By ANNE MARXZE D. UMIL
MANILA – On the night of February 28, Agnes Mesina, regional coordinator of Makabayan-Cagayan Valley, was arrested by the police using a warrant issued in a case that was already dismissed by the court.
She was later released by the police.
But such intimidation, which was not the first, has not made Mesina stop from working for the marginalized.
While she fears for her life, for her colleagues and loved ones, her desire to contribute for genuine change in society is bigger than her fear.
“I have witnessed massive cases of land grabbing and how the ordinary people were being oppressed. My fear is not enough for me to turn my back on them. Even if I am walking at night or I’m not doing anything, I remember it all,” she told Bulatlat in an online interview.
She said that exhaustion eases, but “your will and mental state, when it has been wounded it does not heal easily.”
An IP advocate
For a long time Mesina has been actively involved in the promotion of indigenous people’s right to ancestral land and the right to self-determination. This can be attributed to Mesina’s early exposure to the issues confronting indigenous peoples.
Mesina said her school, a Catholic exclusive school for girls, would hold forums where peasants and farmers would visit their school. The school also had Tiboli scholars whom they get to interact with when they visit the school every end of the year.
In high school, Mesina became part of the formation of Katribu or Kalipunan ng Katutubong Mamamayan ng Pilipinas in the mid-1980s.
In college, Mesina said she helped in establishing groups advocating for indigenous peoples’ rights as well as for peasant farmers such as the Forum for Rural Concerns which have chapters not only in UP Diliman but also in other schools.
It was this time when the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) was formed and there was a strong campaign for land reform under the administration of late President Corazon Aquino, Mesina said.
She also participated in the establishment of Tunay na Alyansa ng Bayan Alay sa Katutubo (TABAK), a multi-sectoral group supporting indigenous peoples’ right to ancestral lands.
While in college, Mesina helped in the formation of local organizations in Central Luzon for Aeta and Dumagat tribes.
While working for cause oriented groups, Mesina was able to finish two major courses in college which she humbly declined to identify. She finished her studies in 1991 and has stayed in development work since.
One factor that allowed her to continue working in her advocacy is the unwavering support of her family.
“We also struggle because we are not a rich family. I also thought of how I can help them. But I still decided to become an activist and accepted that I cannot make them rich. So what I promised to my mother is that I will become a good activist,” Mesina said.
“The society and traditional education has taught us to help our family (when we graduate from school). But my family is also part of society (which we are also changing for the better),” Mesina said.
Through the years, Mesina has seen the shrinking of democratic space in the Philippines.
Before, she said the harassment she experienced are usually during the fact-finding missions they conducted. She also experienced receiving sporadic death threats. But now it’s different, she said, as activists are being terrorized by being demonized, which endangers the lives of those who were labeled as “terrorist-communist.”
“Terrorist-communist” is usually used against the New People’s Army and the Communist Party of the Philippines by the state forces.
“It’s different now. I only receive sporadic death threats then. Now my name is on the tarpaulins,” Mesina told Bulatlat.
She said that under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, since 2018, her name has been included in a list being posted by state agents in all areas of Cagayan Valley.
She said it’s tiring to respond to allegations that they have addressed repeatedly. But then, she said, activists should not get tired of countering these allegations because there is no truth about it.
“There’s a saying that, lies, if told repeatedly, becomes the truth,” she said, adding that the objectives of those behind terror tagging is to terrorize or intimidate them, as well as the ordinary people and members of local organizations such as the peasant farmers, youth, the indigenous peoples whom, she said, are only calling the government for the betterment of their condition and situation.
Mesina was also involved in the electoral campaign of progressive party-lists under the Makabayan coalition since 2007. According to her, Region 2 was able to deliver an incremental increase of votes for party-lists every election season.
Mesina was also actively involved in the campaign against extractive projects such as black sand mining in the provinces of Cagayan and Nueva Vizcaya, as well as building environmental alliances.
When Cagayan was hit by super typhoon Lawin (typhoon Haima) in 2016, Mesina was also involved in the formation of Tulong Sulong Cagayan Valley for the victims of the typhoon.
In 2020, Mesina was one of the convenors of Tulong Sulong Relief operations after massive flooding hit Cagayan Valley. The project was able to help 20,000 families.
These involvements – from the protection of the environment to the indigenous people’s right to ancestral lands and working to service the underprivileged – may have been the reason why she is being targeted.
Prior to her arrest in February this year, there were three instances where state forces tried to put Mesina in jail.
In July 2012, under the administration of the late President Benigno Aquino III, Mesina who was then working with the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines (RMP), was arrested by a platoon of uniformed men during the first ever consultation with teachers in Tuguegarao, Cagayan Valley. The charge was frustrated murder, which was later dismissed after a few months for lack of evidence.
In 2015, a few months before the 2016 elections, she and other activists in the province were charged with three counts of murder. Fortunately, a source told them that a warrant of arrest will be issued against them and they were able to respond to the allegations before the court issued the warrant.
In 2020, Mesina was also one of those who were accused of murder along with Bagong Alyansang Makabayan’s (Bayan) Lutgardo Jurcales Jr., Windel Bolinget of Cordillera Peoples Alliance (CPA), Jackie Valencia of Karapatan, Reynaldo Garneng of Danggayan to Mannalon ti Cagayan Valley and Albert Mandin.
This case, which was filed in Tagum, Davao Del Norte, was dismissed by Tagum Regional Trial Court in July 2021 for lack of merit.
‘This is not a job’
Mesina’s memorable encounters include leaders of indigenous peoples who fought and are fighting for their land. Datu Guibang Apoga of Talaingod, Davao del Norte is one, she said.
“I cannot forget when he said that he can’t understand why Alcantara and Sons want to take their lands from them when the Ata Manobos can only eat camote (sweet potatoes). Meanwhile, Alcantaras’ dogs eat steak.’ That made an impact on me,” Mesina said.
She also cannot forget Manong Ben, a farmer in Cordon, Isabela, who declined a P1 million ($17,666) offer from a local mining company after his son got into an accident.
“They are offering his wife P1 million for the treatment of their son and to stay silent. He refused because he said, if he accepts that, the people will not believe him anymore,” Mesina said.
“I asked him if he’s not afraid. He said, at first he was, but then fear subsided after holding a series of discussions that allowed him to understand their plight and condition,” Mesina added.
These and many other unforgettable encounters and inspirations from the oppressed made her more determined to continue with her activism.
Does she ever get tired and think of turning her back from her advocacies?
“I can always have a good rest which can take away the exhaustion. That is what I learned as an activist, that there is always time to rest, eat nutritious foods or sleep or go to the beach. But to stop, no. Because this is not a job where we can resign from,” Mesina said.
She added that as long as she is able, she promised to give her time, energy and talent to the people.