Fourteen church leaders and activists from Canada, India, Indonesia, Singapore, South Korea, Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand, the United Kingdom and the United States, embarked on a Pilgrim Team Visit to the Philippines from 9-13 August. They listened, learned and bore witness to the escalating human rights crisis in the country. The visit was convened by the World Council of Churches in partnership with the National Council of Churches in the Philippines.
The pilgrims visited an urban poor settlement in metro Manila and a key site for the “war on drugs”, peasants struggling for land rights in Cavite and Negros, indigenous Dumagat communities resisting a hydroelectric dam project, and Lumad communities displaced from their resource-rich ancestral domain.
In Navotas City, home to the third largest fishing port in Southeast Asia, a team of pilgrims heard from mothers and families of victims of extra-judicial killings. The “war on drugs” has illegally claimed thousands of lives and has gained considerable international attention, culminating in the recently released United Nations resolution which calls for an investigation.
The Philippines is also now a dangerous place to be an environmental defender and land rights activist; and church workers and priests serving impoverished, rural and indigenous communities have also become victims of violence.
A group of pilgrims traveled to Negros, the fourth largest island in the Philippines and home to sprawling haciendas or plantations that turn out around 54% of the sugar produced throughout the country. The island has seen a rash of killings in the past year, the majority of them farmers, but also human rights lawyers, a former mayor, a city councilor, a village chief, and a school principal.
Traversing mountains and rivers to reach the border of Rizal and Quezon provinces in Luzon, the biggest island in the Philippines, a team of pilgrims listened to the stories of the Dumagat indigenous peoples who are fighting against recurrent proposals to reroute rivers and construct a hydroelectric dam on their land.
In Cagayan de Oro, another team of pilgrims heard the plight of indigenous Lumad communities in Mindanao who have already been pushed away from ancestral lands rich in precious metals and minerals, fertile soils, and hot springs which could be developed into geothermal energy.
Lumad children heartbreakingly spoke about how their parents have been summarily executed and how their schools have been shut down by government authorities. Displaced from their homes, orphaned and school-less, there is no normalcy in their young lives.
At the end of their visit, the pilgrims issued a message lifting up the calls of the communities they visited.