Voices from the margins and the cultures for recognition and reconciliation

In a recent virtual side event to the 20th Session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Jason Menaling, from the Pulangiyēn community in northern Mindanao, Philippines, was asked to discuss on climate action and adaptation initiatives by Indigenous Peoples.

As a voice from the margins, he shared his insights gained from his experiences as an indigenous forester and youth leader, seeking support and recognition to uphold indigenous rights to care for the land, forests, water, and biodiversity. In his words, “(w)e (the Indigenous Peoples) are your best collaborator in safeguarding the future of our planet and ensuring there is equity in the process.”

On indigenous education

Indigenous education starts from our elders who teach our young children and youth how to live in relation to the land. Taking care of the environment is emphasized as part of our responsibilities.

As we pursued further education for our children, we started looking at establishing a learning center in our community that taught the ways and responsibilities of our people. The Apu Palamguwan Cultural Education Center (APC), is named after the elder who dreamt that his children would write their story.

We are grateful to the Department of Education for supporting indigenous communities in strengthening an education grounded in our culture and gaup, our ancestral land, as the context of learning. Today, we are able to reflect on the challenges in our environment on a deeper level.

We connect with other community in the valley through the tradition of buntēla daw sayuda (visiting and sharing information). We now seek to reach communities far beyond by learning English so that we may share our knowledge and stories together. This gives the youth opportunities to better appreciate our role in taking care of our gaup, our ancestral domain.

This is one of the key lessons we learnt as we participate in professional courses focused on peace, leadership, agroforestry and education, with the Jesuit Worldwide Learning program. In these courses, we also value accompanying our neighboring communities by creating meaningful linkages and relations. These efforts motivate us to stand up for our ancestral domain because our land is our life and livelihood.

On extractives

As we continue to see great changes in society, we also feel its adverse impacts on our land and culture. We’ve seen many communities suffer from the impacts of mining in north east Mindanao and the threats to the South.

The biggest extractor in our area are yellow corn corporate growers and their network of traders and financers that undercut us and leave us with all the risks. Big companies only look at what they can take from us; they don’t think about accompanying us in sustaining the living world where we are co-dependent. They have a very narrow view of life that disregards the welfare of the next generation.

Since the 1970 to 1980s, our elders struggled because their voices were not heard and their rights were not upheld as they did not have the prescribed so-called “education” needed to manage the natural resources.

What they have instead is the cultural knowledge to live in balance with the life of the land. Our elders entrust us with the responsibility to protect our gaup, and we, the youth, are slowly equipping ourselves with skills and capacities to fulfill this important role.

But because of big companies, we are made to struggle to prove that we can protect and stand up for our land. This expansive commercial system of farming only looks at what could be gained financially, planting corn to feed animals and not for the daily consumption of people. We have no faith in corporate agriculture today because there is no justice in the system.

It is hard to talk of reconciliation over the past wrongs when we see our communities manipulated and divided by outside interests. We need to strengthen our solidarity as community so that we will not be completely run over by corporate giants and traders.

The security of our land, natural resources, food, and water are at stake. The indigenous varieties of our seeds are declining in quantity in favor of more widely used commercial seeds. Crops are sprayed with glyphosate which poses serious health hazards for both the environment and our farmers.

We need to highlight these as major concerns because these issues also affect biodiversity and our future depends on sustaining this biodiversity. In September, the UN Food Systems Summit will take place. This needs to be a platform that allows voices from the field to lead the discussions on the balance of ecology and economy as we strive towards food quality, security, and nutrition.

We don’t experience flooding or strong typhoons as much as lowland and seaside communities, but we feel the impacts of climate change in the uplands in different distressing ways. These experiences make it evident to us that there are still many gaping holes in the climate response and that there is much that needs to be done.

Jason Menaling shared with Pope Francis a copy of Forest Faces in 2018, during the 3rd year anniversary of Laudato Si’ at the Vatican. Forest Faces: Hopes and Regrets in Philippine Forestry is a joint publication of the UN FAO and the Environmental Science for Social Change that featured indigenous communities and their stories about their lands and forests.

On climate change

It is now difficult for us to predict the planting cycle and plan our farming activities accordingly. We experience a lot of crop damage and loss; pest infestation and droughts have been devastating. We are losing the stability in our food source.

We also experienced Typhoon Pablo (international Bopha) in 2012, (a Category 5 storm and the strongest tropical cyclone on record to hit Mindanao) and we had no one to rely on in terms of response and recovery except each other. However, no one was affected severely. We know not to live by the river or on logged-over steep slopes that are prone to landslides. We could harvest sweet potatoes the next day when all the rice and corn fields were flattened. We realized that the sense of togetherness as a community is most critical in times of disaster.

This same solidarity is what’s sustaining our forests. We know that forests play a great role in maintaining a stable climate, not to mention the microclimate it creates for local ecosystems. We know the water we drink comes from the forest and fed by the oceans.

The youth learn skills in pagdumala sa lubas daw kagulangan, a cultural forest management practice that assists natural regeneration for ecosystem restoration. These skills come from the knowledge of old swidden fallow practices of 10 to 20 years and the youth learn this inside the classroom and in the forest as they are guided by the wisdom of our elders.

The youth not only take the lead in managing the natural resources but also engages in dialogue with different stakeholders to affirm our vision for our community. We support global action for climate justice. We express the critical role of indigenous cultures in addressing the climate crisis and how youth are at the forefront of the leadership in forest protection.

On human rights

We are grateful that we’ve been granted legal rights to manage our ancestral land, but beneath this, there is still a prevailing system where those in position of power still have the final say in terms of how we live our life in our land.

If we speak of protecting our lands, Indigenous Peoples anywhere in the world have their own way of managing the resources in ways that are not damaging to the different lives that are present in the area, but government also has policies for managing land that often contradict the indigenous ways.

This undermines our voice, because yes, you give us the rights in paper, but we don’t feel empowered in terms of decision-making. We can hold the Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title, but after that comes the question of government-controlled protected areas. Look at how this is unjustly done and how institutions beyond us still hold the control. We could be left with nothing but a piece of paper.

“Pulang remains our guiding principle as we dialogue about land use practices across Upper Pulangi and in welcoming youth from different communities to our cultural school. This is how we honor the covenant of peace to the present day. There are no threats or domination in the process.”

As Pulangiyēn people, we identify with the Pulangi River but our identity is also rooted in how we value peace. Our way forward is through pulang which means to stay awake. We sit down with the tribal leader and listen to all parties, staying awake until we resolve conflict, until we have reconciliation.

The practice of pulang also represents the covenant of peace our ancestors made generations ago, in the hope that all the tribes that live along the Pulangi River will work together to ensure that the river will remain the source for all life.

Pulang remains our guiding principle as we dialogue about land use practices across Upper Pulangi and in welcoming youth from different communities to our cultural school. This is how we honor the covenant of peace to the present day. There are no threats or domination in the process.

Last words

In our culture, buntēla daw sayuda allows usvisit our neighbors in peace and share what we can – sometimes it’s to dialogue or to build homes together for a family. Now we are regenerating our relations with the land, forests, and water. This is our sense of being together. I want to echo this message of being together especially in this time of immobility and distance.

I hope that as a global society, as a global village, you listen to the concerns and contributions of Indigenous Peoples. Affirm that interventions need to start by listening to Indigenous Peoples and local communities around the world.

If this is not done, further problems will be created because top-down projects and policies rarely fit the local context and needs and there is no guarantee that these kinds of responses will be sustained.

Speaking at the UN virtual side event from the uplands

In the upcoming COP26 meeting, we hope to see greater integration of Indigenous Peoples’ contributions because these are the nature-based solutions we need to see completed in the Rulebook of the Paris Agreement so that there is inclusion and action.

Support us in upholding our rights to care for the land. We are your best collaborator in safeguarding the future of our planet and ensuring there is equity in the process.

Watch the recording of the side event here.

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