“How can you fight for your rights if you do not know them, or understand them? There has to be continuing education and awareness raising, with yourself, and your community.” — Wilma Tero Mangilay
Wilma traces her activism to her high school days when she joined her classmates in a barricade to prevent the logging trucks from entering their province and to protest illegal logging activities. At first, her participation was obligatory, given that her teacher asked them to join. Later on, when she understood the issues surrounding the illegal logging – the impacts on the environment, and the consequences on the lives of the farmers, food growers and the Subanen people – she participated in the barricade as an informed, willing, and dedicated person. They were able to stop Sunville Timber Products logging operation in 1987.
Wilma is a Subanen woman from Midsalip, Zamboanga del Sur province. Subanen is one of the major groups of Lumad peoples in Mindanao. As her understanding of environmental and development issues grew, Wilma became an active member of Kesabuukan Tupusumi Pusaka, a Subanen people’s organization. Through environmental activism, Wilma gained a deeper understanding of the rights of indigenous peoples, and became a staunch defender of the rights of the Subanen. This meant becoming more visibly involved in more barricades – against numerous logging activities in their areas, and then against large mining companies. To be part of a barricade against a mining company such as Geotechniques and Mines, Inc. (GAMI) is a big risk, given the support they have with local politicians. Being a woman activist in a barricade in a rural area poses a specific set of challenges. “For us, as women, it was hard to find toilets and water. There were animals around us, and it was rainy and the soil was muddy. It is hard to sleep in the field together with men. But we have no choice, we are so poor that we are unable to equip our barricade action with proper infrastructure.”
These experiences made Wilma stronger in her commitment to defend Subanen ancestral lands. Committed to learning and education, she participated in various trainings, and discussions with activist organizations at the provincial, regional and national level. In 2000, she served on the paralegal team for her organization. Since then, she has led community organizing efforts, documentation of human rights violations, and legal cases against mining companies.
Because of her prominent role in these campaigns, Wilma was targeted by the mining companies, and by local politicians who supported them. In 2011, two defamation cases were filed against her and her colleagues. The case was clearly meant to intimidate and silence her. And Wilma was indeed intimidated. She could not afford her own legal defense. The Catholic Church in their diocese helped pay for her defense. But numerous visits to the courts caused Wilma both physical and emotional stress. In moments when she found herself alone, she would ask herself, “Should I continue doing this?” Wilma also received death threats. “Was I afraid? Of course! Who would not be?” The male leaders, called Timuay in Subanen language, would have the protection of their community. “But as a woman, and non-Timuay, I could not have that kind of protection. I have, however, my family and friends. And more than that, I have my faith that I will do what I feel I have to do for our community. And Megbebaya’ (God) will take care of me.”
After three years of filing legal suits against the mining company, Wilma and her organization won the case, and the mining company ceased operations. This was indeed a victory, but sixteen new mining applications are currently being processed. This, however, does not deter Wilma in her struggle. “Our lands are rich in minerals. There will always be interests from corporations. We have to be steadfast in our defense of our rights.”
As she continued her environmental activism, Wilma began to focus on the fact that she and the other Subanen women did not enjoy equality in determining community affairs. She fights for the right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) for her community, but Subanen women are not given the chance to be part of this process. She asserts the right of the Subanen people to be part of decision-making processes, but Subanen women are not part of community decision-making. This realization, coupled with the knowledge that equal rights women are not provided by the law, has added a new dimension to her advocacy.
“The right to participate in decision-making processes within the community, as well as legal processes, is critical for us Subanen women. We need to assert this.” On one occasion, during a national indigenous peoples’ gathering in July 2015, Wilma spoke on a panel about the importance of women’s rights, and was confronted by male leaders and accused of not understanding her own culture. Wilma held her ground by asserting that the recognition of Subanen women’s rights does not undermine their culture.
“This is the new big challenge that I face – asserting our rights as women and as indigenous people, because people see this as a conflict between our indigenous culture and women’s rights. I see my role here as someone who can help balance between culture and women’s rights, without sacrificing one over the other.”