State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2013 - The Philippines

The year 2012 in the Philippines was bookended by a pair of natural disasters that shone a spotlight on the hardships faced by minority and indigenous groups – already marginalized populations that suffered from an uneven disaster response in the aftermath of the damage. Tropical Storm Washi, known as Sendong in the Philippines, slammed into Mindanao in mid-December 2011 before touching down in Palawan. Both areas have a significant population of minorities or indigenous peoples. The storm killed more than 1,200 people and left 300,000 homeless – one of the Philippines' worst natural disasters in years. In February 2012, more than a month after the storm hit, UNICEF reported an alarming rise in child malnutrition rates attributable to the storm's effects.

One year later, a report on Sendong's effects by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) warned of an uneven response to survivors in places like Northern Mindanao's Cagayan de Oro. Some respondents told researchers that authorities had classified them as migrants rather than Sendong survivors, preventing them from accessing aid. The January 2013 report stated, 'Evidence suggests that Sendong survivors in Cagayan de Oro have not received equal treatment on the basis of their political opinion or ethnic or social origins.' In surveys of affected areas, there were anecdotal reports of gender-based violence and coerced prostitution at relocation sites. This suggests an urgent need to study and address this issue as part of future planning for disaster response.

In December 2012, Typhoon Bopha, known as Pablo in the Philippines, struck Mindanao, killing more than 1,100 people and displacing hundreds of thousands. Again, medical experts raised concerns of lingering health impacts, particularly in areas where the storm had destroyed local health clinics and severely damaged larger hospitals.

However, disaster response experts applauded the government in February 2013 for introducing the Act Protecting the Rights of Internally Displaced Persons. The IDMC called it 'the first of its kind in Asia', particularly for highlighting the rights of indigenous peoples and women.

While this may be a positive development, throughout the year alarming acts of violence against indigenous people, often land rights activists and their supporters, continued to tarnish the Philippines' human rights record. In March, Lumad leader Jimmy Liguyon was shot to death, allegedly at the hands of a paramilitary group, according to Kalipunan ng mga Katutubong Mamamayan ng Pilipinas (KAMP) – an alliance of indigenous peoples' groups. In July, Willem Geertman, a Dutch missionary who advocated on behalf of indigenous peoples in Central Luzon, was shot dead in front of his office, KAMP stated. In September, the AHRC reported that the son of a tribal leader opposed to local mining operations was shot on his way to school in Zamboanga del Sur in western Mindanao. In October, Gilbert Paborada was shot dead in front of his home in Cagayan de Oro. Paborada led an advocacy organization that opposed plans for a local palm oil plantation.

The reported violence against indigenous activists often went hand in hand with land disputes, primarily over private development projects opposed by local communities in resource-rich areas. For example, KAMP linked the May shooting death of Margarito Cabal to his opposition to the controversial Pulangi V hydropower dam in Mindanao. Groups like KAMP point the finger at the government of President Benigno Aquino III or its agents. In October, KAMP claimed there had been 30 extra-judicial killings of indigenous activists or their supporters in the 28 months since Aquino had taken office. In a May statement, the UN's Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, James Anaya, urged South East Asian governments, including the Philippines, not to 'sideline' the rights of groups 'who derive their livelihoods, traditions and ways of life directly from their natural environments'. He highlighted the case of the bio-ethanol energy project in Isabella province, which has displaced indigenous farmers.

Sadly, the killings continued even after year's end. In February 2013, Dexter Condez was killed while on his way home from a meeting about land rights: Condez was youth leader and spokesperson for the Atis, an indigenous community living on the island of Boracay, a fast-developing tourist destination. In 2011, the government had granted the Atis a certificate of ancestral land title to a 2.1-hectare waterfront site. This decision has been challenged by property developers, and the Atis remain severely marginalized.

Since coming to power, Aquino has largely staked his legacy on a peaceful resolution to the long-standing conflict in Mindanao. Violence between the Philippine Army and pro-independence groups, most notably the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), has had severe effects on civilians over the course of a more than four-decade conflict. In its year-end report, human rights watchdog Karapatan said the military continues to falsely accuse some civilians caught in the violence of being 'Muslim terrorists'.

In October the government and MILF reached a deal the Aquino administration touted as a roadmap to peace. The deal sees MILF dropping its demands for outright independence, in favour of an 'autonomous political entity' to be known as Bangsamoro. This represents a hopeful step towards ending the violence in troubled Mindanao. However, much work remains to be done to ensure a lasting peace in the lead-up to 2016 and beyond, when the framework agreement calls for the election of the Bangsamoro legislature and the formation of a government. A disarmament plan must still be agreed upon and implemented, as must a method of ensuring that the rights of non-Moro minorities are respected. At the same time, not everyone is on the same page. Militant group Abu Sayyaf remains on the sidelines, as does the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement, a MILF breakaway group that, in August, clashed with the army in the lead-up to the peace accord, causing the temporary displacement of an estimated 60,000 civilians, according to the IDMC. To its credit, the framework agreement includes passages – albeit brief ones – calling on parties to respect the 'customary rights and traditions' of the region's indigenous peoples.

While the peace process is welcome, it does not negate the years of significant suffering by civilians. In February 2012, the World Bank and World Food Program released a general population survey of central Mindanao, which highlighted the far-reaching effects of the conflict.

The report estimated that 40 per cent of families in the survey areas had been displaced by fighting at least once between 2000 and 2010. Compared to Christians in the survey area, there were four times as many Muslims exposed to unprotected water sources, while Muslims also had to travel double the distance to access health clinics or schools, according to the report. Previous studies have noted that when displaced Muslims seek shelter in Christian communities women often face the bulk of discrimination, as many are easily identifiable if they wear headscarves. At the same time, key health statistics in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) are troubling. The ARMM has the highest levels of under-five, infant and neonatal mortality of all 17 regions, according to a January 2013 study on health inequality in the Philippines. In Northern Mindanao, under-five and neonatal mortality rates actually increased between 2000 and 2007.

In late December, the Philippines took a major step when President Aquino supported legislation that would make it easier for women to obtain contraceptives and would make sex education mandatory in public schools. The issue was a divisive one in a country where the Catholic Church holds significant influence. However, abortion remains illegal in the Philippines. During the UN's UPR for the Philippines in May, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) urged the government to address the issue of maternal deaths stemming from unsafe abortions by 'reviewing' its legislation on abortions. Sweden urged the Philippines to amend legislation to allow for abortion in cases of rape, incest or when the health of a pregnant woman is threatened.

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