Bai Bibyaon Bigkay: Lumad rights advocate, passes away at 90

Bai Bibyaon Bigkay
Bai Bibyaon BigkayPhoto credit to Save Our Schools Network

BAI Bibyaon Ligkayan Bigkay, a revered advocate for indigenous peoples (IPs) rights, has passed away, as confirmed by a post from the Sabokahan Unity of Lumad Women on December 6. 

She peacefully departed on November 20, surrounded by loved ones. 

While her exact age is unknown due to the absence of birth documents, she is believed to have been around 90 years old at the time of her passing.

Born in the Pantaron Range in Natulinan, Talaingod, Davao del Norte, to Matigsalug-Manobo parents, Bigkay was recognized as the Lumad leader and environmentalist, holding the distinction of being the first and only female chieftain in the history of the Manobo people. 

Fondly referred to as the "Mother of the Lumads," she dedicated her life to advocating for indigenous rights and defending Manobo's ancestral lands and the Pantaron Mountain Range since 1994.

"From the most remote of Lumad villages in the mountains of Mindanao to prestigious universities in the Philippines' national capital and esteemed international platforms, Bai's fierceness, passion, and courage has inspired generations of environmental, women's, and children's rights and indigenous rights advocates to take fearless and sustained action," Sabokahan Unity said in a post.

Bigkay gained prominence in the 1980s when she actively opposed a prominent company accused of excessive logging operations in the ancestral domain of the Matigsalug-Manobo tribe, employing the traditional Lumad method of resistance called "pangayaw." She successfully united, empowered, and rallied Lumad across villages against the loggers.

In 1986, she co-founded the Salugpungan Ta Tanu Igkanugon council, contributing to the establishment of over 50 Salugpungan Lumad schools and learning centers in Pantaron and other indigenous communities. During the same year, she played a vital role in the Mindanao Peoples Federation (LMPF) assembly, leading to the collective term "Lumad" to give political power and a unifying identity to the 18 ethnolinguistic tribes of Mindanao.

She also served as the founding chairperson of Sabokahan To Mo Lumad Kamalitanan or "Sabokahan Unity of Lumad Women" in 2003, envisioning Lumad women as not just participants but leaders in the fight for self-determination.

Known for her vocal support for various groups, including peasant farmers, agri-workers, urban poor, youth, and students, Bigkay faced militarization and development aggression throughout her life. She led her people in mass evacuations or "bakwit" in response to human rights violations like extrajudicial killings of Lumad civilians in the 1990s and again in 2014.

Bigkay's advocacy in Lumad rights campaigns gained widespread national and international attention. 

Described as a prominent figure in the struggle for women, indigenous, and environmental rights, she posed a significant threat to multinational companies and complicit politicians actively seeking to exploit Mindanao's estimated $1 trillion worth of natural resources, according to the group.

The Sabokahan Unity also said that she faced threats during the administration of former President Rodrigo Duterte. Her outspoken stance made her a prime target for red-tagging, threats, and surveillance, particularly following the declaration of Martial Law in Mindanao, the passage of the Anti-Terror Law, and the establishment of the National Task Force To End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC).

“Since 2018, Bai did not return home to Mindanao for fear of her arrest, being forcibly paraded as a “surrenderee” or extrajudicial killing,” the group said. “She made the conscious sacrifice to live away from Pantaron to continue to guide her people safely.”


In 1984, Bai Bibyaon Ligkayan Bigkay was honored as the Most Distinguished Awardee of the 5th Gawad Bayani ng Kalikasan or "Environmental Heroes Award." 

In 2017, she received the Gawad Tandang Sora Award, named after the "Mother of the Philippine Revolution," from the University of the Philippines Diliman College of Social Work and Community Development.

A year later, she was recognized with the Gawad Bayani Ng Kalikasan by the Center for Environmental Concerns. 

In 2019, the Coalition of Services of the Elderly bestowed upon her the Ulirang Nakatatanda Award. Finally, in 2022, Amnesty International USA honored her with the Ginetta Sagan Award.

The group said that even without these prestigious accolades, Bai would forever be remembered as a hero of the masses. 

Hailing from a rural indigenous farming background and being a Lumad woman deprived of basic education, including literacy, she symbolizes the struggles faced by the majority of marginalized communities.

The Save Our Schools (SOS) Network paid tribute to the late IP leader, stating, “The Save Our Schools Network gives its highest tribute to Bai Bibyaon Ligkayan Bigkay, the first and only female chieftain in the history of the Manobo people, ancestral domain defender, and Lumad education rights warrior.”

The BAI Indigenous Women's Network described Bigkay as "a stalwart defender of ancestral lands and a beacon for the broader movement in the Philippines." They urged collective solace and strength, acknowledging the indelible mark she left on the world through a life devoted to the pursuit of self-determination and justice.

Amihan National Chair Zenaida Soriano honored her as a woman filled with courage, describing her as a "warrior chieftain and revolutionary hero of the masses." 

Soriano credited Bigkay's tireless efforts as foundational to numerous victories in the struggle for land, environmental justice, women’s rights, and education for Lumad children. RGL


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