Philippines: Empowering Poor People

She has been arrested and detained, harassed and sued; but this Benedictine nun continues her anti-mining activism and promotion of sustainable agriculture in the southern Philippine region of Mindanao.

Sister Stella Matutina of the Order of St. Benedict has received a fair share of harassment because of her missionary work across the southern Philippines. In 2009, she woke up in Cateel, Davao Oriental, with guns pointed at her. She was arrested and detained, together with anti-mining advocates, for educating and mobilising tribal communities against mining. Sister Matutina was even tagged as a member of the insurgent New Peoples’ Army and, just recently, was sued alongside tribal leaders, children’s rights advocates, and human rights defenders for allegedly kidnapping and trafficking Lumad people in the provinces of Davao del Norte and Bukidnon.

Sister Matutina, who is Chairwoman of the Sisters Association of Mindanao and secretary-general of the environment protection group Panalipdan, said: “These [events] are proof that helping the oppressed, the poor, the abused comes with great risks”.

“They are not happy when we organise people and inform them of the negative and positive sides of mining. They even call me a fake nun to discredit what I am doing,” Sister Matutina added. She was awarded the ‘Weimar Award for Human Rights’ last December – a prestigious citation conferred by the Weimar City Council in Germany. Sister Matutina was recognised for ‘[engaging] herself extraordinarily for the rights of the native population, despite being exposed to permanent threats to her safety due to her engagements’.

The 48-year-old nun pointed out: “The encyclical letter of Pope Francis Laudato Si naturally has boosted our morale and gave us inspiration. With that encyclical, we are so happy, because now more people will join our activities. The Pope is calling on everybody to respond to the environment. He warned us that time is running out and that when the environment takes its toll, it is always the poor who are greatly affected”.

Coming from a poor family herself, Sister Matutina said she felt that her calling was to give hope to the poor. She was the third eldest in a family of 12 children, and she was born in Bukidnon. “I came from a very poor family so I know the struggle. I think God wants to use me as His instrument to give hope to the poor”, she said, explaining her motivation for working with the indigenous people, poor farmers, and fishermen of Mindanao.

Sister Matutina joined the Benedictine nuns, known for their tireless work protecting the environment and targeting the poor with their socio-pastoral apostolate. “We believe that, by protecting the environment and promoting sustainable agriculture, we can help build up a society. It is also part of our apostolate to help empower poor people, including the indigenous people, to protect themselves and their dignity.”

While there have been instances when her life was at risk because of mission work, Sister Matutina recalled several triumphs that have made the environmental cause worth pushing for. The Benedictine nuns helped the indigenous people oppose the mining of Mount Hamiguitan, a UNESCO Heritage site in Davao Oriental: “As a community of Sisters, we helped in the negotiations and protected the people who were harassed and even killed for opposing mining. With our help, the people unified their voice before the Barangay Council. Seeing the bulldozers leaving the community gave us joy”.

Sister Matutina and the Benedictine nuns were also instrumental in helping natives of San Isidro town in Mati City. They helped the locals lobby the Council and eventually urge the Governor to cancel a mining permit. “In truth, we, activists in the environmental protection advocacy, are true nationalists – because we do not want other people to exploit us and to deprive our people of their land”, she stressed. As a result of the nuns’ successful activism in Mindanao, Sister Matutina has travelled around the country to give lectures on the environmental risks of large-scale mining.

However, the nun clarified that she is not completely against mining as an industry. “I am not anti-mining, per se. But when you do mining, you only get what you need. What is happening in Mindanao is that the mining companies get all the land and export the produce to Japan, China, or Australia”, she pointed out. Given the continual displacement of poor indigenous people as a result of mining activities, the latest of which is in Surigao del Sur, the nun said there is still so much to do. In addition, the nuns’ activism is sometimes questioned even by liberal Filipinos: “Some critics say that we are technology-adverse or anti-development. But, in truth, true development is also about thinking about the common good of all, not only about your profit”.

“Our apostolate is founded on the protection of the environment. With the encyclical of the Holy Father, it is very clear that the protection of the environment is not a new cause. Pope Francis has just reiterated it and warned that time is running out. The environment is in pain, and we have to do something,” she concluded.

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