Columbans lament murder of indigenous leader and son

19th July 2012 - by Fr Frank Nally

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The gruesome murders last week of a Subaanen tribal leader and his son on the Zamboanga Peninsula of the Philippines has alarmed Columban missionaries who know this area of Mindanao well.


Timuay Barlie Balives and his son Gerry were killed on 5 July at their home in Duilec, a remote rural area about a four-hour hike from the town of Midsalip. Both were horribly mutilated in what appears to be a ritualistic killing reminiscent of the 1980s when fanatical groups roamed and controlled areas of Mindanao and terrorized the local population.

“These killings have shocked local people and Columban priests and sisters who work with the Subaneen and have noticed a slide towards the rule of law being abandoned in the countryside” says London-based Fr Frank Nally, who once worked in the Midsalip parish. “There is no security or rule of law now as their lives are ruined by outsiders after the minerals, iron-ore and gold on their land,” he added.

The majority of the poor in Mindanao, and especially the Subaanen indigenous people of Midsalip, live in constant fear of being brutally killed. Fanatics are trained to bring an atmosphere of fear into their lives and they are often faced with eviction or evacuation because of the violence that is fundamental to land grabbing for “development”, whether that is for large scale plantations of rubber trees, Jatropha plantations for bio-fuels or mining tenements. Despite the intimidation, four members of the Tupusumi indigenous organization ensured the police in Midsalip recorded the killing before attending the burials of Barlie and Gerry Balives. Nobody has been prosecuted or imprisoned for human rights crimes against the Subaneen in recent years, even when the perpetrators have been identified.

Armed militia groups were a component of the Marcos government’s “total war” counterinsurgency campaign in the 1980s within the aegis of the “low intensity conflict” doctrine of the U.S. government. They and fanatical cults organized by the Philippine military have again sprouted across the country, particularly in remote areas rich in natural resources and minerals. The indigenous Subaanen and other poor people who earn their living farming, being good citizens, paying taxes and voting, have no security or protection provided for them.

Timuay Barlie Balives was a Signatory to the Writ of Kalikasan (nature) that was issued by the Supreme Court of the Philippines in August 2011. The Writ promises to give protection to the environment for the whole of the Zamboanga Peninsula. It gives hope to the Subaanen of Midsalip that their sacred places, their mountains and tropical forest and all that gives life with it will be at long last be protected by the highest court in the land.

Fr Sean Martin, the Irish Columban parish priest in Midsalip says:
“I have only come to known Timuay Barlie Belives well in the last few years especially since he was the one to have the courage to sign the Writ of Kalikasan. I went with Manuela, Terso, and Richardo to visit him in Duelic, about 4 hours walk from the town of Midsalip. His thatched house about ten minutes walk from the village, blended into the steep hills. After we had talked he brought us out to see his farm, some rice paddies below the house. He was very proud of the fruit trees that he had planted on the very steep slope behind his small house. I was completely out of breath after walking up 50 meters to see the trees which had taken root and were about 2 feet tall. The View of Sacred Mt Pinukis and the surrounding forested areas took my breath away. There were small rice paddies along the river coming from the mountain, clear cold water in the river not polluted by chemicals because they are too expensive, and far from the town without roads. Barlie would always attend the monthly meeting of the Timuays in Midsalip where the problems of the Subaanen people were discussed in their own language and solutions arrived at. Barlie would listen and reflect and eventually give his suggestions. All were attentive to his words of wisdom. As a Timuay, knew the customs of his people and was adept and very fair in mediating disputes. In the last 20 years mining companies have come with a view to rob the mountains of their mineral wealth. Barlie has been steadfast along with other timuays in protecting the land, because without the land the Subaanen indigenous people will be wiped out. Last July 2011 he signed the petition for the Writ of Kalikasan which was granted by the Supreme Court of the Philippines. His judicial Affidavit outlines his beliefs and that of his people, the Subaanen. He will be sorely missed by Sr Kathleen Melia and her companions at the Subaanen Ministry in Midsalip.”

The Columbans have condemned the Subaanen murders and human rights violations in the Midsalip region. They have asked that the killers be brought to justice. As members of the Working Group on mining in the Philippines, the Columbans lament the negative impact that extractive industries have had on indigenous peoples’ lands and resources. It is clear that the escalation of violence by Government and private security forces, especially against indigenous leaders, is a consequence of extractive operations in indigenous territories.