For more than two decades, an indigenous southern Philippine tribe, the Dulangan Manobo of Sultan Kudarat Province, have reportedly been harassed, intimidated, and forced to struggle for the right to live and to practice their livelihoods within their own ancestral territory. Since 1992, when government contracts placed much of the Dulangan Manobo territory under the control of the M&S Company and Silvicultural Industries, Inc. (which appear to be subsidiaries of David M. Consunji, Inc.), Dulangan Manobo spokespersons have reported a series of atrocities committed against tribe members by the companies, their security guards, and a militia force which the companies sponsor. The companies have destroyed many tribe members’ houses and crops, and tribal representatives allege that company guards and militia have murdered a number of tribespeople.
As we have before related, the companies have seemingly maneuvered to frustrate the tribe’s attempts to get their ancestral domain surveyed and formally recognized by the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP). To this day, the Dulangan Manobo have no formal title to their lands. Without a title, the Dulangan Manobos have no legal means to halt the destruction of their homes, farms, and forests. Often, they cannot travel to or from their own villages without passing through checkpoints manned by militiamen and rifle-toting company guards, who monitor their movements in a way that the tribe find humiliating. Abject poverty and hunger confront those tribespeople whose crops have been destroyed.
Since the troubles began, the tribe’s leaders have petitioned the national government on numerous occasions, requesting that the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) cancel its Integrated Forest Management Agreements (IFMAs) with the Consunji companies, and that the NCIP title the tribe’s territory. They have also appealed repeatedly to Malacañang Palace. But government help has been minimal, and their plight remains desperate.
Several years ago, we of PeaceBuilders Community, Inc. (PBCI) and Coffee For Peace (CFP) began a relationship with the Dulangan Manobo through a training program on coffee cultivation and a Peace And Reconciliation (PAR) seminar. The tribe told us of their struggle, and we resolved to share their journey and to help them in any way we could. Last December, five Dulangan Manobo tribal advocates visited the PBCI offices in Davao City, where together we drafted a fresh appeal to Malacañang. This letter was personally delivered to the Palace by Bishop Ephraim Tendero, National Director of the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches (PCEC), who also appended his own letter of endorsement.
One of the five tribesmen with whom we drafted the appeal was a young man named John Calaba, Tribal Coordinator of the Kasabanay sa Dulangan Manobo (KADUMA). He was a passionate and dedicated campaigner for the cause of tribal rights, and a faithful partner to PBCI in our efforts to address the struggle of the Dulangan Manobo.
On January 25, we met John and his companions in Isulan, Sultan Kudarat. He gave us an SD card containing photos of the destruction of the tribe’s territory. As we browsed the images, the tribesmen pointed out bulldozed clearings where there had been plots of valuable coffee trees (raised by the tribe from Coffee For Peace seedlings); a bare, leveled mountaintop; muddy gashes cut deep into the sides of hills; and wide swathes of jungle bulldozed. All of these pictures had been taken clandestinely, John said, by him and a partner, who risked their lives to document this destruction in an area closely monitored by the company guards. We bought John a new cellphone so that he could keep us updated.
In April, when we saw John for the last time, he met us in the town of Lebak and accompanied us up the mountain to the tribal village of Elem. Between the town and the village we traversed two roadblocks, one operated by regular company guards and the other by the Special Civilian Auxiliary Army (SCAA) – the militia sponsored by the companies. We saw how the riflemen at both of these posts monitored and regulated the movements of the tribespeople while displaying significant firepower.
On April 30, John disappeared. According to witness affidavits, three SCAA members invited him to a meal at their outpost. He accompanied the militiamen to the post and, a few minutes later, a tribesman passing by saw John inside eating. Shortly thereafter, tribespeople heard gunfire erupt inside the post. The firing continued for half an hour. Dulangan Manobos who went to investigate were warned away by the post commander, who claimed that the post was under attack by guerillas. (Tribal representatives regard this claim as a mere ruse used to cover John’s murder.)
Witnesses later observed six militiamen descending from the outpost to their truck. They were carrying something wrapped in a tarp, which they placed in the truck bed and drove away, leaving a trail of blood drips in the road. John’s body has not been recovered, and Elem’s residents say they have heard rumors that further violence is coming.
On May 18, as fear and anger continued to mount in Elem, five tribal representatives travelled to the PBCI offices. Together we mourned John’s death and strategized ways to promote peace and justice in the Dulangan Manobo ancestral territory. We appointed the five representatives — Tony Capitan Aba, Abraham “Baham” Calaba Banug, Nowie Mayaw Blag, Wennie Samad Dubo, and Lolita Bavandil Timuay — as our Peace And Reconciliation monitors, and issued them PBCI ID badges. PBCI CEO Dann Pantoja trained the five in observation and information gathering. Now that they are back in Elem, we pray God’s protection over them, and we reiterate our commitment to stand with them and their tribe as we look forward to God’s transformation of their circumstances.