“I represent, not only the lumads and the indigenous peoples, but all the humble citizens of the country.”
By ALYSSA MAE CLARIN
MANILA— When Bayan Muna Party-list nominated indigenous peoples’ rights leader Eufemia Cullamat to run for congress in 2018, Cullamat was hesitant.
“I told them ‘what would I do there?’ I’m no lawyer,” the Manobo tribeswoman said with a shrug.
In her Bayan Muna shirt, simple pants and shoes, Cullamat is far from what the public would generally imagine for a congresswoman. However, she embodies the people she is vowing to fight for: the simple Filipinos.
Cullamat is the first Lumad from the poor to take a seat in the House of Representatives and she vows to bring the struggle of national minorities to the Congress.
For the ancestral lands
Cullamat became a council member of Mapasu, an indigenous peoples’ group in Caraga region, in 2004. From then on, Cullamat has continued to involve herself in different IP organizations.
She had been a strong voice in the indigenous peoples’ fight for their ancestral lands, and has been campaigning against the entry of big mining companies in the ancestral domain of many Filipino tribes.
“Our lives are rooted deeply into those lands, that’s why we fight for them,” Cullamat told Bulatlat in an interview. “We won’t survive in the cities, we only need our land.”
She also condemned the continuous vilification of IP tribes living in the communities.
“They say we are part of these militant groups just because our communities are imbedded in the mountains,” Cullamat said. “But we know they only want us out because they want to mine our lands.”
Cullamat lamented how the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act of 1997 has been used to divide tribes and other communities.
Section 57 of chapter VIII of the Republic Act No. 8371 of 1997 states that the IPs have priority rights over harvesting, extraction, and development of the ancestral land. However, if a non-member were to take part in the ‘development’ and ‘utilization’ of the natural resources, they could do so, provided that a formal and written agreement is entered with the IPs.
“But usually, two communities share the land. For example, the community living below the mountains would give their permission, but the community deep inside the mountain remains unaware…the community in the mountains would find their homes destroyed.”
She said that it’s important for IPRA to be repealed, or at the very least, modified and remodeled to respond to the needs of the people involved.
“This is what we are facing right now.”
For the future generation
Indigenous peoples have always held their heads high for being the ‘original Filipino people,’ Cullamat stated proudly.
The government, however, has treated them differently, Cullamat said.
“It seems like despite being the original Filipinos, we remain invisible,” said Cullamat, lamenting how indigenous peoples are being ignored despite all their efforts to drive and fight for change, for their rights over their ancestry lands.
“Because we are not as educated, and because of our origin…people treat us as ‘second class’ Filipinos,” added Cullamat.
She then explained that they have fought hard and sacrificed a lot to give their children access to free education, and how her people are angered by the unceremonious closure of 55 Lumad schools.
“It was what we needed the most, for the future of the children, and we made it happen even without the government’s help, and still they take it away from us! Not only that, they vilify our causes,” said Cullamat.
The suspension of 55 Lumad schools under Salugpongan was based on a military report, which claims that the students are being taught to rebel against the government and are being forced to join anti-government rallies.
She asked Education Secretary Leonor Briones to adhere to the department’s mandate of providing education to all Filipino people.
“By suspending these schools, they are also suspending the future of all these Lumad children. And this fight has always been for their future,” said Cullamat, adding that no child, Lumad or not, should be deprived of their right for education and, of their future.
“We did not violate any laws, even the laws of nature. We only wanted our children to learn,” Cullamat said.
For the Filipino people
Cullamat said that all bills that she would be filing would have the approval of the minority groups such as the IPs, the farmers, and the workers.
“The Makabayan bloc has started to consult with these groups. This is to be sure all the provisions under the bills we would be passing would come from these groups directly, what they want, what they need,” said Cullamat.
She added that the hardships and the struggles the IPs are experiencing are also the same struggles a lot of the minority groups are experiencing.
“As they’ve said, ‘ang sakit sa kalingkingan ay dama sa buong katawan’,” said Cullamat, “We all experience the same hardships, and we all feel the same grief because we’re all humans.”
On July 1, the Makabayan bloc has already filed house bills that are suitable for the needs of the Filipino citizens, such as the genuine agrarian reform that farmers have been pushing to be passed for decades.
“As the minority, we feel immense pressure,” Cullamat admitted.
As one of the few legislators inside the House of the Representatives fighting for the minority, they are surrounded by people of this administration.
“But as people representing our citizens, we keep our head high (despite the pressure),” Cullamat said with determination, “Because we see the dire conditions of our countrymen.”
The Filipino needs a voice in the Congress, and the idea of giving the people a chance to be heard is the thing that is giving Cullamat the stability to move forward and fearlessly defend the needs of the Filipino people.