Department of Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Regina Paz “Gina” L. Lopez decried the senselessness of forcing out the Lumads from their communities, as she obtained the assurance of Major General Rafael Valencia, Philippine Army 10th Infantry Division commanding general that the military troops will withdraw from the Lumad ancestral lands by next week.
In her visit to the Haran compound of the United Church of Christ of the Philippines (UCCP), according to a statement from the DENR’S Strategic Communication and Initiatives Service, Sec. Gina said, "Why do you have to bring these people out of the forests and bring them to the city? This is senseless."
One imagines how Sec.Gina must have uttered those words with such passion but managing to smile as well, just as she talked before the DENR employees in Mindanao, urging them to do their best to serve the people in their field.
Indeed, this is a most welcome posture from a government official underscoring, yes, the senselessness of it all; of how, as the statements says, “Lumad leaders claimed military personnel and some of their fellow IPs belonging to paramilitary groups have struck fear among IP members and forced them to evacuate their lands to allow large-scale mining and logging companies to proceed with their operations.”
Sec.Gina put it simply, that people must not suffer. This we will take note of, how her department will be able to ease that suffering: “Lopez vowed to immediately look into the permits of the mining companies mentioned by the Lumad leaders and prioritize them in the ongoing mining audit being conducted by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).”
At the same time, “DENR Undersecretary Leo Jasareno, head of the agency's mining audit team, assured the Lumad that their ancestral lands encroached (upon) by mining operations will be returned to them within the month. ‘The DENR would return their lands to the Lumad within August, as long as it is proven that the areas were occupied without the consent of the entire tribal community since it is illegal for mining companies to operate in ancestral lands,’ Jasareno said.”
The Lumads are holding on to Sec. Gina’s promise that “she would do everything in her power to make sure their ancestral lands are returned to them,” and must be looking forward also to the response to her invitation to civil society, the youth, and mountaineering groups “to help and join the Lumad in their journey back to their ancestral lands.”
Sec. Gina’s visit reminds me of an earlier visit by Department of Social Welfare and Development Secretary Judy Taguiwalo the day after the first meeting of the newly appointed cabinet officials in Davao, and no DENR secretary had yet been appointed.
But why are the Lumads still in Haran several weeks after that visit? Reports stated that even as they were encouraged to go back to their homes, they feared they would still be harassed, harmed allegedly by paramilitary groups who killed their two leaders.
More than the visits of Sec.Judy and Sec.Gina should be President Rodrigo Duterte’s immediate and strongly issued order, the way he orders “kill” on the drug lords, pushers, and users, for the military to once and for all retreat from the community of the Lumads, the police to make safe their return, and the local government to fully commit to protecting them.