Birthing in the Time of El Niño: Marlinda’s Story

 Marlinda

Marlinda

On the morning of October 26, 2015 some 700 indigenous peoples from Mindanao arrived at the University of the Philippines in Diliman to a rousing welcome from a huge crowd of supporters.

Wearing their native costumes, the Lumad people were in a caravan called “Manilakbayan” that had traveled from Surigao City to Eastern Visayas and then had crossed over to Luzon to highlight their call to stop human rights violations in various Lumad communities.

Temporary tents were set up by volunteers near the UP Gymnasium. As soon as they knew their places for the night, the Lumad men and women willingly engaged the sympathizers in discussions of what had brought them to Manila.

Basics

“Lumad” is a term used to refer to the original inhabitants of Mindanao, composed of 17 ethno-linguistic groups in southern Philippines.

The ethnic groups in Manilakbayan represented the Manobo, Mamanwa, Dumagat, Matigsalog, Higaonon and B’laan indigenous peoples that farm the hinterlands in the CARAGA Region.

Marlinda Indao, 42, a tall and stately woman of the Matigsalog tribe, recounted how long it had been since she last saw her home in Barangay Waykulaman, Kitawtaw, Bukidnon.

Regal in a long vermillion dress and her lovely oval face tanned to a golden brown from days of walking, she began to narrate how her people joined the march one fateful day in June of 2015.

Nakaranas kami ng gunaw” (We experienced utter destruction),” she said about El Niño.

El Niño is the unusual warming in the Central and Eastern Equatorial Pacific occurring every two to nine years. It usually starts between December and February and lasts until the first half of the following year. However, at times it may last longer. Its effects are reduced rainfall (which may lead to drought), stronger typhoons, and high risks of forest and bush fires.

When El Niño hit Central Mindanao in early 2015, it caught the indigenous tribal communities very much unprepared. In Kitawtaw, the monsoon rains came to a halt very early. The drought was first felt in the last week of December 2014. In a few more weeks, the irrigation systems dried up and the flow of drinking water slowed down.

“Famine was widespread due to El Niño. The plants and trees did not bear fruit. There was no rice. The children were getting sicker by the day,” tearfully recalled Marlinda.

What made matters worse was that Marlinda found out in February that she was pregnant for the tenth time. Lumad women, she emphasized, have always worked double-time, from working side by side with the men in the farms in addition to doing housework. Otherwise, their husbands cannot get sufficient rest.

The Matigsalogs felt the effects of El Niño way earlier than the government’s official announcement through the Philippines Astronomical, Geophysical, Atmospheric and Seismological Administration (PAGASA) in March 2015.

OXFAM, an aid agency based in the United Kingdom, reported that the Philippines suffered a 70%-100% damage to crops like rice, corn, coconut, banana, coffee and cacao.

The affected tribal communities tried asking their respective local government units for help but none was forthcoming. This, despite press releases in local and national media announcing that a stock fund of Php 1.61 billion had been set aside for redistribution of seeds and fertilizers.

A skirmish while pleading for rice

When they heard in the news on June 8, 2015 that the Calamity Fund was going to be released, the farmer-leaders in Kitawtaw said they should all go to the City Hall and demand its release. The women said they would bring the whole family along, if they could, even if the Kitawtaw City Hall was 29 kilometers away.

“Our husbands and all the leaders were by then organized. Pregnant as I was, I joined the other mothers in mobilizing all the affected families so that we ourselves could be there to receive the Calamity Fund promised to us.”

What started with a few dozen families soon swelled as families from adjoining barangays joined Marlinda and her fellow Lumad along the way. A total of 3,500 marchers from 11 barangays participated.

When the City Hall was finally in sight, the marchers saw trucks lined sideways to block their path, and men in uniform standing in formation to bar them from passing through. The marchers linked arms and formed a line. On the front were the leaders and their wives, some with babies and toddlers.

“Sir, please give us rice,” Marlinda pleaded with the soldiers. “Our children are hungry. We have nothing to feed them. My children and I cannot go home if we don’t bring rice back.”

But the marchers backed down when the uniformed men formed a phalanx, ready for a confrontation. After some time, the mayor’s coordinators arrived with disappointing news.

“The funds have not yet arrived!” they firmly told the marchers.

Five months pregnant at that time, Marlinda was quite tired from the long walk and began to lean on the side of a truck of the National Food Authority (NFA) in front of her. Seeing this, a soldier grabbed her arm, twisted it and pried her hand away from the truck. Then, with violent force he took her by the shoulder and upper body and pushed her. Marlinda fell to the ground.

The marchers, quite alarmed, helped Marlinda to her feet. The uniformed men stood threateningly in formation, spoiling for further provocation. This is but a minor skirmish, said the farmer-leaders, and should not eclipse the main goal to have an audience with the mayor.

They decided to wait right there until the he showed up. By dusk, all 3,500 of them had spread out on the City Hall grounds and set up their makeshift shelters. That same evening Marlinda realized she was bleeding slightly. Her co-marchers were by then sleeping by the side of the street and all around City Hall.

“I bled through the night and I was already quite nervous,” she said.

By morning the bleeding had gotten worse. They called the doctor in the health center and they rushed her to the German Doctors’ Hospital. Meanwhile, the mayor of Kitawtaw took long to respond. It meant five days of camping out without the basic amenities.


When El Niño hit Central Mindanao in early 2015, it caught the indigenous tribal communities very much unprepared.

A life-saving coincidence

Mabuti na lang!” Marlinda remarked on that unexpected trip to the German Doctors’ Hospital just a few blocks away.

“What I mean is, can you imagine if the military had blocked us a few towns before Kitawtaw City Hall? If this pushing and shoving had happened then, I would not have made it to the hospital fast enough. I just know it. I could have bled to death if the doctors in that hospital had not attended to me,” exclaimed Marlinda, incredulous and grateful at the same time.

She suffered a miscarriage and was given a dilatation and curretage or D&C.

It was also her first time to ever set foot in a hospital, having given birth to her nine children inside her home and assisted only by a traditional healer.

She hopes, though, that she will never have to be hospitalized again since she cannot afford to pay. She added that she did not qualify for the 4P’s -Conditional Cash Transfer program (CCT) for indigents. “They were looking for birth certificates and a marriage license. When we in the tribe marry, we don’t register it in City Hall. So when the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) came, some Matigsalog families were selling their farm animals just so they could get the required paperwork. I have six children who could have qualified for CCT, but I didn’t have the money.”

Growing up Matigsalog

Marlinda did not attend school, as this was not the norm when she was growing up. She remembers that children were told that if they went to school, there would be giants who put little children in a big cauldron to be fed to the beasts.

“That’s what the elders said and in the tribe the elders were always believed.”

By age 9, she had gone with an aunt to Davao City to assist her in her job as househelp. She had an employer who spoke fluent Filipino, which Marlinda learned rather quickly. When she returned at age 13, she was married off by her parents to her husband.

“In our tribe there is no such thing as being too young to marry. Our parents have the last say on this and they agree to marry us off even before puberty,” explains Marlinda.

She became a mother three years later. She says the elders of the Matigsalog tribe did not encourage family planning.

“Our elders said the women were getting pale. So most of us Matigsalog women have many children, like myself.”

Father Pops

Marlinda says getting an education seems to have been the best thing that has happened to the children of her tribe.

Almost a decade ago, a nongovernment organization (NGO) arrived and set up an alternative school system. Established in 2004, the Alternative Learning Center for Agricultural and Livelihood Development or ALCADEV provides secondary education as well as vocational and technical skills to indigenous youth in the poverty-stricken areas of Region XIII seldom reached by government services.

The children began going to school. Eventually, a day care center was also set up and parents were by then eager to send even the younger ones there.

“My husband and I like listening to our preschooler tell us about the sun, the moon and the stars,” Marlinda says with obvious fascination. She herself managed to attend literacy classes.

For all other concerns that hounded their lives, the Matigsalogs turned to Fr. Fausto Tentorio, an Italian missionary who arrived in 1978 in the scenic Arakan Valley. “Father Pops,” 59, as the Lumad fondly called him, was not only a teacher to their children but also a person they relied on to discuss issues of livelihood.

Not long after, the schooling of the children also marked the end of arranged marriages in Waykulaman. Marlinda proudly notes that her daughter, 17, has just announced that she wants to marry a young man that she herself had chosen without prior introductions and arrangements by their parents.

“It is no longer us parents who decide. Now, our sons and daughters themselves decide. It’s different now because they have knowledge and skills that will make them suitable for jobs, unlike us who only know farming.”

However, a most terrifying piece of news shook the town on October 17, 2011 when Father Pops was shot pointblank by a lone gunman inside the Arakan parish compound.

The gunman had parked his motorbike by the side of the convent, walked directly towards [the priest] just like a trained assassin, and taken aim.

Father Pops had taken a stand to protect the land of the Lumad people from loggers, land grabbers, and mining corporations. The Lumad believe this was why he was so brutally killed. He had been getting death threats which he had brushed aside.

“After Father Pops died, we were lost. We didn’t know where else we could go,” said Marlinda.

Justice demanded for Lumad killings

Very much frustrated by the mayor’s inaction, the marchers decided to head for Surigao del Sur where 2,000 refugees had fled a month earlier as violent assassinations of Lumad leaders and teachers hogged the national headlines. Indigenous tribes had fled their ALCADEV schools and communities as their villages were wrecked by hired vigilantes.

Volunteers from the Tribal Filipino Program of Surigao del Sur (TRIFPSS), a church-based NGO, accompanied the marchers.

Ryan Recalde, 32, a TRIFPSS volunteer teacher, said the refugees, mostly Manobo from hinterland villages of five towns in Surigao del Sur, fled when Magahat militiamen accused them of being communist rebel sympathizers. The militiamen then murdered Emerito Samarca, 54, executive director of ALCADEV. Last seen alive on Monday before armed men torched the cooperative office adjacent to his school, Samarca was found the next day inside a classroom in Han-ayan, Lianga, Surigao del Sur, hogtied and stabbed several times.

According to the NGO Karapatan, at around 4:00 a.m. on Tuesday, the Magahat woke up the entire village, demanding that Dionel Campos and his cousin Aurelio Sinzo come out from their houses. Both fell from a hail of bullets as they emerged, cold-bloodedly executed in front of terrified villagers, young and old. Campos and Sinzo had belonged to a group, MAPASU, which campaigned against human rights violations of security forces hired by mining corporations.

The vigilante group Magahat was alleged to have been hired by the security forces of mining corporations in the valley to pursue a low-intensity, anti-communist witch hunt in tribal villages. They warned the villagers to leave or meet the same fate.

The spate of killings in early September 2015 brought about accusations and counter-accusations. The military alleged that the schools serve as training ground for the New People’s Army.

For their part, the Lumad said that the mining firms had disregarded their “free and prior consent to occupy their ancestral lands” and had financed and armed the military who guarded mining operations and who, in turn, recruited the paramilitary “salvaging teams” composed of Lumad themselves to do the killings.

By September 1, 2015, some 589 families had evacuated their barangays and headed for the Surigao del Sur Sports Complex in Tandag City which served as the evacuation center.

 Weary Matigsalog women in the camp site

Weary Matigsalog women in the camp site

Birthing in evacuation centers

Marlinda reminded her husband that her next visit to the German Doctors’ Hospital was due. She was scheduled for a tubal ligation to which her husband agreed, but on the due date they were already in the evacuation center in Jaran, Davao. The fare back to the hospital would be too prohibitive and thus, they set aside the tubal ligation.

Meanwhile, the mobilization kept getting bigger as the Lumad people moved forward. Church groups and civil society organizations gave their support, bringing rice, vegetables and services by some health volunteers.

Of the thirty families from Cabanglasan, a logging town on the eastern side of Malaybalay, five women were pregnant. By the time Marlinda arrived at the evacuation center, three had given birth. In the first birthing the people gathered mats on the cement floor.

The other pregnant women knew there would be no recourse but to rely on the traditional healers who had to join the march. They refused to go to the hospital, saying: “We have no money for rice, what more for a down payment to the hospital?”

By the time the marchers had made a head count, there were 82 pregnant women in the evacuation center in Tandag City. In two months 19 mothers had given birth. One had triplets. A four- month-old child had to be hospitalized for pneumonia. The child suffered a relapse four days after returning to the evacuation center and was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital.

Subsisting mostly on food packs from the DSWD and the Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office, the marchers suffered widespread malnutrition. Mothers’ breasts were dry and there was no milk.

It was all hands on deck for Surigao del Sur Governor Johnny Pimentel’s team, which provided not only food and water but also toilets and waste disposal. The Provincial Social Work Department as well as the community-based health care providers ferried mothers to the tertiary facility for all sorts of ailments and emergencies.

As the numbers of refugees grew, the Governor called on the International Red Cross and the national government for assistance. The reflief effort would soon tax local government resources, he said, as he warned against an outbreak of epidemic, which was not uncommon in such situations.

In contrast to the Surigao Governor’s response, Governor Jose Ma. Zubiri of Bukidnon gave the marchers a tongue lashing and did not provide food or water.

Food and Justice

The campaign for food and justice in El Niño-stricken Mindanao had become news in the mainstream newspapers.

But after many months of operations by the evacuation center, the response coming from government amounted to only Php 7,492 million. Of this, Php 2.8 million came from the DSWD while the rest came from non-government organizations.

It was then in early October that the Lumad representatives from Bukidnon, Surigao del Sur and Davao decided to organize the Manilakbayan caravan to collectively protest ongoing harassment by government-backed militias and to ask for funds to recover from El Niño.

Nuns and missionaries provided food and water. Parish priests offered their compound grounds to sleep on. The Manilakbayan caravan managed to arrive in batches, transported by boat and by land to UP Diliman where students served as cooks, carpenters, and logistics staff.

The Lumad leaders recounted the brutal killings and the devastation of El Niño and their effect on the lives of everyone, most especially the women and children.

Mothers distrust big hospitals

The mothers in Manilakbayan unanimously agreed that there is widespread distrust and fear of “big hospitals” due to the unkind treatment shown them by government health service providers.

Those who have tried to access reproductive health facilities and services say many health providers find it part of their mission to moralize and humiliate mothers, especially those who have many children.

Diden Landasan, 38, has eight children, ages 2-16. She says it is her husband who assists her in childbirth, a skill he learned from his own grandmother. In the last birth however, he was unable to cut the umbilical cord and they had to call an ambulance when she showed signs of complications such as shortness of breath. She stayed in the hospital for three days.

Jenelyn Abne , 22, had given birth at home but the baby was very small and weak. She was rushed by the mothers to the hospital even as she protested wildly. She needed an incubator, they said “pero pila ang gipabayad pag luwas sa ospital? Siempre may reseta, kadaghang ipapalitonon, unsa di mi napalit” (But how much would they charge? Certainly there would be prescriptions for medicines but we couldn’t buy them.) Jenelyn died within two days, on October 15, 2015.

The other problem is a result of indigenous customs and practices. One Lumad mother refused to have her belly or her private parts touched by a health worker.

Marlinda said that as of last count, there were 104 lactating and pregnant mothers in all in Tandag. She hoped that after Manilakbayan, they could be settled into a safer environment.

Knocking on the NCIP’s door

The very next day, proudly garbed in their ethnic costume once again, the men and women marched towards the office of the National Commission on Indigenous People (NCIP) in Quezon City. The NCIP is attached to the Office of the President and is assigned to protect the rights of indigenous peoples.

Around 300 Manobo, Dumagat, Matigsalog, Higaonon and B’laan indigenous peoples traveled with the hope of bringing their message of “Justice and Rice” to Malacañang. They said they had come a long way and deserved to be heard by President Benigno S. Aquino himself.

Franie Landasan, whose husband had been shot dead by the paramilitary, also lost her ninth child in the course of evacuation. But that did not stop her from trying to speak to officials in Manila.

“Arakan Valley and the whole of Mindanao seems so distant and forsaken by the powerful people in Manila who can decide to improve our lives,” she says. “If the long months of dislocation, hunger and fear are the price we have to pay to have our voices heard, then this caravan will be worth it.”

The Lumad, all 300 of them, waited for many hours as their leaders negotiated to have an audience with at least one NCIP Commissioner. But no one opened the door to the NCIP office even if it was a busy workday. Not even one Lumad representative was allowed inside.

By noon, after many hours under the blazing sun, they marched back, empty-handed, to safe ground in UP Diliman.


 Rochit Tañedo

Rochit Tañedo

Rochit Tañedo writes, organizes workshops and makes documentaries for NGOs. This story was taken from her manuscript for the National Book Development Trust Fund entitled: "Come Back to Me"  Lives Taken, Shaken and Changed by the Lack of Reproductive Health and Rights.