‘Bakwet’ | Defending the land by leaving

Evacuees return home to Talaingod, Davao del Norte in 2014 (File photo by Kilab Multimedia)
Evacuees return home to Talaingod, Davao del Norte in 2014 (File photo by Kilab Multimedia)

“This is not just seeking sanctuary, but also our protest to demand respect for us indigenous people, not just in Mindanao, but the whole country.”

By DEE AYROSO
Bulatlat.com

MANILA – Cristina Lantao, a Manobo from Compostela Valley province, recalled that she was a teen when soldiers came to her community and stayed for three days, in people’s houses and in the village tribal school. Before leaving, the soldiers warned that if something happens to them, they will return to wipe them out. Some distance from the village, the soldiers clashed with the New People’s Army (NPA).

“Then the Army reinforcement came, and they blamed the civilians, us Lumád. ‘Why didn’t you tell us the NPAs were there?’ they said. But we did not know. They warned that they would massacre us if something happens to them….that night, we left at 10 p.m.” Lantao recalled.

They walked for five hours to the hi-way, then, took a ride to the town proper. Later, they transferred to Davao city where they stayed for a month and 11 days.

That was in 2008. Now, 21 and a mother, Lantao is the secretary general of Sabukahan, the Confederation of Lumád Women in Southern Mindanao Region. Last year, it was her daughter’s turn to experience an evacuation, as her community in Mangayon village in Compostela town, left again for the same reasons: encampment by soldiers who threaten the residents. They stayed in the town proper, and returned after the soldiers left.

Lantao and her daughter went through the same experience as their elders, who defend the land by leaving. It’s an act branded by government as “instigated by the NPA/Left.”

But evacuation has become a necessary, albeit dreaded part of life of the indigenous Lumád, as they save themselves collectively from the violence brought by soldiers and paramilitary groups in their communities. It is also their way of preserving their culture, strengthening their unity, and defending their ancestral homes.

“Now, I am among those they brand as NPA, along with our datu, and other Lumád who make a stand,” Lantao told Bulatlat.com.

Evacuees line up for porridge prepared by church workers at the Marihatag municipal gym, in Surigao del Sur (Photo by A.Morandante/Davao Today)
Evacuees line up for porridge prepared by church workers at the Marihatag municipal gym, in Surigao del Sur (Photo by A.Morandante/Davao Today)

Kerlan Fanagel, chairperson of Pasaka day Salugpungan Kalimudan, or the Confederation of Lumad Organization in Southern Mindanao (Pasaka) and a Blaan, said that the NPA presence in the hinterlands of Mindanao is a given, because of the historic and geographical significance of the Lumád communities in the armed struggle in the country.

But he said the government claims that the NPA “manipulated’ the Lumád to flee, is an excuse to cover up the military’s human rights violations, committed in the implementation of its counterinsurgency program Oplan Bayanihan and rabid push to open ancestral lands to extractive projects.

Today, more than 4,000 Lumád bakwets (evacuees) are staying in four evacuation centers in Mindanao: more than 3,000 Manobos in Tandag City, Surigao del Sur; 700 at the United Church of Christ in the Philippines Haran House in Davao City; some 200 Higaonon and Talaandig at the provincial capitol in Malabalay, Bukidnon.

The latest bakwets are 22 students and teachers of the Fr. Fausto Tentorio Memorial School in White Culaman village, Kitaotao, Bukidnon who fled to the parish church in Arakan, North Cotabato province, after the village chief led the demolition of their school on Oct. 23.

The evacuees refuse to return home until their demands are met: the dismantling of paramilitary groups, the pull-out of soldiers from the communities and a halt to military operations.

The Katribu Kalipunan ng Katutubong Mamamayang Pilipino (Katribu) documented a total of 40,000 people who evacuated in the past five years, during President Aquino’s term.

Reason to leave

“What pushes people to leave is militarization…the people evacuate because of atrocities by the AFP,” said Jong Monzon, Pasaka secretary general and a Mandaya.

Just as in the past administrations, soldiers entrench themselves in communities, in civilian homes and schools, fire indiscriminately at houses, interrogate people about their organizations, threaten to burn down their school, and massacre them. There are many cases when they kept their word.

On Oct. 24, 2014, paramilitary men shot dead Manobo leader Henry Alameda outside his home in San Isidro village, Lianga, Surigao del Sur. Three days later, some 2,000 individuals from 16 communities evacuated, carrying his body to the Diatagon village gym, where they stayed for a month.

(Photo by J.Ellao/Bulatlat.com)
(Photo by J.Ellao/Bulatlat.com)

The exodus was repeated this year, this time they went to Tandag City, carrying the bodies of Manobo leaders Dionel Campos, Datu Juvello Sinzo and Lumád school executive Emerito Samarca. Members of the AFP-backed Magahat-Bagani shot and killed the three, and burned the community cooperative.

In 2015 alone, 14 indigenous peoples have been killed, all of them Lumád. In the Pangantucan massacre in Bukidnon, five members of the Samia clan were killed, including a blind 70-year-old, and two minors.

“If the AFP is sincere about protecting the indigenous people, they should not be in the community, let alone sleep there. But they don’t just stay in the community, they want to break the tribe through forced recruitment for the paramilitary group,” Monzon told Bulatlat.com.

“It’s even worse now. Before, soldiers stay for only a few days or weeks. But now, a platoon or company encamps for a month. After a month, another unit takes shift and continues encampment,” he said.

Evacuees from Diatagon at the Surigao del Sur Provincial Sports Complex in Tandag City on Sept. 2 (Photo courtesy of Karapatan-Caraga/Bulatlat.com)
Evacuees from Diatagon at the Surigao del Sur Provincial Sports Complex in Tandag City on Sept. 2 (Photo courtesy of Karapatan-Caraga/Bulatlat.com)

Soldiers usually leave, as soon as the community does, for fear of being sitting ducks to NPA sniper fire. But now, soldiers are arming and organizing the Lumád into paramilitary groups.
Monzon said some communities want to evacuate, but were barred by soldiers and the paramilitary men they have recruited.

Sitting on top of resources

The indigenous peoples’ ties to nature manifest in their rituals for various activities, such as planting, reaping, the start and end of a journey – all of which pay respect to the spirits that they believe inhabit nature – the water, trees, the mountains and forest. This zealousness is what nurtured their mountain homes for centuries.

“For us the indigenous, the mere act of picking a single leaf is a delicate thing. Then they will bulldoze our ancestral domain?” Monzon said.

Part of Pantaron mountain range
Part of Pantaron mountain range

The Karapatan-Caraga 2007 situationer points out the rich coal reserves of Andap Valley — the 59,000-hectare Manobo ancestral domain — as the main motive for the persistent military operations in Surigao del Sur.

Known as an NPA-stronghold in the 80s, the area’s mineral resources, such as gold, copper, chromite, remain untouched. Mt. Manhulayan within the Andap Valley mountain range supposedly contains the biggest ore deposits, and connects the area to the gold-rich Mt. Diwalwal in Compostela Valley.

In Compostela Valley, Lumád ancestral domains are included in the 12,000 hectares covered by two exploration permits of the Agusan Petroleum and Minerals Corp. (Agpet) in the towns of Compostela and New Bataan.

In Davao del Norte, the Ata-Manobo and Matigsalog, sub-tribes of the Manobo, have fiercely defended Pantaron Range, and successfully halted the logging operations and encroachment of the C. Alcantara and Sons through a pangayaw, a tribal war led by Datu Guibang Apoga.

Environmentalists consider Pantaron Range as “one of the few remaining biodiversity corridors with old growth forests that house rare species of flora and fauna.”

In Bukidnon, the Lumad are opposing the hydroelectric power project Pulangi V, which is set to affect 10,000 families, when it submerges 40,000 hectares of ancestral domains, including the sacred, burial place of Mamalo, the revered ancestor of all Manobos.

To leave with a pledge to return

“This is not just seeking sanctuary, but also our protest, to demand respect for us Lumád, not just in Mindanao, but the whole country,” Monzon said.

Leaving their mountain communities entail a range of sacrifice on the nature-loving Lumád, who have to stay in cramped, humid tents in the city, subsisting on noodles and sardines, vulnerable to the elements, idle, bored and longing for their farms. Their anxiety increases every day in the city, as they worry that their crops had all rotten, their abandoned poultry stolen and eaten, and their homes ransacked by soldiers – as what they had seen many times coming home from an evacuation.

But being in the city, they are closer to government agencies to whom they bring their grievances, and to the media, to make known to the public the injustice they experienced.

In the city, they are able to gain support of various sectors, in effect, broadens the community that is making a stand, as it should be.

Occasionally, their city sanctuary still get attacked or hounded by police and military surveillance.

Still, tribal unity shows form as they negotiate with local government and military officials, presenting conditions for them to return home. In such negotiations, the military usually bucks down and agrees to leave the immediate community, only to return a month or so later. Then the cycle of harassment begins again, leading to another evacuation.

Monzon said they also demand indemnification and livelihood assistance from government, to help them recover from the losses they have suffered because of the soldiers’ presence. “If it weren’t for the soldiers, we would not have evacuated,” he said.

Monzon recalled the death of the child during the evacuation of 1,300 Manobos in Talaingod, Davao del Norte in 2014. In September, a four year-old girl died after a week at the evacuation in Tandag city.

Evacuees return home to Talaingod, Davao del Norte in 2014 (File photo by Kilab Multimedia)
Evacuees return home to Talaingod, Davao del Norte in 2014 (File photo by Kilab Multimedia)

“These sacrifices fire us up even more, to get justice,” Monzon said. “By leaving, the tribe remains intact, and we show that we are against encroachment, against those who wish to destroy our culture. Our evacuation shows the unity of the community, our resistance,” he said.

In spite of all hardships and uncertainty of returning home, Fanagel said the indigenous people know they can face anything as a collective, as one community.

“If we lose our land, we have nowhere else to go. If we go to the lowland, the banana and oil palm plantation are there; we would only become like the urban poor in the cities. But we have our ancestral lands, the basis of our struggle,” Fanagel said.

It is also the basis of their unity, the place they are sure they will always return to and defend.()

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