This opinion piece was originally published in the Financial Times and has been reproduced here with permission.
Victoria Tauli-Corpuz is the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and an indigenous leader of the Kankanaey Igorot people of the Cordillera region in the Philippines.
When I learnt that the Philippine government had accused me of being a terrorist, my immediate reaction was to hug my grandkids, fearing for their safety. Then, I started to speak out. Again.
I am the UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples. My mandate is to report when communities anywhere in the world are forced to relocate, their lands uprooted, their leaders either deemed criminals or killed. Not everyone wants to hear it, but the message needs to be spread. In the Philippines, they are shooting the messengers.
The country leads Asia in the number of murders of indigenous and environmental activists, with 41 people killed last year. The most recently reported assassination was that of indigenous leader Ricardo Mayumi; he was killed this month for insisting that indigenous communities lived where the government wanted to place a dam.
I am one of hundreds of people on a new government list of “terrorists”. This list, on a legal petition filed in a Manila court, includes many indigenous leaders and activists and their legal representatives as well as four paramilitary group members, who are wanted for the killing of an indigenous leader in 2012.
In lumping its critics together with criminals, the government seeks to make us all guilty by association and, thus, the next targets of the vigilantes and rogue police officers who have led President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody war against drugs. Now, he has started a new war — with new targets.
This is not the first time I have had to worry about government-sponsored violence. As a teenager, and member of the Kankanaey Igorot people, I joined the movement protesting against the Chico River Dam Project, which would have flooded our ancestral domain and displaced 300,000 people. Our leader, Macliing Dulag, was assassinated and many others were detained and tortured. But we did not give up and eventually the project was cancelled.
Later, I worked to set up health programmes for communities who lacked basic government services. The Marcos dictatorship viewed this endeavour as a threat and sent the national army in response to raid my home.
I have spent my life peacefully advocating for the rights of my people and other indigenous peoples around the world. I am sad to see the Philippines once again slipping towards the fascism that too many other nations have embraced, but I am not ready to give up now, either.
My colleagues insist that my name is on the list in retaliation for speaking out on rights abuses against indigenous peoples on the island of Mindanao. The UN has been trying to draw attention to this crisis since 2003, as corporate interests have colluded with government officials to clear the lands of their inhabitants, avoid obtaining the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples, and remove the most outspoken leaders.
Their lands hold an estimated $1tn worth of natural resources that is coveted by foreign interests —but the local people already live off of these resources, sustainably, without transforming the environment. Like the vast majority of indigenous peoples around the world, many in Mindanao do not have legal titles to the lands their ancestors have lived on and protected for generations. Overnight, governments may declare them squatters and if bulldozers will not compel them to move, deadly force is often the next step. The killers are rarely brought to justice.
I have reported on the impact of these killings, and the “criminalisation” that often precedes them, throughout my travels on behalf of the UN, to Honduras, Brazil, Mexico and many other countries. I have seen the scars left by bullets and the graves of murdered leaders. The killings make news, but hidden behind these headlines is something even more insidious: the silencing of entire communities.
My next report to the UN will focus on the topic of indigenous criminalisation. We are hearing testimony from indigenous and community leaders, human rights officials, and academic experts from more than two dozen countries, and will issue an official report later this year.
As the government continues to press its case, I will have to include my own experience, even though it pales in comparison to what others have faced. If I am arrested, or personally attacked, this next UN report might be delayed, but I am only one of many messengers speaking out against the many violations of human rights.
You can keep shooting the messenger, but you will run out of bullets before we run out of messengers and, at the end of the day, the message will be heard.