On Movements & Moments / “Let the River Flow Free”

Good morning from the Philippines. Thank you to Literaturhaus Basel for inviting us.

I am Faye Cura of Gantala Press, a feminist small press based in Metro Manila. We wrote the comics Let the River Flow Free: Women Defenders of the Cordillera with the artist Nina Martinez. The comics is part of the Movements and Moments anthology which was published in English by Zubaan Books and Drawn & Quarterly, and in German by Jaja Verlag. In the Philippines, we published it in the vernacular as Dawwang: Kababaihang Tagapagtanggol ng Kordilyera.

When we came across this project by the Goethe Institute in 2020, then President Rodrigo Duterte had already started to enforce his counterinsurgency campaign across the nation. Peasant organizers, labor leaders and activists suspected of being communists or of supporting communists were red-tagged, harassed, illegally arrested and detained, and executed by state forces. The military deployed troops to the countryside. In Indigenous peoples’ communities, militarization has caused the forced evacuation of thousands of families. Indigenous peoples were threatened, intimidated, and surveilled. Many of them were compelled to surrender as “communists.” There were also arrests and extrajudicial killings.

The three Indigenous youth pictured here were killed when soldiers indiscriminately fired at them as they were walking to their farm. Their face and limbs were smashed and the genitalia of the two girls were shattered, leading to fears that the soldiers raped them before they were killed. Schools of Indigenous peoples in Southern Philippines were occupied by the military, and eventually shut down after being referred to as communist classrooms and recruitment centers.

According to Global Witness, the Philippines has consistently recorded the highest number of killings in Asia of people who oppose illegal logging, destructive mining or corrupt agribusiness. And in 2018, the Philippines became the country with the highest total number of such killings in the world (30). Over 80 percent of killings in the country in the past decade were connected to protests by environmental and land defenders, many of whom were Indigenous peoples.

As a small press, we center the voices of the women who own the narratives that we publish. That is why we took the opportunity to work with Innabuyog, an indigenous women’s group in Northern Philippines, and collaborated with them in this project. The group indicated that they wanted to tell the story of the Chico River dam struggle in Kalinga in the 1970s-1980s, and that was how we first came to know of Leticia Bula-at or Mother Tining, the heroine of our comics.

Just a short background: in the 1970s, then dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Sr. proposed the building of four dams along Chico River in Kalinga in the name of “national development.” The dams, which were to be funded by the World Bank, would have drowned ancestral lands and rice fields; indigenous Igorot culture would have been eliminated altogether. The struggle against the Chico River dams produced indigenous heroes like Macli-ing Dulag, who led the different tribes of the region as they united to fight the common enemy. His name is the one often associated with the Chico River dams struggle. Macli-ing was murdered by the Philippine Army on April 24, 1980. The Chico River dams issue led to the formation of indigenous peoples’ groups that defend their land and culture up to the present.

One important thing we learned from doing this project is the vital role of women in the struggles of communities. In the case of the Chico River dams, the women helped dismantle the soldiers’ camps, guarded their place from military intrusion, and participated in marching protests as well as in dialogues and lobbying. Women scholars such as Joanna Cariño and the Cordillera Women’s Education, Action and Research Center, Inc. documented the fight and continue to remind the present generation of our history. The clamor both inside and outside the Philippines was so strong that the World Bank was forced to cancel the project.

We immediately realized that in the face of continuing development aggression, the Chico River story remains relevant and holds many lessons. It was easy for us to connect that story from decades ago to the present. We only had to look at Betty Belen’s story of red-tagging and illegal detention due to her opposition to Chevron’s geothermal project in Kalinga. Her arrest had been happening at the same time that we were starting to work on the comics. As is their practice, the military visited Betty at her house very early in the morning, planted weapons in the vicinity, then arrested her on false charges of illegal possession of firearms and explosives. We decided to open our comics with that common experience of indigenous women human rights defenders.

Betty’s is just one case of state-perpetrated violence against Indigenous peoples in the Philippines. Another such crime was the massacre of nine leaders of the Tumandok group and arrest of 16 others in Central Philippines on December 20, 2020. The victims had been opposing militarization and human rights violations in their ancestral land, and were vocal against the building of the Jalaur Mega-Dam Project which is sure to inundate indigenous communities. As usual, the army insisted that the IP leaders were communists and were “resisting arrest”, that was why they were shot. State forces do commit a crime against the people when they red-tag them or call them communists, because they falsely equate communism with terrorism and use this to justify their extrajudicial killings.

Duterte created the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict or the NTF-ELCAC to surveil and eliminate all traces of insurgency in the countryside. The National Commission on Indigenous Peoples or NCIP, whose mandate is to protect the interest and welfare of Indigenous peoples, is an active part of that brutal task force. There was even a time when the Chair of the NCIP also served as Executive Director of the task force. The NCIP is notorious for red-tagging activists.

At the root of the many problems in the Philippines is the question of land. We are a rich country, but only a small percentage of the population — made up of big landlords and monopoly capitalists — have control of the country’s resources. Seventy-five percent of the population is made up of peasants, fishers, and indigenous peoples, but seven to nine out of 10 farmers do not own the land that they are tilling. We are still entrenched in a semi-colonial, semi-feudal economy with a neoliberal orientation. It’s truly absurd that we are an agricultural, rice-producing country but we are the world’s top importer of rice. The government has been selling our natural resources, our land and waters, to foreign corporations which in turn displaces peasants and indigenous peoples from their land. For example, Duterte overturned a nine-year nationwide moratorium on new mining projects, putting the lives of activists at risk as well as endangering key biodiversity areas, local water and food supplies, and indigenous communities.

The comics is even more relevant now because the son of the former dictator has become the new president of the Philippines in what many believe was a fraudulent election. In his first State of the Nation Address in July 2022, Ferdinand Marcos Jr boasted about investment incentives including within the energy sector but he was silent on the dismal state of human rights in the country. His government’s response to the current economic and food security crisis in the Philippines is increased importation and liberalization of the economy, when what the government should be doing is strengthening local production by supporting our farmers.

The year 2022 was the fiftieth anniversary of the declaration of Marcos’ Martial Law. Marcos Sr.’s regime was driven by huge foreign loans and a fascist military rule that silenced thousands of students and activists who tried to speak up against corruption and the economic crisis, as well as against censorship and suppression. Over 3,000 people were killed, 70,000 imprisoned, and 34,000 were tortured. More importantly, Martial Law also saw the rapid denudation of Philippine forests, where many ancestral lands can be found.

Martial Law was also when the Kaliwa Dam project on the Sierra Madre mountain range was initiated. The Indigenous peoples who lived in the watershed opposed the dam. They first appealed to the Marcos administration to stop the construction. But when Marcos refused, they “responded with intense social mobilization over many years” with tactics including protests, road blockades, and other approaches. The people’s movement has stalled the construction of the dam for more than three decades, but during his term Duterte secured a loan from China to finally build the Kaliwa Dam. The dam would drown and displace at least seven communities, and worsen deforestation. A Tunnel Boring Machine arrived in November 2022 and began excavating a tunnel in Teresa, Rizal in December.  

It is widely believed that the current regime maximized social media in spreading disinformation about Martial Law being the so-called “Golden Age” in the Philippines. This historical revisionism was instrumental in Marcos, Jr. winning the election. However, the people continue to reject the Marcos regime, which is really just a spill-over of the previous fascist government. Books on Martial Law are being produced, and we are proud to include Let the River Flow Free among these books.

First delivered via Zoom at the Movements and Moments: Indigene Feminisme Forum at the Literaturhaus Basel, January 26, 2023

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