Victoria Nolasco: Environmental Advocate and Educator of Indigenous Communities

To celebrate the 15th anniversary of the Centre for Applied Human Rights (CAHR) Alumni Voices spoke to Victoria Nolasco, an environmental advocate and educator of indigenous communities from the Philippines, who recently graduated from the University of York’s Protective Fellowship Scheme for Human Rights Defenders at Risk.

As an environmental activist and community organiser for over a decade, my passion has always been working with rural and  indigenous communities in the Philippines. 

In 2017, I took my involvement a step further and volunteered as an indigenous school teacher in the Southern part of the Philippines, Mindanao. I was inspired by the way they used education to empower marginalised communities and advance their collective aspirations. Although this was a natural continuation of my work on environmental issues, it was also very different because the children were at the heart of the work. As the future of their communities, their education was paramount. I have come to recognise that these communities are the best protectors of nature, and it is essential to work alongside them to achieve our environmental goals.”

The political situation in the Philippines regarding schools and education is deeply concerning, particularly for indigenous communities such as the Lumad, who make up 61% of the country’s indigenous people  and reside in Mindanao. Despite living among abundant natural resources, Lumad communities have historically been neglected and discriminated against by the state, leading to displacement and underdevelopment.

In response, Lumad communities established their own schools to preserve and promote their culture, history, and vision of development. However, Lumad schools have been systematically targeted since then because they advocate for the right to self-determination, defence of their ancestral lands and cultural identity. This has forced Lumad communities to seek refuge in urban centres and become known as ‘Bakwit’ or evacuees.

President Duterte’s pronouncement to bomb the Lumad schools in 2017, resulted in school closures, fabricated charges, and other forms of violence. Unfortunately, the new administration under Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who was named after the late dictator responsible for immense suffering during Martial Law in the 1970s, continues the policies of the previous government. Moreover, the current Vice President and Education Secretary, Sara Duterte, has displayed hostility towards the Lumad schools.”

Despite these challenges, human rights defenders, including teachers, administrators, and students of Lumad schools, continue to persevere and provide education to indigenous children. They face threats, harassment, and criminal charges, which highlight the urgent need for protection and support for those working to provide education in difficult circumstances.

“To continue providing education, we established Lumad ‘Bakwit’ schools in urban centres like Davao, Cebu, and Manila. As the executive director of the 54 Salupongan indigenous schools in the Davao region, I have faced numerous challenges while educating hundreds of indigenous children. Unfortunately, our schools were illegally closed by the government in 2019, when they  unjustly disenfranchised nearly 5,000 Lumad students. During this time, I also faced fabricated criminal charges filed by the state; the trial for those charges is still ongoing. Furthermore, I have been subjected to false accusations and attacks on social media, including posters in Davao accusing me of being a terrorist recruiter. Despite all of these challenges, we persevered and continued to operate these schools as long as we could. Through our efforts, universities, leaders, and allies continued to support and stand by ‘Bakwit’ schools and Lumad communities. The partnerships and collaborations that emerged from this experience enriched not only the Lumad community but also other people, demonstrating the transformative power of education and solidarity.

In 2021, ‘Bakwit’ schools were closed, and students, teachers, and community leaders were forced to return to their communities. Tragically, the attacks on educators and students did not stop, and two teachers in charge of the ‘Bakwit’ School in Cebu, Chad Booc and Jurain Ngujo, were later executed in Mindanao in February 2022. 

Although there was a change in presidency in May 2022, the situation remains challenging. Since Marcos became president, three more teachers and two additional students from Salugpongan have been arrested. By the end of the school year, other indigenous schools in Mindanao were also closed, bringing the total to more than 200 schools, disenfranchising more than 10,000 students. This highlights the ongoing threats faced by educators and students in the Philippines and underscores the urgent need for protection and support for those who are working to provide education in difficult circumstances.”

Despite all the challenges Victoria has faced, her belief in defending the right to education for the Lumad people has only strengthened. 

“My experiences in defending the rights of the Lumad people have taught me the importance of education, hope, and resilience. Education has a profound impact on communities. I’ve seen this firsthand with the indigenous people I’ve worked with. Education is life-affirming and serves as an inspiration for not just the students, but for the entire community. It’s a powerful tool that empowers individuals and communities to pursue positive change, address social inequalities, and overcome humanitarian issues. Ultimately, education is invaluable in and of itself, not just as a means to an end. It’s also a tool for creating safe and healing spaces. I’m grateful for this experience, which has enriched my life and made me a more compassionate and effective activist.

The shrinking civic space in the Philippines makes it even more essential for advocates, allies, civil society organisations, and human rights institutions at the national and international level to recognize and uphold the Lumad’s right to self-determination and education. We must pressure the government to provide necessary resources and support for indigenous communities and their schools, rather than resorting to violence and harassment.

By standing in solidarity with the Lumad people and supporting their schools, we can help preserve their culture and identity and ensure that they have access to quality education and a better future. It is crucial to protect and support Lumad schools and their defenders, who continue to fight for the right to education and self-determination, despite the ongoing threats they face.

I was fortunate to be nominated by my colleagues and human rights organisations to participate in the Human Rights Fellowship scheme at the University of York. The opportunity to deepen my understanding of the issues facing the Lumad schools and the Bakwit community in the Philippines was crucial, and I felt a responsibility to represent their struggles and bring their voices to a wider audience.

Coming to the University of York allowed me to do this important work in a safer and more conducive environment. The constant threats and attacks faced by human rigghts defenders and communities in the Philippines made it difficult to focus on long-term planning and strategy. In York, I was able to take a step back, analyse the situation from a more global perspective, and learn from other human rights advocates and scholars. One of the highlights of my stay here was participating in the UNESCO conference in March on the role of universities in protecting human rights defenders. I was able to reflect on our own experience in the Philippines with universities and share it with an international audience.

The University of York’s Protective Fellowship Scheme for Human Rights Defenders at Risk is an invaluable programme that offers a temporary safe haven and an opportunity for research and reflection for human rights defenders like myself who face threats and persecution in our home countries. The fellowship has provided me with a much-needed break from constantly worrying about my security, enabling me to think more freely and creatively about how to renew my commitment to human rights work. Through my participation in this programme, I’ve gained valuable insights on how to protect human rights defenders and promote indigenous education in Mindanao. Even while I was here in York, I co-founded a non profit organisation in the Philippines, the Mindanao Climate Justice Resource Facility,  to advance these goals. I believe that this Fellowship will help us to make a positive impact on the lives of indigenous children and human rights defenders in Mindanao. By implementing these programmes, we can ensure that they have access to education and protection, even in challenging circumstances.

Hosting human rights defenders in danger at the University of York is not just an act of generosity or kindness, but it is also a demonstration of the University’s commitment to human rights and social justice. By providing temporary sanctuary and support to these individuals, the University is contributing to the protection of human rights defenders worldwide, and promoting academic freedom and the exchange of ideas. By welcoming those who are at risk in their homeland, the University is creating a community of diverse and engaged individuals who bring different perspectives, experiences, and knowledge to the table. This enriches the academic environment and creates opportunities for collaboration and innovation. In the long run, hosting human rights defenders at the University of York is a way to demonstrate solidarity and support for those who are fighting for human rights and social justice. It sends a powerful message that the University values these ideals and is willing to act on them, even in the face of potential risks and challenges.

I plan to return to the Philippines and take the lead in a new human rights and climate justice organisation. I’m excited to implement the ideas and knowledge I’ve gained during my time in York, particularly in the areas of indigenous education, collective care for human rights defenders, and the important role that universities can play in protecting human rights.”

The need to help students and academics displaced by conflict has never been greater, but together, with your support, we can make a difference. Without emergency appeals, we are limited by the resources we have at any given time. The York Sanctuary Fund is our practical response to this challenge.

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