Cultural integrity, rights, and accompaniment

Photo credit: P Walpole

Pedro Walpole SJ

Ecojesuit shares this article originally published in the latest issue of Promotio Iustitiae (Issue No127, 2019/1) focused on Indigenous Rights and Integral Ecology: Amazon, Great Lakes, and Asian Forests. This theme was particularly chosen in view of the ongoing Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region, 6 to 27 October 2019. Also, the Universal Apostolic Preferences of the Society of Jesus gives focus on Indigenous Peoples as one of the excluded communities we need to engage with and accompany.

Cultural integrity, where I live in Mindanao, Philippines, is expressed and experienced through the gaup, the ancestral domain where all relations are acknowledged. And while it is human nature to have conflicts, the dignity of the other and the rights of all life (expressed through the spirits) are acknowledged in the culture (kagēna). Mutual trust is the basis for a cultural covenant of peace (nalandangan).

Indigenous rights are all based on this shared understanding of dignity, and while national governments may acknowledge these rights, communities are too often not heard or trusted and so ignored.1

Accompaniment is today’s path in listening to the other and supporting their voices and participation. Accompaniment is a critical part of a deepening spirituality, and these are the aspects I briefly reflect on in this article.

1. A view of Asia and Oceania

Over 451 million Asians live in or around tropical forests and savannahs, of which 84 million live in extreme poverty. In Oceania, forests comprise 70% of the meagre land area of small island states. The rich seas and corals of the region are drastically diminishing, mainly due to commercial fishing and temperature changes but also pollution and plastics. Forests and trees are vital resources and a whole host of biodiversity also are part of the way of life, sources of income, livelihoods and well-being for rural populations, particularly indigenous communities, those living in close proximity to forests, and those who make use of trees outside forests.2

The Pacific and Indian Oceans play a crucial balance in the seasons, natural productivity and growth of the territory. The Pacific, one-third of the planet’s surface, is the largest climate determinant of the planet. Recent and rapid changes in this region as a result of climate change are driving many of the extreme weather events, increasing the vulnerability of the people and lands. Atolls, other small islands, and whole cultures are beginning to disappear across the Pacific and billions more suffer the realities of droughts, floods, and landslides.3

This region has global importance in its contribution to biological diversity, climate change mitigation, water security, and food sovereignty of Indigenous Peoples and local communities. This region shares a common image in the ‘River Above’ – the Pacific Ocean its waters and winds are the life of Asia.

All indigenous communities are traditionally dependent on land, forests, rivers, oceans and other natural forms. However, much of the natural reality is already ‘compromised’ because mainstream society sees only the resources and their economic potential and thus retaining them under government control. ‘Accelerated development’ projects such as Indonesia’s One Million Hectares of Paddy Field in Central Kalimantan since 1995 and the Merauke Integrated Food Energy Estate in West Papua since 2010 were intended to increase national self-sufficiency in food and energy, but sadly at the expense of the local populace.4

It is not only small islands, but also large ones like Borneo and Papua that face integral ecology issues. Logging, mining, uncontrollable annual forest burning, and conversion of tropical rainforests to oil palm, rubber, and pulp plantations are leading to losses in biological diversity and triggering disastrous floods and landslides. Indigenous Peoples and local communities are getting marginalized as plantations employ migrants instead of locals.5

Photo credit: The rights of indigenous peoples in Asia, ILO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific

Trans-boundary environmental problems are of increasing concern yet could be a source of hope in improved trans-boundary cultural relations, as this is where people may share the same resources and ecosystems. Even where cultures do not belong solely to one country, they belong to specific landscapes, rivers, and seas of the region. All cultures have much to offer, but sadly they are not understood nor incorporated into the greater plans for sustainability.Culture and land are inseparable and this is what for thousands of years has made community life viable yet vulnerable.

While in Latin America the vast majority of the rural poor (85%) live in forested landscapes, in Asia only one-third (27%) have stayed, as many migrate to cities. Countries are faced with urban growth, increased poverty, and expanding environmental costs, creating pressure to sustain people where they are. The Latin American sense of a “good life” (buen vivir) is strong in places, but in Asia Pacific it is as yet in an early stage in forming and sharing an alternative amongst indigenous communities.

The degradation of the forests usually reflects the weakening of the community, in the same way that a community is often as healthy as the animals for which it cares. With pressures on the land, the rivers, and the community, there is an increasing trend among indigenous families to move away from these relationships in exchange for a modern city life where consumption is defined by markets not by seasons. They go to school as their roots wither, though dress and dance may still flower for a time. The youth see no dignity given to their culture and quickly see no future in their culture, so the integrity of holding together falls away. There is no living community to sustain their culture, as there is no living culture without lands; culture becoming but a livelihood in tourism.

Today we talk of countries as economies, ranging from first to fourth world. The world speaks of the land as a resource often without the people living on it. It is a struggle to make sure and to secure for future generations the continuity, the integrity of cultures and communities living on the land.

2. Jesuits are engaged in different places and models

The integral relations that indigenous communities have with the environment and natural resources form the core element in being accompanied and enabled by others. Jesuits have engagements with indigenous communities in both the social and education apostolates, such as providing advocacy support on concerns of displacement and unsustainable resource extraction, or in operating parish or private schools that are open to the indigenous.

The Jesuit Conference of Asia Pacific has an Indigenous Ministry and accompanies Indigenous Peoples in Australia, Malaysia, Micronesia, Thailand, Philippines, Myanmar, and Taiwan, while in the Pacific Islands the dominant culture is indigenous living with the lands and seas.  There are different levels of presence and the work comes from a history of trying to develop or uplift peoples while moving more towards an empowerment dynamic and strengthening of voices.

It is recognized that “working in these areas is difficult due to the grave social injustice and social exclusion that emerge as a result of the apparent contradictions in the present world order. Moreover, such conditions not only neglect indigenous wisdom traditions, particularly with regards to the land and sea, but often enable the exploitation of natural resources, upon which these indigenous communities depend.”6

Many Jesuits ask how their individual works of reconciling with creation can relate with a broader plan of action and research. Apostolically there is still a struggle to reflect upon and share the sense of interconnectedness with the land and the full breadth of life around given the management of natural resources that they may oversee.

3. Spirituality, connectivity, and community

Community accepts all who are born within, whatever their character and however they grow up and move along the path of life. Community has extremes and what community provides is the balance of those. Community generally accepts the stranger, has compassion.

In community, one walks down the trail between the houses each day and receives the simple acknowledgement of the other. This gesture comes upon the mind and the soul in a completely different way to the bustle and the fumes of a main thoroughfare where all one want to do is get through while recoiling at these pressures. This recoiling of sensitivity is the reverse of community sensitivity.

Community is where one’s senses are formed by all that touches a person, from the land to the sky. It is all relational. In community, one knows every birth, death, event, marriage, event. And one hasstories about everyone. It’s a daily balancing of all relations. It’s not a domination, it’s a domain of balanced relations.

Some time ago one datu (local leader) told me: “The difference between your relationship with God and our relationship with the spirits (but not in reference to the Creator) is that we have to keep them happy (placate), but your God loves you!” What an insight! If we could live by that insight, if all Christians could live this, how different the world would be and the relationship with the indigenous. We need to understand and live by the attitude that the Church of Jesus Christ is for everyone. We work daily for everyone that is in need. Faith is a way of life, not a building and a power held within, but a love that goes out and includes all.

The indigenous way of life shows no separation of the social and environmental crisis being faced, it is one and the same. Everything that is happening to them, from the extractive nature of industry to personal economy in the face of consumerism, have an impact on their domain, their lands, their water, and diversity of life. Their rituals are generally not understood, though the Catholic Church shows a degree of tolerance. The Church’s history also needs to be revisited as in many cases she was complicit in the process of colonization.

4. Challenges and Bridges

Coming from my own reflections, I would say it takes an accompaniment of a generation to experience a “groundedness,” an “enoughness,” a deepening, and a sharing of reality and the freedom and the hope that this gives. Accompaniment means being there as the community develops all its nuances and characteristics through a generation. Together, one imbibes (is inculcated in) what has been shared, spoken, learned, and lived with.

It is through accompanying for a generation that integrative change can be experienced. There is a collective weaving of change through each generation. Generational change is the most important focus with Indigenous Peoples. Short-term projects are of limited value and do not have the same empowerment of people vis-à-vis long-term engagements. Programs can be sustained by different people, but orientation is critical, clarity on how essential accompaniment is and the oversight that must be well focused.

I feel the bridges begin with the welcome (pandawat) and a complementing humility, with the quiet acknowledgement of what are our limits and the limits of the times, and with our willingness to share and search deeply. I love the Tagalog for truth (katotohanan), and where truth as such (totoo) is not revealed, not found, unless it is with the other (ka).7

That’s what happens in culture. We share and together come to an understanding; that’s what we honour and give witness to. I know I have a friend (kaibigan) because together we have discovered totoo. I posit in the other and between friends, no gossip will separate us in my absence. The other will wait for when I am present.

Pedro Walpole continues to engage with the Pulangiyen community in Bendum, Bukidnon in northern Mindanao, Philippines through forest, farm, and leadership youth development programs and basic K-12 culture-based education. In this photo, he is joined on his right by Datu Nestor Menaling, Chief of the Bendum Tribal Council and on his left, by Eleoterio Lumisod, another elder and member of the tribal council.
Pedro Walpole continues to engage with the Pulangiyen community in Bendum, Bukidnon in northern Mindanao, Philippines through forest, farm, and leadership youth development programs and basic K-12 culture-based education. In this photo, he is joined on his left by Datu Nestor Menaling, Chief of the Bendum Tribal Council and on his right, by Eleoterio Lumisod, another elder and member of the tribal council.

There are different cultural traditions of justice. Justice for some is retribution and I personally can’t forget the magahat (revenge killings) across a series of villages and pleading with a grandmother not to send out her six grandsons to avenge the headless body of her son.

I have fortunately lived in a community of one of the last spiritual datus (tribal leaders) in the province who works according to a tradition of pulang (of waiting to settle a difference without arms). Pulang is a true characteristic of a serving datu. He takes upon himself that which must be sacrificed to maintain the peace.

This is one of the cultural processes I try to explain to the Armed Forces of the Philippines who have to work in areas not listened to by society but tagged and shunned. I’m trying to cope with how the indigenous youth are engaging in arms for lack of culturally responsive alternatives.

A very different context is where the Kachin, Shan and other non-Bamar cultures need to come together with central administration through the Panglong Peace Process to acknowledge cultural integrity and processes. One fundamental element is an agreement from all sides not to plunder the resources to sustain the fighting. What is suffering most in the conflict, aside from those caught in the encounters and the internally displaced, is the environment itself. Every gold seam and gemstone, jade or amber, is extracted and marks the culture for generations who see their landscape so trawled.

Recognition of integrity gives the local context the strength to create opportunity (kahigayunan) with the youth. With opportunity come responsibility, greater relationship in community and a leadership of service, (pēgpangamangēl). The presence as accompaniment (dumala) opens dialogue (amulamul), so that the youth can define their identity (tuus), and sense of belonging in this world, bridging in a way so we can hear the other.

This is what gives peace, hope and integrity. When a culture can express a gratitude for life, a people can look for a way of life that will form a more sustainable livelihood. Here we recognize a culture’s uniqueness and contribution to society and work with society emerges.

5. Commitment and recommendations

The Society of Jesus needs to discern first its commitment to the social apostolate. Since the 1980s there is a weakening in commitment. We ourselves do not invest in our social institutes; we expect them to compete in the social development world. The social struggle and its spiritual depth need greater listening and comprehension.

The social investment and opportunities in a secular context are undervalued at a time when our colleges have become increasingly businesses. This International Association of Jesuit Universities is taking up the challenge of a needed shift in the economic paradigm and how businesses operate with the Jesuit business schools.

Father General recently said we have to reflect deeply on our vow of poverty, as without this understanding, we cannot look at the social apostolate and give it value. He said that one of the challenges facing the Society is the tepid way Jesuits live the vow of poverty.8

Most countries are increasingly finding themselves defaulting on the basics of human rights. For example, in the Philippines, there is the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act, but it is poorly implemented. Human dignity is increasingly undermined in many countries, with a total loss of memory and ignorance of what was experienced in the horrors of two World Wars, and an initial coming to terms of slavery and the worst aspects of colonialism. We have a UN that in itself is grossly complacent in many respects, looking at the abuses by military forces that are supposed to be keeping the peace. And yet this is the best structure that we have globally, though what we have put above it is the global economy.

Many years go, I asked if there can be a university for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to teach in a manner that we can implement, not just study them, but go out and work with local governments and communities to accomplish them. When we go deeper in support of SDGs, we are more likely to recognize the struggles to improve the quality of life, and understand how community strengthens commitment. We also recognize that none of these goals will be achieved without communities that share a hope for their youth at home. Hope and opportunity are what we can humbly share.

There is no ecology and care for the environment and people if there is no economy for the environment and its people. The development of a four-lane highway does little for local people, it just transports goods, often exploiting resources and is a development not necessary for or with the people.

On a more local scale, there are many examples often designed as centers in the margins for exploring with communities and discerning new ways and sharing experiences, but these are too many to be explored here for their wealth of insight. Greater review is needed, as the process of discernment has to be of depth seeking greater conversion. Fundamentals have to be addressed again, especially now we have the Universal Apostolic Preferences.


  1. Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Graduation Keynote Speech, APC, March 2019.
  2. Asia Forest Network. 2009. “Where is the Future for Cultures and Forests? Indigenous Peoples and Forest Management in 2020. Asia-Pacific Forestry Outlook Study II (Working Paper No. APFSOS II/WP/2009/23). Bangkok: FAO.
  3. Turning the Tide: Caritas State of the Environment for Oceania 2017 Report
  4. Paulus Wiryono Priyotamtama SJ, personal communications
  5. Ibid
  6. Pedro Walpole SJ, “Jesuits from Asia Pacific in the Time of Laudato Si’: Reconciliation with Creation,” Journal of Jesuit Studies 3 (2016), p 609.
  7. Thanks to my philosophy teacher Fr. Roque Ferriols SJ.
  8. Fr General Arturo Sosa, in his address to Jesuits of the Philippine Province on 9 December 2018.

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