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Defending ancestral lands: Indigenous Women Human Rights Defenders in the Philippines

FRIDAY FILE - Murders of indigenous women human rights defenders (WHRDs) in the Philippines have caused worldwide condemnation. Defending indigenous communities’ rights to sustainable livelihoods, and protecting ancestral lands from mining interests has become an increasingly dangerous struggle.

Venecia "Inday" Natinga Nestor was shot dead on a public highway in Northern Mindanao on 19 June 2012, after receiving threats and harassment for being a strong advocate for protecting the rights of small farmers, and actively pushing for land redistribution and agrarian reform.[1]

Juvy Capion and her two sons were shot dead in their home in Mindanao on 18 October 2012. According to witnesses, members of the Philippine Army’s 27th Infantry Battalion fired at Capion’s house with their automatic rifles. Capion was a leader of the indigenous peoples' organisation KALGAD, an organization of the B’laan indigenous people resisting mining operations on their ancestral land. The B’laan community has been protesting against abuses committed by the Swiss-Australian mining company XSTRATA- Sagittarius Mines, Inc. (SMI) and Juvy had complained that no actions had been taken by the government to address their concerns.[2]

On 7 December 2012, Sheryll Ananayo Pugu-on was shot dead on her way home to Brgy, in the Didipio region of the Philippines. Ananayo Pugu-on was the eldest daughter of Manang Carmen Ananayo, leader of the anti-mining organization Didipio Earth Savers Multipurpose Association (DESAMA) in the province of Ifugao. The motive for the killing is still unknown, but the police ruled out robbery as nothing was taken.[3]

The mining business

The Philippines is rich in natural resources; it has about US $840 billion worth of minerals, including gold, copper, nickel, chromite, manganese, silver and iron.[4] Gold reserves amount to 76% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), which according to the National Statistical Coordination Board is enough to eradicate poverty in the country.[5]

Mineral extraction increased rapidly after it was liberalized by the Philippine Mining Act of 1995, which was in complete violation of indigenous peoples’ ancestral land rights. The Mining Act gives full rights to foreign transnational mining corporations including 100% ownership, repatriation of profits, and tax holidays.[6]The Philippine Development Plan (2011-2016) identified the mining industry as a key area where “intensive promotion, industry development and a more focused incentives package”[7]will be pursued, making this sector one of the economic priorities for the country.

But, according to the Indigenous Peoples Rights Monitor, the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA) requires that indigenous people be consulted prior to the implementation of projects that might have an adverse impact on their communities. However, other parallel legislation pertaining to ownership, control, management and development of land and resources, including the 1995 Mining Act, conflicts with the protection and respect of the IPRA, prioritizing the economic interest of corporations, big business, landlords and politicians.

Militarisation in mining areas has intensified with the 2008 introduction of the Investment Defence Force, composed of members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, tasked to protect extraction projects from those who stand in the way of “development”.[8] The reconnaissance and companies of paramilitary forces representing the Civilian Armed Forces Geographical Unit have also been deployed, further aggravating conflicts with local communities.

Threats to indigenous WHRDs resisting mining projects

From July 2010 to September 2012 the Alliance for the Advancement of People's Rights (KARAPATAN) documented 129 extrajudicial killings, with 69 of these cases involving farmers and 25 involving indigenous people. Most of the victims were leaders in the people’s movement for genuine land reform and protecting ancestral lands from the onslaught of mining operations by transnational corporations.

In November 2012, an international fact-finding mission of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders[9] investigated the situation of human rights defenders (HRDs) in the Philippines, concluding that “there is compelling evidence that HRDs, in particular those advocating for land and environmental rights, are under serious threat, are constantly vilified, intimidated and ‘terrorized.’ A climate of pervasive and systematic impunity is at the heart of this alarming situation”.[10]The fact-finding mission highlighted the effects of the ongoing militarization in the region, where the army has taken up the role of law enforcement, the emergence of multiple illegal private armies, legalized paramilitary groups, and the large scale possession of armament, all of which are contributing to the spread human rights violations with impunity.

While large-scale mining operations have negative consequences for those who live in nearby areas, the disproportionate impact on indigenous people make them more vulnerable to many types of human rights violations, including: appropriation of land resulting in massive displacement; large-scale destruction of forests and agricultural land; pollution of soil and rivers with toxic chemicals; frequent mining accidents and health problems for mineworkers; disintegration of indigenous society and culture; and the marginalisation of women as food producers in the subsistence economy.

Indigenous WHRDs are at the forefront of the struggle against destructive mining in their communities throughout the Philippines, and they have been targeted by State and non-State actors – or by both acting in collaboration. In the case of the community struggle in the province of Itogon, against open-pit mining by Benguet Corporation, indigenous WHRDs played an important role in preventing the expansion of the open-pit mines. Save the Apayao People’s Organisation, a protest group against mining in the mountain range (Cordillera) has strong women leaders resisting the entry of UK’s Anglo-American and Australia’s Oxiana Gold mining companies. Indigenous WHRDs continue to assert their right to self-determination and build stronger unity among affected communities.

The book "Gentle Treasures: Stories of women against mining", launched in March 2012 by Alyansa Tigil Mina (Alliance to Stop Mining), commemorates the contributions of Filipino women to the struggle against large-scale mining and the promotion of human rights. The book features the struggles of indigenous WHRDs, such as Ka Badang, a Mangyan from Oriental Mindoro, who led a hunger strike in front of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources in 2009, and Robina Poblador, a tribal leader of the B’laans from Sarangani Province, who bravely faced death threats for campaigning against the Tampakan Mining Project of Sagittarius Mines Inc. and Xstrata.

Worldwide condemnation and solidarity

The massacre of Juvy Capion caught global attention and mobilized many human rights and women’s rights organizations, including Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML), Asia Pacific Forum on Women Law and Development (APWLD), the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (OMCT-FIDH), Front Line Defenders and AWID, to demand justice.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on HRDS and the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executionsalso acknowledged the increase of killings and death threats against HRDs, particularly in Mindanao and in Eastern Visayas.[11]Both UN Special Rapporteurs, Ms. Sekaggya and Mr. Heyns, called on the Government of the Philippines to adopt urgent measures to protect the life of HRDs to ensure they are able to continue doing their important work; to carry out prompt, impartial and independent investigations into the growing number of threats and killings of WHRDs; to hold perpetrators to account, and to fight impunity.

But despite the calls to the Government of the Philippines, attacks on indigenous WHRDs continue with impunity. In December 2012, KARAPATAN denounced the State’s silence regarding the perpetrators of the massacre of Juvy Capion and her two sons, after an initial announcement by the Armed Forces of the Philippines of a court martial.[12]This highlights the importance of long-term solidarity with indigenous WHRDs in the Philippines and their work to defend ancestral lands. Beyond immediate responses to attacks on WHRDs, organizations remain vigilant and continue to demand an end to impunity for these attacks.[13]

Further Information:


[1] Statement on the 64thInternational Human Rights Day, Human Rights Defenders-Philippines (HRDP), 10 December 2012

[2] Philippine Task Force For Indigenous People’s Rights, “Juvy Capion, a Blaan woman fighter”, Northern Dispatch (nordis) Weekly, 2 December 2012

[3] Lilak (Purple Action for Indigenous Women's Rights), December 2012

[4] Janvic Mateo “Aquino wants to impose higher taxes on mining industry” Philippine Online Chronicles (POC), 21 March 2012

[5] Mayvelin U. Caraballo “Gold not giving much glitter to economic, jobs growth”, Manila, 12 April 2012

[6] Emi B. Carreon Innabuyog, “Indigenous Women and Mining”, Regional Alliance of Indigenous Women’s Organisations in the Cordillera Region. In Mining and Women in Asia: Experiences of women protecting their communities and human rights against corporate mining, Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD), 2009

[7] Philippine Development Plan 2011-2016, August 2010

[8] Luzviminda Ilagan, “Legislative Actions on the Mining Issue in the Philippines”, Gabriela Women’s Party, House of Representatives. In Mining and Women in Asia: Experiences of women protecting their communities and human rights against corporate mining, Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD), 2009

[9] A joint programme of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)

[10] Editorial, “Guardians at risk”, Philippine Daily Inquirer, 9 December 2012

[11] Press release, “UN experts urge Philippines to protect rights defenders from a growing wave of attacks and killings”, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 9 July 2012

[12] Palace, AFP list of HR achievements will not undo 129 extrajudicial killings cases, KARAPATAN, 15 December 2012

[13] Bae Women Leaders, “Defending their right to land, their right to life: Stories of Women from the frontline”, Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD), October 2012