Bukidnon-Agusan Sur highway: progress for some, death for others

CLAVERIA, Misamis Oriental (MindaNews/16 Nov) — The tale is same throughout the remaining tropical forest. Bulldozers and other earth-moving equipment are tearing down the forest in the village of Busdi in Malaybalay City to make way for a highway that would connect the provinces of Bukidnon and Agusan del Sur.

The highway may mean progress for the government and traders, but for people who live in the forest, it means death.

“The bulldozers worked day and night to tear down the trees. The sound of falling trees and engines is deafening,” said Dante Sinhayan, a 41-year-old Pulangiyen, a tribe that resides along the Pulangi River in Bukidnon.

“Centuries-old trees like the Tangile and Lauan were uprooted by the men in the bulldozers. The destruction was systematic,” he added.

Sinhayan and other members of the tribe tried to stop the men in the bulldozers but they failed in every attempt.

“We once stood in front of the bulldozers and threw stones at them but the men just laughed at us. They told us we do not have any right to the forest (and that) the forest did not belong to us,” he narrated.

The construction company then changed tactics and allowed the tribesmen and farmers to load their farm products on their bulldozers and other earth-moving equipment.

Since the road to the village of Busdi is impassable, the offer from the construction company was too good for the tribesmen and farmers to pass up; they accepted it readily.

Now, Sinhayan and those who oppose the highway project are on the defensive. To stop the bulldozers would incur the wrath of the other tribesmen and the farmers.

Sinhayan and his small group tried to reason with the company, but it ignored them.

“The company officials will always ask whether we have papers that could prove ownership of the forest. Sadly we do not have any papers but we lived on these forests for years,” he said.

Sinhayan said he, his parents and members of their tribe have lived in the forest “for as long as he can remember.”

He said his parents used to depend on the forest for food and medicine.

“My parents used to live simple lives. The forest provided them with everything from food to medicine. The land in the forest was very fertile that plants do not need fertilizers to grow,” Sinhayan said.

Sinhayan is helping the Pulangiyen tribe to claim their right to 24,000 hectares of land covering four villages in Bukidnon province. Two of the barangays are Busdi in Malaybalay City and Bulonay in the municipality of Impasug-ong.

There are at least 146 families of the Pulangiyen tribe living in the four villages.

“We want to legalize our ownership to the forest. If we do not have the papers all our struggle will be weakened,” he said.

Carl Rebuta, project development officer of the Legal Research Center, said indigenous people are finding it difficult to get their ancestral land awarded to them.

He said most government agencies require physical evidence from the lumads before they are awarded their ancestral domain claims.

“It is ironic that the lumads are recognized only after they stake their claims. Besides, it is difficult to provide physical evidence since lumads rely on oral traditions,” Rebuta noted. (Froilan Gallardo / MindaNews)