Lumad group fights back vs land grabbing and abuses
“We want to tell you our stories because we want to raise our voice long silenced by the atrocities committed against the Dulangan Manobo by the company, its security forces and militia men who are paid by the company,”
- Kasi Ciano (Dulangan Manobo leader)
My eight-hour journey ended in a village seated in the middle of a small range of hills; the long stretch of rice paddies is dotted by islets of coconut trees and a few small houses. A hot dry wind was blowing from the East; the villagers said they were just recovering from the effects of long drought brought about by the El Niño phenomenon which devastated this part of Mindanao (southern part of the Philippines).
I was about to meet here the leaders of the Lumad (indigenous people in Mindanao) group called Dulangan Manobo for an interview about their struggle against land grabbing and human rights abuses committed by logging and mining companies owned by one of the biggest local business groups in the country, DM Consunji Inc. (DMCI).
In the gathering dusk, I sat with three Dulangan Manobo leaders, Kasi Ciano, Edgar Kandi and Rosita Ma in a house inside the United Church of Christ (UCCP) compound in the municipality of Lebak, Sultan Kudarat province. Their communities are still miles away from the place though, but they decided to meet me here because they said that the company’s heavily-armed guards and militia men have put up checkpoints along the road to monitor strangers entering DMCI’s areas of operation. They said the guards are on the lookout for persons suspected of organizing the villagers against the company. The guards have become doubly aggressive since last year when the villagers started to launch a series of campaigns and actions against DMCI.
“For more than twenty five years, we fought hard against DMCI but we never succeeded because we were not united. Now that we have learned to organize ourselves, the company is desperate to quell our strong opposition,” said Kasi.
TWHA partner Gabriela is providing support in the organizing efforts of the Dulangang Manobo and in building the capacity of their leaders in planning and conducting campaigns.
Kasi, the oldest of the three, is the chairman of the village chapter of Kesasabanay Dulangan Manobo (KEDUMA), the provincial Lumad organization opposing the logging and mining operations of DMCI in Sultan Kudarat. His frail body betrays the long years of struggle for the land that shaped his people’s identity but is increasingly becoming strange to them.
DMCI AND IFMA
He said their ordeal with DMCI started in 1993 when the company’s surveyors arrived at their place along with several armed security guards. The survey was part of the Integrated Forest Management Agreement (IFMA) granted to Consunji owned-M&S Company and Silvicultural Industries, Inc. covering a total of 24, 380 hectares that straddle the six municipalities of Bagumbayan, Esperanza, Kalamansig, Lebak, Palimbang and Senator Ninoy Aquino, all in Sultan Kudarat.
An IFMA is a production sharing contract entered into by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and a company wherein the DENR grants to the latter the exclusive right to develop, manage, protect and utilize a specified area of forestland and forest resources for a period of 25 years and may be renewed for another 25-year period to supply the raw material requirements of wood processing and energy generating plants, and related industries.
“When we asked about the purpose of the survey, their curt answer was that the land will be planted with trees. When we told them that the land that they are surveying is part of the burial ground of our ancestors, they answered that the land is not ours, it is owned by the government and that they already bought the land from the government.
LAND IS SACRED
Land for the Dulangan Manobo, as with the other indigenous peoples (IPs) in the Philippines, is sacred. Non-indigenous people consider land as something they can own, buy or sell. But for the IPs, it is the other way around: land owns them and every aspect of their lives is connected to it. Their culture, identity and very existence is tied to the land, hence they call it yutang kabilin (ancestral land).
“DMCI sees money and profit from our land but we see sacred spots, the spirits of our ancestors and the guardians of our forests,” said Edgar, the younger of the two men.
In the Philippines, some 14 million of a total population of 100 million are indigenous peoples belonging to different ethno-linguistic tribes. More than sixty percent of the IPs can be found in Mindanao. They are one of the most vulnerable sectors in the country as they bear the brunt of poverty, dispossession, violence and discrimination. Today, large-scale logging and mining are the biggest threats to the right to ancestral land and self-determination of the IPs.
"The next time they came, they told us to plant no more since the land is already owned by DMCI. We could not resist because they were accompanied by the same armed guards. We witnessed helplessly how they bulldozed our land and destroyed our crops.”
The guards have since never left the community as they stationed various outposts encircling the land covered by IFMA. Later on, they were reinforced by militia men under the Special Civilian Auxiliary Army (SCAA). The SCAA is a category of government militia that private firms are allowed to raise for protection.
Then the company’s workers arrived and started planting gemelina and falcata seedlings. Just as the seedlings started to grow, the condition of the Dulangan Manobo began to deteriorate and their self-determination started to erode.
“Because the source of our livelihood was destroyed, many of our people have been living in extreme poverty, our children are malnourished. Some have starved to death,” said Edgar.
Under the Philippine Constitution, the state recognises, respects, and protects the rights of indigenous peoples to preserve and develop their cultures, traditions and institutions. The Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA) guarantees the right of the IPs to freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development. It defines Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) as a means to protect indigenous rights and interests and give them a voice in matters that affect them. The IPRA requires FPIC prior to the extraction of resources from indigenous ancestral domains and lands.
In 2000, DMCI’s South Davao Development Co. was granted the approval to start exploring for gold and copper in 1,274 hectares within the M&S IFMA itself.
“Neither the government nor the company ever came to us to get our consent for the projects. Instead, they answered our plea to stop the desecration of our ancestral land with violence,” lamented Rosita who revealed that she has lately been immersed in organizing the women in her community to form a Gabriela chapter in the village.
In 2011, President Aquino declared a moratorium on the cutting and harvesting of timber in the forests of the entire country and ordered DENR to review existing IFMAs and immediately terminate the agreements of those who have violated the terms of their contracts at least twice. For reasons unknown to the Dulangan Manobo, the government has continued to honor DMCI contract despite the long list of its violations and abuses.
CAMPAIGN OF HARASSMENT AND AGGRESSION
For years the company guards have carried out a campaign of harassment and aggression against the Dulangan Manobo resulting in a number of cases of killings, evictions, abuses and disappearances.
The latest of such cases was the disappearance of John Calaba, public information officer of the KEDUMA in April last year. Before the incident, Calaba led a protest-march and human barricade (to block the company’s vehicles from transporting the timber) of some 300 villagers in barangay Salangsang in Lebak against the company’s application for the renewal of IFMA which ended in 2015. It was the first time that an affected community showed such instance of united and active resistance against the company.
“I told him to be extra careful because the company guards might already be planning to hurt or kill him,” said Kasi.
“At least, his case was brought to public notice by the media. There were strings of killings of tribal leaders and community members which the company was able to cover up,” added Edgar.
He told the case of the 25 villagers who were killed when the company vehicle they were riding fell into a deep ravine in Esperanza. The circumstance of their deaths was very suspicious because the driver survived the accident unscathed. One of those killed was Datu Diakang who was then actively opposing the company’s continued destruction of their land. The victims were supposedly going to the market to sell their products when the driver offered his vehicle for a ride, a gesture unusual for company workers to offer to the IPs, observed Kasi.
Edgar also narrated the abduction of 5 villagers in Esperanza by several armed men suspected by the villagers as the company's guards. Several months later a villager accidentally found their decaying remains inside a cave.
There are individuals who are facing charges of malicious mischief and are now in hiding after the company accused them of wilfully destroying its properties.
“It is the height of DMCI’s inhumanity to accuse the victims of the same wicked act that the company has been inflicting against the Dulangan Manobo for years,” said Edgar who said that the accused were only trying to stop the company workers to further destroy what was left of their trees and crops as the workers cleared the land to build road for the transport of the newly-cut timber.
They have also gathered cases of sexual harassments and attempted rape by the company guards and militia men, according to Rosita.
PEOPLE FIGHTING BACK
Kasi narrated that the Manobo Dulangan’s resistance against the company started with sporadic acts of revenge against the company for the destruction of their properties using crude weapons like spears and bolos.
“It was a vain attempt. We knew that it would not succeed. There was something missing. Then we learned about the anti-mining struggle of our Lumad brothers and sisters in other parts of Mindanao and we wanted to learn how they are waging their struggle. We sent some of our leaders to link with them,” said Kasi.
The first thing that they learned, according to Edgar, is how to organize the Dulangan Manobo to empower themselves to take action against the aggression of DMCI as well as on the other issues confronting their communities.
“We need to raise the level of awareness of the Manobo Dulangan on our rights and the need to unite to defend our ancestral land and our very existence,” he said.
They set up community organizations that have provided ground for leadership and organizational development. They conducted education and awareness-raising campaigns to prepare the people for large mass actions such as protest-rallies.
In August last year, the company guards were caught flat-footed when the people from barangay Salangsang staged the protest-march and barricade.
“The guards were nowhere to be found at that moment , and I know that our efforts have paid off because we are now united in our struggle,” said Edgar.
Last April, the first general assembly of KEDUMA was held. It was attended by some 1,000 representatives of Dulangan Manobo communities from the six municipalities affected by DMCI’s operations. During the assembly, they publicly declared the organization’s resolution to oppose DMCI’s application for the renewal of IFMA for another 25 years.
“We are thankful that many organizations are now supporting our struggle. Without them, DMCI’s 25 years of aggression and oppression will not be known by the public. They are also helping us in building our capacity to organize and mobilize our people,” Kasi said.
Last May, TWHA country office and Gabriela conducted a campaign and advocacy training among its chapters in the southern region of Mindanao. Among those who attended the training were Gabriela members of the Dulangan Manobo communities.
At the start of the training, they seemed to be a quite nervous and uneasy, they admitted, since it was the first time that they underwent training outside their communities and with non-Manobo Dulangan people. But at the end of the training, they all showed enthusiasm and were full of earnestness to share what they learned once they are back in their communities.
“We are now poised to take back what DMCI grabbed from us,” said Kasi.