Among the stacks of case files in the archives of PeaceBuilders Community, Inc. (PBCI) is a fat plastic folder labeled “Dulangan Manobo Farmers,” and stuffed with dozens of documents given to PBCI over the years by the leaders and representatives of the Dulangan Manobo tribe of Sultan Kudarat Province, Mindanao. Some of the documents are originals, signed by public employees and tribal chieftains, others are photocopies, with a few re-copied to the point of illegibility, and some are xeroxes of hand-written witness testimonies. Most of the papers are in English, with a fluency ranging from competent to nearly unintelligible. Some are in faltering Tagalog, while others are written in more confident Visaya. There are also pages of petitioners’ signatures, along with dozens of the inked thumbprints of tribespeople who cannot write their own names. From these accumulated papers emerges a decades-long catalogue of injustice, violence, and persecution which has caused the PBCI staff members who read the file to weep, and to storm with anger. Sometimes the stories in the file have made it a struggle for us to hold on to the fundamental guiding principle of PBCI’s work in the Philippine’s: that justice can be achieved without force of arms.
“I am Idol Palawan, of legal age,” reads one witness testimony translated by my coworker Kevin Marie Becira. “I have a wife. I live in Sitio Tamangan, Brgy. Kuden, Sultan Kudarat. Last February 15, 2005 at 11:45AM, three company guards — “Forest Protection” — came into our house and saw my planted crops: sweet potato, taro, and corn. They told me that planting is prohibited, and they ran over my crops.” In the same bundle of letters, received on June 21, 2006 by the chairman of a government agency concerned with the wellbeing of Indigenous People (IPs), 56-year-old Datu Sama Meluk of Sitio Dakel Kayo, Brgy. Hinalaan, Kalamansig in the same province relates that “ever since [a government bureau tasked with forestry management] gave its approval for [a particular corporation] to log and to plant different types of trees […] in our ancestral lands, they took for granted our rights as they grabbed our own lands. The guards of [the corporation’s president] ignored our right to live as human beings – creations of God. They told us that we can’t do anything about this because the government has passed the law called IFMA No. 020 and 022.” Meluk is referring a pair of Integrated Forest Management Agreements awarded in 1992 by the aforementioned forestry bureau to the aforementioned corporation and to another company under the same management. Meluk continues, “We ask, is it the law of the government that ignored our right to live in peace and freedom? Please cancel IFMA No. 020 to put a stop to the threats and abuse. We love our forests, water, and mountains.”
IFMAs No. 020 and 022 placed a large portion of the Dulangan Manobos’ ancestral territory, along with the virgin forests upon which the Manobos depend for their sustenance and livelihood, under the control of the two logging corporations. After they had assumed the management of the land, the companies began to treat the forest’s native inhabitants with contempt and brutality, and the head of the corporations has even taken steps to frustrate the Dulangan Manobos’ efforts to have their ancestral domain surveyed and formally recognized by the above cited government bureau for IP affairs. In turn, Sultan Kudarat’s IPs, members of the Dulangan Manobo, T’boli, and Teduray (or Tiruray) tribes have campaigned to have the companies’ forestry agreements cancelled. “From the time of the award,” asserted the tribal representatives in a 2006 joint resolution of appeal to then-President Gloria Macapagal Aroyo, “various human rights violations has been committed against IP claimants by Company Guards. To name a few, the violations range from burning of houses, murders (attempted, frustrated or consummated) to uprooting of crops.” Another English version of this same Joint Resolution No. 1, Series of 2006 warns of the destruction which the company goons will continue to wreak if the IFMAs are not retracted. “The company guards have killed many and hurt many and intimidated many and burned many houses and uprooted their crops [and it stands to reason that] they will do many other evil things. If these agreements are not quickly revoked […] it will result to worse in the place of the indigenous people.”
Lacking a government-issued Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title (CADT) the Dulangan Manobos have no legal means to resist harassment by the companies. At many times during the years of the Manobos’ pursuit of their CADT, its release has seemed imminent, but through a combination of bureaucratic inertia and the deliberate obstruction of the head of the companies and his employees, the CADT has remained always maddeningly beyond the grasp of the tribespeople. This is in spite of the many local and some national government officials who have testified to the legitimacy of the tribes’ claims. In 1996 a provincial government inspection of the “Ancestral Domain Claim of Manobos and Tirurays of Barangay Salumping and 24 Sitios of the Municipality of Esperanza, Sultan Kudarat” found “That their occupation and possession was since time immemorial through their ancestors,” and recommended “the recognition and protection of the rights of the Manobo/Tiruray to their claims.”
Nine years later the tribal people of Esperanza were still striving to coordinate with government surveyors and to jump each of the many hurdles of the ancestral domain title application process. Surveyors hired by a government bureau tasked with evaluating ancestral domain claims and awarding CADTs, began to inspect and delineate the Esperanza claim in May, 2005. What happened next is recounted in an incredulous letter dated the 31st of May from the bureau to the head of the companies. As the survey team went about its work “a group of armed men – who later were believed to be company guards of [one of the forestry companies] – prevented the Survey Team in continuing their activity. The next day, [the company’s chief security officer and its forestry supervisor] explained to the Survey Team that there was instruction from the management for them not to allow any survey activity within the IFMA area.” In the letter the bureau goes on to advise the company president of the relevant provisions under the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act of 1997 which make the survey of the Esperanza IPs’ ancestral domain both legitimate and necessary.
But more than three years later, the bureau’s Sultan Kudarat provincial office was still being held at bay by the company guards, and had not yet resumed the ancestral claim delineation. According to a December 6, 2008 letter from the bureau’s regional director to the company president, the provincial office “will not gamble the lives of the Survey Team,” by continuing the survey without a promise of non-interference from [the company]. The letter recounts a May, 2005 dialogue between the bureau’s survey team, the head claimant of the IP ancestral domain, the barangay chairman, and representatives from the company, in which that company’s chief security officer “informed the body that he received instruction through [a superior] from the [the company president] ‘to stop the survey being conducted by [the bureau] at all cost,’ expressed also their sentiments, that they only follow instructions.” On November 21, 2008, following three years of stonewalling by the company, two representatives from a higher stratum of the company hierarchy agreed to meet with the tribal claimants and the bureau. At this dialogue the bureau’s provincial officer “shared to your representatives the conflicting statement of [the company’s resident manager], accordingly, ‘[The company president] love the Manobos, anything the Manobo needs were provided, including the land.’ How come, the Perimeter Survey of the ancestral domain of Manobos/Teduray was not allowed? Maybe this activity has not reach to level of [the company president].” “It is ardently prayed,” concludes the bureau’s regional director, appealing directly to the company president, “that this matter will be given preferential attention.” According to PBCI’s latest information from the Dulangan Manobo, the CADT application process of Esperanza’s IPs is still stalled.
But the company’s activities never stall, and the destruction of the IPs’ forests continues unabated, as does the harassment and displacement of the IPs themselves. Every passing month of the current status quo – with the IFMAs guaranteeing the rights of the companies, but without CADTs to safeguard IP rights – brings the Dulangan Manobo and their fellow IPs of Sultan Kudarat closer to the extinction of their cultures. To destroy Sultan Kudarat’s old growth forest is to erase the IPs’ entire way of life. Representatives of the tribe who reviewed a draft of this article urged me to write that for them the forest is everything. It is their market; their hospital; their hunting ground and their pharmacy. The old-growth forest with its vast diversity of plant and animal species is sacred to the tribe.
Dulangan Manobo spokesmen claim that the imported Australian gemelina trees, which are planted by the companies after they have cut down the native trees, are contributing to deterioration of soil quality, and to lower crop yields for tribal farmers. In their 2006 appeal to the president, the Manobo representatives pointed out what the degradation of the soil does to the tribespeople. “Whereas, the original trees of the forest has logged replace with a new forest produces fruits that cause sickness to the health and the fertility of the soil produces less food and prolonged hunger in the place of the indigenous people.”
Another version of the same resolution, this one signed by representatives from the Teduray and T’boli tribes as well as the Dulangan Manobo, presents a grim prospect of what will happen if the government fails to curb the companies. “WHEREAS, IFMA 020 and 022 has caused lowering of self-esteem and starvation to the already poverty affected [IPs] of the Province of Sultan Kudarat; WHEREAS, if not immediately cancelled, IFMA 020 and 022 will inevitably cause death thru starvation and illegitimate or unlawful measures of the affected [IPs.]”
And yet, eight years after that appeal went out from the IPs of Sultan Kudarat, the tribes are still under siege; the companies are still in control; and at this point the likelihood of government intervention seems truly remote. “Despite of the long years of anguish and misery that we endure,” wrote a Dulangan Manobo tribal spokesman to an NGO office in 2006, “we remained with our faith in the government and with our hope that our case and problems will be given due attention.” As the Dulangan Manobo file attests, many government employees over the years have indeed recognized the injustice of the companies’ land grabbing and obstructionism. They have tried, within their own jurisdictions, to do something to help the IPs. However, head of the companies and his “Forest Protection” army have proven their willingness to defy the government, at least at the provincial and regional levels.
In the last few months, frustration among Sultan Kudarat’s IPs has reached a boiling point, and the Dulangan Manobo have assembled a tribal council to decide on a course of action for self-preservation. PBCI prays that they will not choose violence. The messages we are receiving from a dear Dulangan Manobo brother in Christ ask “Where are you in our crisis? Have you abandoned us? Will you stand by and watch while we are destroyed?” As believers in the way of Christ and His peace, we cannot endorse or participate in violence, even as we burn with rage at the greed and injustice which seek to drag down our brothers. We will, however, do our best to advocate for them and to publicize their crisis. And in cooperation with the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches, we have delivered a fresh petition on behalf of Sultan Kudarat’s IPs to the Office of the President of the Philippines. But most of all we will pray and keep on praying, remembering the hosts of Heaven which Elisha’s servant saw when his eyes were opened, and that those hosts are present now in Sultan Kudarat.