Advocacy with indigenous communities in the Philippines

Sisters on the frontlines

Advocacy with indigenous communities in the Philippines


An experience of conversion

My experience working with the Subaanen indigenous people, in the southern part of the Philippines, was actually an experience of conversion for me. I encountered a culture that is pure, sustainable and deeply connected with nature. 

When I got to know the Subaanen and their culture, one thing that struck me right away is that they live simply, in the present moment. They prepare the land naturally, with animal manures and dried leaves as fertilizers. They plant only once a year, believing their lands need to rest, and keep the harvest for family consumption.


Those who have extra from the harvest might sell some in exchange for cash to buy sugar, salt and dried fish, or pay their children’s school fees. They have their own vegetable gardens, fruit trees, and animals like chickens, cows, pigs and goats. After the harvest season, the man of the house might go and help other farmers for extra pay, or travel to a nearby city to work in construction. 

Subaanen houses are simple: a room to sleep in, a corner for cooking their food and for eating together. They cook every day, they eat what is prepared, and they give the left-overs to their animals. They live only with the basics: shelter, land, fresh water and food. No big wardrobes, no extra pairs of shoes, no furniture – not even refrigerators, at the time, since they had no electricity and the temperatures were cooler. 

When the Visayan settlers arrived, they bought some of the Subaanen lands cheaply. Unfortunately, because of a lack of education, most of the Subaanen people sold their lands and moved up to higher ground. Now, the settlers use chemical fertilizers and plant twice or even three times a year, to produce more. Of course, this method has slowly destroyed the land and has been a bad influence on some Subaanen people, who have become attracted to the idea of increasing their gains.

Then, when the local government deforested their area, the Subaanen people who were living on the highlands were the first group to be affected. Illegal logging stripped off the rich biodiversity of the forest: thousands of trees and medicinal plants were affected. During the rainy season, soil erosion washed away plantations on the mountains. This eventually resulted in crop scarcity, hunger and infant deaths.

When I look at our reality, I see that modernity, consumerism and a lack of connection with Mother Earth are contrary to the values of indigenous people. I see clearly how indigenous peoples have lived and embraced a culture of interconnectedness with the Earth since long before Laudato Si’. They have beautiful values that we have destroyed – especially super-power countries with their greed for acquiring goods from the natural world, as if there were no tomorrow or future generations.

"Education and networking are vital to successful advocacy"

Advocacy on mining

I cannot separate talking about the Subaanen people from talking about mining issues, as they are very much interconnected. Since the 1990s, Sisters have advocated for and with the Subaanen on mining.

Thanks to the Sisters’ presence over three decades, trust had been developed. Sisters and missionaries have been a great help: people know their rights now, and have defended them from the government’s vested interests in mining companies.

I remembered we received threats: even our church was desecrated. For security reasons, we had already asked the local police to take a nightly patrol around our house. My community members, who were Irish, stopped travelling so much. 

As a local, I was freer to go and visit villages with the Subaanen staff, to campaign in a more subtle and personal way. Working with a local health centre as a nurse, I vaccinated children across dozens of villages, talking to people about their connection with the land and the intrusion of foreign mining companies. We would cross rivers, mountains, hills and forests, stay for a night to rest, and continue the following day.

Eventually, the mining companies came to visit us with local government representatives. By then, we had gathered thousands of signatures. Enticing promises were made: roads would be constructed, schools would be built, and electricity would be provided to remote villages.

But people were well aware of the real consequences of mining, as we had visited other areas of the country where land was stripped bare, water was contaminated, rivers had dried up, and communities suffered from skin and stomach diseases, due to the effects of cyanide poisoning. 

Ongoing mining applications were halted thanks to a strong ‘no’ from the people, with the support of the local Bishop, missionaries, churches and human rights lawyers. Of course, this was not the end: the mining companies changed their names and bribed people to campaign for them. But we continued to stand united: for 15 years we protested, picketed, lobbied, sent letters, signed petitions, went on hunger strikes, and even travelled to the headquarters of the Rio Tinto Group, in London.

When a woman was appointed head of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, she found the law failed to protect indigenous people and the environment. She implemented new standards, and mining applications were put on hold. But recently she died, and the President has now lifted the moratorium on mining, which is a worry and a challenge. 


In my experience, education and networking are vital to successful advocacy. Heeding the Pope’s call to respond to the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor, we must unite to advocate for the future of our only planet.


Sister Anne Carbon, SSC


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