There are 134 ethnic groups in the Philippines with at least 8 groups inhabiting the lowlands or urban centers. Most of these ethnic groups have embraced Catholicism though in practice, they mixed their traditional beliefs with Catholic practices.
Until recently, these ethnic groups especially those living in the mountains and remote areas are largely ignored by the general populace. In the 1960s, the government established a bureau to integrate them to mainstream society. But there was resistance on the part of the minorities. In practice, integration did not happen. Instead, assimilation occurred. Integration
means incorporating individuals from different groups into a society as equals.
In 1978, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) formally created the Episcopal Commission on Indigenous Peoples. Learning from the approaches of early missionaries, the CBCP adopted the “integration” approach over assimilation. Since then, a number of religious engaged themselves in promoting and defending the rights of indigenous peoples especially during the Martial Law era of the 1970s until the mid-1980s. In fact, some of these religious disappeared, were tortured or were killed for helping the indigenous peoples. In 1987, under the new Constitution, the government adopted the concept of ancestral domain which was pushed passionately by Church and lay leaders. Caring for the minorities continue to be a great challenge in the Philippines today especially with the influx of mining companies and real estate developers. Most of the mining sites are in the ancestral domain. Some real estate developers encroached on the domain. Mega-dam projects especially in the main island of Luzon also threaten the areas of indigenous peoples. Some schools built for the indigenous peoples are suspected of being terrorist or communist facilities.
Most of these schools located in the southern island of Mindanao are set on fire by anti-communist partisans. Most religious working in these areas are red-tagged by the military and are therefore, prevented from reaching out to these peoples. Some are facing trump-up charges in courts.
In the Assumption family in the Philippines, the Religious of the Assumption have 2 communities working with ethnic groups – one community runs a parochial school with more than 50% Muslim students while the other community works with natives on the mountains. Both
communities are in the southern island of Mindanao. The Assumptionists do not have yet formal engagement with groups working for and with indigenous peoples but in recent years, postulants are exposed for 10 days in areas where these peoples are threatened due to the mega-dam project,
by the decades-old armed conflict as well as by ecological destruction. Hopefully, with the decision to open a community in Davao region in Mindanao, the Assumptionists will get to be more involved in the promotion and defense of the rights of indigenous peoples.
The indigenous peoples are also God’s creation. In fact, they have been here before the first missionaries came. We owe a lot to them and we will learn a lot from them especially in how to live simply and in how to take care of the environment. We are responsible for them. We are so connected to one another that we cannot ignore each other.
Augustinians of the Assumption Philippines.