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  • Writer's pictureGuru Press Staff

Indigenous PEOPLES are God’s gift to the world

By: Bishop Renato Abibico

(In celebration of the Indigenous month this October 2021, I wish to share an excerpt of my closing homily to the Samahang Kabataan ng Episcopal sa Pilipinas (SKEP), a national youth organization in the Episcopal Church in the Philippines during, their summer youth camp held at St. Titus Church, Hanhan Conner, Apayao, circa 2014.)

By making the Indigenous Peoples, the focus of your workshops in this national youth camp, I am particularly proud to note that the youth of the church, which you represent, are concerned about the situation of the Indigenous peoples of the world, most especially in our country. Hence, in your full two days of sojourn in this humble place, I am sure that you have learned from your workshops many things about the IPs, who they are, what they are, what are their problems and needs, and what are their dreams and aspirations.

To be sure that we are talking about the same thing, let me just state that according to Google, “the IPs are distinct social and cultural groups that share collective ancestral ties to the lands and natural resources where they live, occupy or from which they have been displaced.” In simple words, they are the first people of the place, aboriginal or native people. In this country, to name a few; we have the Aetas, muslims, tirurays, Lumads, Mangyan, Igorots, Kalingas, Ifugaos, Tinguians, Apayaos, etc.

The IPs are God’s gift to the world.

And so we should thank God for giving us the IPs who have proven themselves in terms of their unique contribution to environmental protection and development, cultural integrity, and community life. While most people regard nature as an object merely as a resource base for wealth creation and development, IPs have a totally different view about nature, which immensely affects how they relate with nature. To them, nature is sacred because it has life in itself.

“Land is life” are the immortal words of the great Kalinga elder Macliing Dulag, who was murdered by the state’s assassin in the ‘70s because of his uncompromising position in the struggle against the Chico River Mega Hydro Dam during President Marcos’s regime, that would have inundated several Igorot and Kalinga communities and might have erased peoples’ culture and history. Or in the words of Chief Seattle of the Duwamish Indian tribe, “the rivers are our brothers, they quench our thirsts…the air is precious to the red man, for all share the same breath, the tree, and the human.”

Due to this world view about nature, IPs have proven themselves since time immemorial as good and trustworthy stewards of creation as told in Genesis 2:15, “to cultivate and protect creation.” In short, their relationship with nature is sacred and mutual because to them human life and nature are interconnected, so as they utilize the resources of nature for their own benefits, they also took upon themselves the great responsibility of protecting it. This speaks well of the 5th mark of mission which Anglicans all over the world espouse, “to protect the integrity of creation, sustain and renew the life of the earth”.

In the face of the current dreaded terrorist that threatens the world today called Climate Change, the IPs' contribution in providing ecological balance and sanity cannot be undermined, which can still spell hope for the world. This is posited on the fact that climate change is linked mostly to greenhouse gas emissions that result from human activities where the wanton abuse of creation that results in deforestation is identified as one. And if we look at the general landscape of the world today, we cannot deceive ourselves but acknowledge that healthy environments are found in the ancestral lands/domains of the IPs whom we should pay tribute for their sense of proper stewardship.

History, however, tells us that instead of being appreciated for their contributions to environmental sanity and development, IPs generally face untold harsh realities where they are prejudiced, exploited, oppressed, and marginalized. They are lowly regarded as uncivilized, ignorant, and less human because their culture is different from the so-called majority’s culture. Not to mention that some lowland people think that the “Igorots” have tails.

To add insult to injury, the IPs' cultures are used as exhibits to boost tourism. And because their ancestral lands/domains are rich in natural resources, which are the objects of greedy, powerful, and influential individuals and corporations, many IPs have become squatters in their own lands due to land grabbing, legally or by force. And so many indigenous peoples all over the world are not only stripped off of their rights to life, land, cultural integrity, and self-determination, which are truly dignifying but are also reduced to severe economic depravity.

Many IP communities are also showcases of government neglect: They are remote and isolated because there are no roads that connect them with the center of government thereby denying them better access to education, health, and other social services that lead to illiteracy and a high incidence of malnutrition, morbidity, and mortality. With the exception perhaps of Muslim Mindanao and Cordillerans, who have in a way attained a certain level of political maturity, unity, and clout to assert their rights to self-determination, the rest of the indigenous peoples in the nation are simply hopeless.

And so to state it simply, the heart of the issues faced by IPs globally and locally is defined by the word justice where their rights to life, land, cultural integrity, and self-determination constitute their dreams and aspirations, yet denied of them, must be respected and protected.

Of course, a fresh wind of hope for the IPs in this land seems to have come with the enactment of the so-called Indigenous People’s Rights Act-1997 (IPRA) and its subsequent implementing arm the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples NCIP); whose main purpose is to protect, promote and recognize the rights of the IPs to ancestral land/domain, rights to self-determination, rights to cultural integrity and rights to self-government. But as it is, much is yet to be desired and to be seen how this law can really provide full protection to the rights of the IPs.

We heard of that popular biblical account about the “least of the brethren” (Matt. 25) who no other than the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, and prisoner. These are the poor, weak, and powerless who do not only suffer the physical consequence of poverty but also suffer the uglier part of being poor, and that is, the rich and powerful decide on their destiny. Jesus is very clear that the basis for our judgment on the last day, whether we receive the reward of life from God or we are cast to eternal damnation in hell, depends on how we treat them. “Whatever you did to the least of my brethren, you did it to me.”

Given the situation of the IPs, it could be safe to say that they are the “least of the brethren” being alluded to in the Bible whom the Church should give the preferential option. Jesus’s pronouncement that “whatever you did to the least of my brethren, you also did it to me” is never hard to understand and its imperative is compelling and uncompromising. And so I am glad to note that it is the youth of the Church who are reminding the Church to be in solidarity with the IPs in their search for meaning because loving and uplifting the poor, weak, and powerless is the very heart of Christian mission and ministry.

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