A silent war is being waged on Philippine indigenous communities
Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, Opinion Philippines –
A UN special rapporteur writes about being added to the government’s
29 March 2018
When I learnt that the Philippine government had accused me of being a
terrorist, my immediate reaction was to hug my grandkids, fearing for
their safety. Then, I started to speak out. Again.
I am the UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples. My
mandate is to report when communities anywhere in the world are forced
to relocate, their lands uprooted, their leaders either deemed criminals
or killed. Not everyone wants to hear it, but the message needs to be
spread. In the Philippines, they are shooting the messengers.
The country leads Asia in the number of murders of indigenous and
environmental activists, with 41 people killed last year. The most
recently reported assassination was that of indigenous leader Ricardo
Mayumi; he was killed this month for insisting that indigenous
communities lived where the government wanted to place a dam.
I am one of hundreds of people on a new government list of “terrorists”.
This list, on a legal petition filed in a Manila court, includes many
indigenous leaders and activists and their legal representatives as well
as four paramilitary group members, who are wanted for the killing of an
indigenous leader in 2012.
In lumping its critics together with criminals, the government seeks to
make us all guilty by association and, thus, the next targets of the
vigilantes and rogue police officers who have led President Rodrigo
Duterte’s bloody war against drugs. Now, he has started a new war — with
This is not the first time I have had to worry about
government-sponsored violence. As a teenager, and member of the
Kankanaey Igorot people, I joined the movement protesting against the
Chico River Dam Project, which would have flooded our ancestral domain
and displaced 300,000 people. Our leader, Macliing Dulag, was
assassinated and many others were detained and tortured. But we did not
give up and eventually the project was cancelled.
Later, I worked to set up health programmes for communities who lacked
basic government services. The Marcos dictatorship viewed this endeavour
as a threat and sent the national army in response to raid my home.
I have spent my life peacefully advocating for the rights of my people
and other indigenous peoples around the world. I am sad to see the
Philippines once again slipping towards the fascism that too many other
nations have embraced, but I am not ready to give up now, either.
My colleagues insist that my name is on the list in retaliation for
speaking out on rights abuses against indigenous peoples on the island
of Mindanao. The UN has been trying to draw attention to this crisis
since 2003, as corporate interests have colluded with government
officials to clear the lands of their inhabitants, avoid obtaining the
free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples, and remove the
most outspoken leaders.
Their lands hold an estimated $1tn worth of natural resources that is
coveted by foreign interests — but the local people already live off of
these resources, sustainably, without transforming the environment. Like
the vast majority of indigenous peoples around the world, many in
Mindanao do not have legal titles to the lands their ancestors have
lived on and protected for generations. Overnight, governments may
declare them squatters and if bulldozers will not compel them to move,
deadly force is often the next step. The killers are rarely brought to
I have reported on the impact of these killings, and the
“criminalisation” that often precedes them, throughout my travels on
behalf of the UN, to Honduras, Brazil, Mexico and many other countries.
I have seen the scars left by bullets and the graves of murdered
leaders. The killings make news, but hidden behind these headlines is
something even more insidious: the silencing of entire communities.
My next report to the UN will focus on the topic of indigenous
criminalisation. We are hearing testimony from indigenous and community
leaders, human rights officials, and academic experts from more than two
dozen countries, and will issue an official report later this year.
As the government continues to press its case, I will have to include my
own experience, even though it pales in comparison to what others have
faced. If I am arrested, or personally attacked, this next UN report
might be delayed, but I am only one of many messengers speaking out
against the many violations of human rights.
You can keep shooting the messenger, but you will run out of bullets
before we run out of messengers and, at the end of the day, the message
will be heard.
Victoria Tauli-Corpuz is the UN special rapporteur on the rights of
indigenous peoples and an indigenous leader of the Kankanaey Igorot
people of the Cordillera region in the Philippines