TURNING POINT: No More Forests to Roam

NAAWAN, Misamis Oriental (MindaNews/03 Oct) — Presidential Proclamation 1966 s. 2009 declares the month of October every year as National indigenous Peoples Month. In Mindanao, the indigenous people are generally known as lumad.

The lumad are the descendants of the free and proud people of the island who refused to join the religious fold of the Muslims and, later, of the Christians and continued to maintain their beliefs and practices, their socioeconomic and political life in their respective territories. History tells us that joining the Muslims provided the Lumad greater security and protection from their enemies. Joining the Christians, on the other hand, gave them access to educational, economic and political opportunities that might improve their economic and social well being. To remain a free people proved costly at the end because it eventually dispossessed them of their possessions and pushed them into the margin of society.

Consider the Mamanwa. The Mamanwa are dark-skinned with kinky hair but are much taller and with well-proportioned body than their Aeta counterpart in Panay and Zambales. Nomadic, they used to occupy and roam the mountain ranges of the Surigao and Agusan provinces. They were literally dependent on the bounty of nature, satisfying their basic needs from what they could harvest from the forests and capture from the rivers. They never permanently settled but stayed temporarily in an area in huts without walls for as long as the bounty of nature still met their needs. After a while, they would roam again in a cluster of 3–10 families to another place enjoying life that is free from the trappings of a more sophisticated community. They were peace-loving people who resolved conflicts among themselves through the mediation and counsel of the eldest member of their community.

After the Second World War, however, the landscape of Mindanao has experienced tremendous changes, especially in Surigao-Agusan mountain ranges. Miners have cut across and dug mountains to extract gold, nickel, cobalt, copper, iron ores and other minerals; and loggers, legal and illegal have felled trees and secured their concessions with heavily armed guards. The Mamanwa could no longer thread freely in their former hunting grounds and have been restricted in the peripheral areas of the forests learning to survive through slash and burn farming from the lowlanders. They have resorted to trading with the people in the lowlands – selling or exchanging rattan poles and fruits, tubers, bamboo shoots, orchids, deer, wild pigs, monkeys and birds with corn grits, salted fish and some canned goods. Unschooled they are always at the losing end of the barter. The lowlanders look down at them and pejoratively called them Kongking because of their scaly black skin and kinky hair.

When Martial Law was declared, the New People’s Army (NPA) for some time ruled the jungles of Surigao and Agusan. The Mamanwa, because of their familiarity with the terrains, were hired or forced to become guides by the military and the NPAs in pursuing each other and became primary victims in armed encounters and life-threatening suspicion from both sides of the warring parties. As a result the Mamanwa were ultimately forced out from their shrinking paradise. With no employable skills, they have been reduced to begging for food and clothing from the lowlanders who despise them. Anyway, some kind souls had taken pity of them and hired their men as farm hands or their women as house helpers. But their benefactors complained that they lacked initiative, motivation and concentration in what they were doing. In short, they were perceived as lazy and unreliable. They would accordingly escape work now and then pursuing and connecting with relatives in their wandering. The nomad in their blood refused a settled life. Disoriented, they keep on moving without definite purpose and direction except to survive out from the kindness and help of people they met along the way.

The passage, of R.A. 8371, otherwise known as the Indigenous People’s Rights Act (IPRA) of 1997, restored to some 1900 Mamanwa their forest land through the issuance of a Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title (CADT) by the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) on 22 September 2006. The Mamanwa’s ancestral domain covers an area of 49, 870 hectares located in the municipalities of Claver, Gigaquit, Bacuag, Alegria, and Tubod, all in the province of Surigao del Norte. Under the provisions of CADT, the Mamanwa beneficiaries, as land owners, are responsible in the development, control, utilization and collective management of their ancestral domain on the condition that said land resource cannot be sold, disposed or destroyed in any way.

Unfortunately, for the Mamanwa, their return to their homeland has been compromised by the surge of some 20 or more mining firms or mine claimants within the domain, in addition to those already entrenched earlier in the area, particularly upon the passage and implementation of the controversial Philippine Mining Act of 1995 (R.A.7942). Under the IPRA, the natives were entitled to a royalty of one percent of the gross income of each mining firm operating within their territory. This has not been done. One firm shrewdly managed to ink an agreement with the tribal chieftain to grant P500,000/annum to the tribe people and their host communities. Notwithstanding that this in violation of the IPRA, only P200, 000 so far has been released to the beneficiaries and their host communities. Meanwhile, the Mamanwa homeland is now crisscrossed by mining roads, bulldozed, opened, and dug again and here and there for the precious minerals, destroying biodiversity and the natural environment, and displacing some of the natives from their farm lands. Recently, the military have occupied areas in their ancestral domain to protect mining investors reportedly from the harassment of the NPA rebels. The Mamanwa, who have begun to settle in their recovered land, are forced once again to mass evacuate intro the lowland for their safety.

An NGO is reportedly assisting Mamanwa families live a settled community life somewhere in Taganito, Surigao del Norte. Mamanwa children are taught the rudiments of education and the adults, hygiene, sanitation, nutrition and improved farming methods and employable skills to enable them to join the labor force or generate self-employment. If the approach succeed this would save the Mamanwa from the indignity of living at the mercy of other people. And yet this benevolent intervention may yet ultimately lead to their ultimate assimilation into the mainstream of society and erase once and for all what little cultural heritage that is left in them. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. William R. Adan is retired professor and former chancellor of Mindanao State University at Naawan, Misamis Oriental.)