Challenges of grassroots women environmental defenders
For generations, the Manobo community in Mindanao, an island in the southeast Philippines archipelago, has protected natural resources using their traditional knowledge and conservation practices in sustainable livelihoods. This local knowledge is closely interconnected with the living and non-living elements of their environment.
“Conservation is engrained in indigenous cultures,” said Shelou, a indigenous Lumad woman from the Manobo community.
However, for the past several decades, international corporations have operated large-scale logging and mining operations, as well as land conversions for monocrop plantations that have threatened traditional livelihoods. Many of these projects have also led to the forcible evacuation of local communities.
Indigenous peoples, especially those led by women, are mobilizing against these destructive development practices that are taking away their traditional lands. Their fight to protect the natural environment has continued despite harassment, threats and violence from both the state and corporate interests.
Supporting indigenous people’s conservation efforts
The Lumad communities have joined to create a number of grassroots organizations such as Sabokahan – Unity for Lumad Women to advocate for their rights, dignity and empowerment. To bridge the struggles of grassroots Lumad and farmers with the larger international community and media, Liyang was created as a global advocacy network. The organization helps bring attention to the struggles of indigenous communities while assisting them in accessing information about their rights, promoting indigenous culture and practices, and building leadership skills. These activities are conducted among the communities, as well as in sanctuaries that have been established to protect Lumad defenders who have already been evicted from their land or leaders whose lives are endangered.
Taking inspiration from indigenous environmental defenders
Shelou is one such women defender who lives away from her community due to the threats to her life. Another Lumad woman currently seeking refuge in the sanctuary is Bai Bibyaon Ligkayan Bigkay, the first woman chieftain of the Manobo peoples. Inspired by the work of Shelou, Bigkay and others, their stories are collected in a young adult novel titled We Call Her Ina Bai: How Strong Women Are Made, published by Sabokahan.
Crafted not only by indigenous women, but also LGBTQ writers, artists, advocates and their allies, the novel narrates the extraordinary resilience and strength of the indigenous Lumad women and their tribes in a situation context where their environment, lives and livelihoods are constantly under threat.
This creative project aims to raise awareness about the strengths and challenges faced by women environmental defenders. The profits generated from the book sales will be reinvested in the community. Some of the activities funded through this project include translating the novel into the local Bisaya and Tagalog languages, providing free copies to Lumad youth and delivering Covid-19 relief to left-behind communities or supporting activities in sanctuaries.
The book helps in efforts to further decolonize knowledge and connects a wide audience directly with the narratives of people who are at the frontline of the struggles to demand environmental justice. It offers a unique perspective on what women’s empowerment means and inspires us to join forces against systems that simultaneously exploit people and the environment.
Special thanks go to Shelou from Sabokahan and Selena from Liyang Network for their contributions to this piece. Names have been changed at the request of the interviewees to protect their security.