ANGAY-ANGAY LANG: The National Cultural Minorities of Mindanao and Sulu. A preliminary study (3)


3rd of seven parts


The Manobo are a multi-branch group as can be inferred from the writings of several author-researchers. The following, among others are classified under this group: the Dibabawon, the Mandaya, the Manggwangan, the Ata of Asuncion, Maniki, Sto. Tomas and Panabo, Davao del Norte. This study has not had the time to verify this in the field, and so we have decided to limit ourselves to the Manobo group in the Central-Mindanao region, near Mt. Apo, and that in the Agusan valley area, Agusan del Sur. There are also Manobos in the southern sector of Cotabato but an account of these areas, we feel, will suffice for our purposes. The main sources of data for the Central Mindanao Manobo is E. Arsenio Manuel,  Manuvu Social Organization (Quezon City: CDRC, UP, 1973) and those of Agusan Va1ley, Dionisio L. Yumo, Leadership, Power and Politics Among the Southern Agusan Manobos,  (Cagayan de Oro City: Xavier U, 1971). Master’s Thesis.

Population and Location

The Manobo of the central Mindanao region are located in the provinces of North Cotabato and Bukidnon. Together these two areas account for 24,876 based on the 1970 census. There should be a higher total but the Bureau of Census made the decision to include those on the Davao side with the Bagobo Guiangan. More precisely, Dr. E. Arsenio Manuel, who undertook extensive research in this area some years ago, says that they generally “occupy the hinterland between the Pulangi and Davao river systems in their middle courses. They inhabit all the highland areas North of Tammuhan River and west of Davao and Kuwapu rivers as these drain into the western side of Davao province. On the Cotabato side, they are to be found occupying the rolling lands north of Kidapawan and Magpet towns”.

The Manobo of Agusan, Norte and del Sur together, number 30,078 in 1970. More than 96% of these are found in the Agusan Valley area in Agusan del Sur. We have included within this total the Banua-on, which the Census classified separately. However, they are also Manobo.

Level of Adjustment with the Majority Culture

The Central Mindanao Manobo have reached a relatively high level of adjustment with majority culture. This is evidenced by the preference of more and more people to the settled form of life, by their adoption of cash crops such as abaca and coffee, and by their acceptance of such Christian affairs as religion, education, money and others.

This development came about in various ways. There was their exogamous practice to start with which enable them to maintain contact with outside events. This is especially so if the marriage partners reside near relatively urbanized areas as Kidapawan. Their early wars with the Muslims of Malabang, Lanao del Sur made them realize the necessity of entering into dense alliance with other ethnic groups. Most of their manufactured items were acquired through their traditional trade relations. When the Japanese abaca planters of Davao penetrated the midland areas during the first few decades of the 20th century, the Manobo were exposed to the advantages of cultivating abaca, then later coffee, for cash. As a rule, the midland areas later developed as the established contact zone between uplanders on the one hand and the government agents and foreign merchants and exploiters on the other. After the Second World War, as more and more majority settlers, loggers and ranchers occupied their traditional territory, the Manobo were pushed deeper into the interior. In spite of the resultant displacements, they nevertheless realized the need to make further adjustments.

Before the last war, most of the Agusan Valley region was untouched jungle; the Manobo inhabitants then experienced very little of the influence of the majority. After the war, large logging concessions gradually opened up the area; commercial large scale timber concessions started in 1961. These were followed closely by majority settlers, who, in turn, deliberately or otherwise, pushed back most of the indigenous people to the hinterlands.

By and large, a good number of Manobo have learned some of the basic ways of the majority, in agriculture especially;  also in logging through the so-called “carabao logging.” But the majority of them still stick to their traditional ways.

Current Socio-economic Situation

As late as the 1960’s, Dr. Manuel referring to the Central Mindanaw Manobo, noted that “the only agricultural technique known to the Manuvu planter is the slash and burn (kaingin) system.” Not only is his technique limited and disadvantageous, he also depends more on ritual for the success of his agricultural ventures”. (Manuel, Ibid., p. 263)

A clearing is used for about three years at the most. During the third year, owing to primitive tools, any attempt to cultivate “becomes a heroic struggle against the weeds, cogon and other grass. Even the more resistant abaca or coffee plantation is soon overcome by the conquering grass and weeds.” (Manuel, ibid.) Note that abaca and later coffee reached the uplands as early as the 1930s.

The other major economic activities of the traditional Manobo are hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering of forest products.

Today, in 1974, now that the Calinan-Bukidnon road is nearly complete, when more logging companies and pasture lessees have crept into the uplands, and when the settlers and /or landgrabbers continue to move further inland, the traditional activities have undergone radical changes.

Having nowhere else to run to, the Manobo have either been reduced to landless families, thus becoming roving tenants, farm workers or logging employees and the like, or they have decided to stay put where they can and maintain a settled form of existence, no matter how limited, adopting what little they could of the majority ways of cultivation.

Most of the Agusan Valley Manobo are still shifting cultivators of the kaingin type. They are content with small clearings planted to staple crops like corn, rice and root crops. Those who have adopted majority ways, and these are few indeed, have learned to plant abaca. But they  still have a long way to go with respect to techniques of cultivation. They usually continue the traditional practice of letting the crops fend for themselves.

In between planting and harvest seasons, they engage in hunting, fishing, trapping and, as in the case with some, carabao logging. This form of logging is done by those who own carabaos; others work for some lowland businessmen – turned small-time loggers. This activity has its disadvantages, however; the carabao loggers often run into conflict with big logging concessionaires and businessmen to whom they constitute a threat. “Common cause of the conflict with the loggers is in the restriction imposed upon them not to cut trees within the concessions. The Manobos cannot comprehend this prohibition. They cannot understand why they should not be allowed to cut trees which they owned since time immemorial”. (Yumo, ibid.). If they are permitted, as some concessionaires do, the conflict again arises because they are not allowed to sell their logs to outside buyers. Again, “the Manobos cannot understand why they will not be allowed to sell to outside buyers who offer higher prices…”(Yumo, ibid.).

Other economic activities also include rattan gathering. But not much is earned from this because the lowland buyers usually fleece them through excessive underpricing. Others have become wage earners; notable among these are the datus who are hired as security men and forest concession guards.

“Ownership” and Use of Land

Before the last war, Manoboland among the Central Mindanaw Manobo, was understood to be that falling within each village territory. The village boundaries were known, respected and enforced by certain fines (for trespassers).The people of one village could not hunt, fish or gather fruits within the limits of another without permission from the village authorities of that other village. The right to settle in another village depended upon the invitation or permission of the original settlers, their successors or the village authority. Other means by which such rights could be obtained was by operation of custom law (as in marriage) or by a combination of any of the above. However, the right to reside obtained by operation of custom law did not necessarily include the right to own land. Ownership here must come about by a grant from the village authority or the parent-in-law sharing their landholdings with their son-in-law.

Any citizen of a village may occupy any portion of land within the territory after securing the permission of the village authority and provided said portion show no signs of prior occupancy. Open areas beyond village limits may, however, be occupied by anyone.

After the Second World War, as a result of the introduction of abaca and coffee and the cash economy, land, which used to have practically no real estate value, then acquired such value. This is a new meaning added to the traditional concept of land. While before, land was usually not a source of inheritance, now it has become one. This brings the Manobo traditional concept of private property one step closer to the majority’s idea of private property.

Land among the Agusan Manobo is community property and its disposition to different households within the community is reserved to the village headman. They have their boundaries which members of other settlements recognized and respect. Hunting, fishing and other similar activities are limited within the boundaries to community members, or with the headman’s consent, to members of other Manobo communities.

The Agusan Manobo concept of private (meaning household) property does not include land. In theory and practice, a household or a group of households has the right only to the use of that piece of land which they are occupying and cultivating – and only for as long as they are occupying and tilling it. Once they move to another area, the land becomes open to other occupants. However, they retain ownership of crops, permanent or otherwise, which they left behind, at least until these are destroyed. But fruit trees and others growing in the forest are considered community property.

Threats to Survival

A lengthy quotation from Dr. Manuel will provide a good insight into the nature of this side of Central Mindanaw Manobo life. “Just as the time that the Manuvu people were achieving tribal consciousness and unity, other outside forces were at work that were going to shape their destiny. These outside forces can be identified as coming from three sources: the government, private organizations, and individuals. The pressure from the city government of Davao, (for instance), to bring the people under its wings is much felt in its tax collecting activities, and threats from the police. Private organizations, mainly logging companies, ranchers, and religious groups are penetrating deep into the interior since after the 1950s. With the construction of loggers’ roads, the opening up of Central Mindanaw to settlement has come to pass. Christian landseekers and adventurers have come from three directions: from the north on the Bukidnon side, from the west on the Cotabato side and from the south on the Davao and Cotabato side. How are these people going to face the problems posed by these inroads into their territory, disruptive elements that will surely affect their native and traditional was, their social organization and their culture?”(Manuel, ibid. 368-369).

The threat from the government side is further elaborated. “A more serious problem that native peoples have to face in Central Mindanaw is the encroachment upon the lands made possible by the Bureau of Forestry granting franchises to forest concessionaires whether land include native settlements and field occupied and cultivated by these native peoples from time immemorial. Since datus are not aware of what transpires in Manila and provincial capitals among the capitalists and officials, their plight is indeed a very sad one. In some instances, the Commission on National Integration (CNI) is informed of such violations of native rights, but the office is insufficiently manned (and lacks the necessary funds) to protect minority group rights.” (Manuel, ibid., 373-374).

If the CNI is helpless, much more so are the Manobo whose social organization has not reached and will never reach that level which would enable them to protect their own rights. Moreover, forestry laws make it a crime for anyone to cut trees within concession areas of other areas declared to be government lands. How can the Manobo understand that cutting trees to make a clearing is a crime? What he understands is that he must cut trees to plant a little, harvest a little and survive.

Some of the concessionaires have, wisely, hired minority leaders as forest concession guards. Not only has this step aroused the sensibilities of these leaders, it has also ensured freedom from native harassment for their affected logging operations in case some natives felt resentful about their presence.

The above processes have not ceased, and it is anyone’s guess when they will. Meanwhile, the native must survive.

The Agusan Manobo are not faring any better than their confreres in the Central Mindanaw area.  Here is the extensive observations of Yumo: “The immense forest of the Manoboland which used to be the habitat of the Manobo is now under the name of a few enterprising businessmen some of them have not even seen the place. Hence, the critical point of the friction between the Manobo and the Christian… is in relation to land ownership and distribution. It is the prevailing belief among the Manobos of Agusan Valley that the lands in the Valley including the forests are theirs by virtue of their being the original settlers and the hundreds of years of occupation since the time of their ancestors. Therefore, for others to claim ownership of the lands under the guidance of government policy would be tantamount to a violation of their vowed rights… A Manobo datu points out, ‘the land of Mindanaw is for the people of  Mindanaw to develop. Why should the government give these lands to the people of Luzon? We, being the original settlers should be given the priority for these lands are ours’” (Yumo, ibid., pp. 75-76).

Selected Aspect of Culture

Settlement of conflicts among the Manobo of Central Mindanaw proceeds according to batassan, their name for their custom. The chief datu, if there is one, is supreme in the enforcement of custom law. He is usually assisted by the different datus through settlement of cases in their respective localities. In instances where the authority of the supreme datus is not recognized, which is extremely rare, the cases is passed on to the government.

Two sanctions are recognized under batassan, that of retaliation and panavuk or wergild. In cases which in the eyes of the Manobo demand quick retaliation, such is resorted to by the aggrieved party or by his kinsmen. If, however, the preliminary steps towards settlement through panavuk have been taken, retaliation is held back. Appropriate people are mobilized immediately to collect the customary animals and other articles for panavuk.

In instances where the parties concerned cannot produce the required articles, it is part of the duties of a datu to produce the articles himself wholly or in part; with no strings attached.

As soon as satisfaction is achieved, the case is settled and some feasting is necessary as a last step to seal the reconciliation. It should be noted that the operation of batassan is characteristically reconciliation rather than punitive. As soon as a case is settled, the offending party is “re-admitted” to the community as though nothing had happened.

As a rule, batassan works quite efficiently and effectively among the Manobo of Central Mindanaw in maintaining social order within the community.

Among the Manobo og Agusan, the datu or the village headman mediates rather than passes judgment in the settlement of cases. This role, of palaghusay, among others, is based on their customs and tradition which is believed “to be embodied in the mythical giling which is presently in the possession of a datu coming from the royal lineage”. The giling symbolizes law and authority in Manoboland and is considered to be the principal sources of Manobo customary laws. It is described as a black piece of wood with several notches on it to serve as memory aid. In case of conflict in the interpretation of laws, the giling is consulted.

To maintain social order, the Agusan Manobo have a set of accepted social norms and regulations which affect much matters as individuals or family feuds, crimes, family relations, adultery, breach of contract and the like. Under their custom law, the following are considered high crimes: adultery, fornication, rape and homicide; these are punishable by death. In any of the above where a female might be the offender, she is spared of the death penalty. Note that often the death penalty is administered naturally, that is, by the offended party who as expected reacts violently to such crimes. This is accepted as fair under custom law.

Minor cases usually do not reach the headman. Settlement is reached with the help of relatives of the parties involved.

The Manobo also have a set of compensation-reparations or fines which are determined according to custom law.

Stimuli to Change in Native Ways

Faced with pressures more than they could handle, the strongest motivating factor to change for both the Central Mindanaw and Agusan Manobo are the demands of survival, that is, within the framework of the government, both cash economy and a different culture. To be happy among the aggressive majority of settlers, loggers, businessmen-middlemen, they are compelled to modify or even abandon certain customs which now weigh on them and adopt new lifeways, like new farming techniques, religion, wage earning, tenancy, education, etc.

Manobo Reaction to Certain External Forces

One classic reaction among the Central Mindanaw Manobo that seems to constitute about the only official pronouncement made by a paramount chief for the benefit of his people was the public discouragement of the sale of lands to majority settlers. This about less than a decade or two ago when, for the first time in their history, the Manobo of Central Mindanaw thinking in terms of a regionally comprehensive Manobo community. But its effect was minimal. Things happened too fast. Besides, once a sale is made, no custom law can annul it against the provisions of Philippine laws.

The Manobo of Agusan find it difficult to understand why they, the original inhabitants of that area, are not even priority in the distribution of land. In the administration of justice under Philippine laws, they also find it difficult to see in what way the government laws are also the laws of the Manobo. For many of them the concept of government (Philippines) has not gone beyond policemen, soldiers and jail.  They are law-abiding in their sense of the term, and they would not deliberately violate government laws. But how and why is something they still have to comprehend. Many times they wake up only to find out that they are being charged with violation of government laws.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. A peace specialist, Rudy Buhay Rodil is an active Mindanao historian and peace advocate)