ESSAY: Ligawasan Marsh

MANILA (MindaNews/06 February) — In a visit to the marsh last year, I recognized one reason for the longevity of the Maguindanao-based Moro Islamic Liberation Front. It is their homeland itself, more or less the space occupied by the vast Ligawasan Marsh in central Mindanao.

The Maguindanao are, after all, called the “people of the flood plains.”

An ordinary day, Ligawasan Marsh. Photo by Marian Pastor Roces
An ordinary day, Ligawasan Marsh. Photo by Marian Pastor Roces

These are classic wetlands, where water levels rise to make astoundingly large lake systems in the rainy season, and subside during the long summers to show islands and water-growing grasslands. Wet rice cultivation has always been a natural in these parts. Any crop or plant that likes its feet wet, to various levels as it grows, will find this extraordinary marsh system hospitable.

Not so to outsiders (non-Maguindanaoans, generally speaking). Few Filipinos have useful knowledge of Ligawasan Marsh. And this includes all armed services of the Philippines.

It is, in large measure, impenetrable.

Interviewing a general of the Philippine Army who commanded battalions in central Mindanao during the bad old days in the 1970’s, I was made to understand that entering the marsh was a particular victory in itself. This general was quite proud to have been the first to do it, with a fighting force including cannon. Only a handful have gone in after him, in the decades that followed.

The rise and ebb of marsh waters makes mapping a limited exercise. Markers — plants, mounds and hallows, unpaved roads, and so forth — vanish and reappear with the seasons. Large parts of the landscape/waterscape that comprise some 288,000 hectares is largely undocumented.

But enough is known for the UNESCO to consider inscribing it as a World Heritage Site. Among the denizens of these marvellous but harsh wetlands are endemic water birds, raptors including the Philippine eagle, and a shrimp more than 3 feet long from tail to antennae. It is the last stand of the Philippine crocodile, hunted to near extinction elsewhere in the Philippines.

Mamasapano is in Zone 4 of the Ligawasan Marsh, which is actually three extensive wetlands: Ligawasan, Livungan, and Edpanan. Too, Mamasapano is adjacent to the municipalities of Datu Piang (formerly Dulawan) and Rajah Buayan. This area consists the traditional upstream (sa raya) power base of the Buayan Maguindanao people.

And so, this much can be said about the SAF raid, in light of the natural obstacles posed by the marsh: the best intelligence only gives a location of target. The best drone photographs (this might be assumed to have been part of intelligence packet) will only give a two dimensional idea of the terrain.

Intelligence as generally construed does not include the lay of the land/water as it is actually walked.

The tragedy that the befell SAF 44 may then be described as the folly of leaders who have not precisely understood the ways the Ligawasan Marsh has prevented entry and indeed exit for centuries. Unfortunately, improvements in the technologies of surveillance will not assist the man on the ground passing through.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Marian Pastor Roces is an independent curator and institutional critic. She studies power. Her corporation, TAO INC, holds office in Makati City. But her projects bring her to interior spaces almost all the time. This piece was first posted on her Facebook wall. Permission to re-publish was granted to MindaNews by Ms Roces).