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When an Indigenous Land Defender Becomes an Enemy of the State

Joan Carling has been campaigning for Indigenous sovereignty and gender equality for decades, but this year President Rodrigo Duterte placed her on a list of ‘terrorists,’ making it impossible for her to go home. She shares her experience with News Deeply.

Written by Megan Clement Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
‘Who will appreciate the work of a terrorist?’ Joan Carling says the Duterte government's accusations have a chilling effect for land defenders across the country.Albin Lohr-Jones/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

BRUSSELS – Joan Carling was surprised to learn that she was a terrorist. In a 20-year career campaigning for the rights of the Kankanaey people, who live in the northern Cordillera region of the Philippines, she had been a gender equality advocate, a teacher and an adviser to the United Nations. But earlier this year, while traveling for work, she was notified that she had a new designation: She had been placed on a list of Maoist insurgents by President Rodrigo Duterte’s government. Carling hasn’t been home since, fearing for her safety.

The Philippine government filed the list of more than 600 names, alleged to be associated with the Communist Party of the Philippines and its military arm, the New People’s Army, to the High Court in February. The government asked for the groups to be officially declared terrorist organizations, claiming the people named were guerillas. The Communist Party has been in conflict with the Philippine state since the 1960s.

The Cordillera People’s Alliance, of which Carling is a former chair, has labeled the charges as “baseless and malicious.” Human Rights Watch has called the petition a “virtual hit list” that puts the people on it at risk of assassination. The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues has called on the Philippines to remove the names of all the human rights defenders on the list.

In the meantime, Carling is continuing her work on gender equality and land rights from abroad as co-convenor of the Indigenous Peoples Major Group for Sustainable Development. She says it’s vital that land rights policies are not gender blind, and Indigenous women must be at the forefront of such discussions. “You cannot isolate just talking about land rights without also talking about the broader rights of women,” she says.

News Deeply sat down with Carling to discuss her advocacy for Indigenous women, the rise of attacks against women land defenders and how she’s coping with the accusations.

Women’s Advancement Deeply: Women have difficulties accessing land everywhere in the world. But there’s an additional layer of discrimination that women face when they’re Indigenous. Can you explain that intersectional problem?

“As women, they’re already discriminated against, and as Indigenous peoples in general, they’re even more discriminated against because we’re seen as inferior, backward.”

Joan Carling: We cannot talk of women as homogenous. There are also specific circumstances for different sectors of women. And Indigenous women are further marginalized.

As women, they’re already discriminated against, and as Indigenous peoples in general, they’re even more discriminated against because we’re seen as inferior, backward. That increases the further vulnerability of Indigenous women to violence and exploitation – even trafficking – because they’re seen as more inferior than women in general.

Women’s Advancement Deeply: What do you find is an effective way to advocate for the rights of Indigenous women in that context?

Carling: We need to address the specific circumstances of Indigenous women as women and also as members of Indigenous peoples.

If we look at the case of the Philippines, we have a law that recognizes Indigenous peoples’ rights, and within that is the recognition of collective and individual land rights. But the way it’s defined is through customary systems. So in certain areas, the customary system does not provide for individual land rights to women because the rice fields, the houses, the plots for houses are in the name of the man. That’s discriminatory.

‘We cannot allow our lands to be exploited.’ Carling has a history of campaigning for land rights in the Cordillera region of the northern Philippines. (DEA/G. Wright/Getty Images)

“If you can show good practice, then that’s a way to change the kinds of customary systems that are not friendly to women.”

In the group that I come from, the Kankanaey, from Cordillera, both men and women have rights to land. So that’s not a problem for us. My mother, for example, has inherited land, the same as her other siblings. But in the south of the Philippines, that’s not the case, like with the Manobo group. What we did [there], is we organized the women, and they raised this issue that women cannot inherit land.

They started discussing it within the Indigenous institutions and with the elders, with the men. They approached it in a constructive way – that it’s more beneficial for the family, for the community and for their own people if women also have secure land rights – and that started a change of attitude. If you can show good practice, then that’s a way to change the kinds of customary systems that are not friendly to women.

Women’s Advancement Deeply: Is it important that advocacy comes from within the community?

Yes. And I want to stress that because there’s this notion that women’s rights have been seen as a Western concept, but I don’t agree with that. There are certain situations and circumstances where you have to be flexible in terms of what the priorities will be, but you cannot say that because it’s customary law, and because of the right to self determination, that you cannot change things if they are oppressive.

Women’s Advancement Deeply: Over recent years, we’ve seen many attacks on women land defenders worldwide. Why is this happening?

Carling: There’s a scrabble now for remaining land, because if you look at the map, it’s in the areas of Indigenous peoples where resources remain. That’s not coincidental. That’s because we know how to take care of land and resources. That’s our own values: that we need to protect this for the future generations. That’s the way we manage our land and resources. [But] they are subject to further plunder and exploitation for commercial purposes, for “feeding the world,” for economic development, even in the name of sustainable development.

And so, of course, we need to fight back. We cannot allow our lands to be exploited. It’s women who will lose the most when this happens, they will be disproportionately affected, so they are on the front lines. Because they’re on the front line, they become the target. And when they’re targeted and they’re killed or arrested, then it has a chilling effect.

Women’s Advancement Deeply: You have been placed on a list of terrorists in the Philippines. Why do you think the government is taking this stance?

Carling: I’ve been part of the Cordillera People’s Alliance for a long time – I was the secretary general and then became the chairperson. And what is the history of the Cordillera People’s Alliance? It spearheaded the movement in the region where I come from and at the national level for the recognition, respect and protection of Indigenous people’s rights. The history of that movement is the protest of Indigenous peoples in the Cordillera against the Chico dam that was going to submerge hectares of lands and displace 100,000 people.

The Cordillera Peoples Alliance has a history of opposing development on Indigenous lands in the northern Philippines. (Gregorio B. Dantes Jr./Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

So that’s the history we’re coming from. We’re coming from a history of defending our lands and asserting our rights. It’s difficult for [the national government] to start opening new mines, at least in our area, because we have the support of local governments. That’s why [the federal government] want to put us in a bad light, project us as enemies, as terrorists, so that the public will view us as their enemy instead of recognizing us as human rights advocates. The target is to cripple the Indigenous movement so that there will be no strong opposition [against] them to literally take over our resources.

Women’s Advancement Deeply: Are you in danger now because of this list?

Carling: The implication of it is it can lead to arbitrary arrest and detention. And once you’re detained, it’s so difficult to bail out. They can freeze your bank account. They can freeze your properties. They can confiscate your passport. And with the political atmosphere in the country where political killings are taking place, who knows what’s going to happen?

Since the news came out I’ve been out of the country. I was advised by our lawyer not to take the risk to go home because there is no more rule of law. They have [ousted] the head of the Supreme Court, we are in a very serious legal crisis because of that. Then the solicitor general is being charged with corruption. He got contracts from government for his private business, and the president is defending him. And that’s the solicitor general.

Women’s Advancement Deeply: Will you go home?

“It’s so malicious, unfair, unjust that we are charged as terrorists when we are simply fighting for our rights. It’s not a crime.”

Carling: Not at the moment until we know how the situation will evolve. I’m so homesick. And I feel sad because two of our leaders during the Chico dam [protest], they’re already old now. Two of our great women leaders died. They symbolized our movement.

All the activists from their generation to our generation and the younger generations have come together. And I miss that. I miss being part of that. Another activist who is an artist also died, and I cannot be there. So I’m missing these kind of important occasions. So, of course, that makes me terribly homesick.

 Women’s Advancement Deeply: Are you campaigning to have this ruling lifted?

Carling: At the minimum, our names should be taken off that list. There’s no basis. It’s so malicious, unfair, unjust that we are charged as terrorists when we are simply fighting for our rights. It’s not a crime. Are we saying now that asserting and fighting for rights is a crime? That’s what this means: We are suddenly being seen as criminals.

It’s the chilling effect. But also putting us in a bad light. Who will appreciate the work of a terrorist?

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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