SPECIAL REPORT. Asserting the Lumads’ right to education: learning goes on despite closure of schools

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 28 July) — On clear and sunny weekdays, the activities of students break the silence of this small High School tucked neatly in the valley of Sitio Masicareg, Brgy. Anitapan in Mabini town, Davao de Oro (formerly Compostela Valley).  Some 500 meters uphill, the Army detachment of the 71st IB is visible, its presence a reminder that this is a conflict zone.

There might have been no shots fired, no one harmed, but this Indigenous People’s school no longer stands.

Despite the closure of the Salugpongan schools for the Lumads (Indigenous Peoples) in Mindanao, learning continues even in makeshift classrooms at the evacuation center in the United Church of Christ of the Philippines’ Haran compound in Davao City. Photo taken in July 2019 by BING GONZALES

Mie Alegre, one of the five teachers at the Salugpongan Ta’ Tanu Igkanogon Community Learning Center, Inc. said the privately-run High School offered Grades 7 to 10, with a population of 27 students, majority from Mansaka and Mandaya  tribes, and three students from migrant families. It was established in 2015 and follows the Department of Education curriculum.

As her first teaching job soon after graduation in 2018, Mie taught Math and Science from Grade 7 to 10, since there were only very few teachers willing to be assigned in the interior and mountainous area of Mabini town.

The teachers and some students had to find board in Brgy. Anitapan and can only go back home every two months due to the difficulty in transportation and the astronomical cost of travel.

From Mawab town, it takes four hours to reach Sitio Masicareg on a motorcycle and the fare is 1,500 pesos.

Mie said the presence of the Army takes getting used to even if the teachers question why they have to sign a logbook every morning.  She said this is intimidating because soldiers also check the teachers during classes. They are often asked why they chose to teach under such inhospitable environment when they could have practiced in more urban communities.

For Mie, this was the place where she wanted to be.

The story of Mie

“I chose to be a teacher serving indigenous communities because I would never have the opportunity to get an education without the scholarship I received from Fr. Pops since I was in elementary until I finished college in 2018,” Mie said.

Born in Brgy, Baliti, Magpet town in North Cotabato, Mie’s parents were very poor farmers who were migrants from Panay island. They were living with the Lumads (Indigenous Peoples) who accepted them as one of their own. Fr.  Fausto “Pops” Tentorio, PIME, inspired her to achieve her dreams of getting an education.

Fr. Pops, an Italian missionary of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, was shot dead inside the parish compound in Arakan, North Cotabato on October 17, 2011. He was a staunch defender of IP rights and active in opposing mining and other environment issues. He also supported scholars to provide children of impoverished families the chance to move beyond the cycle of poverty that was so prevalent in the communities he served.

In December 2017, the Department of Justice panel released the findings of its reinvestigation that directed the filing of charges against two military officials and several others. His parishioners believe that members of the paramilitary group known as “Bagani” were behind the killing of the Italian missionary. The Bagani is believed to have been organized and funded by the military as force multiplier in its counter-insurgency campaign. But the military has denied that Bagani exists.

Mie said that even with Fr. Pops gone, she continued to avail of the scholarship through the church until she finished a degree in Bachelor of Arts in Secondary Education at the Lyceo de Davao in Tagum City, Davao del Norte in 2018.

There was no doubt in her mind that serving the Lumads was to be her life’s work.

Salugpongan Ta’ Tanu Igkanogon

The High School in Sitio Masicareg and 53 other Salugpongan schools have ceased to operate since October 8, 2019, and in its place are schools now run by the Department of Education (DepEd).

On October 8, 2019, the DepEd in the Davao region (DepEd XI) imposed the closure of all Salugpongan Ta’ Tanu Igkanogon operating in the region using the results of a Fact-Finding Committee resolution dated September 20, 2019 as basis.  The recommendation was for the closure of the private schools owned and operated by the Salugpongan, stating that their schools do not teach in accordance with the guidelines of the DepEd, alleging it is teaching only Literacy and Numeracy.

The committee, according to DepEd XI spokesperson Jenelito Atillo, conducted consultations on August 7, 2019 with schools division superintendents of Compostela Valley, Davao del Norte, Davao Oriental, and Davao City including district supervisors of the areas where Salugpongan schools exist. There were also consultations with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP), tribal chieftains, and former students of the Salugpongan and a conference with the officials of the Salugpongan was held on the 27th of August.

Among the violations cited by the DepEd were:

  • A former Salugpongan student said they were only taught Literacy and Numeracy; contrary to the DepEd curriculum that requires the teaching of all subject areas for Grade 1 to Grade 10;
  • A former Salugpongan volunteer teacher said they taught students how to conduct rally against the government;
  • Salugpongan brought its students from their home without the consent of their parents and used them to generate funds by making them perform the plight of the Indigenous Peoples (IPs), in violation of the DepEd’s Child Protection Policy;
  • Teachers are not passers of the Licensure Exam for Teachers;
  • It has not obtained the mandatory Free, Prior and Informed Consent of the concerned IP communities and Certification Precondition from the NCIP;
  • Some students do not have Learners Reference Number, in violation of the requirement under DepEd Order No. 26, s. 2015; and
  • It has misrepresented its enrollment data, that the data contained in the documents it submitted do not match the data found in the Learners Information System.

It accounted 1,142 learners were affected by the suspension prior to the release of the order. Of that number, Atillo said 1,000 learners were transferred to DepEd schools. The 142 learners were believed to be in the so called “bakwit” (evacuee) schools, such as the Haran compound in Davao City.

Mie was then in Sitio Lawaan, Brgy. Taytayan in Cateel, Davao Oriental, working as non-teaching staff in 2019 when she was informed of the closure. Immediately, she said the soldiers came and secured the school. She believes some of the students may have transferred to other schools but some lived far from the public high school.

Martial law

“This is martial law. The military over civilians. There is no direct armed confrontation, just ensuring that young people do not get education so that the IPs will remain ignorant forever and big companies can exploit their resources, their ancestral domain like they did in the past which was the reason why Salugpongan was established in 1994 in Talaingod, Davao del Norte,” she said.

President Rodrigo Duterte placed all of Mindanao’s 27 provinces and 33 cities  under martial law on May 23, 2017, barely eight hours after the first shots were fired on Day 1 of the Marawi Siege.  Martial law was supposed to last for only 60 days unless extended by Congress.

President Rodrigo Duterte delivers his 5th State of the Nation Address before a Joint session of Congress on 27 July 2020. Duterte claimed martial law in Mindanao ended on December 31, 2019 “without abuses by the civilian sector, by the police, by the military.”ALBERT ALCAIN/PRESIDENTIAL PHOTO


On July 24, 2017,  two months after martial law was declared and two days after it was extended until yearend, President Duterte in a press conference after his second State of the Nation Address (SONA), warned he would bomb Lumad schools because they teach students to rebel against the government.

“Umalis kayo diyan. Sabihin ko diyan sa mga Lumad ngayon, umalis kayo diyan. Bobombahan ko ‘yan. Isali ko ‘yang mga istruktura ninyo” (Leave. I’m telling the Lumads now,  leave. I will bomb that place and include your structures).

“I will use the Armed Forces, the Philippine Air Force. Talagang bobombahan ko ‘yung mga… lahat ng ano ninyo (I will really bomb all of it). Because you are operating illegally and you are teaching the children to rebel against government,” he said.

As early as 2015, there were already threats to close Salugpongan’s schools. Its leaders show their permits to operate granted by DepEd. MindaNews file photo by TOTO LOZANO

The war between government forces and the Islamic State-inspired Maute Group and its allies in Marawi lasted five months until October 2017  but martial law in Mindanao was extended thrice for a total of 952 days until December 31, 2019.

In his fifth SONA on Monday, July 27, Duterte claimed “martial law in Mindanao ended without abuses by the civilian sector, by the police, by the military. It ended because this time I know that they know how to love the country.”

Teaching Lumads for 25 years

Salugpongan was established in 1994 by the tribal leaders who were then fighting for their ancestral domain against big logging companies. The elders felt that they need to have their children educated so that they will be able to understand what is happening around them to fully protect their land.

Datu Guibang Apoga, a tribal leader, was one of the fiercest leaders who fought for the protection of their ancestral domain and supported the Salugpongan.

On June 10, 2018, the Army’s 10th Infantry Division reported that the ailing Datu who waged war against the government for more than two decades in the hinterlands of Davao del Norte and Bukidnon “surrendered” during a tribal peace gathering at Barangay Palma Gil in Talaingod, Davao del Norte.

Salugpongan posted this e-posted on its Facebook page on the 20th anniversary of the school in 2014.

In the 1990s, the Lumad school’s curriculum was initially Literacy and Numeracy enriched by their cultural traditions and practices. In 2007, Salugpongan became a formal school, following the DepEd curriculum, and acquired the documents required as an alternative educational institution for IPs, known in Mindanao as Lumads.

Mie said they are challenged to use the experience of the Lumads in their teaching methods so that it will benefit them. This is why they add practical skills in the curriculum, she said.

“The students have to return to their community and help uplift their lives, so we include sustainable agriculture for food security, environment, culture and other skills they can use,” Mie said.

The right of the Lumads to education is protected by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which states under Article 14 that “Indigenous peoples have the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions providing education in their own languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning.”

Their right to education is also protected by a number of other international human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Salugpongan community school in Sitio Dulyan, Barangay Palma Gil, Talaingod, Davao del Norte during the flag ceremony on 19 November 2018. Photo courtesy of Breakaway Media

Goal 4 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development calls for ensuring equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable, including persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples and children in vulnerable situations.

But even with these international instruments, the United Nations is aware that “the right to education has not been fully realized for most Indigenous Peoples, and a critical education gap exists between Indigenous Peoples and the general population.”

During the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples on August 8, 2016, it was emphasized under the Indigenous People’s Right to Education that: “As distinct peoples, Indigenous Peoples have developed their own knowledge systems, values, institutions, practices and economies, often based on sustainable management of natural resources. Likewise, Indigenous Peoples have their own cultural methods of transmitting knowledge.”

The education sector “is a particular arena that not only mirrors and condenses the historical abuses, discrimination and marginalization suffered by Indigenous Peoples, but also reflects their continued struggle for equality and respect for their rights as peoples and as individuals.”

“Not Lumad”

Lt. Col. Ezra Balagtey, spokesperson of the Eastern Mindanao Command when the Salugpongan schools were closed, says these schools “were not Lumad Schools, they are private schools run by Non- Government Organizations catering to IP Learners.”

The teachers, administrators and other staff, he claimed, “are not Lumads, there may be some but only a few,” the Tribal Council “has nothing to say on how it is being run” and the curriculum, according to him, is not in accordance with the DepEd IP Education.

Lt. Col. Ezra Balagtey, spokesperson of the Eastern Mindanao Command at the time the Salugpongan schools were ordered closed. Photo from his FB page

“After the DepEd closed them, our soldiers being part of the community participated in the Bayanihan activities of putting up schools that will replace them,” he said.

As part of the Critical Infrastructure Protection Security Operations, military units, he said, are closely coordinating with those implementing the Last Mile School Program of DepEd which aims to put up schools in the far flung areas and Geographically Isolated and Disadvantage Areas

He maintained that the military “has no role in the closing of schools.”

“It is the regulatory power of the DepEd,” he added.

If Salugpongan is not a Lumad school because it is not run by Indigenous Peoples, what is it then?

“I’m not sure what to make of it. Not all teachers of all-boys schools are male, does that affect the nature of the school? If Mr. Balagtey has his own definition, let him have it,” said Meggie Nolasco, Executive Director of Salugpongan.

“We have been recognized and granted permits to operate for 12 years by DepEd who considered us partners in reaching and serving the population they were unable to, Lumad or non-Lumad. A mere play on words or  technicalities would not erase that, nor would it ease the effect of the schools’ closure on children, teachers and communities whose right to education and other basic human rights have been trampled on.”

For teacher Chris Matibay, those who were behind the closure of the Lumad school do not appreciate the struggle of the Lumads and do not have a grasp of their conditions.

“Ang katungod sa edukasyon, dili lang pakigbisog sa mga Lumad, kung dili sa tanan nga adunay may pagtanaw sa mahayag nga kaugmaon sa tanang kabataan” (The right to education is not just the struggle of the Lumads but of everyone who has a vision of a brighter future for our youth),” he said.

Though no longer teaching formally, Mie continues to hold Literacy and Numeracy classes in the cramped evacuation center at the Haran Compound of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines in Davao City.


Despite the setbacks, Nolasco vowed to continue to find ways to help Lumad students.

She said they consulted with the parents, students, allied DepEd teachers and other educators to figure out how best to continue the education of the children in light of the school closure and attacks.

“One of the resolutions is that the Salugpongan community teachers and other volunteers will ensure teaching Literacy and Numeracy, and continue education of the children whether they are officially enrolled or not. We also talked with sponsors and we are seeking help financially for the enrollment of high school, senior high school and college students, in both public and private schools,” she said.

The challenge now, according to Nolasco, is not so much on striking a compromise with Deped on Salugpongan’s reopening but “how best to ensure the interest, safety and security of the children.” They do this by forming alliances with sympathetic teachers, educators and individuals in both the public and private sector.

Nolasco admits that in the past two years, they have not been able to ensure continued education in the areas where their schools are located.

Meggie Nolasco, Executive Director of Salugpongan. — from the FB page of Save Our Schools Network, 4 December 2018

Gathering reports from the ground was difficult even when their schools were operating because of  distance and poor telecommunications network signal.

“It’s more difficult now because we have lost contact with our students and community members due to all that has happened. We also can’t go back to the areas  to facilitate their transfer to public schools as we tried to do late last year since the community members advised against it because of safety and security concerns,” she said.

Determination, Persistence, Resilience

For Nolasco, the past two years have been an exercise of determination, persistence and resilience of their teachers, students, parents and allied individuals and organizations, “the same principles we are holding onto now to collectively face the uncertainty amidst the health, political and economic crisis.”

To continue the schooling of the children, they held classes at the evacuation center in Haran, Davao City. Other campuses were able to hold their moving up ceremonies despite the relentless attacks, including the school in Masicareg at the end of schoolyear 2018 to 2019.

Eleven schools managed to open in schoolyear 2019 to 2020 despite the series of harassment. But Masicareg was not one of them as the teachers and community members, like those in other campuses, were afraid.

“Without due process,” Nolasco said, their schools were formally ordered closed in October 2019 “because of the insistence of the national heads of AFP and DepEd.”

Still, they continued holding classes at the bakwit centers in Davao, Manila and Cebu and would have been able to hold graduation rites in March 2020 if the COVID-19 lockdowns had not happened.

Lumad education in the time of COVID-19

Nolasco says they continued classes despite the lockdown but “adjusted the structure and schedule” based on the COVID-19 guidelines.

“We saw this as a way to help the children, community and even the teachers collectively cope during this very difficult and different time.  Our lessons centered on urban farming, health and sanitation, reading and other life skills,” she said.

Nolasco fears majority of  their students – at least 2,000 of them – “would find it harder to continue their education because of the health, economic and other costs.”

“What we’re doing now is focus on the learning of 150 students who are here (in Haran). Not just through formal education and enrollment in the traditional sense but on the kind of learning that we have advocated and fought for since the founding of our schools: education, formal or not, which centers on the needs and aspirations of the community through assertion of their rights to self-determination and genuine development,” she said.

Part of what they are teaching the students now is public health education, Matibay said.  This includes weekly general cleaning done by the students and other evacuees.

From among the evacuees are volunteer health workers who see to it that basic health protocols and cleanliness are followed.

Matibay said evacuees are into farming and urban gardening to ensure a steady supply of nutritious food.

He acknowledged that social distancing is difficult to implement among children but adults are mandated to maintain one meter distance from each other. Wearing masks is also a must.

They have also adjusted the schedule of classes in the makeshift classrooms.

Some attend classes in the morning, the others in the afternoon.

They also do tutorials by cluster because they lack classrooms.

“Pero bisan pa man kulang, padayon gihapon ang pagtuon sa mga   batadinhi sulod sa sangtwaryo” (But even if we lack classrooms, educating the children continues in this sanctuary), Matibay said.

(Amalia B. Cabusao is editor in chief of Mindanao Times in Davao City. She is also the training director of the Mindanao Institute of Journalism which runs MindaNews).