INTEGRAL ECOLOGY: Remembering the “Dangerous Memory” of Fr. Nery Lito Satur

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CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (MindaNews / 13 October) — It was October 14, twenty-nine years ago, when we heard over radio station dxDM-AM Malaybalay the shocking news about the violent death of Fr. Nery Lito Satur. After this sad announcement, the song The Impossible Dream was solemnly played, which powerfully captured our collective emotion at that time. Fr. Neri (as we fondly call him) embraced this heroic death at the age 30 and was only two years and four months in the priestly ministry.

Thanks to the Sangguniang Panlalawigan for passing an ordinance declaring every 14th day of October as “Father Neri Satur Day in the Province of Bukidnon” effective on October 6, 2004. Hopefully, this annual celebration will remember Fr. Neri as an ember of hope that will keep the fire of our ecological advocacy burning. In order not to forget his “dangerous memory,” this article attempts to creatively remember the context and meaning of his death.

The Trail Blazers of Environmental Activism

Fr. Neri did not emerge in a vacuum. He followed the footsteps of his forerunners in ecological advocacy. Along this line, the parishioners of San Fernando (Bukidnon) were considered “trail blazers” of environmental activism that emerged in the 1980s. Their ecological consciousness was awakened by Canadian Scarboro Missionaries, Frs. Pat Kelly and Charles Gervais, who served their parish between 1980 and 1990s. It was during their time in October 1981 when the San Fernando parish successfully staged a non-violent resistance against the plan of the NAPOCOR to dam Pulangi River for hydroelectric power.           

Book on the martyr of ecology, Fr. Nery Lito Satur written by former Malaybalay Bishop Gaudencio Rosales. The 30-year old priest was ambushed by armed men in a sitio in Valencia City on 14 October 1991.

In 1987, shortly after the “parliament of the streets” had been powerfully manifested during the EDSA People Power, the San Fernando parishioners organized a series of pickets against the two logging companies (i.e., the Caridad Cabahug-Almendras Logging Enterprises and El Labrador Lumber Company, Inc.) that were operating in the watershed areas. The church-led pickets continued until 1988, demanding a total logging ban and immediate closure of all lumberyards that processed the ill-gotten logs in the province.[1]

The Forest Priests of the Diocese of Malaybalay

In support of the foregoing ecological struggle, the former Bishop of Malaybalay, Gaudencio B. Rosales, wrote to former President Corazon Aquino a letter (dated March 14, 1990) to ask her intervention to stop the rapacious logging operations in Bukidnon. He also informed her that the people of Bukidnon were willing “to go to the streets soon…to stop those logging trucks from bringing down those logged timber.”[2] In fact, he had already instructed the heads of the deaneries (i.e., groups of adjacent parishes) to prepare the diocese for a mass mobilization, which would have taken place on May 10, 1990.

Bishop Rosales revealed that he was also contemplating on filing a legal case against the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the holders of timber license agreements (TLA) in Bukidnon for their mismanagement of the forest resources of the province.

Luckily, the planned mass mobilization was aborted when Secretary Factoran issued a DENR Administrative Order (DAO), dated April 30, 1990, imposing a Logging Moratorium in the Province of Bukidnon. Few weeks after, Rosales also received DAO No. 42, Series of 1990, dated May 22, 1990, deputizing him as Forest Officer of the DENR. He then asked the DENR to deputize as foresters all the 45 priests and deacons in the Diocese of Malaybalay which was officially granted on September 18, 1990 through DAO No. 80, Series of 1990.

Bishop Rosales positively interpreted these DAOs as a serious government request for the local church’s assistance and an official recognition of people’s role in protecting the Bukidnon forests. As deputized foresters, the 45 priests and deacons of the diocese were given the following three police powers as stated in the DAO No. 42, Series of 1990: (1) “to detect/investigate violation of forestry laws and regulations;” (2) “to arrest even without warrant any person who has committed, is committing or is about to commit in their presence any of the offenses defined” in forest law; and (3) “to seize/confiscate the tools and equipment used in committing the offense and the forest products cut, gathered or removed by the offenders.”[3] So far, this DAO has not been revoked and, hence, may be interpreted as still effective until now.

A Zealous Enforcer of the Logging Moratorium Order

Fr. Nery Lito Satur grew up in the town of Pangantucan, Bukidnon where he was ordained to the priesthood in 1989. He was then assigned as assistant parish priest of San Agustin parish in Valencia (not yet a city at that time), Bukidnon. In March 1991, Fr. Neri became the parish priest of the Immaculate Conception Parish of Guinoyoran, a barrio of Valencia, Bukidnon. At that time, Guinoyoran was a violence-prone parish owing to the presence of New People’s Army (NPA) and suspected criminals. There were also middle-sized loggers operating in the area.

Fr. Mariano Chia, one of the Paring Bukidnon, blessed the dead body of Fr. Neri at the ambush site on 14 October 1991. Photo courtesy of the Chancery Office of the Diocese of Malaybalay.

As one of the deputized priest-foresters, Fr. Neri was a zealous implementor of the logging moratorium order as shown in the number of confiscations he has done. It was reported, for instance, that he, together with other authorities, confiscated a number of flitches and lumber near the Pulangi bridge in Valencia on February 13 and 14, 1991. He also confiscated 2,492 board feet of illegally cut wood on June 26, 1991 in downtown Valencia. Then, together with Fr. Loloy Sajelan and Pfc. Norberto Non, he intercepted wood being ferried out to Guinoyoran on July 14, 1991. Lastly, he and a DENR wood scaler confiscated unclaimed lumber in the Valencia area on August 2, 1991. Within a period of six months, Fr. Neri was able to confiscate and intercept a total of 6,602.93 board feet, which were deposited at the Valencia Municipal Hall and put under the custody of Lt. Enrique Pinaso.[4]

The Bukidnon clergy’s option to struggle for ecology angered those who were benefiting from the logging business. They were increasingly getting suspicious of the law enforcers’ capacity to guard the remaining forests of Bukidnon, as they discovered that military personnel had staked a claim over many of their intercepted logs. Thus, at the height of the clergy’s implementation of the logging moratorium, Fr. Neri and other priests of the diocese (e.g., Frs. Rino Bargola and Danilo Paciente) received death threats.

Fr. Neri’s Ecological Option

This growing conflict exploded on October 14, 1991, when a group of three unidentified killers — presumably hired by some angry and offended loggers — brutally ambushed Fr. Neri who was on his way home after saying Mass in a remote barrio of Magsal in Guinoyoran, Valencia. The autopsy revealed that seven bullets of a shotgun wounded his bare chest and abdomen. His killers then finished him off by striking his skull with a rifle butt three times, which were strong enough to crush his head and spread his brain and blood all over the ambush site.[5]

Reflecting on the brutality of Fr. Neri’s death, Bishop Rosales lamentably remarked: “The murder of Father Nery was a shout to God that there were people who hated His Good News and its message. There was something greater than anger the killers were trying to express.”[6]

Fr. Noel Suarez (in white soutane), classmate of Fr. Neri both in Pope (Saint) John XXIII College Seminary in Malaybalay and in the Regional Major Seminary in Davao City, organized a Fun Run on October 14, 2014 in Malaybalay City to celebrate the Fr. Neri Satur Day. Photo by REYNALDO D. RALUTO

Fr. Neri could have chosen to preserve his life but he opted to die for others. In fact, a day before his death, his parish secretary, Tata Pajo Cuas, recalled how she tried her best to convince him not to go to Magsal anymore due to the serious warnings she had received from reliable sources.  Fr. Neri courageously told her: “ang akong pagpanalipod ug pag-amping sa kalasangan dili para nako kun dili para sa katawhan, ilabina sa umaabot nga kabataan” [my defense and care for the forest is not for myself but for the people, especially the coming generation]. This statement reveals his selfless interest and, for this reason, many people tend to believe that, indeed, he is a martyr for ecology.

In the face of the strong temptation to take revenge, Bishop Rosales strongly rejected the use of violence either for self-defense or for defending the forests. He understood very well that “violence and killings might stop the cutting of trees for a short time; but the root cause of this issue of ecological destruction would not be solved.”[7] He emphasized that, as Christians, “we are always ready to be harmed while we are giving Christ to the people. Victimhood is at the core of poverty which brings us to the very heart of his Kingdom—Love.”[8]

[MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Reynaldo D. Raluto is a Roman Catholic priest of the Diocese of Malaybalay. He is the Academic Dean of St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Cagayan de Oro where he also teaches fundamental/systematic theology and Catholic social teaching. He is the author of Poverty and Ecology at the Crossroads: An Ecological Theology of Liberation in the Philippine Context (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2015). His ecological advocacy includes planting/growing Philippine native trees, mountain climbing, and defending the rights of Indigenous Peoples.] 

[1] See Vicky Aquino, “Picket Against Logging Continues,” in Central Mindanao Newswatch Daily,” (first week December 1988), 1, 8.

[2] Gaudencio Rosales, Fr. Neri Satur and the Church He Died For (Quezon City: Claretian Publications, 1997), 60

[3] DENR Administrative Order (DAO) No. 42, Series of 1990, dated May 22, 1990; cited in Rosales, Fr. Neri Satur and the Church He Died For, 63.

[4] Ibid., 73-74.

[5] See Ibid., 91-92.

[6] Ibid., 91.

[7] Ibid., 16.

[8] Ibid, 104.

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