High on the slopes of fog-draped Mt. Diwata, far above the Compostela Valley in northern Mindanao, more than 40,000 people cling to the hillsides because of what lies under the ramshackle community of Diwalwal. It’s gold, and since its discovery here by Mandaya indigenous people in the late 1970s, Diwalwal has resembled parts of California in the 1850s. Prospectors came by the tens of thousands, leaving lowland poverty far behind to honeycomb the mountain with hand-excavated tunnels in a search for incredible wealth. A few found what they were looking for, and tales of new millionaires fueled the gold rush of others. But most found no great riches here, only danger and death in the mines and mercury poisoning in the air and water. Diwalwal, originally a local indigenous word for one’s tongue hanging out after climbing to a great height, has come to mean misery in the Philippines today.
Yet misery is not in short supply elsewhere in the Philippines, so many stay in Diwalwal, even if they don’t strike it rich. Daylien Elejorde is one of them. She arrived in 1984, and though her hard work hasn’t earned her much, she has been able to feed her family with the gold she and her husband Reynaldo have pulled from the depths of their small mine. As hard as that struggle has been, Daylien knows it will get even tougher should a giant corporation succeed in throwing her off the land where her mine shaft is located. With her neighbors she is resisting.
I went to Diwalwal on June 4, leaving my rental car far below and hiring a four wheel drive vehicle to bounce up the mountain. I arrived in time to hear Daylien, a 44-year old catechist in the local San Miguel Arcangel Catholic parish, lead a group of small-scale miners in prayer as they gathered outside the local office of the Philippine Mining Development Corporation, a quasi-governmental company that locals insist is a front for large mining companies from China, Canada, and elsewhere. The PMDC obtained a government permit to dig a huge open pit mine where Daylien now digs by hand. It got a court to order the several dozen gold mining families in the area to vacate the mountainside by June 5. That’s why they gathered on June 4. After they prayed, they expressed their anger at the attempt to push them off the mountain. The first image is of Daylien giving a rousing speech.
On the next day, Daylien and her neighbors went back to work in their tunnels, saying they’re not going anywhere. She talked with the other miners, helping them decide to organize a new association which elected officers and will speak with one voice. A determined voice. “I’m hungry, and the tunnel I own is the only way I’m going to provide food for my family. The big capitalists want to kick me out, but we’re going to stay on this land and fight. And we’re going to win,” Daylien told me.
These women are feisty, and I’ll tell some of their story in an upcoming issue of response, the magazine of United Methodist Women. It’s a complicated story, in part because the small miners aren’t exactly environmentalists. Diwalwal is a highly toxic environment, and many of the hillsides have been stripped bare to provide timbers to shore up the tunnels. Child labor abounds. Tunnel collapses are not infrequent, and often fatal, something I couldn’t get out of my mind as I crawled around inside the cramped shafts where miners work for hours and hours at a time. But the government, rather than working with the small-scale miners to build capacity that would protect the environment and assure safer conditions (something embodied in the People’s Mining Bill, which was introduced in the Philippine Congress last year and has received strong support from both Protestant and Catholic church leaders), has cast its lot with huge mining projects which will remove the gold but leave vast wastelands behind, in the process contributing little to local economic development. The Philippines has been considered a desirable place for international mining companies to invest, as it lags behind many other countries in requiring environmental safeguards and demanding a cut in the profits. Although President Benigno Aquino may slightly change that calculation soon with a long-expected executive order on mining, the basic conflicts will remain the same, and may even grow worse, as Aquino is expected to override the hundreds of provincial and municipal laws that have been passed effectively outlawing large mines.
As the government gives the green light to Big Mining, it will have to resort to even greater repression against those who resist, whether small-scale miners, environmentalists, or indigenous communities. In Diwalwal, I witnessed soldiers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines engaged in civil-military action, a sort of desensitization of civilians to the presence of armed men in uniforms. Today they play games with the children. Tomorrow they’ll be back to drive out Daylien and her friends.
When the military doesn’t want to get its hands bloody, it delegates violence to paramilitary groups.
The woman in the next image is Sharon Liguyon. She is one of almost 200 people who have camped out on the lawn in front of provincial offices in Malaybalay after a paramilitary squad, led by Aldy “Butsoy” Salusad, assassinated her husband, Jimmy Liguyon, on March 5. Jimmy Liguyon was the village chief of Dao in the municipality of San Fernando, and he had refused to sign over the indigenous village’s ancestral lands to a large mining corporation. More than a week after the killing, Salusad was still moving freely in the area despite the community’s demands that he be arrested, so on March 14 the villagers fled to the provincial capital for their own safety. Provincial officials offered them assistance in relocating elsewhere, but Sharon Liguyon told me they will remain camped out in public until Salusad is captured. “We don’t want to be relocated elsewhere. We want justice,” she said.
One of the people I interviewed on this trip was Stella Matutina, a Benedictine sister who heads the environmental group Panalipdan, whose name derives from the Visayan word for “to defend.” After 18 years in Europe studying and doing pastoral work, Stella came home to Mindanao in 2007 and quickly realized an environmental crisis was at hand. The flooding and landslides provoked by indiscriminate logging, much of it to make way for large mines, was changing the groaning of creation into a scream. Yet people who respond to that scream are an endangered species in the Philippines. Father Faustino Tentorio, an 59-year old Italian missionary and a well-known opponent of mining, was shot last October. In the weeks before his killing, various local military and paramilitary groups had spread the word that he was a collaborator with the rebel New People’s Army.
In recent months Stella has been at the receiving end of the same treatment, what’s known locally as “red-tagging.” Military officials are spreading the word that she’s not really a nun, but rather an NPA member. That means they can kill her without provoking an unacceptable level of popular protest, because some will inevitably rationalize her murder as the elimination of a supposed terrorist. Soldiers did a dry run in 2009, busting into a community center in the middle of the night where she and several collaborators were sleeping. They detained and interrogated them for several hours, and Stella told me the squad commander said they were waiting for the command “execute” to be spoken over the radio. The army rather pitifully defended its action afterward by claiming they didn’t know Stella was a nun because she wasn’t in her habit.
“I don’t know any congregations where the sisters sleep in the habit and veil,” Stella says.
Last year’s Typhoon Sendong, which killed more than a thousand people in Mindanao, was a powerful sign. “Sendong is the apocalypse. It’s Doomsday. It is a sign of our fate if we continue with mining and logging,” Stella told me for an article for Catholic News Service.
While relief groups have busied themselves with helping the victims of Sendong rebuild their ravaged homes, activists like Stella are arguing for a moratorium on what created the vulnerability that the weather took advantage of.
Part of the region’s vulnerability stems from export-oriented agriculture that has driven small farmers off the land to create huge plantations of pineapples and bananas so that people far away can eat fancy deserts. Stella talks about how local fishers catch tuna, for example, but ship the best parts of the fish away to foreign markets, leaving the tail and head for Filipinos to eat. “We’re poor because we’ve given our best land away for export crops instead of using it to grow food for ourselves. We give away the best and eat the rejects. Our best lands are planted with food for the overfed, while our people go hungry,” she says, noting that the model began with the Spanish who stripped away entire forests to send hardwoods back to Europe. “If we give our lands to agribusiness and mining companies, where will we go? We will have nowhere to go but to Smokey Mountain,” a reference to the sprawling garbage dump in Manila that’s constantly burning.
Talking with Stella, it’s hard for me not to draw the comparison to the nuns in the United States whose witness recently triggered a Vatican witch hunt. The Leadership Conference of Women Religious angered the Vatican by speaking up for justice both within society and within the church, and the men at the top clearly aren’t happy. Several women religious I spoke with in the Philippines expressed admiration and support for the U.S. nuns, and worried that if the Vatican succeeds in silencing them, that it will only encourage more crackdowns elsewhere in the world.
In our discussion, Stella talked about the role of those set aside by the church for religious life, and the temptation to acquiesce to injustice in exchange for economic security.
“To free them from the burden of their conscience, the rich will give lots of donations to the monasteries, so the sisters will pray for more blessings for the benefactors,” she said, describing another monastery in the southern Philippines where the wealthy manipulated government funds to have the road to the monastery paved.
Often the rich feel they can have their sins forgiven if they give enough in donations. They know the sisters will pray for them. They come to the monastery to eat with the sisters and pray with them. But I wonder if that’s really our vocation, to pray for more blessings for the rich. What about the poor? We also pray for them, of course, so we can say we are balanced. We ask God to be kind to the poor who have no money to go to the doctor. Mama mia, what are we doing? Are we using money to get God or using God to get money?
Stella is critical of the way Mary is used to encourage the poor to accept injustice, to give up hope of earthly change. She says that’s because we’ve too often chosen the more passive of two prevalent models of Mary. Stella likes the Mary who hurries through the hills of Judea to find Elizabeth and announce that God “has brought down rulers from their thrones and lifted up the humble. God has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:52-53)
I like to model that revolutionary Mary who was against the patriarchal system, Mary who runs across the mountains to serve, instead of the other picture of Mary, a static Mary, to whom people come humbly to pray for her intervention, the Mary of Lourdes, Fatima and Guadalupe. I prefer the Mary who does not stay in one place, who runs to the people, runs to serve Elizabeth, who prays and sings–as religious do every day–the Magnificat, who announces that God is so good, that God who did not forget a promise to be with the poor and so feeds the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty-handed. It’s a very revolutionary picture of Mary, her hands up in the air, working with God to pull down the rich from their thrones and empower the downtrodden. This is the Mary we want to serve and follow, not the other Mary. But in our training as religious women, the priests tell us that we have to be like that other Mary. That’s also what the military tells us, that we should be there as servants of the priests, praying in the chapels. One of the news articles about me said that I am more outside the convent with the people than inside the convent praying. That’s something that the people, who are very devotional, would see as negative, saying I am not a prayerful sister. But I’m choosing to follow this Mary who runs across the mountains just to serve her sister.
Stella suggests women could make better priests than men, precisely of who Mary is. “Mary is one who could say, of Jesus, ‘This is my body given to you.’ Being a woman, capable of giving birth, it’s the blood coming from her that is present in Jesus’ body. She’s more fit to say mass than men, because men can’t really say, ‘This is my body, this is my blood.’”
The issues I’ve touched on here are not going away. Big Mining is turning the screws on those who resist in many countries around the world. In Haiti, there’s a nascent gold rush aborning, and my colleague Prospery Raymond from Christian Aid has outlined some of the challenges it presents in an article for The Guardian.
We’re also likely to be hearing more about Mindanao and the rest of the Philippines, as well as the country’s neighbors in the Asia-Pacific region, in the months and years ahead. The Obama administration is moving a significant portion of U.S. armed forces to the region, opening a U.S. Marines base in northern Australia, accelerating the militarization of the South China Sea. This is about oil, it’s about a superpower losing the economic game in the region as it fought expensive wars elsewhere, and so it’s stepping up its military game. This scenario, what some have dubbed the Obama administration’s China Syndrome, has grave implications for the region, and for the church’s mission in the region. Conflicts with local roots, like that in Mindanao, will take on dangerous new dimensions as proxy struggles for geo-strategic players. The role of the church in providing clear analysis and understanding, as well as helping build local capacity in peacebuilding, will become more important than ever. Stay tuned.