The lush forests of the Sierra Madre mountain range, on the Philippine island of Luzon, have been home to the Dumagat-Remontados indigenous peoples for centuries. But their ancestral lands are now under threat.
In this area, the Philippine government is planning to build the Kaliwa Dam, despite environmental concerns and opposition from local indigenous communities at risk of being displaced and losing their livelihoods. In 2009, the Dumagat-Remontado – with the support of the Save Sierra Madre Network Alliance (SSMNA) – had successfully stopped the construction of the Laiban mega-dam through a public campaign and legal actions. But under President Rodrigo Duterte, the project was scaled down and last year it secured a dubious environmental compliance certificate and a $211.2 million loan from China Exim Bank.
Since then, militarization in the area has increased. Community leaders have been “red-tagged” and falsely accused of belonging to the rebel group New Peoples’ Army (NPA). “Under the guise of suppressing the armed rebellion, the military keeps attacking indigenous peoples, who are caught in the crossfire despite complete lack of evidence for the accusations against them,” said Conrado Vargas, a local community leader and coordinator of the STOP Kaliwa Dam Network (SKDN).
When the pandemic hit, the situation became even worse, as the heavy presence of police and the military due to the lockdown made it doubly hard for the local people to move freely in their land. In March, a member of the Dumagat-Remontado community was abducted and physically abused while in custody. As denounced by the SKDN, this was the latest episode in a context of continuous violence, unreasonable use of force, threats, and harassment by the military.
The case of the Dumagat-Remontados is not unique. Across Southeast and South Asia, indigenous peoples and local communities – who were already severely impacted by development projects such as dams, agribusiness, or mining activities – are now facing additional challenges due to the COVID-19 emergency.
“In Nepal, those who violate the lockdown have been arrested. But there is insufficient information about COVID-19 for indigenous peoples, as materials have not been translated into the different local languages. This fact – coupled with police arrests – has raised indigenous peoples’ fears about the disease,” said Durga Yamphu, from the Lawyers’ Association for Human Rights of Nepalese Indigenous Peoples (LAHURNIP).
Moreover, despite the lockdown, many companies have even expanded their operations. In the Ratanakiri province in Cambodia, while local indigenous peoples were sheltering at home because of the pandemic, the Vietnamese rubber company Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL) cleared hectares of land and bulldozed two sacred mountains, wetlands, traditional hunting areas, and burial grounds.
“My people believe in the spirits that inhabit the forests and mountains. Now that the company has cleared our mountain, we have no place to pray and the spirits will be very angry with our villagers for allowing this to happen,” said Sev Suen, a community representative from Kak village.
The areas cleared were among those designated to be returned to the Ratanakiri indigenous peoples, as established in 2015 through a mediated agreement. In 2019, however, HAGL had unilaterally pulled out of the mediation process, which was then re-opened this year. But the promise of a fair agreement was short-lived.
“This clearance of land already designated for return is the latest of many acts of bad faith. The damage it has inflicted on these communities adds insult to injury, and it calls into question whether HAGL is truly committed to resolving this long-standing dispute,” said Eang Vuthy, executive director of Equitable Cambodia.
Across Southeast Asia, communities who live in areas impacted by development projects have been denouncing the double standards applied by their governments. While daily wage earners in the informal sector were forced to temporarily stop working and lost their livelihoods, many business and extractive activities were allowed to carry on.
“While we are observing quarantine, the government has continued issuing mining permits. And communities we are working with also reported an increase in illegal mining activities, conducted especially by Chinese companies. This has led to increased tensions, adding to the emotional and psychological burden of communities under quarantine,” said Jaybee Garganera from Alyansa Tigil Mina (ATM), a national coalition of organizations fighting destructive large-scale mining in the Philippines.
Moreover, in many countries the lockdown was used as a pretext to further curtail freedom of expression, of assembly and of protest, exacerbating the risks – including threats, attacks, criminalization and retaliations – that activists often face.
“In Mongolia, we have seen the police stopping any attempt to voice a protest, even when it was just one or two persons doing live streaming, and people have even been detained without court orders,” said Sukhgerel Durgunsen, director of Oyu Tolgoi (OT) Watch.
In the Philippines, on April 6 Rolando Pulido – chairman of Didipio Earthsavers’ Multipurpose Association (DESAMA) – was arbitrarily detained while trying to stop the illegal mining activities of Oceanagold Mining Corporation. Some indigenous Tuwali women who had joined the peaceful barricade were also injured by the police.
Yet, despite increased risks and restrictions, activists and local communities are finding new strategies to organize themselves and to keep fighting for their rights, both offline and online.
“As mothers and women, our effort to volunteer as activists in the front line is difficult, but we want to be there. When we go to the barricade to monitor who goes in and out of our community, we clothe ourselves with prayers. We are fearful but we also know it’s our responsibility to continue this struggle,” said Myrna Duyan, a Tuwali leader from Bileg Dagiti Babbae, who has been battling against gold-copper mining in Brgy, in the Philippines. Her story was among those shared in the “Communities Take Back Spaces” campaign, launched by ATM and LILAK (Purple Action for Indigenous Women’s Rights).
The Asian Indigenous People Pact (AIPP), a network of 47 indigenous peoples’ groups in 18 countries, has also been gathering testimonies and documenting how their members are dealing with the pandemic. Moreover, it has established a response network that helps weed out misinformation, lessening fear about COVID-19 among indigenous communities, and it coordinates relief operations through community-level health protocols that also include traditional rituals.
“When spiritual ceremonies are performed to enforce village lockdowns, it is not to invoke fear but to call forth our spiritual conviction and courage to face the unknown. These are rituals used for healing and saving lives,” said AIPP Secretary General Gam Shimray.
The COVID-19 pandemic is laying bare all the challenges that vulnerable and marginalized communities were already facing, and the unequal and unjust system we are living in. But it is also showing the resilience of these communities, who continue to be vocal in their struggle for human rights.
Carmina Flores-Obanil is the Asia Regional Coordinator of the Coalition for Human Rights in Development, a global coalition of around 100 social movements, civil society organizations, and grassroots groups working together to ensure that development is community-led and fulfills human rights.