Hotspot Heroes for our times

Published March 17, 2018, 12:05 AM

by Mario Casayuran and Vanne Elaine Terrazola

Tonyo Cruz
Tonyo Cruz

By Tonyo Cruz


Looking for inspiration amid the dire times?

The biennial Gawad Bayani ng Kalikasan (GBK) this week named its latest batch of honorees, all worthy of admiration and emulation by the public, especially the youth.

GBK aspires to “recognize, promote, and draw public awareness to the efforts of nameless individuals and communities who have selflessly spearheaded or helped lead significant environmental struggles and the protection of basic rights.”

The highest GBK award, the Most Distinguished Awardee, was handed to Bai Bibiaon Ligkaian Bigkay.

Bai Bibiaon is the only living woman warrior and chieftain of the Lumad people. She first became prominent in 2015 amid extrajudicial killings of Lumad leaders by suspected military and paramilitary forces, and the military occupation of Lumad schools and ancestral lands.

She is a familiar face in the Lumad struggle for their right to self-determination and to their ancestral domain which are known for rich biodiversity and natural resources.

“Bai Bibiaon and her fellow Talaingod Manobo are the fiercest defenders of the 12,600 square-kilometer Pantaron Mountain Range, home to one of the largest remaining virgin forests in the country and supplies the water of major rivers in Mindanao, mainly the Mindanao River, Pulangi River, Davao River, Tagoloan River, and major tributaries of Agusan River. The natural forests of the region play host to immeasurable biodiversity and links important breeding sites of the Philippine eagle at Mount Kitanglad and Mount Apo,” said the GBK.

At a time when the President alternates between threatening to bomb Lumad schools, and cajoling the Lumad to sell their ancestral domain, Bai Bibiaon is a towering figure of clarity and courage among the Lumad of Mindanao.

GBK also paid tribute to three other individuals and three organizations.

Josefina Panginen, the half-blind daycare teacher who transformed into a most fearless defender of peasants and the environment. As leader of the Panlalawigang Alyansa ng Magbubukid sa Aurora, she has been at the forefront of community efforts to protect the forests of the Sierra Madre mountain range.

According to the GBK, “through Ka Josie’s leadership, the frontline communities of Aurora have successfully stopped the destructive logging operations of Integrated Development Corporation, Pacific Timber Export Corporation, and other logging companies. Their long-standing struggles against mining operations have also successfully resulted in the disapproval of 30 mining applications encroaching Aurora’s forests and agricultural land.”

Archbishop Sergio L. Utleg, the beloved prelate of Tuguegarao, is known to his flock as a defender of the environment and a peace advocate.

“Archbishop Utleg is one of the veritable pillars upon which rests the struggle of Cagayanons against four offshore mining operations covering 54,664 hectares lying mostly in Babuyan Channel. As the chairman of the Episcopal Commission on Indigenous Peoples, he also actively campaigned to seek justice for Dexter Condez, a slain indigenous Ati leader in Boracay, and opposed the construction of the Laiban Dam that will submerge the parts of ancestral land of indigenous Remontado and Dumagat people in Rizal,” said the GBK.

Francis Morales, who passed away in 2014, was a community leader known for promoting the rights of victims of natural disasters.

“He became a prominent figure when he bravely defended the organized confiscation by Typhoon Pablo survivors of relief goods hoarded and kept by the Department of Social Welfare and Development in its regional warehouse amid desperate need. Tatay Francis also took part in the farmer-scientist group MASIPAG, where he initiated a Resilient Agriculture Program that benefited the communities affected by typhoons Pablo and Yolanda,” said the GBK.

The Central Luzon Aeta Association unites Aetas driven away from their ancestral lands in the Zambales mountain range by the Mount Pinatubo eruption in 1991.

“CLAA was among the main organizations that led the campaign to rehabilitate their lahar-ridden ancestral domain and ensured that all evacuated Aeta can return to their homeland. Soon after the dust of Pinatubo’s explosion settled, various mining projects and other big business interests attempted to encroach into Aeta lands. It successfully opposed repeated intrusions into their sacred lands in Mt. Negron by Pisumpan Copper Mines Inc. since 1997 until recently in 2011,” said the GBK.

People Surge, the organization of survivors of typhoon Yolanda and the ensuing man-made disasters of neglect, incompetence, corruption and sellout. It transformed hapless victims of disaster neglect in the Eastern Visayas region into seekers of justice.

Says the GBK: “Through wave upon wave of protests outside various government offices and agencies even up to Malacanang Palace itself, the People Surge has been victorious in expanding the beneficiaries of Emergency Shelter Assistance in 2015-2016 and the Presidential Financial Assistance Program Through wave upon wave of protests outside various government offices and agencies even up to Malacanang Palace itself, the People Surge has been victorious in expanding the beneficiaries of ESA in 2015-2016 and the Presidential Financial Assistance Program.”

Center for Lumad Advocacy, Networking and Services (CLANS) promotes the Lumad right to self-determination by providing and facilitating extension programs and services such as education, community-based health care systems, sanitation programs, water systems, small-scale alternative electrification, irrigation systems, and sustainable agriculture to its partner Lumad communities.

“CLANS successfully established 50 Lumad community schools across the whole SOCSKSARGEN region where they also taught about environmental protection. Water and sanitation projects they helped build in the provinces of Sarangani and South Cotabato have benefitted almost 100 families, reducing the incidence of water-borne diseases such as Diarrhea and Amoebiasis by 90%. CLANS also facilitated a micro-hydro power project and reforestation efforts in their areas,” said the GBK.

Let’s thank the Center for Environmental Concerns-Philippines, the GBK Awards Committee, the GBK Board of Judges, and their many partners and collaborating organizations for introducing us to these heroes.

Yes, Philippines. We don’t have a shortage of great people and of stories of inspiration. Let’s join GBK in honoring and emulating Bai Bibiaon Ligkaian Bigkay, Josefina Panginen, Archbishop Sergio Utleg, Francis Morales, CLAA, People Surge, and CLANS.