Indigenous women's story of resistance in the Philippines

chris sibugon
Posted March 22, 2016 from Philippines
Learn and share their story. #shareherstory #joinherfight

A Bai’s Story: Resistance and Hope of Indigenous Women

It was 5 in the morning and it was still dark. I was already up, building a fire to cook our breakfast. My daughter and her two children stayed with us the night before because one of the children was sick. Our house is made of bamboo and cogon grass and it has no door so I noticed the approaching men while they were still a few yards away from the house. I went outside and saw that they were from the military. When they reached me, I asked, “Sir, what do you need?” One of the men asked me, “Are you Bai Ellen?” I said “Yes.” Then suddenly, they grabbed me and tied my hands with twine.

Bai Ellen Manlimbaas, 55, recounts her ordeal when she and 16 other residents, including three minors from the village of White Culanan were arrested without any warrant in August 13, 2015. Some of them were released, but 13 leaders and members of their local organizations, including Bai Ellen, were detained on the suspicion of being rebels. They were forced to board a helicopter and brought to the camp. For the first four days they had nothing to eat. But she barely felt hunger or fear. She found strength with the knowledge she has done nothing wrong except fight for her people’s right to their resources and control over their future.

Bai Ellen is a leader of the Matigsalog tribe living in the rural village of White Culaman, Municipality of Bukidnon in the island of Mindanao. As a tribal leader, she has been in forefront of the Lumad and rural people’s struggle for resources, land, and right to self-determination. And for actively defending the environment and her people’s rights, Bai Ellen also lives under constant threat.

Women of the Earth

We live peaceful and free. We respect the earth, the mountains and the rivers. They give us our food, our shelter, and our medicine. Our land is our life.

Lumad, which means “born of the earth[1],” is a collective identity that was adopted in the late 1980’s of the non-Islamized indigenous peoples of Mindanao[2]. The Lumads, living on the last frontiers of southern Philippines, compose 63% of the total indigenous peoples population in the Philippines estimated at 14 million[3]. They continue to practice their customs and beliefs that they have inherited from their ancestors, including their economic, political and cultural system[4].

They live in the spirit of panaghiusa(solidarity) and paghinatagay (sharing) among each other and with the earth. They practice sustainable management of the natural resources, based on customary laws and respect to the environment. Although their land abounds with gold and minerals, they hardly extract them for personal gain. They consider themselves as stewards of the earth, their respect of it evident in the rituals of thanksgiving that they do during planting and after harvesting.

Lumad women like Bai Ellen work as farmers. They participate in weeding, planting and harvesting, among others. Like other rural women, they disproportionately carry the burden of work as they also perform the traditional reproductive roles in the family such as tending to the children and their husband’s needs.

But being a woman does not keep them from taking leadership roles, retaining the customary high regard Filipino women have had in society before the period of colonialization. Being a Bai or leader, Ellen provides guidance to her community. She also chairs the Nagkahiusang Mag-uuma sa Barangay White Culaman that has actively resisted the encroaching of corporate farming and mining that threaten their peaceful communal living and coexistence with the earth.


We have always been regarded lowly. They look down at us because they deem us uneducated. It hurts the most when they say, “They are just Lumads.” We are human like everyone else.

The history of Lumad is also a history of struggle and discrimination. The movement of settlers from other parts of the country, which started during the Spanish colonialization, has driven the Lumad deeper into the last remaining forests of Mindanao[5]. Their territories are also within the terrains of the guerilla warfare being waged by the New People’s Army, and thus they are constantly tagged as insurgents and forced to abandon home to find safety during government’s counterinsurgency campaigns. Living in the most remote areas, social services do not reach them anymore. When asked where is the nearest hospital, Bai Ellen cannot tell exactly where. Instead, she quotes how much it would take to commute to get to the hospital, an amount that rural people like her can barely afford.

But more than the distance, what kept the Lumads from fully participating in the society is the discrimination they are treated with. “Lumad lang man na sila (They are just Lumads)” and “Wala’y grado (uneducated)” are just few of the derogatory treatment that Lumads like Bai Ellen have to live with everyday. These stereotypes and low regard have kept the Lumads themselves from engaging with non-Lumads, further limiting their opportunities.

The discrimination and stereotypes are exacerbated by their lack of access to education and media. Bai Ellen reached only third grade in school. But through their self-organization and collaboration with non-government groups, they were able to put up a school within the village that offers until 7th and 8th grade education. But even the school has now been destroyed by the military.


They take us out of our cell between 12 midnight and 2 in the morning for interrogation. They kept asking me, “where are your firearms?”

During her detention for almost a month, the military repeatedly interrogated and coerced her into admitting she was an armed rebel. But Bai Ellen stood her ground, asserting that her only weapon is her voice and her resolve to protect the ancestral land that is inextricably linked to their identity as Lumads. Their organization has shown their resistance through peaceful means including barricades and dialogues with local government.

Across the globe, indigenous people are suffering the same plight of Bai Ellen and the Matigsalog tribe in Mindanao. Indigenous peoples who are resisting the expansion of international agribusiness in Brazil are also being criminalized and killed.[6] The recent assassination of Berta Cáceres, environmental activist and indigenous leader of the Lenca people in Hondura, only highlights these growing attacks against environment and land defenders.

The ancestral domains of Lumad people in Mindanao sit in vast natural resources. Eighty percent (80%) of the 131 mining agreements and permits in Mindanao are located in Lumad areas[7]. The Lumads’ resistance to destructive “development” agendas imposed on their territories resulted to the militarization and displacement of their communities.

In Asia, there is an estimated 100 million indigenous people. Indigenous women face the same challenges brought about by mining projects, monocrop plantations, militarization, and worsening climate change that threaten their survival and way of living[8]. Land grabbing gave way for dams and exploitation of the natural resources by transnational companies, devastating indigenous communities such as in Malaysia, Cambodia and the Philippines[9]. As exploitation of resources intensifies, indigenous women’s participation in the defense of land, culture, and their rights also increase. So are the attacks against them. According to international group Global Witness, Philippines rank the most dangerous place for environmental activists in Asia, and third worldwide[10]. Indigenous rights group KATRIBU has documented 68 cases of extrajudicial killings of indigenous peoples since the current administration of President Benigno Aquino came into power in 2010[11]. Further, Center for Women’s Resources cites that sexual abuse, including rape, of indigenous women and girls are being perpetrated by state forces in militarized areas in Mindanao[12].


We are still hopeful that we will return to our ancestral lands. We hope that other people, even those who are not Lumads, support us in defending our land that means life to us.

After the charges were dropped against them, Bai Ellen joined the rest of her family and hundred other Lumads who have sought refuge in the evacuation centers after the military occupied their village and controlled the movement of residents as part of their counter insurgency measure.

They continue to live in fear. InFebruary 24, 2016, five Lumads, two of them children, suffered burns in what appears to be an arson attack in the church compound where they have evacuated.

But despite the continuing attacks, the Lumads also continue to live in hope. Bai Ellen courageously speaks to the media, to authorities, and in front of thousands of people during mobilizations to tell her story and that of the Lumad’s. And as their story reaches more people, Bai Ellen hopes this will create solidarity in the defense of their land, culture, and their rights.#


[1] According to “Ethnocide: Is it Real” as cited in Cruz, Tonyo. (2015, September 4). #StopLumadKillings: What you need to know. Retrieved from

[2] Lumad. (n.d.). Retrieved from

[3] Kok, F., & Smith, F. (2013, August 9). “Ripped from their homes and ancestral lands” – addressing the plight of the Philippines’ largest ethnic group [Web log post]. Retrieved March 21, 2016, from

[4] Understanding the Lumad: A Closer Look at a Misunderstood Culture. (2011). Baguio City: Tebtebba Foundation.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Social movements oppose attacks on indigenous people in Mato Grosso do Sul [Press release]. (2015, September 25). Retrieved March 22, 2016, from

[7] Kalikasan. (2014, November 25). Mindanao folks troop to Makati to warn mining companies: ‘Get out of Mindanao now’ [Press release]. Retrieved from

[8] Making Change Happen: Indigenous and Rural Women in Defense of Territories and Women's Rights (Publication No. 5). (n.d.).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Lopez, R. (2014, April 16). Philippines Asia's most dangerous place for environment activism. Manila Bulletin. Retrieved March 22, 2016, from

[11] KATRIBU. (2015, September 2). Aquino’s last year a bloodbath for the indigenous peoples [Commentary]. Retrieved from

[12] Langara, R. (2013, May 12). Women’s Bodies as War Booties[Web log post]. Retrieved March 22, 2016, from

Comments 6

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Mar 22, 2016
Mar 22, 2016

Dear Chris

This is a very inspiring story about courage and determination of a woman leader born to lead. Its evident that women have continously suffered and been denied natural resources , a source of their livelihoods even in Afric a. It was even caused civil conflict due to mismanagement and unequitable exploitation.

Thank you for sharing the story

chris sibugon
Mar 22, 2016
Mar 22, 2016

Thank you! Indeed, one would expect that going through such horrors, she would have been very scared and hopeless. To be honest, that was the narrative in my mind when I first heard of her. But I was completely wrong. Her history of participating in the struggle of their people, and surviving poverty and discrimination, shaped her to be a very brave woman leader. I am honored to have interviewed her for this frontline journal.

Mar 28, 2016
Mar 28, 2016


This is a beautifully written and inspiring story. It really shows how much we can learn from listening to others experiences-- amplifying their voices is incredibly powerful. Bai Ellen Manlimbaas is a courageous leader in her community, and it's a blessing you shared her story with us. 

I really appreciated the section of your journal entry where you told us about Lumad culture and lifestyle- it's a reminder of the kindness that we should show towards the earth. 


chris sibugon
Mar 29, 2016
Mar 29, 2016

Thanks Kaitlin! It's sometimes difficult to find support for the struggle of groups of people who have been, for the longest time, living in the margins of society. When I wrote this story I felt that there was a need to explain the relevance of land to the indigenous community and to their culture, so that for those who are not aware of the issue, they hopefully understand better why these extraordinary Lumad women are resisting. 

Stephanie A
Mar 30, 2016
Mar 30, 2016


I learned so much from this story. Thank you for sharing with us about the Lumads, and about Bai Ellen's experience. You're right that the Lumad's is similar to the story of so many indigenous groups around the world, and it's horrible to learn that people are experiencing so much violence while just fighting for their basic rights. 

It's really encouraging that Bai Ellen is still willing to speak out, despite having endured a month long detention. The issue is so complex, as you have clearly illuminated in this story. Have you seen awareness making any impact yet in the Lumad community? 



Nov 25, 2017
Nov 25, 2017

Outstanding and inspiring what the Lumad women are doing. Shame on the world community for not being more supportive of their oppression.