MADAUM, PHILIPPINES – As Philippine military battalions closed in, shutting down schools, rounding up men and harassing women, Tungig Mansumuy had to make a tough decision: stay and protect their homes, or flee to save their lives and risk losing their land.
After discussions with other tribesmen, Mansumuy, the chief of a Lumad tribe in Mindanao Island, decided they had to leave and seek shelter until martial law was lifted and it was safe to return to their homes in Talaingod village.
A few men stayed behind to guard their homes, while the rest fled by foot in February, carrying few belongings as they made the two-day trek down the mountain, Mansumuy said.
Today 244 of them, mostly women and children, are in rickety shelters of bamboo and tarpaulin in the middle of a banana plantation in Madaum village, about 80 km (50 miles) from Davao City, with no inkling of when they can return to their homes.
“We have endured militarization for a long time, and we have fled several times before. But we were always able to go back,” said Mansumuy, as his wife nursed their newborn child, and older children carried firewood and water to women cooking on fires.
“This time feels different; we have been forced to leave our homes, and we are being told we need to give up our lands for our own good. But we cannot live like this — we belong in our ancestral lands, and we want to go back,” he said.
The Lumad in Mindanao in the southern Philippines are part of nearly 17 million indigenous people in the country. They are among the poorest of minority groups, with little access to social services including education and health care, experts say.
They have been caught in the middle of a five-decade old insurgency, as well as a push by logging and mining companies to tap Mindanao’s rich resources including gold, copper and nickel, after President Rodrigo Duterte said he would welcome investors.
Their vulnerability has been exacerbated by the extension of martial law imposed in Mindanao last May by Duterte, who has called the island a “flashpoint for trouble” and atrocities by Islamist and communist rebels.
“Duterte is waging war against defenseless indigenous people in Mindanao,” said Duphing Ogan, secretary-general of the indigenous peoples’ alliance Kalumaran.
“They are targeting our lands, destroying our mountains and our forests, and selling out to corporations. This is an all-out war against minority people, not against terror.”
A spokesman for Duterte did not respond to e-mails seeking comment.
The Philippines was the deadliest country in Asia last year for land and environment activists amidst a government crackdown on rural communities, according to advocacy group PAN Asia Pacific.
Campaigners say indigenous people in Mindanao are particularly vulnerable under martial law, imposed after Islamist militants took over the city of Marawi.
At least 60 tribal people have been killed since 2016 when Duterte came to power, many of them in Mindanao, according to rights groups.
Duterte, who is from Mindanao, has threatened airstrikes on indigenous schools that he said are teaching “subversion” and communism. Lumad elders deny this, but dozens of schools have been shut or destroyed.
The government says it is worried that mountainous, jungle-clad Mindanao, a region the size of South Korea that is home to the Muslim minority, could attract international extremists.
But activists and United Nations experts have said the Lumad have suffered widespread human right abuses that could intensify with the extension of martial law to December.
Thousands of Lumad people have been displaced and some killed, said Victoria Tauli-Corpuz and Cecilia Jimenez-Damary, the U.N. Human Rights Council’s special rapporteurs on the rights of indigenous peoples and internally displaced people.
Some of the attacks by military personnel were based on suspicions that the Lumad are involved with militant groups, or because they resisted mining activities on their ancestral land, they said in a report last December.
“They are suffering massive abuses of their human rights, some of which are potentially irreversible,” they said.
“Forcing indigenous peoples to leave their homes has an incalculable impact on their very lives and ways of living — one that risks erasing their culture and existence.”
Tauli-Corpuz and more than 600 others were denounced as communist guerrillas whom the government wants declared as “terrorists.” She has denied the allegations.
Campaigners say the extended militarization of Mindanao is intended to force indigenous people off their land, so they can be handed over to mining, energy and logging companies.
Ancestral domains are protected by the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act 1997, which recognizes their control of these lands.
Commercial use of the land needs the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous people, according to U.N. guidelines. But it is rarely sought, and social and environmental impacts are never revealed, campaigners say.
Duterte, who remains immensely popular, said in February he will open ancestral domains in Mindanao to investors to generate wealth. He said he will pick the companies himself.
Campaigners slammed his remarks.
“Opening up ancestral domains in Mindanao to investors will lead to massive displacements of peasants and indigenous peoples, and encourage more violence against them,” said Jay Apiago at rights group Karapatan.
“Mindanao is very rich in resources, but the people remain poor and have not benefited from any business. If their lands are taken, they will have no means of livelihood,” he said.
Last month, Duterte vowed to provide livelihood assistance to the indigenous people if they support his plan.
But for the Lumad sheltering hundreds of miles from home, the promise means little.
Not far from the banana plantation where Mansumuy and his clan have settled temporarily, a group of about 40 tribal people who fled from Mindanao’s Compostela Valley are preparing to build shelters before the rainy season.
“We were not entirely safe before the martial law, and we will not be safe even when martial law is lifted,” said Cristina Lantao, a Lumad women’s leader.
“We will only be truly safe when the government is for poor people and indigenous people, and not just for businesses.”