QUEZON, Bukidnon (MindaNews/24 October) — There seems to be a new “game in town” among the Bukidnon Lumads these days. It is a “game” that is a continuation of centuries of struggles of the indigenous people who are desperately claiming back their right to self-determination.
This was my realization as I stood on a hill in Purok 7 of Barangay Botong, Quezon, Bukidnon where I and my anthropology students recently visited for a short fieldwork. This hill and its surrounding area was once upon a time referred to by the Pulangihon Manobo as Bagalbal, meaning the place for rituals. Long before the dawn of the conquest era that brought outsiders to the archipelago and eventually to Bukidnon, the lumads in this place lived at the plains of Quezon and went to Bagalbal for important rituals.
One can easily understand why Bagalbal is an ideal site for rituals. Being on top of a hill, one has a commanding view of Pulangi River, the undulating hills surrounding it – including another elevated space they called Imbatong, another ritual site. Yonder to the north – very clearly seen on a clear day – is what is referred to as the Salakot Hill easily visible across the camps of Central Mindanao University in Musuan. Before it was named after a hat, this small mountain was referred to by the Lumad as Taini-Apo-Puhak and Pinoys can easily guess why it was named as such; such a name is from the mythological story handed down by the ancestors of this location to their descendants.
The town of Quezon in fact, used to have an indigenous name – Kiokong, meaning mushroom. A mythological narrative of the Lumads of this place refers to a time when there was a major floor that hit this area; the residents evacuated to a hill which was shaped like a mushroom. One can still see the hill these days very close to the center of the town.
In Bagalbal today reside more than a hundred households headed by their chieftain, Datu Agdahan Santiano Jr. or known here as Datu Antong, a highly principled and articulate chieftain. Around 2008, his family and clan used to live in the village of Lumitao, now part of barangay Salawagan which is part of Quezon. At that time, they realized that their children will only have a future if they can reclaim part of the land that was taken away from them by a migrant-settler with the family name of Montalban who found a way to take over ownership of their ancestors’ land to set up a ranch to raise cows. This was the time when the whole province of Bukidnon – following one of the thrusts of the American colonial government – opened up Bukinon for corporate investments, including the raising of cows.
Montalban eventally turned over the ranch to a nephew, Pablo Lorenzo, who has not only kept the ranch but has also planted the area to sugar cane, the main cash crop of Quezon and nearby municipalities of southern Bukidnon. Eventually – in order to protect his business interests – Lorenzo run for vice mayor in Quezon and won. He fenced the entire area with barbed wire in order to protect his landed estate from “squatters”, especially the Lumads. A former ritual area – sacred to the memory of the Pulangihon Manobos – thus became the site of greedy capitalist ventures.
But a shift took place in the consciousness of the descendants of the chieftains with whom Montalban entered into some kind of “negotiation”. As far as Datu Andong can remember from the stories handed down by their elders, his ancestors only “lent” the land to Montalban with a fee of 50 centavos per hectare per year; there was no sale involved and they thought Montalban would use the land only for temporary use. The only reason why they did not claim back the land was because they were afraid to return to the land, as the cows there – according to Montalban – were “ferocious, and would eat people alive”. This was the kind of story told to them that made them afraid to claim back the land. In time, the “man-eating cows” would be replaced by gun-toting armed guards, which today the Lumads would refer to in its English term – “goons”.
In 2008, Datu Andong and his clan of around 20 households could not anymore postpone their wish to claim the land. This led to what is now a common phenomenon across the province which has given rise to a new shift in Bukidnon’s Lumad struggle. With some help from other well-meaning outsiders expressing solidarity with them, they were able to organize the Tribal INDigenous Oppressed Group or TINDOGA (Cebuano for Let it Stand Up). By the fact that the indigenous people’s organization is in English belie the fact of outsiders’ support for their struggle.
As the Lumads became more desperate – owing to the need to have land where they could cultivate food crops to survive as well as send their children to school – two years later in 2010, they began to penetrate Bagalbal along with their relatives who were living in sitio Miaray, also part of barangay Botongan. They reclaimed part of the land outside the wired property of Lorenzo. This naturally alarmed Lorenzo and his armed guards.
The ensuing events are then predictable, repeating the thousands of stories that have taken place among the Lumads across the country, especially in Mindanao. This story has the same plot – powerful outsiders take over Lumad land, find a way to get government bureaucracy to support their claim dislocating the Lumad from their ancestral abode, mobilize State armed forces to protect them and supplement these with their own goons, harass the Lumads who resist this colonization and once no intervention from the State occurs, violence erupts. The only differences are the names of the places where the stories occur, the key people involved, the number of casualties and the outcome of the encounters.
In the case of the Pulangihon Manobos in Bagalbal, there are marked differences in the details of their resistance. In many upland areas, Lumads out of death threats involved give up their resistance and ultimately lose their rightful land claims. But for Datu Andong and his clan, they are not giving up their claim. They approached their local LGU officials even if most of them sided with Lorenzo. The NCIP tried their best to facilitate the issuance of their CADT over a measly 663 hectares; however the NCIP officials have been inutile in implementing fully IPRA and help defend the Lumads’ rights. Thus Lorenzo and his goons continue to harass them, even as the barbed write fence continues to impinge on the little remaining land cultivated by the Lumads. At times, Lorenzo’s guards even push cows outside their property to destroy the food crops of the Lumad.
The story does not end here, and certainly this narrative is not limited to Bagalbal. Nearby in Purok Likong, in barangay Lumintao, Quezon, close to 30 Pulangihon Manobos have penetrated another landed estate. If the “owner” of this piece of land brings in armed goons, blood will flow as the Lumads are not going to vacate the spot they have now reclaimed. This is one more story to add to the stories about the Lumads in Sumilao, inside the campus of CMU and other hot spots of Bukidnon in which the original owners of the vast rich lands of Bukidnon will no longer tolerate the whims of the rich and mighty. They are resisting fiercely and with every resistance, they are re-writing the narrative of contemporary Bukidnon history.
[Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar is Academic Dean of the Redemptorists’ St. Alphonsus Theological and Mission Institute (SATMI) in Davao City and a professor of Anthropology at the Ateneo de Davao University. He is author of several books, including Desperately Seeking God’s Saving Action: Yolanda Survivors’ Hope Beyond Heartbreaking Lamentations, and two books on Davao’s history launched in December 2015 — Davao in the Pre-Conquest Era and the Age of Colonization and Si Menda u gang Baganin’ng gitahapan nga mao si Mangulayon. He writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English (A Sojourner’s Views) and the other in Binisaya (Panaw-Lantaw)]