Josephine is a community leader in Surigao del Sur province in the northeastern part of Mindanao. She is a Manobo woman, one of the major tribes of Lumad (indigenous) peoples in the southern Philippines. Along with others, she has protested the incursions of mining operations into her community. For this activism, she and her community have been targeted.
At dawn on September 1, 2015, Josephine woke to go to the toilet, which was across from her home. As she went out, she was faced with two armed men, who pointed guns at her. She was allowed to go to the toilet, but afterwards they went with her into her house and checked if she had any guns inside. Seeing that there were none, they left.
Soon therafter, her friend and colleague Dionel Campos was brought in front of her sari-sari store (a very small convenience store), and shot to death. Dionel Campos was the chair of Josephine’s community organization, which was engaged in peaceful protests against mining and logging operations. The brutal killing left Josephine shaking. “It was the first time I saw someone being shot and dying in front of me.” Two others were killed that morning in their community – Campos’ cousin, Bello Sinzo, and tribal school director Emerico Samarca. To justify the killings, the military falsely accused those they had shot of involvement with an armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines, a tactic often used to suppress environmental and human rights activism.
“It will not be true if I say I am not afraid. Because I am. But there are things I need to do for my people. And so I continue, and move on.”
— Josephine Pagalan
Josephine has also been a target of death threats since becoming involved with the campaigns against mining and logging companies. Because of the danger, she has taken a regional leadership position and now spends most of her time in the city, away from her community. “In our community, which is 16 kilometers away from our barangay (village or city municipality), you will be killed and no one will know.”
However, this means Josephine is often away from her family. She is the mother of four children and recently became a grandmother for the first time. Her evacuation to the city also means that her family’s income is reduced because they can not continue to operate the sari-sari store. Yet Josephine would not alter her path. “I need to do what I have to do as a leader. My campaigns against mining and logging companies mean the protection of our resources and our lands. I do this for my people; but especially, I do this for my children and theirs.”
The Lianga Bay logging company and the Semirara Coal Mining company have been in Surigao and Agusan del Sur since the 1970s. The Manobo people have been struggling against these companies since then, and lives have been lost in this struggle. By the year 2000, Josephine said that “women started to take over the front line.” The filing of legal cases against the mining company and the documentation of human rights violations by the military and paramilitary groups are critical tasks mostly done by women. As a leader, Josephine works to ensure that the community’s concerns are publicized; she speaks on radio programs and engages the media. When the community stages protest actions, or files legal cases, Josephine goes the media to explain these actions to the public and seek their support.
In the past, Josephine felt the military treated women activists with more restraint, “…as if they are facing their mothers.” More recently, violence against women activists is escalating, and concern for her own security is growing, yet this does not deter her. “If I let fear take over, the lives that were taken before will lose their meaning. For those of us who are still alive, we need to continue the struggle. Our rights are not handed down to us, but something we need to fight for.”