Joan Omaming Carling, a Filipina human rights activist whose life has been under constant threat for the past year, breathed a sigh of relief upon her arrival at Colby, where she is the 2006 Oak Human Rights Fellow. A member of the Kankanaey tribe, Carling currently heads the Cordillera Peoples Alliance, a grassroots organization that advocates for indigenous peoples' rights. She and her colleagues focus attention on the environmental and social impacts of dam and mining projects that are displacing indigenous peoples. Recently, an upsurge of political killings has gripped the Philippines, and Carling is among those targeted for assassination. She talked to Colby about her work, the loss of two colleagues who were victims of political killings, and living with the knowledge that she could die for her cause.
2006 Oak Fellow Joan Omaming Carling
Photo by Fred Field
Photo by Fred Field
Why human rights?
At the time that I was in college, activism was very much alive, especially at the University of the Philippines, where I studied. So it was rather the in thing to do. But ultimately, I think also because I'm naturally humanitarian at heart. I don't like to see injustice or people not given equal chances. So, soon after college I just decided to go full-time activist. I've never known any other life.
And now you're being challenged in new ways?
I can sense the difference that I feel getting here from my situation back home [in Manila], where my life is under constant threat. I can't move around without a bodyguard, I can't move around without trying to see if somebody's following me or somebody's suspicious. And I can't move around anywhere I want to, which is quite a big difference [from being] here. Of course I don't know the place, but I have a feeling of security, I have a feeling of freedom.
It must feel almost shocking, the relief.
Facing a situation like that and having your friends killed is really a big challenge as an activist. I mean, just this year my colleague in the office was killed. The person I lived with for more than two years was also killed, and she happened to be the wife of another activist, a friend of mine. So she was called "a collateral damage." It's rather emotionally stressful and depressing and demoralizing, and yet, at the same time, you can't afford to abandon it, because then you don't give justice to their lives, justice to what they have done.
When did you begin to fear for your life?
Last year. But it became more serious in December last year, when a motorcycle just followed me going home. That's normally how they kill activists"they follow them on motorcycles and shoot them. They're killing activists in the Philippines like chickens, you know. So then they started flattening the tires of my car, opening my car, destroying the lock of the door of my house, so we actually have to leave the house immediately, because everyone going there was being followed, and receiving weird messages on my phone that I don't understand. The office was [watched by] by suspicious men in cars twenty-four hours a day. You live with that kind of situation, it's a bit "parannoying."
Why did you apply for the fellowship?
I'm also feeling burnt out from working relentlessly for several years. We don't go for a break. You know, us, we're not work-oriented in the sense that you set your time, like eight hours a day. Our work is a commitment. So whenever you're needed, whenever your work is needed, whenever you have to finish something, then you just work weekends, days, nights, or whatever. So I've been working hard for several years and I feel like physically and mentally I'm already burnt out, that I needed a break. And, but I also want a break that I can still do some worthwhile things, and the Oak fellowship was exactly what I'm looking for. It recognizes you as an activist, you can still do things but at the same time be able to rest and reflect, and you will be able to share your experiences and also learn, which is important for me. It's not just me giving, but me getting something in return. It would also be good to get back in an academic community for a while, you know, without this pressure of the pace of an activist life. That means I have a lot of time to also study, to do some research, reflect, do writing. Or maybe spend time in the gym, [even] do yoga? I already feel like, wow, I've finally regained my freedom.
That's something that we take for granted every day.
Yeah, and I think that's what I wanted to teach people"that, actually, you also have to value your freedom. As soon as your freedom is threatened, really, your life will never be the same again. I mean, it's really not normal anymore. So it's really important for people to appreciate their freedom and defend it with their lives.
What kinds of things are you hoping to do with your class?
I planned my course to be interactive, so there would be debates on the environmental issues in relation to large dams and corporate mining and also like a [discussion of] the collective rights of indigenous peoples, because that's my focus.
What do you hope students will take away from your presence on campus?
That they also try to make a difference. Not for their lives, for the lives of others. I hope everybody will have that sense, to make a difference. In whatever way. I mean, you don't have to be an activist to make a change. But at least try to reach out to other people, especially those in need, in whatever way. I think that would be a good lesson to impart. And for them to appreciate that life is not just theirs or their family's, but it's wider than that and they should be part of it.