CHESTCORE vehemently denounces the escalating harassment of its staff and volunteers in recent months. We have observed several vehicles and individuals conducting surveillance on our office. Several of our staff have also been followed while going around Baguio City. Last December 2010 and this January 2011, our staff Milagros Ao-wat received several death threats through her cell phone.
CHESTCORE responds to the historically-neglected health situation in the Cordilleras
CHESTCORE (or the Community Health Education, Services and Training in the Cordillera Region) is an NGO that has been working to build community-based health programs since 1981. The present CHESTCORE staff are health professionals coming from various fields – doctors, nurses, psychologists, social workers, etc. Many of us are members of the various Igorot tribes of the Cordillera Region. Despite the many job opportunities available to us abroad and in the big urban (city) centers, we have chosen to serve the marginalized sectors of Cordillera society. Just as botanist Leonard Co did when he was field staff member of CHESTCORE, we work among the indigenous farmers, laborers, small-scale miners and urban poor.
We endure long bus and jeepney rides and even longer hikes along treacherous mountain trails to reach the far-flung barrios we serve. Instead of working in big hospitals as we have been trained to do in school, we treat patients armed only with our stethoscope, BP set, meager medical supplies and our acupuncture needles and medicinal plants. Instead of conducting lectures in formal classrooms in big universities, we train peasant men and women (most of who have not finished elementary) in small barangay halls, churches and nipa huts so that they too can render service as community health workers. We have long foregone the big salary, modern luxuries and fashionable white coat that the health professions are known for. We are content to receive a living allowance equivalent to the salary of a government midwife or even less.
Our greatest reward has always been seeing the transformation of barely-literate farmers used to silently enduring poverty and exploitation into empowered leaders and members of their peoples’ organizations and Health Committees. We bear witness that it IS possible to place “health in the hands of the people” through community-based health programs.
Latest forms of harassment and Oplan Bayanihan
These latest forms of harassment we have suffered are but the tip of the iceberg. While on fieldwork, CHESTCORE staff have been subjected to various forms of harassment by state security forces (Armed Forces of the Philippines, Philippine National Police, Civilian Armed Forces Geographical Unit and other paramilitary forces) – questioning our motives for working in far-flung barrios, implying that we have ties or are members of the New People’s Army (NPA), implying that we are teaching the health workers how to care for the gunshot wounds of the NPA.
Worse, as part of their military combat operations, they have insisted on being present during some of our barrio trainings, sitting in on some of the lectures and even commenting on the discussion while the lectures are going on. When the military are around, some of the community health workers are afraid of attending our trainings, and those who do attend are intimidated and cannot participate freely during the discussions. This is a clear violation of the community’s right to safety and security. It is a clear violation of the community’s right to go about their activities without fear or disruption. It is also a violation of our staff’s right to safety and security while doing their jobs.
With the implementation of the AFP’s Oplan Bantay Laya, many community workers like us became victims of extrajudicial killings (EJKs). In most cases, the victims of EJKs were first labeled as Communists and/or NPA sympathizers and then subjected to intensifying surveillance and finally, direct threats. Even as the AFP recently announced in its new Internal Peace and Security Plan (IPSP) Bayanihan that they will adhere to Human Rights/ International Humanitarian Law and the Rule of Law, we fear that there are no guarantees that this pattern of red labeling, surveillance, harassment and EJKs will stop.
We assert the people’s right to health
Igorot communities have suffered centuries of marginalization and discrimination. Even today they continue to suffer the highest poverty and malnutrition rates in the entire country. The Philippine government’s meager budget for health fails to deliver even such basic health services as immunization and antituberculosis medications to their far-flung barrios. Now the people’s health and livelihood are endangered further by the encroachment of large-scale mining operations and commercialized agricultural production.
It is unjust that we who volunteer to assist these communities are falsely accused, harassed and endangered. It is unjust that communities who organize and mobilize themselves for self-help are also harassed and endangered. It is even more unjust that, as a result of all these, the people’s health situation deteriorates further.
It is therefore our duty to expose and denounce the human rights violations we health workers and the Cordillera peoples have been subjected to. We do so in behalf of the communities we serve. We do so to assert the people’s right to health.
We stand with our fellow health workers as we appeal for your support
We stand with the many doctor-consultants and specialists who generously treat patients referred to them by the community health workers. We speak out, as well, in behalf of our network of student volunteers who accompany us on fieldwork during their semestral or summer breaks. More importantly, we speak out in behalf of the hundreds of community health workers CHESTCORE has trained and who courageously continue to render health services in their respective barrios.
We also stand with our fellow volunteer health workers all over the Philippines who do the same work and suffer the same harassment. We speak out in solidarity with the Morong 43 and Dr. Chandu Claver. We condemn the killing of Leonard Co and of Dr. Bobby de la Paz.
We are coming out in public to ask you – our families, friends, allies, support network and the general public — to stand with us as well, to speak out vehemently against the harassment of Cordillera health workers.
ASSERT THE PEOPLE’S RIGHT TO HEALTH! ASSERT OUR HUMAN RIGHTS!
STOP THE HARASSMENT OF ALL CORDILLERA HEALTH WORKERS!
STOP THE HARASSMENT OF ALL CORDILLERA DEVELOPMENT WORKERS!
STOP THE MILITARIZATION OF CORDILLERA COMMUNITIES!
EXPOSE AND OPPOSE OPLAN BAYANIHAN!