“We are rendering services to the people in areas that have been practically neglected by government. Why are they [the government and the military] targeting us?”
By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
MANILA – A network of beleaguered humanitarian and development workers asked the incoming Rodrigo Duterte administration to support their socio-economic programs in a forum last June 23 at the University of the Philippines-Diliman.
“We are rendering services to the people in areas that have been practically neglected by government. Why are they [the government and the military] targeting us?” Estrella Catarata, spokesperson of Assert Socio-Economic Initiatives Network (Ascent) said.
ASCENT, a network formed early this year, has documented attacks against humanitarian and development workers serving far-flung communities that have long been deprived of access to government social services.
Under outgoing President Aquino, their 17 member-organizations, programs and workers, have been harassed, threatened, intrigued in the communities, red-tagged, or worse, killed.
Under siege for providing education to the marginalized
In tears, Maricres Pagaran of the Alternative Learning Center for Agriculture and Livelihood Development remembered how on Sept. 1, 2015, they were dragged into the community’s basketball court and there, in full view, two Lumad leaders were killed. Residents and Alcadev staff later on learned that Emerito Samarca, their executive director, was also killed inside their school.
“We were like worms as we crawled to safety. All we did was to provide assistance. And this is what they gave us in return,” Pagaran said.
The horrendous crime has led to the forced evacuation of the Lumad of Han-ayan village to the provincial capital in Tandag City, Surigao del Sur, disrupting their lives and their young one’s education. Today, teachers continue to provide lessons even if they have been in the evacuation center for more than half a year already.
“Alcadev is a collective effort of the Lumad to fulfill their dream to have a school in their community. There was never one in their community,” Pagaran said, adding that their curriculum is culturally-sensitive with agriculture, history, and home economics as among its core subjects.
For these efforts, Alcadev received recognitions from no less than the Philippine government. Their students excelled as well in accreditation and equivalency examinations and some continued their tertiary education.
Still, Pagaran said, the military branded their teachers as members of the New People’s Army (NPA). The worst, she added, was the Sept. 1 killings, which was meant to silence them.
Other alternative schools in Mindanao are also being subjected to attacks.
Mindanao Interfaith Services Foundation Inc. (Misfi) executive director Percinita Sanchez said their schools are being subjected to attacks because their principles are far from the dominant views on what to teach children. These include being nationalist, mass-oriented, scientific, culturally-sensitive, and geared toward developing indigenous knowledge and skills.
“They are always face-to-face with soldiers,” Sanchez said, describing the situation of teachers who are being branded as NPAs. Neither the female teachers’ lipsticks nor their uniforms, which, in Manila and other urban centers, provide them with the image of respectability, deter soldiers from harassing and threatening them, she quipped.
In one instance, out of exasperation, one teacher told the soldier who was accosting him that if the military’s accusations were true, then NPAs are better off than the government as they provide children with education.
“The soldier did not say anything and just aimed his gun at our teacher. The teacher was very afraid and said that he will no longer return to teach. But the next day, he was back on board,” she shared.
READ: Italian priest who served indigenous peoples of Mindanao killed
But the worst attack was the brutal killing of Fr. Fausto “Pops” Tentorio, an Italian missionary who helped establish alternative schools for the indigenous peoples in various communities. Until now, no justice has been served.
Even humanitarian workers are under siege
The brand of development work that Alay sa Bayan Inc. (ABI) is doing has also earned the ire of state security forces. After all, its current executive director Lorena Villareal said “disasters are not just natural but man-made as well.”
ABI has been at the forefront of struggles for development in their partner communities. Apart from community-based disaster-risk reduction management programs, ABI is also engaged in socio-economic initiatives. As such, they have been critical of mining and widespread logging that threaten the lives and livelihood of the people.
Villareal said that farmers are also being displaced as agricultural lands in the Central Luzon region are being subjected to land-use conversion and land speculation. Residents, too, are being evicted from their homes to give way to government infrastructure projects, such as the construction of expressways and dams.
ABI’s involvement has led to the public vilification of their staff. Soldiers even dubbed their organization as “Alay Bayan Muna,” tagging them with a progressive partylist group that is also being vilified by state security forces.
But the worst came in 2012, when their executive director Willem Geertman was shot and killed. The police claimed that robbery was the main motive behind his killing, but human rights activists said it was his strong stance and active participation against mining and logging in the Central Luzon provinces that led to his killing.
READ: Dutch environmentalist killed in Pampanga
“His killing caused global outrage, but the Aquino government did not lift a finger to bring justice to a Dutch missionary who offered more than half of his life to the Filipino people,” Villareal said.
‘An indictment of government neglect’
Incoming Social Welfare Secretary and UP professor Judy Taguiwalo hailed the contribution made by various non-government agencies through their socio-economic initiatives.
“It is an indictment of the government’s neglect of the powerless,” she said.
As now head of the government agency with the mandate to respond to the needs of the poor, Taguiwalo said she would work together with development institutions in providing much-needed services without discriminating on who would receive assistance.
She said the incoming administration would deliver services with empathy, which, she added, was lacking under Aquino’s “pusong veto” government, referring to the tendency of the outgoing government to veto proposed laws that would benefit the people such as the widely-criticized veto of the proposal to increase the social security pension by P2,000 ($43) and the wage hike for nurses.
During the forum, Taguiwalo also urged development workers to document cases of government socio-economic programs being used as a counterinsurgency program.
Incoming Agrarian Reform Secretary Rafael Mariano, who was also at the forum, said that no matter how limited his powers are, he would ensure that no farmer, whether one is a beneficiary of the government agrarian reform program or not, would be evicted from the land that he or she has been tilling.
Mariano, who is also chairman of the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas, said he will keep his advocacy as he carries out his task as a Cabinet secretary, and will oppose the criminalization of struggling peasants and indigenous communities.
“Kalihim ng bayan, inyong tulungan,” Taguiwalo added.
No stopping development workers from helping the poor
Catarata said ASCENT members have devoted themselves to working in communities. Some of them have been in this field for 10 to 30 years now.
Despite the attacks against these efforts, there are palpable gains in the collective struggle of both communities and the development agency concerned. These include stopping an expansion of a palm oil plantation in Bohol that threatened the farmers’ livelihood, providing free irrigation systems, raising climate-resilient crops, designing community-based disaster risk reduction and management programs, and forming alternative schools.
But even with the promise of change by the incoming the Duterte administration, as well as the expected support from its Cabinet secretaries, Sanchez pointed out that their efforts in organizing and assisting communities would not stop, as well as their vigilance against abuses by government officials.
She said, “Many of those who are still in power want to take advantage of the people.”