Mindanao is home to 18 indigenous groups collectively known by the Bisayan term “Lumad” meaning “native.” But we use with a capital L because it is proper name. Along with the other 40 or so ethno-linguistic communities which constitute over 12 per cent of the Philippine population, the Lumad of Mindanao have, for generations, been marginalized, politically ignored, oppressed, dispossessed of their homelands, disenfranchised, paralyzed by poverty and low-level education, and killed by their fellow Filipinos. In the election season, the problems faced by the nation’s indigenous peoples were absurdly neglected in the presidential debates and the campaign as a whole. This is both tragic and telling of the metropolitan mindset.
In the past year alone, thousands of Lumad have fled their ancestral lands as a result of warfare between the military, the communists, and Muslim insurgents. Human rights groups reported 68 summary killings by military and para-military groups, including the assassination of indigenous community leaders. Together with two other activists, Emerito Samarca, director of the Alternative Learning Center for Agricultural and Livelihood Development, who had been actively defending Lumad lands against mining incursions in Surigao del Sur, was bound, slashed, and butchered. The murders triggered an exodus of Lumad who fled the area in fear for their lives. Just a few months ago, a Protestant church mission house in Davao City, where hundreds of displaced Lumad from Davao del Norte and Bukidnon sought refuge, was set on fire. Witnesses say members of a military-backed militia were responsible for the attack.
Despite these ongoing atrocities and Lumad cries for justice, President Benigno Aquino has proved to have a tin ear: “There is no campaign to kill anybody in this country. There is a campaign to go after the culprits of these crimes regardless of who they are,” was his lackluster response last year. His “campaign” has so far gotten nowhere. Moreover, his administration has chosen to ignore the nefarious actions of one of its own. North Cotabato congresswoman and chair of the House committee on indigenous peoples, Nancy Catamco, has publicly demeaned and attempted to forcibly evict Lumad from refugee camps. She is alleged to have protected, some say coddled, murder suspects, and she has also been accused of siphoning off pork barrel funds to the fake NGOs she set up. This is all yesterday’s news. But the scale of national indifference remains shameful.
The country’s indigenous peoples have suffered encroachment on their lands for at least two hundred years. US colonial law at the turn of the 20th century favored large landowners to whom were granted land titles. So-called undeclared lands, which encompassed traditional tribal grounds and forests, were offered up for purchase, occupation, and exploitation to US citizens, as well as to Filipinos. The era was distinguished by massive deforestation. In Mindanao alone, logging companies shipped out logs and lumber at an extraordinary rate. Just to cite one instance, in 1957 the Agusan Timber Corporation in one month shipped a staggering 2,330,880 logs to Japan. Mindanao lost over 50 per cent of its forest cover.
In law and in deed, Philippine governments, since the colonial period, have sided with land-hungry settlers, and corporations with interests in mining, logging, and agribusiness. The situation became particularly acute in the 1970s. During the Marcos dictatorship, agribusiness land grabbing occurred everywhere in the name of development, export-oriented investment, and because of the sheer greed of Marcos and his cronies. Through the Presidential Assistance on National Minorities or PANAMIN, Marcos relocated millions of indigenous peoples into reservations where, under armed guard, communities were forced to live in cramped and unsanitary conditions and suffered from starvation and sickness. The Marcos regime assiduously promoted indigenous peoples as tourist attractions, extolling their ‘primitivism’ while dealing brutal back-handed blows to their dignity, autonomy, and ancestral rights. In Mindanao, The Philippine Packing Corporation, Philpak, a local subsidiary of the multinational fruit giant, Del Monte, became the highest exporter of bananas and pineapples. Aided by PANAMIN and the military, Philpak evicted Lumad from almost 14,000 hectares of land in Bukidnon. The Bukidnon Sugar Corporation (BUSCO), shunted Manobo peoples into PANAMIN reservations where, adding insult to injury, they were made to cultivate sugar for the company.
Since time immemorial, the Lumad of Mount Apo have venerated the mountain and lived on its majestic slopes. Under President Fidel Ramos, the Mount Apo geothermal energy project in the 1990s affected hundreds of thousands of Lumad, and militarized the mountain and its surroundings. The government mobilized battalions of soldiers and supported paramilitary groups to subdue resistance. Yet, in the face of such a formidable onslaught against their life-ways, the Lumad resolved to keep their culture alive.
In his hauntingly beautiful book Generating energies in Mt. Apo: cultural politics in a contested environment (2004), the Jesuit anthropologist Albert Alejo movingly recounts the difficult process by which a besieged Obo Manobo community succeeded in forming a modest social movement that eventually managed to retain over 3,000 hectares of Mt. Apo. By rekindling kinship ties and regenerating their identities through ritual and family reunion, Alejo observed, the Manobo mustered “cultural energy,” a blend of spiritual and creative inner reserves that powerfully enabled them to assert themselves.
These stories of violence, injustice, and communal triumph, weave through the lived reality of the Lumad. President-elect Rodrigo Duterte should be familiar with such textures and should know how the unraveling happens. He is said to have had Lumad forebears on his mother’s side, and Mindanao has, after all, been home to him for almost all his life.