Environment Secretary Gina Lopez has assured indigenous peoples (IP) from Mindanao, who have been holding a series of protest actions in Metro Manila, that they will not be evicted from their ancestral lands.

“No one will be evicted from your land. That is your exclusive right,” Lopez told the IPs as they continued to protest against what they claimed as continued plunder and militarization of ancestral lands across the country.

Lopez made the assurance during a meeting with the IPs at the University of the Philippines in Diliman on Tuesday. On invitation by the IP leaders and representatives, Lopez went to UP with other senior officials of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) for a dialogue.

Right then and there, Lopez directed DENR Undersecretary for Field Operations Isabelo Montejo to look deeper into issues being raised by the IPs.

“I want you to investigate the various issues being raised, and address them,” Lopez told Montejo, who in turn assured the IPs of immediate assistance from the DENR.

“I will direct all our regional directors to go and dialog with you. Sila ang papupuntahin ko sa inyo, at hindi kayo ang pupunta sa kanila,” Montejo said.

Lopez also enlightened the group of the DENR’s move to engage them in the National Greening Program, the government's massive reforestation initiative that doubles as a poverty alleviation measure. “Ang gusto namin ay isama kayo sa National Greening Program upang magkaroon ng economic activities – magkaroon kayo ng pera,” she said.

The DENR chief likewise urged them to help the government in protecting the resources in their ancestral lands.

“Kailangan protektahan ninyo ang mga resources na nasa inyong ancestral lands upang manatiling malinis ang inyong ilog, pati na ang kagubatan. Dahil yan ay para tin sa inyo at sa ating bayan.”

Lopez also introduced to the minority groups Philip Camara who briefed them on biochar, which the group may engage in as an economic activity with the help of the DENR's corporate arm, the Natural Resources Development Corporation.

On the issue of militarization of ancestral lands, Secretary Lopez phoned Armed Forces Chief of Staff General Ricardo Visaya on the spot and put him on speaker phone to explain the side of the military.

Visaya explained to the IPs that the presence of military in their areas was meant “not to disturb you but to respond to the presence of the NPA (New People's Army) who are exploiting you.”

On the clamor of the IPs to stop mining in their areas, Lopez told them that she has already issued a moratorium for new mining projects, while assuring them of immediate investigation on issues allegedly being perpetrated by mining companies against the lumads and other minority groups in the country.

“No new mining. I wanna go to agriculture and eco-tourism,” she said. ###