protect the environment and the indigenous communities are inextricably woven into the essence of his priesthood. Gariguez said: “I do this because of my faith. When I try to bring about change, I do it in fidelity to the social teachings of the Church in a way that is responsive to the challenges of the times, including poverty, mining and corruption. Through our work on Mindoro, we are not trying to impose our faith on others, but are trying to be credible witnesses on how to bring about social change.”

A long Q & A with Gariguez is in the April-May 2012 issue of World Mission Magazine (a very well-edited church magazine, I must say) whose cover story is on harmful mining. Editor Fr. Jose Rebelo writes: “The Philippines is ‘one of the world’s most highly mineralized countries,’ says a US Department of State report. Its estimated untapped mineral wealth is worth more than $840 billion—in copper, gold and chromate deposits; other available minerals include nickel, silver, coal, gypsum, sulfur, clay, limestone, marble, silica, and phosphate, according to the same report. This is one of the reasons mining has become a very hot issue.”

Gariguez and Alamin are in dialogue with government officials and in the process of finalizing the Alternative Mineral Management bill which provides for safer and more just alternatives. “The passage of the bill,” Gariguez says, “would be a landmark bill for all mining regions throughout the Philippines. We are not asking for a complete ban on mining altogether; we are making sure we do not sacrifice the rights of the indigenous people and the environment…”

In his prize acceptance speech, Gariguez paid tribute to the Mangyans: “I was taught by the Mangyans to care for the earth. For them nature is likened to a womb that sustains us with life. One of the leaders is Badang, a Mangyan woman who went on hunger strike with me. She was ready to die to save the watershed threatened by mining. For her, once the forest is destroyed, we too will perish. She helped me understand that what is at stake in the campaign is the survival of our planet, of which we are merely a part.”

To you, too, Badang, hugs and congratulations.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Boracay Ati home at last

Around this time last year, I spoke with Delsa Supitran Justo, Ati leader from Boracay. Her people, she told me, were being barred from occupying their ancestral land in the so-called island paradise (not anymore, if you ask me) that was their ancestors’ home since the dawn of time. I wrote a piece titled “Boracay Ati barred from ancestral domain.” She said in the language I could understand: “Panginmatyan namon ini kay amon ini.” (We will lay down our lives for this land because it is ours.)

Questions I asked then: Why are the Ati who have lived in Boracay long before the paradisiacal island became world-famous, being barred from occupying a piece of land that the government turned over to their community on Feb. 11, 2011, by virtue of a Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title made possible by the Indigenous Peoples Republic Act?

Why can’t an indigenous community of 46 families whose ancestors called the island their home long, long before the island became a tourist haven, occupy a tiny 2.1-hectare area that has been designated as their home?

Why does the area called Dead Forest, which has been declared inalienable and officially declared to be the ancestral domain of the Ati, have non-Ati claimants who do not want to let go?

Playing in my mind then were thoughts that Boracay, the party island that never sleeps, would be cursed—yes, cursed—and fall into disrepute if the Ati, who nurtured the island for generations before developers crashed in, would be barred from their homeland.
The good news is that last Tuesday, the Ati dared to occupy the two-hectare land that was meant for them. Two days before then, I received a call from Assisi Foundation president Ben Abadiano (2004 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee for the work he has done for indigenous communities) who told me that it was do or die for the Ati, and that he was flying to Boracay to accompany them. I also learned that Inquirer Visayas reporter Nestor P. Burgos Jr. would be there.
On Wednesday, the Inquirer came out with the good news (“Ati tribe occupies land in Boracay”). Burgos wrote: “Before the sun rose on Tuesday, the Ati tribe of Boracay Island occupied the land titled to their community in what they hope would be the end to decades of struggle to have a home in the world-famous resort.

“At least 60 tribe members, along with nuns and other supporters, prayed the rosary as they marched for more than a kilometer along the white beach from their community in Barangay Balabag to the 2.1-hectare lot in Barangay Manoc-Manoc awarded to them by the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples.”

With the news report was a big color photo of Boracay parish priest Fr. Magloire Placer celebrating Mass and surrounded by the Ati and their supporters. He said: “If we can open Boracay to foreign tourists and investors, why can’t we give land to the earliest settlers of the island?”

Last week, Catholic Archbishop Sergio Utleg, chair of the Episcopal Commission on Indigenous Peoples, issued a hopeful statement that the Ati of Boracay would soon occupy their ancestral domain which is a tiny 2.1 hectares of the 1,032-hectare island. Utleg called on the government to support the Ati because non-Ati claimants were continuing to harass and intimidate them.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Titanic: "A night to remember"

When we were kids and there were good movies showing in the city, our parents would take us to watch these movies with them and they would explain to us what these were all about, after or even during the showing. We got a good dose of historical movies—World War II, gladiator and Bible movies mostly. One of the movies that still sticks in my mind is “A Night to Remember,” which was about the sinking of the Titanic while on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England to New York. The movie was in glorious black and white.
In a day or so, it will be the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. It sank on April 14-15, 1912, somewhere in the North Atlantic and it wasn’t until the 1990s that its remains were found and explored with the use of high-tech instruments. Discovery Channel will soon be showing a documentary on the Titanic’s discovery with no less than “Titanic” (1997) movie director James Cameron’s new underwater clips of the great wonder resting in the deep. A Titanic experience in Belfast (where the ship was built) is now a sold-out tourist attraction.

Some years ago, director Cameron did something similar, the “James Cameron’s Expedition: Bismarck,” a two-hour documentary on the deep-sea expedition to find the sunken dreaded World War II ship that was the “embodiment of Hitler’s huge ego.” I watched it and was so moved I later wrote a column piece on it. Yes, when I was a kid I also got to watch the war movie “Sink the Bismarck!” (Churchill’s immortal words).
What I distinctly remember of “A Night to Remember” (even before watching portions of it on YouTube) was someone playing the violin even while the luxury ship, with 2,200 on board, was sinking. And the brave captain. I remember my dad whispering with certainty in the darkened movie house that the captain will go down with the ship, that that is how it is. Well, it’s not that way anymore these days. Ship captains are sometimes the first to abandon ship.
On YouTube I searched for that violin scene that stuck to my childhood memory and I found not one violinist playing but several musicians playing different instruments—a violin, a cello, flutes-while the passengers were jumping into lifeboats or leaping straight into the icy waters. Maybe I should watch the whole thing again, because what I remember is the captain, alone in his den, playing the violin in the last moments. Or did my wild imagination create its own cinematic scene?

Thursday, April 5, 2012

'When the fall is imminent'

Last week’s by-elections saw Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi winning a seat by a landslide and her party winning 43 of the 44 parliament seats up for grabs in her country. It’s still a long way for her but she could run for president in 2015.

The piece below was written in October 2007 after my interview with Catholic Burmese nuns who were studying here at that time. It was going to be published “when the fall is imminent.”
When I wrote this, Buddhist monks in Burma (Myanmar) were leading protests against the repressive military regime. Many people lost their lives. Despite the bloodshed, the world hoped that the China-backed military junta in power would crumble. Alas, it did not happen and freedom icon and 1991 Nobel Peace laureate Suu Kyi was back in house detention.

The piece did not see the light of day.
Almost five years have passed and things changed—inexorably. This could be the result of international economic sanctions against Burma. Suu Kyi was freed in 2010 and, later, thousands of political prisoners were released en masse.

Here is my 2007 piece. As per advice, I still have to withhold real names. You never know…

October 2007—Come out with the story only when the fall of the military junta in Burma is imminent. This was the plea of the three Catholic Burmese nuns, all belonging to an international religious order, who are studying in Manila.

Such was their fear for their lives and their compatriots’ here in the Philippines that they agreed to be interviewed about repression and the precarious current political situation in their homeland on condition that the story be embargoed until…