KASAMA Vol. 15 No. 2 / April-May-June 2001 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

by Joy Balazo

The traffic in Manila was extra heavy. Impeachment proceedings had just started and "people's power" dominated the streets leading to the Malacaņang Palace of President Estrada.

I had an appointment to meet the General Secretary of United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) that morning but it was impossible to get a taxi as many roads were closed and others re-routed due to this massive show of "people's power". Today the Philippines has a new President. Does this mean anything to the indigenous people living in the hinterlands of Mindanao in the Philippines?

The end of last year saw me climbing the mountains of Mindanao to visit our project with the B'laan indigenous people. For most indigenous people in Mindanao, changes of government leadership in Manila have little meaning. They are still very poor and continue the struggle for survival with very little or no help at all from the government. For most of them, government policies have caused the erosion of their culture, their land and their life. Government policies have allowed rich companies to exploit and deprive people of their land and their right to ancestral land. It is only the genuine concern of people from the churches and non-government organisations that has helped the struggle to keep their land and culture.

A visit to the B'laan people was important at this time. It was the first year since the Western Mining Corporation (WMC) had withdrawn from the B'laan area. The impact of WMC's withdrawal was obvious. It has had positive and negative effects. On the positive side, the B'laan people are very happy as the perceived threat to their land and their lives is now over. The community of Salnaong, which is the site of the socio-economic project that we support, has grown. Families, previously hiding in the thick of the jungle for fear of being harassed by people in favour of mining, have now returned to the community.

The increase in the number of houses in the area was a clear indication that things were back to normal. A little shop, which sold basic goods, was now operating. The laughter of the children came as a surprise to me. Although I had visited the community many times, this was the first time I had heard the children laugh. Gone were the tension, suspicion and fear that had pervaded the community up to the beginning of last year.

The sound of the drum signalled our arrival. In a few short minutes almost the whole community was there to welcome us to the house of Datu Ma Dion, the Paramount Chief. A meeting was then conducted to allow people to share their stories. They were freer than before and were eager to share. It was amazing to notice the changes even in the way people related to me.

The B'laans have lost trust in people coming to "help" them. They have a long history of being used and abused by people they initially trusted. It is not surprising that they were not in a hurry to trust us in the beginning. They knew we were different but they wanted to be sure. " Why are you interested in helping us?" "How long are you going to help us?" they asked, as they sought assurances that we were different from others who had "helped" before. I was able to assure the B'laans that the Uniting Church and other concerned people in Australia were not going to bring truckloads of rice and other goodies, thus making them dependent on us. Our message was clear: we are helping you to help yourselves become economically independent.

We have given them funds to build a drier and warehouse for their corn, before taking it to town to sell. Water is abundant in the community but the water source is too far away. We have provided funds for the materials to bring the spring water closer to where it is needed.

The Western Mining Company has now gone and so have the services it provided to the communities. The road WMC created for mining operations has now deteriorated. A lack of maintenance has made it impassable, especially during periods of heavy rain.

In Salnaong, WMC built a school for the children and provided teachers' wages. Now that WMC has gone, the school has shut because the government cannot afford to pay wages. While the children's laughter was music to our ears, it was depressing to know that these children are deprived of their schooling.

The community sees education as very important and has held negotiations with the Department of Education. The Department has agreed to re-open the school if the children pay a minimum monthly fee of 30.00 pesos ($2.50) to subsidise part of the teachers' wages. The community is poor and there is no way it can afford the monthly fee. But we can assist them.

In this remote indigenous community, education of the next generation will help give the community the ability to protect itself and empower it to determine it's own future. Next time a mining company presents complex legal documents to the community, maybe a B'laan person will be able to read and understand them!

How You Can Help

Can you sacrifice the price of one cappuccino a month, or $2.50, to send one B'laan child to school? Fifty children are ready to start school in June 2001. We need 50 people to give up one cappuccino a month or 12 cups a year for one B'laan child to complete a year of schooling. Will you be one of the 50? Please send your monthly education money of $2.50 or $30 for a year or more to: The Cappuccino = Education Fund, Unity and International Mission - International Human Rights, PO Box A2266 Sydney South NSW 1235.

With the permission of the author, this article is reprinted from Mission Partners, Vol 13 No. 1 April 2001, published by the Uniting Church in Australia.