ANGAY-ANGAY LANG: The Lumads are Our People, Too! (5)

Part 5 of 7: Population Shifts in Cotabato

Rudy Buhay Rodil

(Editor’s note: This article is a slight revision of the lectures the author delivered between the years 1999 and 2000 to two major audiences — the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility in Metro Manila and the Bishops-Ulama Forum, now known as Bishops-Ulama Conference, in Davao City.)

An examination of the population shifts, based on the censuses of 1918, 1939 and 1970, in the empire province of Cotabato, clearly indicates the process by which the indigenous population gave way to the migrants.

Cotabato has been the traditional center of the Magindanaw Sultanate. Aside from the Magindanawon, its Moro population also include Iranun and Sangil. It is also the traditional habitat of several Lumad tribes like the Manobo, the Teduray, the Dulangan (Manobo), the Ubo, the T’boli and the Bla-an. It is, at the same time, the focus of very heavy streams of settlers from the north. As a matter of fact, it was no accident that the American colonial government made it the site of the first agricultural colonies. It had all the markings of a present day counter-insurgency operation which at that time was Moro armed resistance to American rule.

In 1918, what used to be known as the empire province of Cotabato (now subdivided into Cotabato, South Cotabato, Sarangani, Sultan Kudarat and Maguindanaw) had a total of 171,978 inhabitants distributed in 36 municipalities and municipal districts. The 1939 census registered a total population of 298,935 distributed in 33 towns. The 1970 figures showed a total population of 1,602,117. The fantastic leaps in population increase cannot be explained by natural growth, only by the rapidity of the migration process. How did this affect the balance of population?

In 1918, the Muslims were the majority in 20 towns, the Lumad in 5, and the settlers in none. Not much change was revealed in the 1939 census; the Muslims continued to be the majority in 20 towns, the Lumad increased to nine as a result of political subdivisions, and the settlers had three. The 1970 figures indicated an unbelievable leap. Now, the Muslims had only 10 towns to their name; not a single one was left to the Lumad – although it showed 31 towns with Lumad population of less than 10 percent, and the settlers now dominated in 38 towns.

Pattern of Population Change Throughout Mindanaw

The history of population shift in Cotabato was reflected throughout Mindanaw, revealing a pattern consistently unfavorable to the indigenous population. Total Islamized population was placed at 39.29 percent in 1903; this was down to 20.17 percent in 1975. Lumad population was 22.11 percent in 1903; it fell to 6.86 percent in 1975. Put the other way, what particular areas had Muslim majority? Or Lumad majority? By the census of 1980, the Muslims still had only five provinces and 13 towns in other provinces to their name. The Lumad had only seven towns.

Role of Big Business in the Displacement Process in Mindanaw

Big business have also contributed significantly to the displacement of the indigenous inhabitants of Mindanaw. We can only cite some examples here. Between 1905 and 1939, Japanese agri-corporations entered into big time abaca production in Davao. Their landholdings totaled 63,765 hectares, which constituted nearly 60 percent of the total land areas cultivated with abaca. Other planters were American; Filipino and Spanish. Overwhelming Japanese presence enabled them to control business in practically all fields, such that goods sold in Davao were said to be 90 percent Japanese. From 340 people in 1905, the Japanese population in Davao grew to 17,888 in 1939, 8,000 of whom were Japanese workers imported from Japan.

Displaced and dispossessed indigenous inhabitants mostly belonged to the Bagobo tribe. The pain these people have experienced may be reflected in the way they reacted to Japanese presence. Between 1918 and 1938, around 600 Japanese were slain by the Bagobos. These killings followed a periodic pattern. In times when the Japanese aggressively needed more lands for their abaca, many were killed. But during production lags, the killing subsided. The first boom in abaca production in Davao was in 1918-1921. Some 100 Japanese were slain then. The next boom occurred in 1928-1930 and in 1934-35. The first boom coincided with the occurrence of the small pox and influenza epidemics, and these conspired in accelerating the land grabbing activities of the foreigners. But there was a cultural dimension to this explanation. Among the trees felled by the Japanese were the big trees believed by the Bagobos to be the abode of spirits. The epidemic for them was a manifestation of the spirit’s wrath, and this was reason enough for them to act to appease the spirits.

The Bagobos relied on the fruits of the forest. But when the plantations expanded, the felling of forest trees became uncontrollable. Several springs dried up. Forest animals vanished, and the lansones, durian, betel and other fruits likewise disappeared. And so they retaliated against the Japanese who were destroying their sources of livelihood before their eyes.

The combined landholdings of the two biggest fruit companies in Mindanaw in the 1970s totalled more than 13,000 hectares. The more than 7,000-hectare Philippine Packing Corporation (Del Monte) in Bukidnon sits on Bukidnon ancestral land. Dole’s (Dolefil) more than 6,000-hectare land in Polomolok affects and is still being contested by the Bla-an tribe. Mostly engaged in rice and corn production, corporate farms spread out all over Mindanaw and owned by 22 big corporations in the Philippines, aimed to cultivate a total of more than 63,000 hectares as of 1977. This was one big factor in the Matigsalug rebellion of 1975 in Bukidnon. Manobo inhabitants are still contesting some of the lands being cultivated by the Bukidnon Sugar Company (BUSCO).

Quantitatively, it was logging which should be credited with having penetrated the vast virgin territories of Mindanaw to exploitation. It also opened the way for more settlers. Logging became widespread in the region in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Already as a result of resettlement, indigenous populations naturally receded from their habitat in the plains upward into the forest areas. Logging caught up with them there. In 1972-73 alone, there were 156 logging concessionaires, mostly corporate, in Mindanaw with a total concession area of 4,878,895.02 hectares, virtually leaving no room in the forest for the tribal peoples. It should be noted that the timber license assumed that there are no inhabitants within the concession area, and that no one except the concessionaire was authorized to cut trees within the concession area. The region’s total commercial forest was at that time estimated to be 3.92 million hectares! To ensure smooth operations, logging companies were known to have hired indigenous datus as chief forest concession guards. Still, there were a good number of uprisings triggered by Lumad dissatisfactions over logging operations. One well publicized case was the Higaunon rebellion in Agusan del Norte-Misamis Oriental-Bukidnon regions in the mid-1960s. Another was the Matigsalug rebellion Bukidnon in 1975. What really happened was that logging companies came where the Lumads already lived, they cut down the forests, the loggers left, the settlers poured in, the original inhabitants moved further into the interior, then the cycle was repeated when the loggers eventually caught up with them. Within 25 years of their first lease period, the logging operations nearly cleaned out all the forest cover of the region.

Pasture lands, covered also by 25-year leases, come as a poor second to logging with 296 lessees in 1972-73 for a total of 179,011.6 hectares. Conflict with ranchers was the main trigger in the Matigsalug rebellion. Similar stories of conflict have been reported in South Cotabato.

Lately, after the enactment of the Mining Act of 1995, the latest threat from big business in the perception of the Lumad population and those who sympathize with them have been the mining companies. As of this writing, at least six big foreign companies have pending applications for a Financial and Technical Assistance Agreements (FTAA) with the government for large scale exploration, development and utilization of mineral resources in Mindanaw. Their combined exploration area is 2,156,000 hectares. The actual mining site may just be three to five percent of this but the very thought that the company is authorized by government to conduct exploration activities even in private lands seems to be totally unacceptable. Objections to their presence range from environmental destruction to displacement of the indigenous and settler communities to nationalist considerations. What many regard to be unconscionable is the apparent favorable treatment accorded foreign business interests and the perceived utter disregard for the Filipino people’s interest. So far, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines has put its weight against the mining law.

Rubbing Salt to Injury

Prior to the massive influx of settlers, the general observation is that the indigenous population of Mindanaw were originally lowlanders. With the arrival of the settlers, the local inhabitants receded into the midland areas. With the coming of logging concessions and cattle ranches, they moved further up to the uplands. While trying to make do with was left to them, a law came into existence in 1975, Presidential Decree 705 or the Revised Forestry Code providing, among others, that lands not covered by paper titles which are over 18 percent in slope or less than 250 hectares are considered permanently public. Section 69 of the same decree declares it unlawful to do kaingin or practice swidden agriculture without permit. Penalty is up to two years imprisonment or a fine not to exceed 20,000 pesos. By virtue of this law, the Lumad who have been pushed to the last frontiers of their ancestral lands are now illegal occupants and making their living illegally!

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

Next: Part VI: Looking Forward To A Life Of Peace and Development