By Kathleen Zambas
While in a bus en route to Tandag City, I noticed a kid beside me reading the print on my shirt.
Upon reading the words, the child asked, “What is a forest defender? Who are they?” I told her that forest defenders are brave people who protect the forest from destroyers.
“Aren’t they the people with a big shield? Those men who roam around the forest with bow and arrow?” she asked again, possibly out of curiosity.
This is the perception that many people have about forest defenders; men who patrol and guard the forest against wrongdoers. While this may be true in certain places, Indigenous Peoples challenge this popular notion.
Among them are three amazing women forest defenders—Bae Elma Bauzon, Bae Virgilia Juagpao, and Ka Ningning Aztovesa—who are leading their community in protecting the forest and preserving their heritage.
They are conservation leaders working with their group and actively joining in activities that will help make them become better forest managers. These women voluntarily engage in protecting the forest in their ancestral domain — and all in their own remarkable ways.
The influential defender
“I don’t need to be in a position to be able to serve for our ancestral domain,” said Bae Elma, whose influence resonates beyond the Bantay Banwa group to the whole community of Manobo.
The patriarchal system in the Manobo tribe did not stand in the way for Bae Elma to help her community in conserving the forests of Mt. Hilong-Hilong in Surigao del Sur. As the sole woman in their Bantay Banwa (forest guard) group, where she also serves as the secretary, Bae Elma helps in organizing the members during training activities while also facilitating discussions and workshops.
This reminds me of a statement from the late Senator Miriam Santiago, “If you want to make a difference… you need to be a leader on your own…You do not need to have a title or be a boss to become a leader.”
This rings true in the life of Bae Elma Bauzon, who leads her community despite not being a title holder in her tribe’s council.
Learn more about Bae Elma Bauzon: The woman born to lead her community.
The defender who uses her voice
Bae Virgilia Juagpao perfectly embodies Melinda Gates’ definition of a strong woman, one who has a voice and uses it for positive change.
As the tribal leader and former Barangay Indigenous People’s Representative (IPMR) of the Mamanwa-Manobo tribe, Bae Virgilia is the voice that propels her community.
She is one of the six women who are part of her tribe’s Bantay Banwa group, where she actively speaks on behalf of her fellow Mamanwas during consultations on forest governance.
Bae Virgilia also represents her tribe in training and discussions on protection and law enforcement of their ancestral domains.
“I will voice this out on behalf of the others who couldn’t speak,” said the forest defender, whose voice inspires her whole community to find theirs as well.
The defender in the frontlines
Ka Ningning is a woman born to lead the Dumagats of Nakar in defending their forest. Being the tribal chieftain of Sitio Tinpak, Ka Ningning puts herself in the frontlines to protect their rights as indigenous people and their land.
She is a woman leader among the Kaksaan (chieftains) and also a Bantay Gubat who leads discussions on establishing a Bantay Gubat group within their community. She also takes the helm during consultations on current issues that pose threats to their forest.
Ka Ningning is a forest defender willing to sacrifice her life “in the name of service for our environment,” she said. She is the leader at the frontlines, inspiring her community to make their stand in defending what they have and what is rightfully theirs.
These three remarkable women stand as living proof that women are more than capable of doing what most people think are a man’s job. Ultimately, they are great leaders willing to go above and beyond for their community.