‘Lumad’ Schools and the Right to Education

Co-written with Meggie Nolasco

Last May 26, the committee on human rights of the House of Representatives conducted a hearing on the Feb. 15 raid of the “bakwit” school in Cebu. Under the able leadership of Rep. Jesus “Bong” Suntay, the public finally understood what the “lumad” community and bakwit schools are all about.

At the heart of lumad schools has always been the right to education. Lumad schools uphold the idea that the right to education is both a right in itself and an “enabling” right that is, access to education enables a person to gain the skills, capacity, and confidence to secure other rights. The right to education is fundamental for human, social, and economic development and a key element to achieving lasting peace and sustainable development. It is a powerful tool in developing the full potential of everyone and ensuring human dignity, and in promoting individual and collective well-being.

Within the context of the right to education, the building of the lumad schools has been a social and historical necessity. For a long time, the lumad have experienced difficulties in enrolling or entering “mainstream” public or private schools. For one, there are few such schools in the places where the lumad live, so that the lumad have had to travel long distances and incur additional travel and living expenses to keep their children in school. Many lumad students have suffered from discrimination in mainstream schools not only from their teachers or fellow students, but from a curriculum that does not reflect their unique cultural and historical contexts. Many times, lumad students have lagged behind other students because, having lumad languages as their mother tongues, they have had difficulty with the language of instruction used in mainstream schools.

Lumad schools were built to answer the needs, reflect the values, and embody the vision of the lumad. The schools adhere to the Department of Education (DepEd) curriculum, but adapt this curriculum and their teaching methods to address the distinct sociocultural context of lumad communities.

The right of indigenous people to education and to educational systems that reflect their distinct languages, cultures, and histories is universally recognized, and is upheld in both international and Philippine laws. In the Philippine setting, this recognition has largely been due to the painstaking efforts at dialogue and advocacy of the lumad schools themselves. Lumad schools have become invaluable partners of the Philippine government in the development of an education system that recognizes the unique needs of indigenous people, and in providing access to the right to education.

Given the unique and invaluable role of lumad schools in the development of the education system in the Philippines, the persecution of lumad schools appears contrary to the interests of the government and the country, and is an unnecessary tragedy.

Take the case of the Salugpongan Ta’Tanu Igkanogon Community Learning Center, Inc. (Salugpongan Schools), which was established by members of the Talaingod Manobo tribe in 2007. From 2007 to 2018, Salugpongan Schools was duly authorized by the DepEd to operate a total of 55 community schools in the Southern Mindanao region.

In 2019, however, due to continued and increased acts of red-tagging, violence, threats, and harassment, only 30 out of the 55 Salugpongan schools were able to finish the school year.

On July 8, 2019, DepEd Region XI issued a memorandum suspending all 55 Salugpongan schools. The issuance was based on the recommendation of National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr., who accused the schools of not following the DepEd curriculum and teaching ideologies that advocated against the government. Salugpongan schools denied all accusations and questioned the DepEd order for having been issued on the basis of unverified allegations.

On Sept. 5, 2019, DepEd Region XI issued a resolution ordering the closure of the Salugpongan schools. All the Salugpongan schools were finally closed by the third week of October.

The Salugpongan schools were not the only lumad schools closed by the government. According to the children’s rights group Save Our Schools Network, between July 2016 and December 2019, 162 lumad schools were closed by the government, affecting over 4,792 students. In 2020 and 2021, continued human rights violations and efforts by the government, which persisted despite the occurrence of the COVID-19 pandemic and nationwide lockdowns, caused even more school closures. Currently, nearly all of the 215 lumad schools in Mindanao have stopped operating.

The persecution of lumad schools has even followed the lumad students to their evacuee or bakwit schools, which are makeshift mobile schools set-up by volunteer schools and other organizations as a way for lumad students to continue their education in places of peace and sanctuary. Like the original lumad schools, these bakwit schools have also become the target of red-tagging and violent attacks, as evidenced by the raid in Cebu which is now the subject of congressional inquiry.

That inquiry will surely lead to this conclusion: Persecution follows lumad students wherever they go and whatever they do, for as long as they persist in their desire to be educated. This abuse must be stopped.

We urge the DepEd to remember the valuable contribution of lumad schools to the growth and progress of indigenous communities and of the country, and to reconsider its role in the senseless attacks against lumad schools. The DepEd, in accordance with its honorable mandate, should uphold the right of the lumad to education and defend the existence of lumad schools.

The DepEd and the lumad community schools have had a long, sometimes contentious, but until a few years ago constructive relationship. With a single letter from a top security official, that relationship changed and the DepEd became an instrument of fascism, with long-term consequences to lumad children and their communities.

We hope that with the truth about the lumad schools now out in the open, the DepEd will reverse course and go back to a policy of cooperation with the schools. Representing many of these schools, we are certainly willing to work with the leadership of the DepEd to get us on track to reopen the schools as the pandemic eases.

As long as there is even one lumad child who does not enjoy the right to education, the lumad schools will be relevant and must be supported.

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