HomeCommentaryFilipino bishops and laity fighting for justice and human rights

Filipino bishops and laity fighting for justice and human rights

There are many unsung brave and strong-minded Filipinos willing to stand up with their people and fight for their lands and protect the environment; thousands more are ready to sacrifice themselves.

They work to defend children’s rights, rescue, protect, and heal victims of abuse and human trafficking, and fight for the Philippine environment, people’s lands, and the human rights of the people.

Among them too are courageous journalists who continue to tell the truth despite harassment and death threats, and a few bishops and priests have spoken out to defend the innocent and have been falsely accused themselves.

An international environmental group has said that the Philippines is the most dangerous place in Asia for defenders of ecology and land rights. 

More than 114 out of a total of 270 defenders of the land and environment that were murdered were indigenous leaders trying to protect their way of life and lands.

The research was done by Global Witness, an environmental protection NGO based in the UK. Most of the murders and land grabbing have been done in Mindanao. 

The NGO researchers found that most of the murders were because of “protests by defenders against company operations. “A third of the killings are linked to the mining industry, closely followed by the agribusiness sector,” they said in their report.

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They allege that “state forces are behind the majority of killings in the few cases where the identity of the perpetrators is documented.”

It is the duty and role of government agencies to actually protect human rights and defend the people, yet the shameful fact is that the authorities are frequently the violators.

The human rights defenders are the true heroes who were not lauded, recognized, or praised for their commitment and dedication to working for justice and truth on Heroes Day.

Instead, many of them are unjustly imprisoned, and others are branded and “tagged” as rebels and “communists” or subversives by a small band of military allegedly working with the rich oligarchs.

These super-rich families are politically powerful and well-connected, and they make millions of dollars in profit with their partner foreign investors who are mining the mineral resources of the nation and grabbing Indigenous ancestral lands for plantations.

There is a thin veil of legality when a mining corporation gets a “permit”, or “title” to mine or set up yet another plantation on ancestral lands, especially in Mindanao.

That is why some of the family dynasties tenaciously hang on to power, manipulating elections, buying votes, and grabbing power to sequester national wealth for themselves. 

The Philippines is not really a democracy but a Dynocracy. The family dynasties rule the nation, and injustice and poverty continue to spread.

More than 270 Filipinos, most of them indigenous citizens, were murdered between 2012 and 2020 alone as they protested or tried to defend land rights and thwart the destruction of the Philippine environment by mining corporations backed by a few powerful politicians and their cronies.

They cut down forests, polluted rivers, and drove indigenous people from their ancestral lands. The lands are considered sacred to their way of life and have always provided their food and assured their survival.

Some government officials tell them to go to the cities and find jobs. This is an impossibility for indigenous people. It is similar in other countries when ingenious citizens are driven from ancestral lands and not recognized as the true owners.

When they organize and campaign for justice, they are slandered, falsely branded enemies of the state, unjustly accused of being criminals and rebels, and wrongfully jailed or killed.

Some brave bishops have spoken out to condemn killings and the “systematic abductions” of defenders of the ecology and lands. Bishop Gerardo Alminaza of San Carlos said last 24 September, in a courageous statement about the abductions, that the indicators “point to state forces as the culprits”.

“Perpetrators, including military and police officers, as well as officials of state institutions… involved in abductions and kidnappings, must be held accountable,” Bishop Alminaza said.

In Brazil, the Supreme Court ruled on 22 September 2023 by a majority to recognize the land rights of hundreds of thousands of indigenous people who have campaigned for justice since the 1980s, when they were driven off their ancestral lands by the military and the powerful politically connected agribusiness, logging, and mining cartels, backed by corrupt politicians and military force since 1988.

The Supreme Court has now established the inalienable rights of thousands of indigenous citizens to millions of hectares of their ancestral lands, much of it rainforest. There is great rejoicing among the 1.7 million Brazilian indigenous citizens.

It gives hope that one day there will be justice for the brave Filipino hero-activists helping the people campaign to defend the environment, the waterways, beaches, forests, and lands of the people.

Instead of being admired and praised, they are wrongly “tagged as subversives” and arrested, their human rights violated, and their voices silenced. The protests are silenced, and the exploitation and land grabbing continue without protest. This is an insidious injustice that is going on in the once-beautiful Philippines.

More of the 72 bishops should speak out and not leave it to Bishop Alminaza and a few other bishops to speak out. He is the vice chairman of the Bishops’ Commission on Social Action, Justice, and Peace. 

Under the past administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, four Philippine bishops and several outspoken priests defending human rights spoke against the “war on drugs and rallied their communities to protest the killing of thousands of Filipinos by the state-sanctioned “death squads”.

They were falsely and maliciously charged with ‘sedition (as was Jesus of Nazareth) and ludicrously and falsely accused of planning to oust President Rodrigo Duterte.

The very few courageous bishops and priests who have the courage to stand against tyranny are Archbishop Socrates Villegas, Bishop Pablo Virgilio David, Bishop Honesto Ongtioco, and (retired) Bishop Teodoro Bacani; Father Robert Reyes; La Salle Brother Armin Luistro; Jesuit priest Albert Alejo; Divine Word priest Flaviano Villanueva; and nine others.

They were falsely accused, and the manufactured case was a travesty of justice. Eventually, the ridiculous allegations were dropped when it failed to produce evidence and failed to silence the church leaders in defending human rights.

There is no greater shame for a nation than for its government’s agencies to persecute its human rights defenders and deprive indigenous people and poor farmers of their land rights.

May all people of conscience and good heart work for social justice, human rights, and dignity.

Irish Father Shay Cullen, SSC, established the Preda Foundation in Olongapo City in 1974 to promote human rights and the rights of children, especially victims of sex abuse. The views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of LiCAS.news.

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