5 young indigenous leaders making a difference in their communities

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To commemorate this year’s National Indigenous Peoples’ Month, we put the spotlight on five young leaders who are continuing their ancestors’ fight, and who are proud to say that their IP heritage plays a crucial part in leading their people. Illustrations by TINTIN LONTOC

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — October is National Indigenous Peoples’ Month in the Philippines, first celebrated back in 2009 following the proclamation of then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

As we near almost a decade of this event, we have to first take a look at the situation of IPs in the country. Even to this day, IPs continue to face attacks on their ancestral domains from mining corporations interested in their natural resources, despite calls by IP leaders to declare indigenous lands and community-conserved territories and areas as “no-go zones” for mining. Human rights violations also exist as military operations between the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the New People’s Army persist in their areas, with groups claiming that several IP leaders have been harassed and killed as they try to defend their rights.

Geographical isolation also renders both education and health services inaccessible; the DOH’s “No Home Birthing Policy” has forced pregnant indigenous women to either hike to the nearest health facility or be fined ₱6,000, while Schools of Living Traditions have yet to be given adequate government support and funding.

In the face of these challenges, IPs continuously engage different sectors to uplift their tribes and preserve their culture. To commemorate this year’s National Indigenous Peoples’ Month, we put the spotlight on five young leaders who are continuing their ancestors’ fight, and who are proud to say that their IP heritage plays a crucial part in leading their people.

Final_0004_Ria Esteves.jpg Illustration by TINTIN LONTOC

Ria Esteves, 27, Agta youth organizer

Ria Esteves is an IP youth organizer from Casiguran, Aurora and the current President of her IP organization, Sulong Ipagtanggol Karapatan Katutubo (SIKAP-KA). She considers it her personal advocacy to uphold the different rights of her fellow Agtas in order to promote unity among their people.

Esteves has played a key role in various efforts such as the Agta’s fight against APECO or the Aurora Pacific Economic Zone, and Bagong Lumad Artists' Foundation Inc’s Siningbayan workshops, a program that combines the arts, indigenous culture, and coastal resource management for the youths and elders of fisherfolk communities in Casiguran.

When Esteves first observed how low others regard the Agta, she says that it was her love for her people that drove her to organize their tribe into a collective. Their efforts then revolved around ensuring their ancestral domains and their culture are not erased or taken away from them, because she says that these are what they consider their wealth as indigenous people.

“Mahal ko ang aking sarili bilang isang Agta or Indigenous Person at hindi ko ito ikinakahiya,” Esteves declares. “Sa pagiging Indigenous Person, lalo akong nagsusumikap sa pagiging youth organizer dahil dito maipapakita namin sa ibang tao na meron kaming kakayahan at mayamang kultura sa lipunan.”

Esteves’ job includes showing her tribe the importance of collective action towards the promotion of rights, and the role indigenous culture and education play in this. She hopes that one day, their efforts will ultimately lead them to attaining quality education and unity among her people.

Shernan Gamol Illustration by TINTIN LONTOC

Shernan Gamol, 29, Mangyan LGU councilor

Even before Shernan Gamol became a councilor at the LGU of Mansalay, Oriental Mindoro, he already was a seasoned youth leader for the Mangyans.

Beyond working with the local government, Gamol is involved with NGOs, international organizations, and National Government Agencies to promote the welfare of Mangyan indigenous communities and the youth sector. He is also the founder and chairman of Keep Hope Alive, a youth volunteer organization that won a Ten Accomplished Youth Organizations (TAYO) Award in 2015 for their FIGHT4FIVE program.

“I was born in a community where majority of the indigenous population are living under poverty line with scarce amount of aid and resources coming from the government,” Gamol shares. “I also see declining interest in the cultural heritage and tradition among young people because of social inequality, discrimination, and stigma.”

As a young legislator, Gamol wants to make an impact in the lives of his constituents and partner-beneficiaries through addressing protected land ownership, justice system, quality education, health services, and economic opportunities while fostering and promoting the rich culture and heritage. They now plan to expand their efforts beyond Mansalay and to the communities around Mindoro and Palawan where majority of IPs in the region thrive.

Gamol has his Mangyan heritage to thank for his vision and inspiration in life. He says that identifying himself as Mangyan made him realize the importance of his role as a local legislator, youth leader, and community development worker. But Gamol emphasizes that the work does not stop with him, and that he is merely part of a shared vision.

“I think it's more of a shared responsibility to introduce and promote our culture to the world and empower our fellow Mangyans through our work in the development sector,” he says. “When you inspire people with your work, they will be empowered to find their voice to advocate for their own rights and freedom.”

DM Alburo Illustration by TINTIN LONTOC

DM Alburo, 24, Tagabawa-Bagobo NGO founder

DM Alburo is a self-professed “millennial” Lumad, who has made strides towards his motto: “No Lumad shall be left behind.” He is the lead convenor of the NGO Helping Humans Initiative (HHI), where they continuously equip emerging leaders through volunteerism and civic engagement, in protecting and promoting peace, human rights, and cultural heritage. He is also an applied linguist researching on the morphological and phonological features of Tagabawa-Bagobo as an indigenous language.

“Social exclusivity of the Lumads pushed me to pursue this advocacy,” Alburo recounts. “Though Lumads are protected through IPRA law, it’s not enough; it will never be enough. The reality says that many [Lumads] are still the poorest of the poor, the least healthy, and inaccessible to quality basic education.” Alburo shares that despite Bukidnon being rich in agriculture, 2015 statistics showed that poverty incidence among families was still at 53.6 percent and that many are suffering from malnutrition.

Through their signature project, I’m Juan Project, Alburo and his team trek mountains, conduct community and household assessments, and talk to tribal councils and IPed teachers.

“Every community has its own problem, and we are very proud that in just a year of working, we have gathered more than 250,000 pesos from grants and generous stakeholders to solve [them],” says Alburo. “Some have problems in sanitation, that was why we looked for donors of decent toilet bowls, water jugs, plates, spoons etc.”

Alburo also started LIBRO Program or Leaders Initiative of Bringing Resources Outreach Program to provide quality education for Lumads, initiated the Highland MOM, a project supported by Angat Buhay that addresses malnutrition through livelihood, and organized Panagdait Camp which aimed to promote Lumad culture and rights among the youth. He is currently working on providing water and solar lights to Sitio Tun-ogan.

Alburo says that he has never been ashamed of what he is, and that he has his father to thank for teaching him about his origin. “Sometimes, my father and I would talk about how Tagabawa-Bagobo tribe has excelled and created professionals such as lawyers who can defend our fellows, teachers who are serving IPed, successful businessmen and among those members who are very successful Lumads. This is also my aspiration to the communities that I am serving — that one day, through my service and through education, they can also have this kind of success.”

Merly O Suday Illustration by TINTIN LONTOC

Merly Suday, 29, Bukidnon Tribe sustainable livelihood champion

Merly Suday was the first among the Daraghuyan of Malaybalay, Bukidnon to have graduated from college. She is now also being trained to become the ‘Bae’ or female leader of their tribe, following the steps of Bae Inatlawan.

In her aim of fostering harmony among the Seven Tribes of Bukidnon, she convened all tribal youth leaders and created a series of developmental workshops for them.

Suday has also always been invested in sustaining her community through livelihood, and she shares that the concept of sustainability is in fact ingrained in IP culture. “Dream ng tribo namin sa Bukidnon to reforest yung areas na kalbo na. Ang bundok ay ang siyang buhay ng mga katutubo,” she says.

In order to strengthen reforestation efforts, Suday works as a technical assistant at Hineleban Foundation, an organization committed to reforesting the mountain ranges of Mindanao and transforming lives through agricultural livelihood for the different Bukidnon tribes. They also have an online store where they sell coffee, adlai, yacon syrup, turmeric, honey, as well as arts and crafts.

Suday also promotes coffee planting among IP youth. “Sa kape, may forever dahil sa umpisa kailangan mo talaga mag-effort para makapagtanim ka ng kape. Pero pagkatapos ng iyong paghihirap, andyan na yan pirme sa iyo, you just need to love and care para ito ay productive.”

Another project of Suday is the Daraghuyan Tribal Store, which showcases the community’s products such as honey, essential oils, clay and bead jewelries, carvings, and soil paintings. Suday herself is a soil painter, and her love for nature shines not only through her material but also in how her art focuses on landscapes and seascapes. As an active young leader, Suday also promotes her tribe's products through the various conferences she attends, because she would like to show others that IPs are here to stay, their culture as everlasting as the mountains that provide their livelihood.

Tan Gican Illustration by TINTIN LONTOC

Tan Gican, 26, Bukidnon Tribe environmental advocate

One could say that caring for the environment is interwoven with the life of IP communities, and that’s exactly the work that Tan Gican does.

A member of the Daraghuyan community of the Bukidnon tribe, Gican takes these values into his work as a Site Management Officer of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), where he provides technical assistance to peoples’ organizations and mobilizes them for projects on reforestation, agroforestry farming, commercial tree planting, and conservation farming. With DENR, Gican also works to provide additional income and sustainable livelihood to the communities in these timber land areas.

Much like the environment’s cyclical nature, Gican’s journey began with other environmentalists who decided to believe and invest in him. This environmental NGO came into their community to work in partnership with the IPs, and they selected Gican as one of their scholars, supporting his education from high school to college. This was what led him to sincerely think about what he could do for his community as well.

“After that, I realized that these people are not part of any IP communities but they are working for the environment and the IPs, so I wondered and realized na gusto ko ring gawin ‘yung ginagawa nila,” he shares. “I’m from the community also, so mas madali sa akin ang pakitunguhan ‘yung mga tao.” Gican eventually took up Environmental Science in college.

Tan says that although he doesn’t directly serve his own tribe, his work as an advocate for the environment allows him to take what his community gave him and pay it forward. Tan also dreams of passing on the gifts he received to the next generations of young IPs, and of unity among IPs, Muslims, and Christians, tying back to the IPs’ belief in the interconnectedness of life.

“Ang kultura at ninuno na ating pinanggalingan ay isa lang, kaya sa pamamagitan nito, alam kong hindi lang sarili kong kumunidad ang mapagsisilbihan ko kundi ang nakararami na ibang kumunidad, tribo, lahi na kapwa naming gustong mamuhay nang mapayapa.”