Alonto, former commander of the Moro National Liberation Front and former Philippine Ambassador to Nigeria, represents an oil palm venture that allegedly encroached on the Lumads’ lands.
"This is the second time the Higanonons deserted their homes. The first time was in 1975 at the height of martial law," said Jo Cagalawan, program manager of Life for Water, who helped provide water system for the Higaonons in Sitio Limusudan, Barangay Rogonon.
"It was only in 2001 when this tribe had a 'Balik Tribo' campaign where they rebuilt their lives and rebuilt their community," Cagalawan added. Five years later, however, villagers went through a repeat of 1975.
“We will have talks in the presence of local government leaders, tribal leaders, security personnel, members of civil society organization and media,” Cruz said, adding, it would be better if “leaders from Bukidnon and Lanao del Sur will be around in this meeting so we that can sit together (to find a solution to) this conflict.”
"Iligan City's intervention in this problem is an effort that should be recognized by conflicting parties because these conflicts deal with public lives and involve natives who are beneficiaries of our continuing social services," the mayor said.
Some 205 Higaonon families from Sitio Limosodan in Rogongon, a remote barangay in the city. fled to Talakag in Bukidnon’s boundary with Iligan City, after armed men allegedly from Lanao del Sur attacked the sitio in June, Cruz said.
"This community has been disturbed for the past two months and have resorted to evacuation because they are affected by this armed confrontation of conflicting parties," Cruz said.
Cruz told a meeting with civil society groups last Sunday that his office was helping the Lumads return to their homes. “They are innocent and yet their lives are harassed, threatened and disturbed.”
“Peace must be restored in their lives,” he said.
Dr. Melchie Ambalong, regional commissioner of the Mindanao Commission on Women (MCW), related that in June, a group of armed men arrived indiscriminately fired at the houses of farmers who served as farm workers of an oil palm plantation owned by Alonto.
After the attack, the armed men reportedly retreated to Limosodan, a village of the Higaonon tribe, which resulted to the latter's evacuation.
Ambalong said a male Higaonon was allegedly arrested, hostaged and imprisoned by armed men believed to be security personnel of Alonto .
Alonto could not be reached for comment. But in a dialogue with him and his family members, Cruz said Alonto denied the armed men were his security personnel.
Alonto reportedly holds a Certificate of Land Ownership Award (CLOA) over 1,020 hectares of land, at least 500 hectares of which are planted to oil palm, in partnership with Malaysian investors.
Alonto is reportedly applying for another CLOA covering 5,000 hectares at Department of Agrarian Reform under Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
The Higaonon community fears this additional CLOA might cover their ancestral lands.
"Alonto can have lands and have business provided that it will not encroach on our ancestral land because we own this since time immemorial," said Datu Lumino Marque.
Cruz said he wants it known that “we are not interested in oil palm or the income they earn from it.”
"I don't want to see the Higaonon village as a war zone nor would I want other groups to (sow) chaos and benefit from this conflict by discouraging natives to occupy their ancestral lands,” he said.
Citing difficulties in accessing calamity fund because of tedious processes, Cruz said he will allot a budget from his discretionary fund for the "relief assistance that will be given to evacuees."
Bobby Nanaman, program manager of Civil Society Organization-Forum for Peace (CSOFP), will meet with the disaster management response team of non-governmental organizations to arrange whatever assistance could be rendered to evacuees.
Datu Maque emphasized that the Higaonons had nothing to do with the conflict. “We are not thieves. We want to go back to our homes and want security personnel not to secure us but to (act as) witness that we are not thieves of their property,” he said. (Violeta M. Gloria/MindaNews)