LAMINGAN - It’s late November, patches of a green mountainous landscape are piercing through the morning fog. They follow a regular pattern, typical of palm oil plantations. The trees’ bases are surrounded by burned vegetation – a sign that pesticides were used.
The palm oil plantation, started in 2005 by Nakeen, a subsidiary of the Filipino group A. Brown Company Inc. (ABCI), is very small – 200 hectares. Yet it still managed to upset the natural balance of this isolated northern region of the island of Mindanao, south of the Philippines archipelago, which was struck by typhoon Bopha early December.
"The population has lost its unity," regrets Brando Pantaon, a 29-year-old resident of the village of Hagpa who is the representative of a Catholic organization that helps locals who oppose the plantation. The region is largely populated by the Higaonon tribe, one of the country’s many indigenous communities.
In 2008, the Hagpa Higaonon was awarded a certificate of ancestral domain title (CADT) for 14,313 hectares of their territory, in accordance with the Indigenous Peoples Rights Acts. A victory that doesn’t, however, make them immune to other people’s greed. Nakeen has already announced its ambition to expand its plantation, which is already partly on the ancestral domain. The Japanese group Secura also sent representatives to talk to the local residents about their "elephant grass" biofuel.
The new palm oil capital
"This a decisive moment in our history," says Pantaon, a few meters away from the Lamingan basketball court, surrounded by the local youth. Lamingan used to have plantations of coffee, manioc and abaca – a banana tree used for plaiting.
The arrival of Nakeen and its oil palms created a rift in the local population. The local authorities wanted to turn the region into the "capital of palm oil" in Mindanao. With their overwhelming support, Nakeen offered locals between 5,000 and 8,000 pesos ($121 and $194) a year per hectare to rent their land for 25 years. Those who accepted the deal are allowed to work in the plantation or pass on the job to a family member for a daily wage of 200 pesos ($4,87).
A mother of eight, Flora Suday, 56, is one of those who agreed to rent out their land to Nakeen. "I live a better life now," she says, "now, I earn enough money to feed and dress my family and I’m no longer worried about bad harvests like I was when I was growing coffee."
The Alternative Forum for Research in Mindanao (Afrim), a Filipino organization, claims that these rental agreements "turn farmers into farm workers" and that "jobs are only available for a small percentage of the population – for a wage inferior to the minimum legal wage."
According to those who oppose the plantation, only two of the 13 datu, clan leaders, were in favor of allowing a palm oil plantation on the village’s land. "They signed the contract without the village council’s consent," claims Pantaon. "The problem is, here, once the chief has spoken, no one can contest his decision."
Among the two datu in question, there was the village elder – meaning the most respected – who died in August. Today, the rumor has it that the two leaders were corrupted by Nakeen. "When the oldest datu fell ill, the company sent him a helicopter," says Pantaon. They also said they would build schools and health centers but nothing happened. Some of the village teenagers got their schooling paid for but that’s it.”
Chemicals in the water and the paddies
According to Flora Suday, the opposition to the project is fuelled by "jealousy." "What we need here, is for us to be able to afford to send our children to the junior high school in Malaybalay," she says, although she regrets that some villagers used the money given by Nakeen to buy motorcycles they can’t afford to finish paying off.
While an oil palm plantation in place of a forest that is already being exploited isn’t considered as deforestation in the Philippines, the environmental impact is very real. "The chemical products used in the plantation affects the quality of the water," says Pantaon. "People get rashes when they shower and the rice paddies downstream are affected as well."
The A. Brown group’s investments in palm oil are being monitored. In June, an international mission launched by NGOs concerning another Filipino group in northern Mindanao found that the rental agreements were illegal and human rights were violated. Meanwhile, in October, one of the main Higaonon opponents to the plantation, Gilbert Paborada, was shot dead.
The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.
Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.
Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."
Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.
Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.
Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.
Oppressive home situations
As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.
Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.
Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.
Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.
"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."
Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."
Lack of spaces
Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.
"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.
The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out
Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.
Lockdowns force coming out
According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.
"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.
Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.
"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.
The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling
In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.
"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."
Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.
Medical care is dismal
Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.
Isolation triggered my depression
"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.
What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.
During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.
As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."
Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.
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