“When Camp O’ Donnel was built, they drove away the Aetas. Now they (US and Philippine military) are expanding, and they are once again driving away Aetas.” – Edwin Danan, Central Luzon Aeta Association
By MARYA SALAMAT
MANILA – While many indigenous groups in the Philippines are battling to defend their ancestral domain from what they call as “development aggression,” usually of large-scale mining, logging, agribusiness and energy projects, the Aetas of Central Luzon are mostly battling the occupation of their land and appropriation of their traditional jungle survival knowledge by the US and Philippine military.
“It is no secret to us in Central Luzon that the annual Balikatan wargames use our ancestral domain,” Edwin Danan, leader of Central Luzon Aeta Association (CLAA), told Bulatlat.com in various interviews since last year’s Balikatan. A thin, diminutive young-looking 79-year old Aeta, Danan and his group has been calling on the government to respect their ancestral domain all over the region – most of it are affected by government claims that it is part of a military reservation, if not the base itself.
In April last year, US and Philippine Armed forces held combat exercises and field training in Camp O’Donnell, Crow Valley, Subic Bay and Fort Magsaysay, all sprawling, former US military bases in Central Luzon where the Aeta and some non-indigenous farmers also live. The US Embassy in Manila said these military exercises were “to improve interoperability and contingency planning” of the two countries’ troops. This year, US military personnel held Balikatan activities in Bicol, but they also continued to hold trainings in former US bases in Central Luzon.
They conducted during last month’s Balikatan some live-fire training evolutions including close quarter marksmanship training, military freefall jump from a KC-130J “Sumos” assault support aircraft, squad fire and maneuver training at Crow Valley in Camp O’Donnell; they also held trainings that at one time involved amphibious assault landing at the Philippine Naval Education Training Command center near Zambales.
In Capas, Tarlac, where Camp O’ Donnell is located, Danan told Bulatlat.com that since September last year, the lands being used for Balikatan exercises were fenced off. For the Aeta communities living in the area, he said, it represents threats of renewed series of dislocation.
For Aeta leaders like Danan, secretary general of Central Luzon Aeta Association (CLAA), the fences encompassing Aeta communities hinder the movement and their meeting with fellow Aetas. He said that even if the villages concerned, Sta. Juliana (and Maruglu and Bueno villages, too, according to the town mayor, Antonio Rodriguez Jr.) lie within Aeta’s ancestral domain, they cannot move around freely and hold meetings in their communities.
In this week’s Lakbayan of peasants in observance of the expiration of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program, which they call a failure anyway, Danan said Aetas from militarized communities were barred or threatened from joining.
To go in and out of the fenced off Aeta communities in Capas, Tarlac, one has to pass though security checks and military guard posts. The Aeta villages are within their ancestral domain, but these were also declared as part of the nearly 18,000-hectare Crow Valley Gunnery Range and military reservation in Camp O’ Donnell.
“When Camp O’ Donnel was built, they drove away the Aetas. Now they (US and Philippine military) are expanding, and they are once again driving away Aetas,” Danan said. Problem is, he said the tribe have no place else to go this time. He shared that the rumored relocation area is far too small to accommodate all the Aetas and non-Aetas to be dislocated by the military base expansion.
Danan decried the way the government and the military have been pitting Aetas against each other, with the military recruiting CAFGUs from among Aetas.
He also told Bulatlat.com that contrary to what may appear in the news, most of the Aetas are opposed to their likely dislocation and the conversion of their ancestral domain into military training ground and base.
Military bases dislocating Aeta, farmers
Crow Valley in Camp O’Donnell was a component facility of Clark Air Base, which was extensively used by US Air Force when the Americans officially had military bases in the Philippines. The nearly 18,000-hectare facility was reportedly the US troops’ training ground for jungle warfare and for agents in tactical counterintelligence. (Aetas claim the component of the military’s jungle survival training came from them, after American soldiers based in Clark and Subic Bay tapped them to teach US troops how to survive in the jungle.)
Even when the US military bases were turned over to Filipinos in the early 90s, then President Fidel V. Ramos exempted Crow Valley from the coverage of the Bases Conversion Development Authority (BCDA), and reserved it mainly for use of the Armed Forces and the Defense Department. Nowadays, Crow Valley also served as venue for annual Balikatan US troops’ wargames.
Claiming to defend the interest of indigenous Aeta and some non-indigenous farmers in his town of Capas, its Mayor Antonio Rodriguez Jr. attended on June 9 a hearing of the Committee on Bases Conversion in Congress to urge it to segregate the nearly 2,000 hectares of Aeta villages, which, he said, are currently covered by the military reservation. Aside from Sta Juliana, Maruglu and Bueno, the villages of Sta. Lucia, Aranguren, Lawy and O’Donnell with Aeta and non-Aeta residents were also declared as part of the military reservation. In calling for these villages’ segregation, Rodriguez cited the need to respect the rights of indigenous peoples who make up the bulk of people residing in the declared military reservation.
Over half or 23,024-hectare of Capas, Tarlac’s total land area is considered part of the military reservation.
What is worse is that aside from the direct dislocation the expansion of the military reservation would do to Aeta communities, the rest are facing greater difficulties with their day-to-day survival needs because of another government policy. Aeta leader Edwin Danan said that aside from being under the military in their own communities, Aetas are finding it harder to survive as their sources of livelihood are being limited by the Green City Project of the Bases Conversion Development Authority (BCDA).
Aetas live by planting rice and vegetable. To prepare or clear land for farming, they turn fallen trees into coal, which they sell in the market. For hundreds of years, Aetas live nomadically, leaving a farm for another to allow new forest growth after a time. But in recent years and given the “development” and military or government claims on the land, they are finding less and less freedom to move around.
Danan told Bulatlat.com that under President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, it appeared at first that the indigenous peoples are being given their rights under the National Greening Program, which almost entirely covered all forested mountains and overlapped ancestral domain claims of indigenous peoples. But the greening program also served as pretext for limiting the action of indigenous peoples over their own lands. Meanwhile, tree-cutting continues where the government allowed big companies to do so.
At the Committee on Bases Conversion hearing at the House of Representatives last June 9, Capas Mayor Rodriguez confirmed in his speech that the Green City Project of the BCDA and the expansion of Crow Valley Gunnery Range by the Philippine Air Force (under the Department of National Defense PAF/DND) are threatening to drive away some 30,000 indigenous and non-indigenous farmers in affected villages of Capas.
Rodriguez has promised to support the Aetas, Danan said, but the mayor himself has not yet directly talked with the Aeta elders of Central Luzon Aeta Association (CLAA).
The Aetas want the BCDA to stop its Green City Project; Capas Mayor Rodriguez told the Bases Conversion Committee in Congress he is happy and wholeheartedly accepting the BCDA and Phil. Air Force projects, although he added there is also a need to protect the rights of the citizens who would be directly affected, meaning the Aetas mostly, and some non-Aeta farmers.
CLAA is opposing the “continuing expansion of US military bases and reservation on Aeta’s ancestral domain” not just in the vicinity of Camp O’ Donnell in Capas, Tarlac but also in Subic, Zambales, Pampanga and Nueva Ecija. From last year to now, Danan said Aeta communities have further been occupied by the military.
“Military detachments in IP communities did not leave with Palparan,” Danan said, referring to the retired and now fugitive Brigadier General who is implicated in the alleged enforced disappearance and torture of UP students Karen Empeño and Sherlyn Cadapan. These students, according to witnesses, were brought to camps and heavily tortured in remote areas believed to be part of the Philippine military’s extensive military bases and reservations in Central Luzon.
While the Capas mayor is silent on the presence of these soldiers and their camps all over the IP communities, he has been angling for the release of nearly 2,000 hectares of IP lands, comprising their village and parts of it, from the military reservation. He demanded last June 9 “Transparency on the part of implementing agencies,” as he urged BCDA and the Phil. Air Force or DND to “make public the Development Plans for the projects.”
Particularly on the BCDA/Green City Project, which the Aetas oppose, Rodriguez asked for “definite answers as to what are the plans and policies of the BCDA for the indigenous peoples, farmers and residents affected by the project.”
Regarding the Crow Valley Gunnery Range Development Plan, Rodriguez urged for respect of indigenous peoples’ rights. But in the same breath, he wanted the assimilation of affected barangays by demanding that their territories be freed from the reservation, for it to be truly under the local government. The mayor decried how, over the years, his town has not benefited from these lands because of prohibition on any construction there, and as for parts that are included in base-converted economic zones, he complained that they get too little share in the taxes.
Capas Mayor Rodriguez also asked the Committee on Bases Conversion to legislate the permanent lifting of the prohibition on the entry of construction materials inside the Crow Valley Range.