HomeEquality & JusticeFilipino tribal children face a life of uncertainty

Filipino tribal children face a life of uncertainty

When Lizabel hears a cricket, she would know it’s a cricket. But she does not know what it looks like. She has not seen one all her life.

Unlike her siblings who grew up in the mountains, Lizabel has been living the city since she was about two years old when her parents fled their homes in the mountains.

The family used to live in their tribal home in the village of Dulyan in Talaingod town, Davao del Norte province.

Lizabel and her family were among the 1,353 tribal people who left their ancestral land due to government military operations against communist rebels in 2014.

The tribe endured a six-day march from the village to seek temporary refuge in the city of Davao, which was then led by former mayor, now president, Rodrigo Duterte.

“It was so chaotic. We had to leave because the military started bombing our village. We had to take all our seven children to a safe place,” said Lorena Mandacawan, Lizabel’s mother.

Among those displaced were 515 children who did not see their village again.

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In Davao, Lizabel and the other children grew up in a church compound where the tribe sought sanctuary.

The church has become Lizabel’s playground. Instead of trees, she climbs stairs. Instead of birds, she watches police surveillance drones. Instead of a wooden house, she sleeps in a makeshift tent.

She has been to the Philippine capital Manila with her parents. They stay for months in different sanctuaries and church compounds.

Last year, Lizabel stayed for seven months in a sanctuary provided by a religious congregation in Manila.

“Most of the time, I play alone. The elders are always busy,” she said.

It has become “normal” for her to transfer from one place to another with her small backpack. She could not even bring a doll.

The girl, however unfamiliar with village life, said she misses home. “I want to see our house, but it is probably gone by now,” she said.

Lizabel now stays in a church compound where her tribe sought sanctuary in 2014. (Photo by Mark Saludes)

‘Aggressive expansion of business’

The village of Dulyan is located within the 12,600 square kilometer Pantaron mountain range that covers 12.4 percent of land in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao.

Pantaron is home to the remaining 1.8 million hectares of virgin forest that supply water to major rivers in Mindanao. It is home to hundreds of wild species and thousands of tribal people.

The tribes have been protecting the Pantaron mountain range for decades against the advancement of government’s so-called development projects.

Kerlan Fanagel, secretary general of the tribal group Pasaka, blamed the “aggressive expansion of business interests in tribal territories” for the displacement of the tribes.

Fanagel said the decades-long struggle of the indigenous people in Mindanao to protect the ancestral lands has always been about the “protection of life, land, and liberty.”

Among the major requirements for government projects in the area is the “free, prior, and informed consent” of the people.

Fanagel, however, said proponents of the project use force to get the consent of the people.

He said military operations in the guise of the anti-insurgency program of the government is used “to clear the way” for the entry of destructive projects.

In 2008, former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo instructed the military to create an “Investment Defence Force” to “protect vital infrastructures and projects” in rural areas.

“The intention of these military operations is not just to look for any armed rebel but to intimidate, forcibly evacuate, and silence opposing communities,” said Fanagel.

As of September, there are some 725 mining agreements in the Philippines, 130 of which cover about 307,000 hectares of land in Mindanao.

Lizabel holds a placard during a protest rally against the spate of killings in the Philippine capital Manila in February 2018. (Photo by Mark Saludes)

Affected children

Tribal children who grow up in evacuation camps suffer the most.

“The state of violence becomes normal to them,” said Frances Bontoc of the Children’s Rehabilitation Center, a non-profit organization that provides psychosocial interventions to children.

“Toddlers who missed the experience of childhood in their native place and grew up in a different environment cannot picture the normal condition that they are supposed to experience,” it added.

Frances Bontoc, officer-in-charge of the organization, said there comes a point that conflict becomes normal to the children and they become desensitized.

She said children who experience conflict-related violence will suffer from life-long consequences, such as trauma and mental health problems.

Prolonged stay in evacuation camps or temporary shelters cause anxiety and put children in “a constant state of fear.”

Another issue being faced by children is their detachment from their cultural and social identity.

Fanagel said displacement denies children the change to “encounter the abundance of life” inside the ancestral domain.

A child who is taken out of the ancestral land at a very young age will be unfamiliar with the forest, with farming methods, and even with basic survival skills are inherent to the tribe.

“I still dream of the day that Lizabel will enjoy the life that we, her parents and older siblings, have had,” said Lorena, the mother.

She expressed hope that “we don’t run out of time” and would be able to go back to their village “while she is still a child.”

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