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Indian nun lives with indigenous people to defend land rights

September 12, 2012

BAGUIO CITY, Philippines

Her superiors were disappointed and even the bishop in her diocese resisted when Sister Anima Pushpa Toppo left her convent in India to live with her fellow indigenous people to help them fight for land rights.

“During His ministry, the Lord Jesus had always lived with people. He also didn’t worry about who would shelter or feed Him as He went around serving and ministering to people,” the 49-year nun of the Medical Mission Sisters told ENInews.

Toppo was attending an Aug. 16-18 workshop here for indigenous Asian women on land rights and climate change. She was among 25 participants from Asia, Africa and South America.

Organized by the Philippine-based Asian Indigenous Women’s Network, the workshop was supported by the Ecumenical Church of Germany and the Washington D.C.-based Rights and Resources Initiative, a global coalition of organizations advancing forest tenure and policy and market reforms.

She has been living with her fellow Adivasi people since 1985 in the state of Jharkhand in central India to help them assert their rights as women and to help them secure tenure to their lands.

Land tenure refers to a “bundle of rights,” which includes access, rights to use, control, transfer land, and other associated responsibilities.

Toppo said that since 1856 under British rule, social common property resources including forests had become state property. “This alienated the masses from owning and managing their lands and forests,” she said.

She added that these colonial land and forest policies continued even after India became independent in 1947. But through the protests and lobby efforts of Adivasis and other community folk, they prompted legislators to enact the Forest Resources Act of 2006.

Toppo said the act provides access rights to indigenous and other community folk and recognizes them as “integral to the very survival of the forest ecosystem.”  But she said they still have to continue to ensure that the act gets implemented.

The other indigenous women shared similar stories of dispossession as a result of colonization.

“The irony is that the sword and the cross were used to dispossess us from our lands,” said Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, executive director of the Philippine-based Tebtebba Foundation, which deals with indigenous peoples’ concerns.

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