By John Queripel
"We could not have done this once. But now we can look you straight in the eye because we know we are worthwhile human beings", Palawig Cabalig, whose ancestral land was destroyed by the Mt Pinatubo volcanic eruption in the Philippines, told his hosts during a tour of Australia in May.
Cabalig and Ben Jagatan, both members of the displaced Ayta indigenous people, were accompanied by Sister Menggay Balazo, a Franciscan sister.
The tour, which included a public meeting at Sydney's Bondi Pavilion which attracted 700 people, bore testimony to the spirit and organisational ability of the Aytas. During the tour they shared their story, showed slides and photos (especially of recent events associated with the volcano), and shared some of their culture in dance.
While lamenting the loss of their land, the Aytas are not left in the paralysis of despair. They have organised programs, looked for land they could procure and used their international links to gather support. Some $40,000 has been raised in Australia, much of it through the World Mission within the Uniting Church.
On new land purchased by the Aytas, community centres, schools and houses have already gone up, crops have been planted, and even a rainforest has been started from saplings.
The trials of the Aytas began well before the Mt Pinatubo eruption. When the Franciscan sisters arrived 12 years ago, they found a people broken by exploitation. Their land — some 70,000 hectares — had been taken, much of it for US military bases at Clark and Subic Bay. Other tracts of land had been logged illegally, mostly by the military.
The Franciscans gradually won the confidence of the people. Instead of trying to proselytise, as others had done, the sisters allowed the Aytas to discover their own being in the image of God. The sisters' literacy program enabled the Aytas to read and sign contracts in which they could demand a fair deal. The sisters, in turn, learned from the natural humility of the Aytas and their ability to share freely.
Throughout their Australian tour, the visitors sought out the indigenous peoples of this land, often hearing stories of dispossession and exploitation not unlike their own. New links were made and existing ones strengthened.
From Australia, the Aytas were to journey to Brazil for the Earth Summit and an international conference of indigenous peoples.
[The Rev. John Queripel, a Uniting Church minister, is a member of the Board for Social Responsibility of the church, and has had a long involvement in social justice and Third World issues.]