Sungko, Lantapan, Bukidnon, April 9, 2012—The leaders of the Talaandig tribe, the representatives from the Office of the President on Political Affairs and the top executives of Unifrutti Group of Companies joined together to dialogue, tell their stories, share their aspirations and search for healing for their wounded past.
Unifrutti Group of Companies (UGC) is one of the major corporations operating in the Bukidnon region and employees members of the Talaandig and Manobo tribes. Recently, UGC has begun a “Rainforestation” campaign, looking primarily to the Indigenous Peoples (IP) to be the “guardians of the mountain.” This sparked the initiative for the groups to gather together, address the wounds of the past and begin working together towards the future.
Datu Migketay Victorino Saway introduced the Talaandig ritual invoking the spiritual world and Magbabaya to be present in the dialogue. “Our ritual is really a peacebuilding ritual, we are reconciling the good and the bad and invoking the keeper of the balance of negative and positive in order to find harmony.” The dialogue began with the Talaandig elders and mothers for peace guiding the traditional ritual. As the prayers came to an end, the dialogue began, initiated by three guiding questions: “Who are?”, “Where are we?” “Where are we going?” The conversation began with four Talaandig tribal women explaining who they were, the pains they have suffered over the years and a desire for those grievances be addressed.
One of the main issues the Talaandig expressed is the challenge of having an oral history – their laws are unwritten and therefore not easily recognized. One leader shared his desire for the culture, history and laws to be written so that it is more fully understood by those outside. As the microphone circled the room, the participants all laid forth their primary issues, grievances and hopes for the future. Datu Vic then began by explaining that for the Talaandig, identity is centered on self-governance and customary law, stating cultural integrity as his primary concern. He also brought forward the historical injustices suffered by the Talaandig tribe and the First Nations of the Philippines – injustices which began in 1591, undermining the cultural integrity of the indigenous tribes of the Philippines. Though the Talaandig are the guardians of the mountain and of the forest, they and their land became victims of big agriculture.
Today, they are actively working to preserve, promote and restore their cultural identity and integrity – including ecological and environmental protection as part of their role as guardians of the mountain. Datu Vic explained that his main issues were the following:
1. Need for mandatory recognition of the customary rights for Indigenous Peoples.
2. “Development” that is prescribed rather than coming from within the Talaandig community – a prescription, that without input and leadership from the tribes themselves, has begun to “destroy our culture.”
3. Cultural identity. Datu Vic reiterated that his primary concern is the preservation of their cultural identity and integrity and that they will not participate in programs or partnerships that compromise their identity as a people. He said that they cannot compromise their cultural identity as people. “This is who we are, these are our dreams, we are just leading the way as our elders before us.”
When Datu Vic finished sharing, John Perrine, the Chairman and CEO of Unifrutti, began to explain who he is and what inspired him to join the dialogue, namely environmental conservation and rainforestation—to restore the forests of Bukidnon. John explained that today the water levels are 25% of what they used to be 30 years ago because of deforestation. Though he did not start out as a conservationist (to the contrary, he was a hunter) he has now become a passionate conservationist. He admitted that his and the company’s understanding of the Talaandig is still lacking and their desire to increase their understanding and build a strong partnership with the Talaandig tribe is a primary reason why he brought his team to Sungko for the dialogue: “to listen, to learn and to strengthen and rebuild the relationship. That is my commitment to you.” He also wants to bring a reforestation project to Bukidnon, which he already has the financial backing from a grant from Europe. John said that “prior projects have failed because of the exclusion of the Indigenous People’s voice. So we need to involve the IP, they must lead the reforestation of their land, we want to work together.”
John also asked for forgiveness for harms caused by his company and committed, once again, to strengthening the relationship with the Talaandig tribe so that those harms will not be repeated. He also offered Unifrutti’s own legally certified surveyor to walk with the IP’s on their ancestral domains and determine the boundary lines.
When John Perrine concluded sharing, the other members of Unifrutti also shared their desire to continue building and strengthening their relationship with the neighboring tribes.
Finally, Assistant Secretary Rolando Cucio from the Office of the President on Political Affairs spoke. He explained that his primary role is to listen, bridge understanding and take the stories of Bukidnon back to Malacañang so that the President can make wise, informed decisions: “I believe, and the President believes, that peace can be achieved as long as we talk, dialogue and increase our understanding. You are the victims of a corrupt past. We need systemic change, we must start with the corruption first so that there is at least a system in a place that diminishes or ends corruption.” Instead of the government dictating change, they want the people to have agency, to offer solutions and work towards understanding. The challenge is to eradicate corruption so that people have real voice in the process.
Dann Pantoja, who has been facilitating this conversation, summarized the primary learnings brought forward from the dialogue, highlighting that –
:: Unifrutti asked for sincere forgiveness, committed themselves to strengthen the relationship with the Talaandig as partners and committed to not repeat the wrongs of the past;
:: Datu Vic expressed a desire for the Talaandig tribe to enter into a relationship with Unifrutti as full participants, with voice, while also upholding and promoting their own cultural identity and integrity; and,
:: ASec DC Cucio emphasized that he came to listen and learn from the participants so that government policies reflect the true voice and experience of the people.
Datu Vic thanked ASec Cucio for “recognizing that we need to be part of the implementation process, that we are key agents in carrying out the programs and for coming to be with the Talaandig, to listen to us.” Datu Vic also expressed gratitude to PBCI: “Thank you to PBCI, we are here healing the wounds, we are all equal with our Creator. Thank you for joining with us.”
Many of the tribal elders expressed excitement and gratitude for the possibility of the Unifrutti surveyor so that they can begin the process of identifying and registering their Ancestral Domain territories.
Datu Vic concluded the day with a song and words of gratitude: “Today is the most blessed day, God has sent these people to our community to answer our prayers – the bright morning has arrived and it is very hopeful and promising. We were living in grief and now finally our brothers and sisters have come and it is a blessed day, a blessed event.”
Other Issues Raised and Addressed in the Open Forum:
1. Taxes from companies should go straight to the Barangay so that the money is seen in the actual communities.
2. CMU submitted a title for land on ancestral domain, but is acting as if that title has been granted to them (it has not yet). The Talaandig-Manobo allowed CMU to use that land in the midst of dire need and they feel that the land is now being taken from them. CMU has stated that if the tribe does not begin leasing the land by May 30th they will be kicked off.
3. Manobo and Talaandig requested Unifrutti service to survey his land. He will send a petition for this to happen. ASec Cucio will meet with chairman of NCIP.
4. A complaint was brought forward that pine trees were planted on Ancestral Domain without consent. Unifrutti will investigate to see if they are responsible and proceed from there.
5. The Mothers for Peace expressed a desire to be registered with DSWDs education programming and to have the School of Living Tradition registered. Until now, they have been left out of the government program. They agreed to write a letter with their grievances, register the school and ASec Cucio promised to follow-through. He reiterated that the IPs should be the first priority of the program. Unifrutti agreed to airmail these letters through their company’s planes so that they reach Malacañang in a timely fashion.
6. Bae Liza thanked the group for the beautiful process and said that only 10% of the IPs finish college and asked for scholarships that go directly to the tribe instead of going to the offices. Unifrutti agreed to support 2 scholarships a year to any University in Mindanao.
7. One participant explained that the private gate at the Manolo Fortich farm makes it difficult for people to pass onto their own farmland. John Perrine said the gate was installed for wildlife protection, but will make sure that all farmers can pass without a problem.
8. Mark, a Community Organizer among the IPs wants to collaborate with the rainforestation project so that all of the programs are synchronized on the ground. John Perrine said that once the funds are worked out from Europe they will really work with the tribal communities because they are the real implementers of rainforestation, Unifrutti is just a conduit.
All of the participants agreed to work towards a Memorandum of Agreement and set a date for the next meeting.
As the day’s events came to a close, Datu Vic reminded everyone present that this is “just the beginning.”
Documented by Angie Lederach
Conflict Transformation Consultant,
PeaceBuilders Community, Inc.