A shared reflection of Emma Bridger, a Reasearcher from the United Society Partners in the Gospel (USPG).
I arrived in the Philippines at the beginning of February to begin a piece of collaborative research that seeks to understand the theological motivations and reasonings that drive the mission of the IFI with the Lumad people, the self-ascribed collective name of the Indigenous people in Mindanao. The research also seeks to learn from Lumad persons whose worldviews provide the possibility of opening up narrow capitalist ‘progress’ driven imaginations dependent upon the continued exploitation of people and planet.
Entering the Lumad ancestral domains was likely to be challenging because of the increased militarisation. I was delighted when one particular community overcame all of the obstacles and managed to negotiate with the military and local government for me to spend 24 hours with them.
I travelled with the co-ordinator for the IFI’s Human Dignity programme in Mindanao to the closest city where we were met by members of the community who escorted us on the back of their borrowed motorbikes towards the mountains. Within 5 minutes, we were crossing flowing streams surrounded by lush forest. I could finally breathe, away from the pollution and pressures of London and Manila, just sitting on the back of a motorbike, I found myself simply breathing and being – energised by the cool wind rushing by.
This bliss was short lived. Witnessing the extent of the deforestation was heart-breaking as the sun blazed harshly over the mountains now bare from decades of illegal logging. My usual feelings of guilt for my role in capitalist exploitation and overconsumption, sadness at the reality of the world in which we live, and anger that few seem to care were overwhelming.
Arriving in the community, we were taken to the military camp and asked to write our details in a logbook. I was nervous that they would check my (admittedly sometimes opinionated) Facebook account) I was simultaneously shocked by the soldiers’ jovial approach – as they joked, laughed and tried to communicate alternating between Spanish and Ilocano. The Barangay Captain who had negotiated our entrance was most certainly not relaxed or laughing. Instead, he looked nervous and eager to leave. I felt torn between my loyalty to him, my desire not to provoke the military and the need to the community, the IFI leader and myself safe. At the same time I fought to suppress my desire to highlight the fact that human and land-rights abuses are nothing to joke about. We left the military’s registration area as quickly as we could and spent the afternoon and evening talking with members of the community.
Everyone here had previously experienced displacement and they were fearful of the looming possibility that they this would happen again. Mining companies have been showing increasing interest in the mineral reserves present in the ancestral land of the Lumad. Adjoining roads have already started to be built.
People in the community told stories of their displacement, sleeping under leaves in the forest for fear of being accused of being a member of the New People’s Army (NPA) whilst eating left over rice corns deemed not good enough for the chickens. The colonial narratives upon which capitalist exploitation continues to depend were in full force.
The Lumads were treated as less than human and it was painful to see where these narratives had been internalised. My research is premised upon the idea that those of us brought up and schooled within a Western capitalist worldview have much to learn from Indigenous peoples, particularly if we are to imagine alternative economic and social systems capable of addressing the challenges our time, best exemplified by our current climate crisis. However, years of oppression and devaluation meant that any attempt to discuss what we in the West, or even the IFI as the Lumad’s close allies, have to learn from the Lumads was met by community members with confusion. Apart from telling us about their traditions and way of life, they were unable to see just how much we have to learn from their worldviews, their relationship with each other and with nature in particular.
I was frustrated. Why were people not desperate to tell me everything that was wrong with the current system and just what we need to do to make it right? Despite my frustration, I knew deep down that this was the result of years of oppression and of the capitalist promotion of linear, material notions of progress that define the Lumad as ‘backwards’ and ‘uneducated’.
The mission of the IFI in this context is crucial. As they stand with the Lumads despite resultant persecution and with absolutely no desire or intention to proselytise to the Lumads, the IFI is demonstrating just how much we can learn from the Lumads. For the past four weeks, the IFI leadership has provided a never-ending of example of the way in which the church has so much more to gain from this collaboration. Yes, the IFI is supporting the Lumads to protect their ancestral land, but the collaboration is about so much more. It is about the ability to imagine a life for all that is filled with human dignity. This necessitates an imagination of an alternative economic, social and political system with dramatically different power dynamics.
As I continue my time in the Philippines I know that I am just at the beginning of my journey to understand how much we in the UK have to learn from this incredible collaboration. It stands strong in its pursuit of justice despite the red-tagging, the arrests and trumped-up charges, the murders and the bombings. We should remember these people, their struggle and those who support them in our prayers and be encouraged by them to reflect deeply on our own context and role in the exploitative capitalist system.