Malaria, murder and occupational hazards of indigenous activists in the Philippines

Alisa Tang,Thomson Reuters Foundation

Posted at Nov 02 2016 08:29 AM

Malaria, murder and occupational hazards of indigenous activists in the Philippines 1
Joan Carling, a prominent indigenous rights activist from the Kankanaey tribe of the northern Philippines' Cordillera region poses for a photo before an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Reuters

CHIANG MAI, Thailand - A little over a decade ago, indigenous activist Joan Carling from the Philippines Cordillera region lost three colleagues in the space of a few years - all murdered in one of the world's deadliest countries for land rights defenders.

Then came her turn: a relative in the military told Carling's father his daughter's name was on the "order of battle", the Philippines military's list of people, including activists, who are deemed enemies of the state.

"When you are on the order of battle, you are an open target for extrajudicial killings," said 53-year-old Carling.

"There was a time (when) suspicious men or motorbikes were following me, and I was advised to stay in the office," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.

She kept her head down, hired a bodyguard, then spent several months at a U.S. university having won a fellowship for frontline human rights defenders.

For decades, Carling has been at the forefront of the fight for land and the environment, which London watchdog Global Witness calls "a new battleground for human rights", with communities worldwide locked in deadly struggles against governments, companies and criminal gangs exploiting land for products like timber, minerals and palm oil.

In 2015, more than three people a week were killed defending land, forests and rivers against industries, said Global Witness. Of the 185 murders it documented in 16 countries, the Philippines ranked among the most dangerous, with 33 deaths last year alone.

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In many parts of the world, the biggest impact from extractive, agricultural and infrastructure projects is felt by indigenous peoples, living in remote, resource-rich areas and lacking land titles or knowledge to defend themselves against multinationals, international banks and government officials.


Carling, from the Kankanaey tribe of the northern region of Cordillera, grew up on a logging concession where her parents ran a shop.

She got her first taste of protest in the mid-1980s while studying at the University of Philippines in Baguio.

She spent two months in the Kalinga tribal areas protesting against four World Bank-funded dams along the Chico River, which activists said threatened to inundate 16 towns and villages and displace an estimated 85,000 people.

The World Bank ended up withdrawing its funding for the Chico dams, which were never built, and the episode prompted the bank to develop its policy on indigenous peoples, she said.

In the early 1990s, Carling immersed herself in mountainous tribal villages in the Cordillera and worked with the Cordillera Peoples Alliance (CPA) fighting for land rights, until the day she fell sick and had to be hauled out on a stretcher.

"My blood was too contaminated with malaria. I could not take more," Carling said.

Four men took turns - two at a time - carrying her out on a blanket slung between two bamboo poles, hiking for half a day, then driving for five hours to the capital of Kalinga province.

"They had to give me coconut (water) intravenously, as sugar, because of my diarrhea," said the activist. "I felt like a pig - they were carrying me, tied like a pig on bamboo."

After medical treatment, she went straight back to her duties, hanging her dextrose IV bag on the walls of a building in the town center, where she met indigenous people from remote areas who shared grievances about alleged land grabs.

"The villagers don't come often to the town center, so I just had to meet with them with my dextrose on because you don't know when they'll come back," she said.


After working with the CPA to help indigenous peoples at home, she moved on to a regional stage, and nearly eight years ago became head of the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP), based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Through her work with AIPP, she has helped build a network among indigenous peoples from countries including Indonesia, Nepal, Taiwan and Japan - helping them to feel less isolated.

She has turned her attention to the impacts of climate change and solutions such as hydropower, which often have a negative impact on indigenous communities.

Carling expressed concern about the "narrow conservation approach" of taking people out of the environment to protect the environment, instead of allowing indigenous peoples to protect the resources and watersheds on their ancestral land.

"Indigenous people are actually the natural conservationists because it's part of our being - to protect and conserve our natural environment because we need to pass it on to future generations," Carling said.

"That is the wisdom of the indigenous people - we only use what we need."