When it rains it pours!

Fr. Sean Martin, SSC
February 7, 2011

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We continue to go to Court to answer charges brought against some committed Christians, Subaanen tribal people and protectors of the environment, by mining companies. These include charges against myself and Columban Sister Patty Adonaire, who is a missionary from Peru, simply because we support the local people in affected villages of San Jose Parish in Midsalip, Zamboanga del Sur, Philippines.

These local people are blocking the operation of drilling equipment for mineral exploration in this sensitive upland landscape. Midsalip is located at the center of the Zamboanga peninsula in western Mindanao. It is near Mt. Sugarloaf in the Mt. Pinukis range of forested mountains. From here rivers branch out throughout the peninsula and water the land. Logging and mining brings flooding and erosion and often fatal landslides.

There are many problems here imported by those who come in search of riches. Or they simply apply for mining tenements in places they have never been to. They often have legal rights while the inhabitants are left powerless in the face of their activities. The policy makers always seem to miss seeing the wood from the trees. They say they are protecting the environment but the truth is that they are not. It is the local people who are protecting the environment and they have been doing it for a long time. The Subaanen, or Lumads as indigenous tribal people are termed in Mindanao, regard the forest as their cathedral. It is where they meet God. But outsiders have been coming to fell their trees and take gold and iron ore, plundering Mother Nature and the livelihoods of the people.

The Subaanen know that when Mother Nature is not respected there is trouble ahead. Some local politicians also smell wealth and collude with Manila-based or foreign financiers. They even help themselves to money that should rightly go to citizens of the municipality. The problem of Special City Salaries, adopted in Midsalip in the 1990s, has many repercussions for the ordinary poor farming communities of the municipality who suffer because basic services are neglected or have become nonexistent.

Monies received from central government (Internal Revenue Allotment or IRA) are supposed to be allocated to help local government units provide essential services to the people. However, the villages of the Municipality of Midsalip have to go without basic services while the mayor and her councilors and staff use the IRA to top up their own salaries.

So, when 30 people were injured at noon on Friday 14 January 2011 there was little help from the local municipal authorities. People from three barangays (villages) had come together in Palili to repair a hanging wire bridge which they all need to cross the Ecuan River, especially when the river is flooded with raging waters after heavy monsoon rains. There were actually more than 30 people working on fixing the bridge when there was a call for dinner. As they crossed over to the other side, an old cable snapped unexpectedly and all 30 fell into the river. Many were carrying timber, saws and hammers when they fell more than ten meters and there were many injuries.

One of the worst injured was the village leader, Rudolfe Camadote, who had eight broken ribs and had to be taken to hospital in Pagadian City – over 60 kilometers away. Baking Caparoso was at the middle of the bridge and his head was badly injured. He spent five days in the hospital, and asked for our understanding and pardon for not being able to dismount from his horse to speak with us.

Another six people spent time in the hospital. Others could not get there and had to rely on local bone setters to see to their injured limbs. The bridge was previously located further down the river and was moved to a higher spot to escape being swamped when the river gets flooded. People could not remember how old the wire cables were. There were strong cement supports on the banks, but it was down to local people to do any regular maintenance, such as replacing timber boards when they rotted. All this has traditionally been done through co-operation among barangays in the area. However, surely the government should help the people more and take responsibility for infrastructure such as this footbridge.

The mandated municipal Calamity Fund in Midsalip should have been used to help those who were injured and indeed replace the cables needed for safety. But it has now become commonplace for politicians in Midsalip to avoid using the fund for this kind of thing, but using it to top up their own and town officials’ salaries.

Four days after the Palili incident at the Ecuan river crossing, the town mayor of Midsalip, Leone Angcap, celebrated her birthday in lavish fashion. Poor barangays were expected to provide roasted whole pigs (lechon), and many complied. When the people or barangay officials don’t please the mayor or are critical of her policies, they are spurned. One way to consolidate power is to teach others that it does not pay to displease the local chief executive.

However, others will do the right thing; they believe in working for justice and peace even when it costs them and remain outside the radar of local and national government. They believe in that the integrity of creation is important for sustainable development, so they can put food on their tables. Many communities work together to help each other not only in times of crisis. They are trying to prevent bigger tragedies.

Fr. Sean Martin is a Columban priest based in Midsalip in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao.