By Sophie Passelecq

October 6, 2017

I went to the Philippines in the beginning of this year. My motivation to go there was to visit the country with a dear friend of mine, who is Filipino and invited me to come with her to visit and meet her family. From the start when I arrived and I was picked up at the airport I felt the warmth and welcomeness of the FIlipino culture.

After traveling around with my friend I stayed behind to do a volunteer project with PSET. My intentions were to do volunteer work and I thought I was there to work and help to better the lives of the people there. But a funny thing happened, I did not actually do that much of what we from the Western world would define as ‘work’.

PSET took me on an adventure and they showed me their world and I ended up learning so much more than I could have imagined. I learned about the Philippines, their culture, the politics and socio-economic situation and the reality of the poor Filipino people and their struggle for a better life. The injustice and the corruption of their government the people fight against struck me and shocked me.

I still think every day about all the people I met, while I am on the train to work, or out with friends. I realize how lucky and fortunate I am to have a job, a home that is not threatened to be taken away from me. I am lucky to have many privileges such as going out and have a drink with friends that I take for granted so easily. I realized many people have to fight for their lives, for their right to built a fair life for themselves, for their children, for future generations. I was confronted with poverty I do not know of, living situations that are hard and insecure and I admire the people that live in those situation and deal with it. I do not know how I would cope but everywhere I went I was greeted with a smile and kindness and all the people shared their lives with me, shared their homes and their food with me. I still don’t know how I can show my gratitude towards them. I am here today because I want to help them by sharing their stories and raise awareness for their struggle. Why we are all here tonight for, to learn about the Philippines.

The warmth of the Filipino people is shown in the movie by how the Dutch missionary, Willem decided to stay in the Philippines live his life as a FIlipino.

Just like in the movie all the places I went to, I met people whose livelihood and homes are threatened by development. The first place I visited was a place not far from Manilla called Sitio San Isidro.

Sitio is the Filipino word for small village. The government is planning to build a train line from Manila to San Jose Del Monte. Along the way there you can see the big building projects rising up along the side of the road. The environmental worker that was with me, made the very just remark that the government and private real-estate companies built all those houses for profit but if the people do not have any money and their livelihood is taken away from them, how can they afford those houses ? Who will live in the houses?

Sitio San Isidro is threatened because in the place where the village is they are planning to build a train station. Which means everyone living in that place is threatened to be forcefully evacuated from their homes to make place for the train station to be built.

Already for years there are security men present at the entrance of the village. The villagers do not know who is security and who is military. They are psychologically terrorized by the security watching over them, burning down their crops and in some cases the houses.

The people are close to their lands where they cultivate the crops. To be forced to move means loosing the little income they have from the land, the crops they grow and sell every day at the market. While I was there the people worked in shifts to get the harvest from the land, tie the crops together and sell it at the market. The villagers from San Isidro have been living there for years and with years I mean the elder villagers have been living there for over 20 years. And today they are at risk to lose everything they have built over all those years.

They are threatened by the security goons whom by using psychological fear and threats try to force the people to move away from there.

I remember very well because the villagers were talking about it before I left to go back to Manila. We had just finished dinner in the little house where we shared sweet potatoes, fresh from the land. We were all sitting together in the little house and I could feel how the atmosphere changed and even though I could not understand everything I could sense their fear and how the insecurity of not knowing what will happen and the safety of their homes being threatened, how it affected the people living there. The parents asked me how can we provide for our children if we have to move away from our lands? How will they go to school? Sure there is the so-called development but we will not get a job there, we risk to end up on the streets… What will become of our children? The government does not offer any programs any decent help to ensure the survival of these people and I do mean survival because that is what is. Surviving in this modern age, surviving the concrete cities and development.

The second place I visited was Batangas. I went with PSET and we accompanied a group of Catholic justice and peace workers from all over Southeast Asia. PSET organized their immersion in the Philippines. The theme of the immersion was climate change. Of the shore of the Province Batangas there is an island called Isla Verde, between the island and the mainland there is a very diverse marine biodiversity which needs to be protected. So the government forbids the locals to go fishing at certain times of the year, the government inserts rules and regulations, impossible for the locals to follow and adapt too. It is funny because local fishermen are forced to follow these regulations but a few kilometers further at sea you can see the big commercial fishing ships passing by… While the local fishermen are literally shot at when they adventure out on the see when they are not supposed to.

When we arrived at the place where we were going to spend the night, the little house was situated on the beach, right next to the sea. I thought I had arrived in paradise. Someone made the remark that I should be careful what I call paradise because as I later learned, also this family was threatened by development. By taking away their livelihood, the fishing, it is a way to give the people no other option but to move away and find work somewhere else. The mother of the children I met already worked as a maid somewhere abroad. Forced to move away from her family to provide for them. Leaving the husband and children behind, the husband felt guilty but did everything he could to raise the children by himself.

Once the family is gone, the place is ideally situated to build a hotel. I wondered who had been forced to move away from the touristic places I visited with my friend, islands like Boracay, Palawan and Coron, known for their tourism now, but who owns the hotels and the bars on those islands? Who was forced to move away for tourism to be developed on these, now famous islands of the Philippines ?

One of the last places I visited was in IloIlo. I visited the Tumanduk, indigenous people living in the mountains, like the Lumad talked about in the movie. The Tumanduk and Lumad are people that lived in the Philippines from before the Spanish colonization happened. They used to live near the sea but as the colonizers arrived they moved up, to the mountains to be safe and hold on to their culture. Today different organizations in the Philippines work hard to protect the rights of the indigenous people and their culture. The Tumanduk live in the mountains, where they always lived, away from the cities and providing for themselves in the mountain. The villagers live as one big family, sharing and working on the land together. Women are highly respected.

During Martial law in the ’80s in the Philippines, their land got militarized and the military terrorized the Tumanduk. Women got raped, in the Tumanduk culture there used to be a princess called the Binukot. The Binukot was elected as the most beautiful women of the village, she was worshipped in their culture, she did not have to work and was carried everywhere she went. The military kidnapped and raped these women and because of this today, the Tumanduk have lost that tradition, women were scared to take up the role as Binukot. The Tumanduk used to communicate with the different villages spread out in the mountains, by using big gongs. Each gong made a different sound but they were made of pure gold. Also these gongs disappeared when the military claimed the area. All of this happened and no justice was brought, the military was never pursued or condemned for their acts.

Today the area where the Tumanduk lives is still militarized, we can wonder why, because of the minerals in the ground ?

The military is still present and attack the Tumanduk farmers working on their lands, farmers are shot on suspicion of working against the military. But I met the Tumanduk, they are peaceful and they are just farmers providing for their families. I was told the story of a little girl that was killed in an explosion, the official explanation was that the Tumanduk was building bombs in one of their houses and that is how the little girls got killed.

I will let you decide for yourselves if you believe the official story or not.

But I also want to talk to you about the Tumanduk, about the beautiful mountains they lived in. Of how they welcomed me, cooked for me and showed me around. I laughed with them and up there in the mountains, I felt free and I hope to be able to go back and visit them one day. Everyone so nice, funny, warm and welcoming. The beautiful houses, the Tumanduk houses are built in wood and are able to withstand typhoons.

When a new family starts up their lives, the village comes together to build a house for the new family. It was really beautiful to meet and to experience that big family that the Tumanduk are.

I can only recommend and thank PSET for what they made happen for me, an experience that exceeded my expectations, a volunteer experience where I learned so much on a personal level, about the injustice in the world but also about the Philippines and the brave Filipino culture.

PSET is always open to give you more information, should you wish to travel to the Philippines on a holiday that is not about tourism but about sharing experiences, learning about a different world, about the Filipino culture and discovering new places and meet new friends.