Sister Anne Carbon

Missionary Sisters of Saint ColumbanPhilippines

Working with the Subaanen indigenous people in the southern Philippines, I encountered a culture that is pure, sustainable and deeply connected with nature.

The Subaanen use natural fertilisers and plant their crops once a year, believing their lands need to rest. But when settlers arrived, most Subaanen sold their lands. Now, settlers use chemicals and sow their crops two or three times a year. Governments have deforested the area and illegal logging has stripped its biodiversity. In the rainy season, soil erosion destroys plantations, causing crop scarcity, hunger and infant deaths.

Since the 1990s, Sisters have advocated for and with the Subaanen on mining. Working with a local health centre as a nurse, I vaccinated children across dozens of villages, talking to people about their connection with the land and the intrusion of foreign mining companies. By the time those companies came to visit with government representatives, we had gathered thousands of signatures to stop them.

Roads, schools and electricity were promised. But people had seen the real consequences of mining, having visited areas where land was stripped bare, water was contaminated, rivers had dried up and communities suffered from cyanide poisoning.

Of course, the mining companies changed their names and bribed people to campaign for them. But we continued to stand united: for 15 years we protested, picketed, lobbied, sent letters, signed petitions, went on hunger strikes, and even travelled to the headquarters of the Rio Tinto Group, in London.

When a woman was appointed head of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, she found the law failed to protect indigenous people and the environment. She implemented new standards, and mining applications were halted. But recently she died, and the President has now lifted the moratorium on mining, which is a worry and a challenge.

In my experience, education and networking are vital to successful advocacy. Heeding the Pope’s call to respond to the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor, we must unite to advocate for the future of our only planet.