Mindanao natural resources, protectors under siege

Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment (Kalikasan PNE) warned that the largely undocumented biodiversity in Pantaron Range might disappear, along with the indigenous knowledge of the Talaingod Manobos who have protected the forests of the mountain range over the past decades, if they continue to be driven out of their ancestral domain as a result of massive troop deployment and military operations of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

By MARYA SALAMAT
Bulatlat.com
First of two parts

MANILA – This is a familiar story by now – once upon a time, the Philippines had an extensive forest cover. Then, large-scale ‘legal’ logging concessions felled the trees and exported the logs, thinning the forest and endangering many plant and animal species. Yet, for all the billions of dollars of exports of logs, the people and those living near the denuded zones are now even poorer. They are more vulnerable to supertyphoons with more devastating effects because of lack of trees that once absorbed rainwater like a sponge, and weathered and broke the stronger winds. Large-scale logging is continuing as we write, compounded by mining operations and creation of bigger plantations, despite the stiff opposition of affected communities.

Last month, the environmentalist group Kalikasan Philippine Network for the Environment hailed the struggle of the indigenous peoples living in and protecting one of the last remnants of primary forests in Mindanao. The group also highlighted how the indigenous peoples are as much under attack now as the last remaining old growth forests and the endangered species they nurture.

Clemente Bautista, national coordinator of Kalikasan PNE, cited data from the Mindanao Development Authority that shows that forest cover including the tree plantations was around 21 percent in 2002. The Environmental Science for Social Change data in 2010 shows that Mindanao’s remaining forest block is at a critical level of just 6 percent.

Delegate of recent fact-finding mission surveying part of Talaingod's rainforest May 2014 / Photo courtesy of Kalikasan PNE)
Delegate of recent fact-finding mission surveying part of Talaingod’s rainforest May 2014 / Photo courtesy of Kalikasan PNE)

One of the largest remaining old growth forests in the Philippines is in Mindanao’s Pantaron Mountain Range, which cuts across the provinces of Bukidnon, Davao del Norte, Davao del Sur, Misamis Oriental, Agusan del Norte, and Agusan del Sur. The 12,600-sq.km. mountain range covers 12.4 percent of Mindanao. In it lies the remaining 1.8 million hectares of virgin forest that supply water to major rivers of Mindanao.

The indigenous group Talaingod Manobos has protected the forests of Pantaron mountain range over the past decades, as it is home to them. This is where they derive their livelihood, even their natural pharmacy, according to the team of environmentalists who recently visited them, along with human rights advocates and members of progressive organizations.

They learned that this remaining forest supports immense biodiversity, and links important breeding sites of the now endangered Philippine eagle at Mount Kitanglad and Mount Apo. Hardwood species including Lamotan, Red Lawaan, Iron Wood, and Kamagong, among others, are also growing in this forest.

“Publicly available documentation of its natural heritage is as yet scant, but the Talaingod Manobos speak of a variety of birds including three kinds of hornbills, and lizards and amphibians such as forest frogs and monitor lizards. They also shared that there are wild pigs including dwarf ones, civets, and monkeys including tarsiers,” Bautista said.

A postcard-perfect sample of Talaingod rainforest's biodiversity (Photo courtesy of Kalikasan PNE, May 2014 / Bulatlat.com)
A postcard-perfect sample of Talaingod rainforest’s biodiversity (Photo courtesy of Kalikasan PNE, May 2014 / Bulatlat.com)

But this year, all these – the remaining forests, the known and still undiscovered biodiversity it nurtures, and the communities of people who have staked their lives here, like the Manobos — are in grave danger of being lost to Filipinos.

Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment (Kalikasan PNE) warned that the largely undocumented biodiversity in Pantaron Range might disappear, along with the indigenous knowledge of the Talaingod Manobos who have protected the forests of the mountain range over the past decades, if they continue to be driven out of their ancestral domain as a result of massive troop deployment and military operations of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

Mindanao natural resources, protectors under siege

From May 12 to 16, teams of environmentalists, indigenous peoples, workers, and human rights advocates trekked through some of the most rugged but resource-rich sitios of Talaingod town in Davao del Norte, Paquibato District in Davao City, and Maco town in Compostela Valley to investigate the situation of residents there.

Aside from the Manobos, the mostly farming or small-scale mining communities in these places in Southern Mindanao are composed of indigenous people such as the Lumad, Bagobo, Mansaka and Mandaya. There may no longer be a virgin forest in Talaingod’s neighboring towns, but these possess rich mineral deposits and fertile lands that are reportedly being grabbed by large companies.

The fact-finding mission was prompted by chilling reports of intense military operations and resulting cases of rights violations which, in April 3, had driven 1,353 Ata Manobos, including 515 children, to a six-day long march from their militarized ancestral domain in Talaingod town to Davao City. They sought temporary refuge in Davao City and shared the stories of their community. Their communities were abused, threatened and harassed, bombed and indiscriminately fired upon by soldiers from the 60th Infantry Battalion (IB), 68th IB of the 1003rd Brigade, and 4th Special Forces.

The Manobos repudiated in the media the justification of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) for the intensive military operations in their communities, accusing them of being supporters, if not members, of the New People’s Army, the armed wing of the revolutionary Communist Party of the Philippines.

“The Aquino government’s real motive in the heavy deployment of military in Mindanao is to clear the way for intensified mining and logging operations and to silence government critics in the island, who comprise some of the most vocal in the country,” said Roger Soluta, KMU secretary-general, in a picket in front of the Defense department in Metro Manila on May 14. By that time, Soluta and other KMU leaders have received the initial reports of their colleagues who joined the fact-finding mission in Southern Mindanao.

Manobo Lumads fled from heavy militarization in 11 villages in Talaingod, Davao del Norte after a series of aerial bombings and harassment by soldiers. (Photo by BOY BAGWIS / Bulatlat.com)
Manobo Lumads fled from heavy militarization in 11 villages in Talaingod, Davao del Norte after a series of aerial bombings and harassment by soldiers. (Photo by BOY BAGWIS / Bulatlat.com)

The Manobos returned to their community on May 5, one month after leaving it, following a dialogue with Davao del Norte Gov. Rodolfo del Rosario, Talaingod Mayor Basilio Libayao, AFP Gen. Ariel Bernardo. The military agreed to stop operations in Talaingod, but only for two days. As such, the Manobos were barely back for a week when the National Humanitarian and Fact-finding Mission began their trek on May 12 to their communities. The mission and the returning refugees inspected what became of the militarized sitios; they discussed the reason and effects of the intense militarization.

War against the people

Initial reports from Defend Talaingod, Save Pantaron Alliance showed that 88 per cent of homes in sitios hit worst by military operations have either sustained damages, registered missing items, or were ransacked. Schools were also ransacked and vandalized while livestock and coconuts were wiped out.

A separate statement from Gabriela Women’s Party Rep. Luz Ilagan, citing the report of indigenous peoples’ organization Salugpungan Ta Tanu Igkanugon, said Lumad schools have been used by government soldiers as military detachment since March of this year, in clear violation of humanitarian laws.

International laws covering conflict situations expressly prohibit the use of public infrastructures such as schools, hospitals and rural health units for military purposes such as command posts, barracks detachments, and supply depots.

Salugpungan also reported that the military has taken over the community rice and corn mill and a water distribution facility being operated by tribal leaders. With seeming low regard for the indigenous peoples, the state military reportedly claimed these corn mill and water facilities are projects of the New People’s Army.

From right: Datu Aldo Talagmame (in navy blue shirt) and Juan kulot (in red shirt), operator of Manobo rice and corn mill, tell mission delegates the state troops inserted shards of glass to clog various parts of the mill's machine, and they took away machine tools. (Photo by BOY BAGWIS / Bulatlat.com)
From right: Datu Aldo Talagmame (in navy blue shirt) and Juan ‘kulot’ (in red shirt), operator of Manobo rice and corn mill, tell mission delegates the state troops had inserted shards of glass and clogged the mill’s machinery, and they also took away the tools used to operate and repair the machine. (Photo by BOY BAGWIS / Bulatlat.com)

The state military operations have devastated the indigenous peoples’ communities.

The fact-finding mission reported that the Aquino government’s so-called “peace and development” operations, led by the AFP under its Oplan Bayanihan, is actually a war against the people, and it has brought nothing but terror and hardships to hundreds of thousands of peasants and minorities in Mindanao.

The war being launched by the Armed Forces of the Philippines is exposing them starkly as foes of the locals and the environment, which the locals have been striving to protect for decades against destructive logging and mining operations. Mission participants noted that the AFP combat operations are only serving to push the people more into supporting instead the communist revolutionaries.

According to labor leader Sammy Malunes, spokesperson of Koalisyon ng Progresibo at Makabayang Manggagawa (KPMM), in a post in his Facebook account while he was with the mission, as the “Killings of hapless farmers and tribespeople are continuing… the martial law hanging over the citizens of Maco, Compostela Valley (for example) is the reason revolutionary armed struggle in the area is growing in strength.”

Like the Talaingod Manobos who are being militarized to pave the way for the entry of big companies to exploit the rich rainforests, Maco in Compostela Valley is also being militarized as lands owned by small-scale miners and peasants are being grabbed by Apex Mining Co., of which business tycoon Enrique Razon is part owner. The mining company has been extracting gold and silver in Maco town for four decades before the multinational Crew Gold Corporation and Mapula Creek Gold took over in 2005, with a mining agreement covering 2,237 hectares.

Now Apex is encroaching into the mines held by small-scale miners, demolishing their communities and driving them away, according to Indog Kautawan, a local people’s organization in Maco which led a picket in the area of the Apex Mining Company in Brgy. Masara, Teresa in Maco.

Military officials and some local government leaders are also into widespread logging operations in Compostela Valley and other parts of Mindanao.

Malunes shared that many innocent civilians were murdered by the succession of deployed military units in Southern Mindanao. These units include the 9th IB, 71st IB and 66th IB of the Philippine Army. Even a seven-year old Mansaka child helping to haul the family harvest of corn was murdered with his father, Malunes said. “Where would they demand justice if elements of the government itself were responsible for the crimes they want to report?” Malunes asked.

In Paquibato district, residents said the military have been forcing villagers to join a three-day seminar set mid-May and to stage a rally against the New People’s Army (NPA).

Tony Salubre, chairperson of the Farmers Association of Davao City (FADC) – KMP said, some of the locals are being forced to join the CAFGU (Civilian Auxiliary Force Geographical Unit) or organize a paramilitary group.

The Davao City Committee on Civil, Political and Human Rights conducted a hearing on the complaint of an elected village leader Celso Bughaw against the military because, according to him, the military have been forcing the people in Paquibato to sign a ‘surrenderee’ form and a certification from the headquarters of 69thIB,7th ID of the AFP.

Increased AFP deployment, bombardment of civilian communities in Mindanao

Since the start of 2014, reports revealed that the Armed Forces of the Philippines has mobilized at least 30 combat maneuver battalions against the New People’s Army (NPA) forces in the South, Far South, Northeast and North Central Mindanao.

The AFP’s Eastern Mindanao Command has been beefed up with additional troops from Luzon and the Visayas, including the deployment of at least three Scout Ranger battalions. To these were added the forces of Philippine Navy and Philippine Air Force, the AFP Engineering Brigade, Tactical Operations Group, Regional Community Defense Group and military intelligence battalions.

At least one battalion under the 6th ID in the Moro areas in Maguindanao has reportedly been transferred also to the 10th ID and then deployed in Compostela Valley.

Beefing up these troops and the paramilitary groups being formed by the AFP are members of a dreaded death squad who holds a record of killing around 300 people, according to a conservative estimate. They moved to Compostela Valley after their boss, city mayor in nearby Tagum City, stepped down in 2012. In a report released this week by the Human Rights Watch, members of this death squad that was formed, financed and directed by local politician, former Tagum City Mayor Rey “Chiong” Uy, moved to Compostela Valley because the governor there is Uy’s brother.

The Communist Party of the Philippines said on May 16 that these beefed up troops deployed by the AFP is unprecedented. In a conservative estimate, they said, the Aquino regime is spending at least P500 million ($11.36 million) a month to cover the costs of the daily field and intelligence operations of its combat units, fuel for its helicopter gunships, transport trucks and armed personnel carriers as well as for the acquisition of bombs, artillery and bullets.

“The Aquino regime would likely be spending several billion of pesos in the course of several months of counter-guerrilla operations in Mindanao,” the CPP said.

The revolutionaries said such a major military campaign is likely coordinated with the US Armed Forces, particularly the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P) based in Zamboanga City. They based it on experience. During previous major state military operations in Southern Mindanao, US soldiers have reportedly set up tactical coordinating centers with field commands to provide combat assistance like real-time satellite or drone intelligence. US soldiers have also been reported to have joined combat operations and provided logistical support (including aerial support for dropping smart bombs or for medical evacuation).

The increased military bombardment of Mindanao this year coincided with the signing of the “Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement,” which patriotic groups dubbed as a “negotiated surrender of national sovereignty to US imperialism.” The agreement is being criticized as a legitimization of US military bases already being operated in the Philippines, plus an opening to construction of more of bases and facilities.

Along with moves to change the constitution to further open up the country for the unimpeded entry of foreign investments (which locals describe as plunder or development aggression), the Aquino government and the AFP troops protecting these investments are actually functioning as forces and tools of plunder, according to progressive groups.

Please Read Second Part: Support to Mindanao people’s defense of ancestral domain, environment, urged
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