Mining and indigenous rights in the Philippines, an interview with Jane Lingbawan Yap-Eo
In 2015, I interviewed Jane Lingbawan Yap-Eo, Executive Director from the Center for Development Programs in the Cordillera. Jane is born in the Cordillera, North of the Philippines, where one of the longest running mining companies is in operation: the Lepanto Mining Corporation. Here’s what she told me about her work and experience as an indigenous activist.
What is your personal experience in regards to the relation between extractivism and human rights?
In my own experience, activities related to the extraction of natural resources are not bad as such, if they are regulated. Extraction enables humans to live and survive from the wealth of the environment. For indigenous peoples, humans live in harmony with nature so that it’s our responsibility to protect and nurture it in the same manner that nature and the environment provides us with food, shelter, clothing, medicines, and other human needs. In the Cordillera, specifically in the village where I was raised, this has been common practice since time immemorial. We are able to protect and preserve the richness of our forests, waters, and land. Resource extraction has always been one of our main activities, but it was regulated. We can only extract what we need in order to live or survive. In this setting, there are no issues of human rights violation, as it is a safe environment.
Human rights are violated when the extraction of natural resources is done excessively, when it is unregulated and solely destined for the profit of a small elite.
What effects does the extraction of natural resources have on the indigenous communities?
The excessive and unregulated extraction of natural resources has deteriorated the lives of indigenous communities. Many are left in a miserable situation while the majority has experienced forced displacement from ancestral grounds. For indigenous peoples, land is life, and they feel it is taken away from them. Indigenous peoples have protected and nurtured their land for many years, and in return, nature provides them with the necessary resources to live and maintain their ancestral way of life. We have a distinct culture that is tied to the land as well as all the natural resources that lie within it. By being displaced, indigenous peoples lose their identity and roots. Their basic rights to food and land are violated together with the possibility to practice their customs and traditions.
Is the area militarised?
Yes, it’s heavily militarised. Along with the forced displacement of our people and communities and the impact on our environment and livelihoods, we also struggle against the military atrocities that are committed against us.
Is it possible to practice the extraction of natural resources without leaving a situation of environmental degrade?
Yes and no. It is not possible if the extraction of natural resources is excessive and unregulated, and if it is carried out for the benefit of just a few. However, I do believe that if the extraction is done in a organised and respectful manner, answering to the needs of communities, then it is possible to carry out this activity without leading to environmental degradation. Extraction activities must also include protection and nurturing processes.
Why doesn’t the government try to find a way to conciliate its interests with the respect of the natural environment?
The Philippines are a developing country, and its government doesn’t have full control of its economy or politics. It is a life and death situation really: there are many conflicting laws. For example, on one hand there is the IPRA law that was created to safeguard Indigenous Peoples’ rights. On the other, the 1995 Mining Act allows 100% ownership of the land to foreign companies, despite most of the mining areas being ancestral lands. On top of that, the 1995 Mining Act is also in contradiction with the 1987 Constitution, which favours land ownership of indigenous peoples (60–40). There are no programmes for government owned industries, there are token laws for land reform that are disrespectful for the rights of indigenous peoples. Our government and its economy is tied to globalization and debt, prioritising the interests of foreign partners.
How could local people benefit from the extraction of natural resources?
It would depend on the kind of natural resource extraction. In the case of the Philippines, extraction projects are mainly destined to profit a small elite in the government and multi-national corporations. It is not carried out to answer the needs of the majority of the population. It is true that some local people benefit through short term employment and from improved social services such as roads, schools, clinics. However, this should be the government’s responsibility to provide. These are like bribes for the communities as most of the profit from extraction will not go to them, nor to the Philippines’ government. The taxes and revenues collected from the projects are just token amounts. All raw materials extracted are brought outside the country come back only as a finished products, which are very costly.
What is the relationship between the land and the indigenous community that lives it?
Land means life for the indigenous community. It is our food, traditions, customs… All of it revolves around our ancestral lands. Because this is our way of life, we will use all of our strength to fight for it and protect it, even if this would mean putting our lives at risk.
What is the role of women in the fight against human rights abuses?
For decades, most indigenous women were filled with hatred because they had suffered and endured very serious human rights violations. Many felt hopeless because they were excluded from community discussions and deliberations about mining and extraction. However, they rejected this treatment and indigenous women erupted like a volcano emitting boiling lava. They are now fighters and avid defenders of human rights among our ranks, and leading models for children in the communities. They are active in exposing violation of rights in their communities, especially for girls who are the most vulnerable to abuses (sexual harassments, rapes, physical and emotional attacks). They lead the resistance against unregulated and destructive projects that have been imposed without their consent, projects that violate their right to sustainable development, to food and to a safe environment.
They resist because they are the holders of traditional knowledge and wisdom, they are the ones who protect the family by providing food and other needs. Thanks to their initiatives at the local level, women’s human rights advocacy has reached international spheres. Yet, a lot more needs to be done to protect our rights, and demand from government entities and perpetrators of human rights to be held accountable.