Malaria, murder and occupational hazards of indigenous activists in the
by Alisa Tang
Thomson Reuters Foundation –
2 November 2016
Joan Carling is at the forefront of “a new battleground for human
rights”: the fight for land and the environment
CHIANG MAI, Thailand, Nov 2 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A little over
a decade ago, indigenous activist Joan Carling from the Philippines
Cordillera region lost three colleagues in the space of a few years –
all murdered in one of the world’s deadliest countries for land rights
Then came her turn: a relative in the military told Carling’s father his
daughter’s name was on the “order of battle”, the Philippines military’s
list of people, including activists, who are deemed enemies of the state.
“When you are on the order of battle, you are an open target for
extrajudicial killings,” said 53-year-old Carling.
“There was a time (when) suspicious men or motorbikes were following me,
and I was advised to stay in the office,” she told the Thomson Reuters
Foundation in an interview.
She kept her head down, hired a bodyguard, then spent several months at
a U.S. university having won a fellowship for frontline human rights
For decades, Carling has been at the forefront of the fight for land and
the environment, which London watchdog Global Witness calls “a new
battleground for human rights”, with communities worldwide locked in
deadly struggles against governments, companies and criminal gangs
exploiting land for products like timber, minerals and palm oil.
In 2015, more than three people a week were killed defending land,
forests and rivers against industries, said Global Witness. Of the 185
murders it documented in 16 countries, the Philippines ranked among the
most dangerous, with 33 deaths last year alone.
In many parts of the world, the biggest impact from extractive,
agricultural and infrastructure projects is felt by indigenous peoples,
living in remote, resource-rich areas and lacking land titles or
knowledge to defend themselves against multinationals, international
banks and government officials.
Carling, from the Kankanaey tribe of the northern region of Cordillera,
grew up on a logging concession where her parents ran a shop.
She got her first taste of protest in the mid-1980s while studying at
the University of Philippines in Baguio.
She spent two months in the Kalinga tribal areas protesting against four
World Bank-funded dams along the Chico River, which activists said
threatened to inundate 16 towns and villages and displace an estimated
The World Bank ended up withdrawing its funding for the Chico dams,
which were never built, and the episode prompted the bank to develop its
policy on indigenous peoples, she said.
In the early 1990s, Carling immersed herself in mountainous tribal
villages in the Cordillera and worked with the Cordillera Peoples
Alliance (CPA) fighting for land rights, until the day she fell sick and
had to be hauled out on a stretcher.
“My blood was too contaminated with malaria. I could not take more,”
Four men took turns – two at a time – carrying her out on a blanket
slung between two bamboo poles, hiking for half a day, then driving for
five hours to the capital of Kalinga province.
“They had to give me coconut (water) intravenously, as sugar, because of
my diarrhoea,” said the activist. “I felt like a pig – they were
carrying me, tied like a pig on bamboo.”
After medical treatment, she went straight back to her duties, hanging
her dextrose IV bag on the walls of a building in the town centre, where
she met indigenous people from remote areas who shared grievances about
alleged land grabs.
“The villagers don’t come often to the town centre, so I just had to
meet with them with my dextrose on because you don’t know when they’ll
come back,” she said.
After working with the CPA to help indigenous peoples at home, she moved
on to a regional stage, and nearly eight years ago became head of the
Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP), based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Through her work with AIPP, she has helped build a network among
indigenous peoples from countries including Indonesia, Nepal, Taiwan and
Japan – helping them to feel less isolated.
She has turned her attention to the impacts of climate change and
solutions such as hydropower, which often have a negative impact on
Carling expressed concern about the “narrow conservation approach” of
taking people out of the environment to protect the environment, instead
of allowing indigenous peoples to protect the resources and watersheds
on their ancestral land.
“Indigenous people are actually the natural conservationists because
it’s part of our being – to protect and conserve our natural environment
because we need to pass it on to future generations,” Carling said.
“That is the wisdom of the indigenous people – we only use what we need.”
(Reporting by Alisa Tang, editing by Jo Griffin. Please credit the
Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that
covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, corruption and climate change.
Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)