Why I'm Here

Why I’m Here | Sr. Stella Matutina, Benedictine nun and human rights activist

November 24, 2015

A fearless Benedictine nun tells her story of being one with the indigenous people’s struggles in Caraga region of Mindanao–despite threats from the military.

Sister Stella Matutina prepares the photographs of victims of extra-judicial killings in Mindanao for a press conference. <b>Arkibong Bayan</b>

Sister Stella Matutina prepares the photographs of victims of extra-judicial killings in Mindanao for a press conference. Arkibong Bayan

by Sister Stella Matutina, OSB

Why am I here? I am here because this is my missionary place. I am here because I was sent to continue our work as Benedictine missionaries.

We have been in Marihatag in Surigao del Sur for 24 years now. Marihatag is a 40-minute drive from Tandag. One of our advocacies is working with the ‘apostolate’, with the indigenous people. In fact, many of those families at the Surigao del Sur Sports Complex (refugees from militarization) are coming from our area — Luknudon, that is, a sitio of Marihatag. In that place, actually, we built an elementary school, a learning center for the kids. This school was sponsored by the Spouses of Heads of Mission (SHOM).

We started a school for the Lumad children — Luknudon Learning Center. Then, after the school, the people wanted a chapel. Building communities start with providing for people’s needs. Then, when they saw that we were there to help them, they wanted a chapel. So near the school is a chapel and it’s a very beautiful place because around it are mountains, big trees, a beautiful river.

We go there for our apostolic work. Sadly, these people are now in the evacuation center.

Despite the struggles, a time for smiles. <b>Darius Galang</b>

Despite the struggles, a time for smiles. Darius Galang

Another work that we did was with the Alternative Learning Center for Agriculture Livelihood and Development (Alcadev). This was in partnership with St. Scholastica’s College. When Alcadev was red-tagged, to boost the teachers’ and students’ morale, St. Scho adopted it. St. Scho is a prestigious school. Every year, its professors conduct faculty development training in Alcadev. Aside from faculty development, St. Scho mobilizes its students to give support to Alcadev. There are student exchange programs – Alcadev students go to Manila and share their experieces and student body organizations go to Alcadev. That has been a yearly activity for five years now. It was beautiful.

One of my duties now is to highlight Catholic Church’s stand on Lumad issues, on the indigenous apostolate. Working with Father Titing — IP director, we have this dream in Surigao del Sur of starting a school program much like the Tribal Filipino Program of Surigao del Sur Schools (Trifpss) that is borne from the diocese. Trifpss started from the diocese’s initiatives but later became independent, although the diocese continues to give it support.

So there is Trifpss for the elementary school and Alcadev for the high school (in Lumad communities). I said to the bishop, the Philippine government has to be very proud that in the country, Alcadev is the only high school for IPs (indigenous people)—taking into account that the Philippines has a 100 million population. Of the 18 indigenous tribes, it is only in Mindanao that we have an Alcadev. They should be proud of it. But they should also be ashamed of themselves, because they refused to help Alcadev, while the Belgium government helps it.

So we have St. Scholastica helping out, as well as Miriam College and many other schools, and the Belgian government.

Also, our plan really is for the diocese to reinvigorate the IP center for college of the diocese. We plan on offering scholarships to Lumad children. We plan on building a boarding house for the IPs so they can study at St. Theresa, which is the college school of the diocese. The whole diocese is thinking how to help educate the Lumad people.

On very beautiful thing with Alcadev graduates is that they are community-minded. After they have studied, they come back to work for their community. I read today’s Sunday Gospel, and it said: “When you want to become great, you have to serve.” Jesus did not come to be served, but to serve us. So these people, they want to be educated not to have honor and dignity for themselves and to show that they are ‘somebody’. They want to be educated, because they want to help their fellow poor people.

That is the kind of development that they want, one that is community-minded, not the development agression that comes with so-called “development projects” that leave the environment destroyed.

We have to remember that the organizations of the Lumad in Caraga region that we work with are active in resisting mining encroachment and plantations. Some other Lumad organizations in Caraga have been coopted to approve of the government and private-sector projects for mining. Caraga now is the mining capital of the country. How did it happen? It happened because some of the Lumad were manipulated. The National Commission on Indigenous People (NCIP) succeeded in appointing a new datu who signed for the mining permits. I can say that from my own experience.

What kind of development do the organized Lumad want? They want community development where everybody develops. And if you go to their place, there is no such house that is more beautiful, no resident who is much more richer while all the others are poor.

The Lumad are a peace-loving people. They always resort to dialogue. The whole night they talk to each other, the whole night they share, they resolve their conflicts. Even if they almost come to blows, by dawn if they have not resolved the conflict, they will return the next day to talk again. That is how they manage their problems. So for me, I learned much more from them. The Holy Father (Pope Francis) called out for the protection of Mother Earth. And if we want to protect this earth, we want to give it back, we want to restore, we want to mitigate climate change, we have to come back to the ways of the Lumad. The ways of the Lumad are respectful, not profit-oriented. They will not destroy the environment to get profit because they will always think of the generations to come.

I remember when members of the Capion family were killed in 2012. Before that, Daguil (husband of murdered Juvy Capion) resorted to pangayaw (tribal war). The indigenous people are peace-loving people, but the moment they exhaust all means–the legal means and the peaceful means–of protecting the environment, if there is no other way but to take arms, then the latter becomes a very noble option. So Daguil said, we should stop large-scale mining. He decided to take up arms – not yet to join the New People’s Army –to protect their environment. Because of this, his wife, who was pregnant at the time, and two children were killed.

Sr Stella Matutina in near tears as she recounts Lumad killings in Bukidnon. <b>KR Guda</b>

Sr Stella Matutina in near tears in a press conference in Manila as she recounts Lumad killings in Bukidnon. KR Guda

The only way for the Philippine government and military to redeem their image is to accept that they were wrong. Not only wrong, but they made many mistakes and they have to–because they have done something terribly wrong–to be held responsible under the law. Because if they continue to cover up their mistakes, impunity continues. And there will be no peace in Mindanao. This is not only the situation in Lianga, though in Lianga we have 3,000 refugees and 980 from Marihatag. There are many other evacuations that are not organized, in different sitios such as in San Miguel and San Agustin.

So when I go to the Vatican, I will bring to the Holy Father these issues and I believe he will support us. If the Philippine government will not do something to give justice to these poor people, I think it is high time that all the other countries have to help.

What the Holy Father said when he was in Latin America, was beautiful. “God hears the cry of the poor, I will join your cry,” he said. It is not up to us to be here and tell the poor, “Oh have faith, have hope, because God hears the cry of the poor.” Instead, the Holy Father said, “I will join you in your cry”—and that is beautiful. The indigenous people have been struggling for so many years and it is high time for the Church to go to them and cry with them for justice.

Sr. Stella, with Karapatan's Cristina Palabay, files a complaint against the Aquino administration to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing Raquel Rolnik and Working Group on Arbitrary Detention Chair Malick Sow in 2012. <b>Contributed Photo</b>

Sr. Stella, with Karapatan’s Cristina Palabay, files a complaint against the Aquino administration to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing Raquel Rolnik and Working Group on Arbitrary Detention Chair Malick Sow in 2012. Contributed Photo

In our diocese, what is so beautiful is that the whole diocese joined the justice and peace caravan to show to the whole world that they condemn the killings of the civilians and are calling out for justice for those who were killed. So the whole Church is one. In fact the bishop said, “Hey, people, will you just remain onlookers, just give water to those passers-by?” Because we sisters, when we pass the parishes they give water, they snacks, they give placards. But Bishop Nereo Odchimar said, “Come and join the caravan. Don’t be just onlookers.”

When we call for justice, we are with the people.

I always want to emphasize this. I want to ask people to look at a picture of Daguil’s son, the little kid, and the picture of Dionel Campos. They are the same. You put that together, a Lumad child and a leader of the Lumad, experienced the same fate when they stood against mining. Today, I remember the cry for these people.

Why am I here? Because I need to give voice to these people. To go with them, and also to give hope. To give light to their situation. Before, I asked myself, “why me?” Now I know it is because I have an opportunity to speak. I will be going to the United Nations to speak in behalf of their struggles. Hopefully, I will be seeing the Holy Father and I will be going to other places to spread their stories, the struggle for justice.


As told to Darius Galang | Transcription by Marjo Malubay

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