Lumad people claim their language and identity despite extreme violence

ALCADEV students
ALCADEV students
At the ALCADEV school, “the youth learn alternative farming not only for individual growth but also for the development of their communities and for reinforcing collective pride and identity as indigenous people capable of taking an active role in shaping the country’s future.”

Early in the morning of Sept. 1, 2015, members of the paramilitary group Magahat – apparently acting with the support of nearby soldiers – murdered three Lumad leaders in their village. The victims included the executive director of the school, Emerito “Emok” Samarca. Local people were told they too would be killed if they didn’t leave the area, so 4,000 of them fled, mostly to an evacuation camp in Tandag City.

This was not a singular attack on indigenous people, or “Lumad” as they refer to themselves. Their community school, the Alternative Learning Center for Agriculture and Livelihood Development (ALCADEV), had been previously subjected to “killings, torture, forced displacement, and harassment of residents, students, and educators” by paramilitary groups, Human Rights Watch stated shortly after the attack. In November, for example, a satellite school of ALCADEV was burned down by men in military uniforms, destroying an electrical generator, sewing machine, farm tools and seeds.

This aggression is commonly attributed to the desire to exploit the resource-rich ancestral land of Lumad people. Their historical communal use of land has been seriously challenged as much of their land now has registered ownership by others, including logging companies and other multinational corporations.

“When they go to the town, they prefer not to use their language. They are ashamed to be heard because of their experience in discrimination against them. But we are encouraging them because being Filipino, being Lumad, we must proud of who we are.”

— Maricres Pagaran, now the officer-in-charge of ALCADEV. Educated in science in secondary education Pagaran has worked for the school since 2005 as an educator, adviser and in other roles.

Dr. Nestor Castro, a professor at the Department of Anthropology at University of the Philippines Diliman, argues that local people are forced to vacate their homeland to allow the development of hydroelectric dams, geothermal plants, mining corporations, and logging concessions. “There have been several complaints about residents being made to sign documents, the contents of which they have not fully understood,” he says.

Discrimination against indigenous people was supposed to have been eased with the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act of 1997, which focused primarily on their land rights. The act forced officials to make notices and street signs in both the dominant and the indigenous languages, and called for organizing the National Indigenous People’s Month in 2014, in which Lumad presence was felt. Indeed, as Dr. Castro claims, “With their new realization, they no longer look at their language and culture as inferior to those of the lowlanders.” Yet these actions failed to change the minds of the lowlanders who still regard indigenous people as second-rate.

The social discrimination was the motivation for the creation of a safe place for Lumads. ALCADEV was founded in 2004 to respond to the needs of the youth of the Manobo, Higaonon, Banwaon, Talaandig and Mamanwa tribes. The mission, as described on the school’s web site, is to provide a system of relevant knowledge, skills and values to develop the indigenous youth to be self-reliant, self -sufficient, analytical and creative in seeking ways to improve the quality of life to their families indigenous communities and the country.

A language disappears every fourteen days, according to National Geographic. So one may argue that disappearing languages is a natural phenomenon. Linguists and human rights advocates wishing to save languages from extinction, usually armed with a nostalgic image of a bearer of a culture who has no one to talk to in his native language, make recordings of rare accents that few are able to comprehend. Yet one tends to forget that the actual threat is caused by the “ethnolinguistic” component of a language being the expression of one’s identity, tradition and even mode of thinking. The Philippines is one of the many countries, like Ukraine, Wales, Canada, China, Ireland, Czech Republic and countries of the former Soviet Union, where languages reflect sociopolitical dynamics, and linguistic assimilation may reflect the acceptance of one’s status as a second-rate citizen.

The school promotes the use of indigenous languages, which, according to the anthropologist Felipe Landa Jocano, is not an expression of vanity: “In most cases, language is the only differentiating element in ethnic cultures, particularly among those which occupy adjacent and contiguous territory.”

There are 75 000 people living in the Philippines, speaking 151 languages. According to Dr. Castro, 85% percent of the population are the lowland Christian Filipinos who speak eight major languages: Tagalog, Sugbuhanon, Iloko, Pangasinan, Hiligaynon, Bikol, Kapampangan, and Waray. The rest are divided into 143 language groups, which define their ethnic identity.

Maricres Pagaran, who became the acting head of ALCADEV after the September killings, believes in the importance of preserving indigenous languages, saying that preserving their languages also preserves their identity as Lumad people, but that both are threatened. She said that for many, “when they go to the town, they prefer not to use their language. They are ashamed to be heard because of their experience in discrimination against them. But we are encouraging them because being Filipino, being Lumad, we must proud of who we are.”

The impact of education in the preservation of languages and identity is especially noticeable in contrast with the Lumad communities in other regions, Pagaran says.

“Based on my experience, the Manobo tribe in our area is still preserving its culture and traditions in language, ritual ceremony, chanting, dances and ways that are very important. There are Lumads in other places who do not practice their traditions, since they were influenced by the majority people in the lowlands. But in our area, with the existence of the schools like ALCADEV, it is really different compared to before.”