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Church Leaders Must Stand For Rights Of Indigenous People – OpEd

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By Father Shay Cullen*

(UCA News) — In the Philippines, the ancestral lands of these people are under threat despite laws to protect them

Church leaders around the world are mandated to protect the rights of indigenous people to defend their ancestral lands and promote their development and economic prosperity. Pope Francis has made this clear.

“In this regard, the right to prior and informed consent should always prevail,” he said. “Only then is it possible to guarantee peaceful cooperation between governing authorities and indigenous peoples, overcoming confrontation and conflict.”

It was a happy day, a happy week. It was mango harvest week in the Aeta indigenous community in the mountain areas of Zambales and Juan Garcia, a tribal leader, and residents of his village were leading us to their mango trees in the mountain area.

They were harvesting fair trade, organically-certified mangoes that would be processed in a factory into mango puree, packed into sealed bags and steel drums, and shipped to Germany to be used in organic foods. It had been three years since the organic, naturally-flowering mango trees in the mountains had given a harvest.

Climate change brought rain at the wrong time and washed away the flowers. Then, insects came and laid their eggs in the flowers so they died. The heat came and enlarged the fruit on the trees and they split. This year, the trees adapted and there was a small harvest.

The three years had been hard for the Aeta mango farmers without a harvest of pico and carabao varieties of mango by the indigenous farmers. Preda Fair Trade has an association with them, the original inhabitants of the Philippines since some thirty thousand years ago. They came from Borneo and crossed to the islands on land bridges that are now long submerged.

They survived and thrived as hunters and gatherers in the rainforests that covered the Philippine archipelago for thousands of years. They have a wide knowledge of herbal plants to cure illness and were deadly with bows and arrows used for hunting. They speak their own language, Zambal, and Filipino also.

When settlers from Asia came, they did not resist. The incursions being peaceful by nature they remained in the forests. But the colonial period of Spanish domination and then American occupation saw the continual destruction of the rainforests.

After World War II when independence was granted, some privileged families became very rich and formed dynasties and gained political power. The logging of the rainforests grew on a massive scale. Many trees and plants are extinct now.

Just three percent of the Philippines has primeval rainforests. The remainder of the rainforests in ancestral lands of indigenous people is under threat despite laws protecting it.

Mining corporations get special exceptions from their friends in the government regulatory agencies and are grabbing the ancestral lands of the indigenous people and cutting the forests to get the minerals below the forest floor.

The indigenous communities are resisting and many of their advocates and eco-defenders have been killed.

In the past ten years, more than 1,700 have been murdered throughout the world while defending their ancestral lands and forests against illegal loggers and miners, according to a report by Global Witness. In 2021, four activists were killed every week.

Pope Francis has stood with the indigenous people. During a conference last May 3, he challenged the mining industry to be “at the service of the entire human community,” especially indigenous people who are often pressured “to abandon their homelands to make room for mining projects.”

The Aeta people did not resist the destruction of their rainforest. They became survival farmers on their denuded ancestral mountain lands growing cassava, sweet potatoes, bananas, vegetables, and fruits like mango, avocado and jackfruit.

Reforestation is now a priority, “You see here the grafted mango trees we planted some years ago. They will soon bear fruits,” Juan told us, proudly pointing to the trees. He referred to the distribution of one-meter-tall, grafted mango saplings donated by Preda Fair Trade every year to the 360 farmers in the Aeta farmers association for the past 15 years or so. This is very important to give stronger claims to ancestral lands and to combat climate change as trees absorb CO2, the deadly gas that damages the environment by causing global warming.

Then we arrived at a big, mature mango tree and Juan pointed to the fruits hanging there. “Look, the excessive heat has expanded the seed inside the mango fruit and split the fruit,” he said in Tagalog. Global warming is damaging the livelihood of millions of poor subsistence farmers like Juan around the world.

Thousands of farmers are losing their livelihood because of the non-stop burning of fossil fuel, coal and oil and gas in massive quantities in the industrialized world. The Philippines also relies mostly on coal-burning power plants for electricity generation.

The Philippines has strong constant wind, sun, hydro and geothermal resources that can replace the coal-fired plants. However, the powerful family dynasties that control the government and run the coal plants are resisting any change. Yet, change has to come to save the Philippines and the mango fruits and other crops.

Juan showed us another variety of mango trees. “This is the most resilient mango variety of all,” he said. “These mangoes are small but resilient and resistant to the heat but they are not tasty and sweet. They are called “Indian.”

No one buys them in the market and we did not harvest them until Preda Fair Trade and Welt Partner in Germany ordered puree to be made from them. We are very happy now we have many Indian mango fruits.” Indian mango is made into aromatic vinegar by Vom Fass in Germany.

Juan and the 360 Aeta farmers were delighted to have a buyer for a fruit that has no commercial value in the Philippines. However, the volume that Vom Fass can buy is limited. Hopefully, another customer can be found to buy these mangos and help the livelihood of the Aeta farmers.

Juan also led us to a banana grove where huge banana stalks soared to the sky and a bunch of green bananas hung downward, ready to collapse it seemed. These are the bananas that Preda Fair Trade would buy from the Aeta farmers and process into banana chips. These chips will be sold to Welt Partner in Germany for distribution to the World Shops known in German as Welt Laden. This will be an additional benefit to the Aeta farmers and their families.

The female graduates from the Preda healing and recovering therapeutic home for trafficked and abused children who are now 18 years old will be trained and employed in organic banana chip-making. They will work and earn part-time and continue their studies in high school and college. They, too, are on the road to a happier life.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

*Father Shay Cullen is an Irish Columban missionary who has worked in the Philippines since 1969. In 1974, he founded the Preda Foundation, a charitable organization dedicated to protecting the rights of women and children and campaigning for freedom from sex slavery and human trafficking.

UCA News

The Union of Catholic Asian News (UCA News, UCAN) is the leading independent Catholic news source in Asia. A network of journalists and editors that spans East, South and Southeast Asia, UCA News has for four decades aimed to provide the most accurate and up-to-date news, feature, commentary and analysis, and multimedia content on social, political and religious developments that relate or are of interest to the Catholic Church in Asia.

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