SOUTHERN COMFORT: The last frontier now bastion of violence?

GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews/ 15 November)–First time visitors to General Santos City city will never fail to notice the vast tracts of idle lands upon landing at the sprawling airport in Tambler.

This once desolate city was known before as the place of gun slinging cowboys and home to more than a handful of ranches and grazing lands.  Until the 70s, General Santos was Mindanao’s livestock capital supplying more than 20 per cent of Metro Manila’s live hogs and cattle requirements.

Pasture leases covering up to 1,000 hectares of lands rested into the hands of pioneers of the once lucrative cattle industry.

The airport, which covers more than 600 hectares of land, was in fact once part of a pasture lease held by the Alcantaras until its holders waived and ceded their right over the land.

Fishing however gave way to livestock as the main economic engine of General Santos City.  Even the feedlots that thrive in the 80s also disappeared.  No thanks to the 1997 Asian financial crisis that drove the cost of cattle imports from Australia skyrocketing and chased feedlot operators out of business.

But before that, the livestock industry in the city was also dealt its death knell as restrictions on the importation of meat were lifted when the Philippines joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in the 80s.

Some holders of pasture lease agreements and forestland grazing lease agreements simply gave up their rights.  Others hold on to it.  While some were able to obtain titles to these supposed state-owned lands.  Many got embroiled in land disputes over these pasture and grazing lands.

But conflicts took a turn for the worse when the Indigenous Peoples Right Act (IPRA) was passed in 1997.

Many groups claiming to be members of indigenous tribe began asserting supposed ownership of lands held by leaseholders.  Many more sought financing from parties after making promises for parcels of the land that will be awarded to them.  Not a few of these claimants eventually turned bogus.  Some claims pitted claimants against each other.  And a handful of these conflicts became violent.

On Monday, four people were wounded in a daring assassination attempt in what police believe is related to conflicting claims over a pasture lease area right in the city.  The shooting of one Hannah Paglangan, her son and two bodyguards as they got out from a restaurant is one continuing cycle of violence that has already claimed at least a dozen of lives from both sides of two warring claimants.  Hannah’s husband was earlier killed by unknown gunmen for the same reason.  This is not counting handful of the killings in other ancestral domain claim conflicts.

The case of the Paglangans is not an isolated case.

Several leaseholders are also being besieged by claims by groups that have never set foot in the pasture and grazing areas they have been operating and managing since the 1960s.  Some holders of existing lease contracts and agreements sometimes have to resort to violent dispersal to prevent the entry of these supposed land claimants.

Claimants have also become emboldened with the backing of politicians and big landowners who themselves are itching to lay their own monuments to these properties.  At least two local government officials now own parcels of lands in one of these pasture lease areas that have been awarded to a group of claimants – even though they are not members of the tribe and even if it is illegal to buy rights from them.

These pestering conflicts, some going on for close to a decade now, did not escape notice from the city government

Early in her term, General Santos City Mayor Darlene Antonio called on the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) to cease and desist from issuing certificates of ancestral domain claims and titles of public lands in the city as conflicting claims have been ending in violent deaths.

But the NCIP can only be prevented temporarily by that much.  Otherwise, its functionaries will become easy preys to violence, too.  At least two NCIP workers were already killed in the violence related to these ancestral domain claim conflicts.

The city mayor needs to stomp her feet and say violence must stop.

The first order for the day should be to disarm claimants who have recently figured in violent confrontation.

Next is to weed out guns for hire that have become the convenient executioner and ‘contractors’ by parties to these deadly conflicts.

General Santos City and the whole of South Cotabato were supposed to be the last frontiers in Mindanao.   These two places cannot remain forever as such and earn the notoriety as Mindanao’s Wild Wild West. (Edwin G. Espejo writes for