In December 1994, the world came together and recognised the plight of indigenous people around the globe. To mark the 500 years after the conquest of the Americas, the UN General Assembly declared 9 August as the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People. That year Rigoberta Menchu, a Guatemalan Mayan, became the first indigenous person to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
That same year, the conflict between the government of the Philippines and the communist rebels of the New People’s Army (NPA) entered its 24th year. Thousands of indigenous people were displaced from their lands; a process that continues today and shows no sign of ending.
Forced to repeatedly flee their ancestral lands, Lumads spiral further into poverty
The effects of the on-going conflict are felt throughout the country, but are particularly severe in the southern island region of Mindanao, where some 63 per cent of the country’s total estimated indigenous population of 14 million are living. The largest group in Mindanao is collectively referred to as “Lumads,” a term chosen conjointly by 18 different ethnic groups to distinguish themselves from Islamised ethnic groups, known as the Bangsamoro. While estimates on the total number of Lumads in the country vary, available data suggest there are at least 2 million living in Mindanao.
Most Lumads live in remote areas which serve as the theatre of operations of the government’s campaign against the NPA. The Lumads find themselves caught between these two warring parties, and are regularly forced to abandon their homes and livelihoods in search of safety. They sometimes remain in displacement for days or weeks; at times they are unable to return for months. Many leave behind not only their homes and their possession, but their fields and their ancestral domains, which adds to the pain of departure and no doubt hastens the desire to return.
When displaced, their fields often become neglected, leading to crop losses and failures. Their homes are looted or destroyed during the fighting or immediate aftermath, and on returning, they are forced to rebuild from scratch. This cycle of violence and displacement is eroding their asset base and driving them deeper into poverty.
Despite these challenges, most Lumads interviewed for IDMC’s latest report favoured return to relocation elsewhere or integration in the place to where they fled. Indigenous peoples’ attachment to their ancestral land goes beyond their desire to maintain a means of livelihoods and needs to be understood in the context of a deep cultural tradition that is intricately linked with their sense of self.
Still falling short on addressing needs
While the Filipino authorities are making efforts to address the situation of the displaced, lack of resources, lack of effective consultation with the displaced, and lack of effective response programmes means that such efforts invariably address symptoms of displacement rather than bolstering community resilience mechanisms and coping capacities.
A more effective approach would start with developing assistance packages that take into account the on-going risks of displacement, while also addressing the causes of the conflict that are forcing people to flee in the first place. These include poverty and marginalisation.
On International Day of the World’s Indigenous People, we should remember the particular vulnerabilities of indigenous people like many Lumads who have been ripped from their homes and their land because of conflict and violence. Governments such as that of the Philippines need to do more to enact legislation that will protect their rights as displaced people, and develop responses that will address long term development needs and not just short term assistance. Only then will displaced Lumads be able to break the cycle of displacement and live in peace and dignity.