Philippine nun ‘red-tagged’ for work on environmental justice issues
Environmental activism is a dangerous vocation in the Philippines, but a Catholic nun in Mindanao is defying those who want her to return to her convent and stop raising her voice in defense of creation.
Benedictine Sister Stella Matutina works in Mindanao, the most conflictive island in the southern Philippines. Now 44, she spent 18 years studying and performing pastoral work in Europe before returning to Mindanao in 2007, when she says she quickly realized an environmental crisis was at hand.
“In the landslides and flooding and deaths, I could hear the cry of the poor and the groaning of creation, but our government was deaf. Thousands of people were dying every year, but our government was doing nothing to protect the environment,” she told Catholic News Service.
Several people were killed and thousands of families displaced by flooding in Mindanao in June. Last December, Typhoon Sendong killed more than 1,000 people, most in areas downstream from where hillsides have been logged, often in connection with mining. Hundreds of thousands were left homeless.
“Sendong is the apocalypse. It’s doomsday. It is a sign of our fate if we continue with mining and logging,” said Sister Stella, secretary-general of Panalipdan, an environmental activist group whose name derives from the Visayan word for “to defend.”
Sister Stella said a 2008 phone call to her convent near Mati beckoned her to get involved.
“A woman from San Isidro called and pleaded for help. She said the bulldozers were in her community and were going to destroy the mountains. I couldn’t understand why the people hadn’t been consulted, why they couldn’t say no to this big mining company. I felt the people needed me. It was my baptismal moment. We got involved and were able to send away the mining company and its equipment,” she said.
“After that, more people started calling. We started leading courses on the stewardship of creation, resisting the cutting of ironwood forests by the Chinese and speaking out against the destruction wrought by large-scale mining.”
Sister Stella started getting death threats in 2009 after she helped a community block the entry of heavy mining equipment. That confrontation led to the cancellation of the company’s mining permit.
“In our struggle we have death threats, but we continue because we have to stand with the people. They protect us. They tell us when to go and when not to go,” she said.
“Our convent is in the middle of nowhere, and if bad elements came, we could shout and no one would hear us. So when things get hot, the people come and guard us,” she added.
Sister Stella was detained by members of the Philippine army’s 67th Infantry Brigade during a nighttime raid Feb. 16, 2009, in the remote village of Taytayan, in eastern Mindanao. Along with three companions, including one novice from her congregation, she had gone to the village at the invitation of community leaders to lead a discussion about local environmental concerns. The four were sleeping in the municipal office when the soldiers, wearing ski masks and missing the nametags on their uniforms, burst into the building in the middle of the night. [More]