Environment Secretary Regina Paz Lopez has called for the immediate demilitarization of lands owned by the Lumads or indigenous peoples (IP) in Mindanao to ensure the safe return of those who left their communities because of heavy militarization and encroachment of mining activities on their ancestral lands.
Lopez made the call after she visited on Friday the Haran compound of the United Church of Christ of the Philippines (UCCP), which has been serving as refuge for around 300 Lumad evacuees who fled their homes and farmlands last year following alleged harassment by paramilitary groups and indiscriminate killings of their leaders.
“Why do you have to bring these people out of the forests and bring them to the city? This is senseless, “ Lopez said.
The chief of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) said the commander of the Philippine Army’s 10th Infantry Division, Major General Rafael Valencia, already assured her about the withdrawal of military troops from Lumad areas next week.
Lumad leaders claimed military personnel and some of their fellow IPs belonging to paramilitary groups have struck fear among them and forced them to evacuate their lands to allow large-scale mining and logging companies to proceed with their operations.
They further alleged that some mining firms had turned IP members against each other by arming and forcibly offering them money in exchange for their lands.
Lopez vowed to immediately look into the permits of the mining companies mentioned by Lumad leaders and prioritize them in the ongoing mining audit being conducted by the DENR.
DENR Undersecretary Leo Jasareno, head of the agency’s mining audit team, assured Lumads their ancestral lands encroached by mining operations would be returned to them within the month.
“The DENR will 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.
During her visit to the UCCP compound, Lopez could not hide her dismay when she found out that the tents occupied by the Lumads were set on fire by still unidentified men last February, hurting at least five evacuees.
Touched by the plight of the Lumad evacuees, Lopez promised she would do everything in her power to make sure their ancestral lands are returned to them.
The DENR secretary also invited members of civil society, including the youth and mountaineering groups, to help and join the Lumads in their journey back to their ancestral lands.
At the same time, Lopez promised to help provide the needs of the Lumads for them to start new lives.
She said she would coordinate with the Department of Agriculture in assisting the Lumads, who rely heavily on agriculture, to support their livelihoods.