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For Philippines’ displaced indigenous students, COVID-19 is one of many threats

Image courtesy of Save our Schools

  • Students from indigenous communities in Mindanao who moved to Manila to evade armed conflict that forced their schools shut now face a new threat from the lockdown imposed in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Access to adequate health services has always been a challenge for indigenous communities in their homelands but displacement puts them at higher risk of contracting diseases like COVID-19.
  • Despite the pandemic, displaced indigent students remain focused on their education, seeing it as a way to protect their ancestral lands no matter how far they are from home.
  • Land disputes have abounded amid an escalation in armed conflict between government security forces and rebel groups in Mindanao, placing local communities and indigenous schools in the crossfire and forcing them to flee from their ancestral lands.

MANILA — Facing armed conflict in their hometowns in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, dozens of indigenous students moved to Manila to continue their education. But with the new coronavirus pandemic sweeping through the country and hitting the Philippine capital particularly hard, their safe zone has become a more ominous place.

A group of 68 indigenous students and their teachers have been in Manila since 2017, displaced by violent clashes in their native communities. That was the same year President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to bomb lumad (indigenous) schools for being alleged hotbeds of subversion and fronts for the outlawed New People’s Army.

The students, ranging in age from 11 to 22, are ensconced in a state university in Quezon, one of the cities that make up Metro Manila, where the COVID-19 outbreak has cast a long shadow: it has the highest recorded number of infections in the country with 464 confirmed cases and 33 deaths as of April 3.

“We are prone to coronavirus because we are evacuees,” Beverly Godofredo, a teacher, tells Mongabay. As a precaution, they have begun stockpiling vitamin C, something that was once low on their list of priorities. “Our only fighting chance is to strengthen our immune system.”

Indigenous students from Mindanao and their teachers. Image courtesy of Save our Schools network

Godofredo has four bottles on hand, each with 100 tablets, which she says is enough for the students and teachers for five days. The group occupies a basement that doubles, triples even, as a classroom, a dining room, and a sleeping area. “Our beds are just mats laid down on the cement and we sleep beside each other,” she says. “If one of us contracts the virus, we’ll all be infected in no time.”

When the vitamins inevitably run out, the group will need to go out and get supplies, which is equally problematic: Metro Manila has been placed under a “lockdown … but it’s a not a lockdown,” Duterte said on national television on March 12. A few days later, the “community quarantine” was extended from the capital to cover the whole central Philippine island of Luzon as provinces declared states of calamity — a designation that allows them to access additional funding.

The quarantine period has seen thousands of security personnel manning checkpoints, the bulk of the workforce obliged to labor from home, public transportation systems shut down, and the number of stores allowed to operate limited — all to contain the virus that has infected 3,018 people and caused 136 deaths in the Philippines as of April 3.

“Every now and then we worry about our food … now we also worry about our vitamins,” Godofredo says. “If you think about it, if there’s no militarization in our communities and if the schools are not closed, we wouldn’t be here.”

Lumad students in the indigenous school in Manila has been given a garden to practice their agriculture classes. Image courtesy of Save our Schools network

Lumad schools are “a form of resistance,” Godofredo says, but only against aggressive development projects encroaching on tribal lands. These special schools were crafted for children from indigenous families who live in the most far-flung villages in Mindanao, where a three-hour walk each way to school and back is the norm, and where they risk getting caught in the crossfire of gun battles between security forces and rebel groups.

In these classrooms, indigenous practices take center stage in a system that doesn’t hew to the state curriculum. Students learn about agriculture and the sciences, as well as their native languages and cultural practices — lessons that aren’t found in the average textbook. These schools and their teaching approaches were formalized by the Department of Education in 2012 as part of a national education framework for indigenous schools, and have been adapted nationwide.

“In indigenous schools, we don’t teach ‘A is for apple’ because the students don’t know what an apple is — they haven’t seen one because it doesn’t grow in their communities,” Godofredo says. “When we teach the alphabet, the letter ‘A’ is for aguloy … it’s a Manobo [indigenous tribe] term for corn.”

For indigenous students, these schools are a stepping stone to a bigger cause: to protect their ancestral lands. “When the private companies came to buy our lands, they bought 100 hectares [250 acres] of communal land for a can of sardine and a roll of tobacco,” says Kat, a 16-year-old student. “Our leaders were not educated so they agreed.”

The Pantaron mountain range, as seen from Cabanglasan, Bukidnon, is only among the lands covered in indigenous peoples’ ancestral domain territories. Image By Kleomarlo via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Before World War II, their ancestors fought off private companies with spears and bamboo cannons, in a calculated and elaborate war dance they call pangayaw. It was enough to fend off investors, Kat says, until the 1980s saw a deluge of private companies with proposals to explore various portions of the Pantaron Mountain Range, a 12,600-square-kilometer (4,900-square-mile) biodiversity corridor that cuts across the provinces of Bukidnon, Davao del Norte, Davao del Sur, Misamis Oriental, Agusan del Norte and Agusan del Sur.

“Education is our only weapon,” Kat says. Since the 1980s, the range has seen logging activities and mining exploration, and portions have been transformed into acres of pineapple and banana plantations — all because the communities allowed it, Kat says, adding that lack of education brought them to their knees. “That’s why we traveled to Manila to continue our schooling. It’s a necessary sacrifice. If we don’t do this now, who will fight for our community? Who will protect our ancestral land?”

As land disputes bleed into the long-running war between the Philippine military and rebels, 161 lumad schools were either bombed, transformed into military detachments, or closed altogether, driving tribal members to flee their ancestral lands. Those who left were known as bakwit: the evacuees. In 2015 alone, around 17,000 indigenous peoples in Mindanao fled due to “instances of attacks by paramilitary groups, including targeted killings,” according to a U.N. human rights commission report.

Since the coronavirus pandemic, volunteers visit the students’ temporary abode to conduct check-ups. Image courtesy of Save our Schools network

Few returned to their communities. Most remained in evacuation centers in Davao City, which they called “sanctuary.” Going home isn’t a simple option for the students. They can only go to the evacuation center, where their families grapple with the same situation: coronavirus cases in Davao City hit 48 on March 30, the highest cluster of cases in the Mindanao region.

“Internally displaced indigenous peoples are highly vulnerable because they are housed in places where it’s hard to impose physical distancing,” says Vicki Tauli-Corpuz, the U.N. special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples. She adds that a total lockdown should be partnered with mandatory tests carried out among these communities to weed out asymptomatic cases.

As the health emergency continues, local governments will focus on their own localities and tend to overlook displaced communities in providing relief supplies and services, says Tauli-Corpuz, herself a member of the Kankana-ey indigenous group from the northern Philippines.

“At a time like this, the host local governments should look after the displaced indigenous peoples in their communities otherwise they will be even more vulnerable.” After Duterte declared a unilateral cease-fire, Tauli-Corpuz says, local governments could also consider allowing them to go home “where they can do proper physical distancing and practice their cultures.”

Lumad students hold their classes in a “basement” or a stock room at the University of the Philippines campus. Image courtesy of Save our Schools network

Back in Manila, Godofredo and the students expect the pandemic situation to last for three to six months, which will stretch their resources to the limits and even beyond. Luzon’s lockdown is set to end on April 14, and Congress has granted the president “emergency powers” to re-allocate existing national funds until May to support the most affected 18 million households.

They don’t expect to receive any relief supplies or medical services from the government, Godofredo says. “Indigenous peoples are always discriminated [against].” They make do with instant noodles because they last longer and the supermarkets always run out of vegetables. “As much as we want to panic buy, we cannot because we don’t have the budget.” At some point, she says, the school has to discuss the ceremonies to promote the students a grade up, which were canceled, and the opening of the new school year.

As countries around the world impose stringent measures to contain the virus, experts warn of a third wave of infections, this time erupting in vulnerable countries in Africa and Asia, where existing containment measures are crippling national health systems.

Displaced lumad students make handmade face masks for their personal use and for donations. Image courtesy of Save our Schools network

Kat and her classmates don’t know this yet. For now, they are preoccupied with sewing their own face masks from worn-out clothes they received as donations years back. The vitamin C pills will run out and they will have to make do with ascorbic syrup. Going through 21 bottles a day, they would run through the two boxes they received within a week.

Their vegetable garden will be in full bloom soon, Kat says. The students get a small piece of land for their agriculture class, a meager substitute for their sweeping communal domains back home. But at least it’s something they can freely till and develop. Once it’s ready, they will dine on cabbages, tomatoes and mung beans. The garden is enough to temporarily distract Kat from the security presence on the streets, which makes her uneasy as it also reminds her of home. “Just like in our community,” she says. “You are experiencing what we experience at home.”

Banner image of indigenous students in their temporary home, a “basement” in Metro Manila. The group survives on donations, which has been limited due to Manila’s lockdown. Image courtesy of Save our Schools network.

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