Lands Bathed in Blood: The Plight of the Lumad

Dahil halos mag-iisang buwan na ang paghihintay kong matanggap ang sinulat ko, i-popost ko na lang siya muna dito. Sakto din na Manilakbayan ngayon hanggang sa susunod na buwan. Sana hindi pa huli ang lahat.

I will not remain silent.

Being born and raised in Mindanao, in the province of South Cotabato, the rapid spate of killings of our Lumad brothers and sisters in Mindanao for the past few months in Surigao del Sur, Bukidnon, and Davao del Norte had me extremely alarmed.

We now fear for our Lumad brothers and sisters living in the proposed project area of Sagittarius Mines, Inc. (SMI). With former Department of National Defense Secretary Gilbert “Gibo” Teodoro, as the newly appointed chair last August, with Alsons Prime Investment Corporation owned by the influential Alcantara family and San Miguel Corporation as some of the shareholders, and with the May 2016 elections coming, we are afraid what is happening in Surigao del Sur, Bukidnon, Davao del Norte, and Agusan del Sur will be replicated in our area.

One of the largest of its kind in the world, the SMI Tampakan mining project covers 10,000 hectares spanning the two regions of SOCCSKSARGEN and Davao, specifically the municipalities of Columbio in Sultan Kudarat, Tampakan in South Cotabato, Malungon in Sarangani, and Kiblawan in Davao del Sur. Through exploratory studies made by the company (using a cut-off grade of 0.2%), a total of 2.94 billion tons at a grade of 0.51% copper and 0.19 grams per ton gold have been estimated in the site, which translates to 15.0 million tons of copper and 17.6 million ounces of gold.

According to SMI’s website, the potential contributions of the Tampakan project to the community and economy are large and significant. For the economy alone, an average of PhP 134 billion[1] every year is estimated to contribute to the Philippines’ Gross Domestic Product (GDP), equivalent to 1% increase in the country’s GDP, annually. National and local government revenues through taxes and other fees are estimated at PhP 307 billion for the 20-year life of the project. Over the same period, royalty payments and direct contributions in excess of PhP 39.8 billion (nominal) would be made to local communities and indigenous groups.

Community development programs, part of corporate social responsibility, such as financial support for elementary, high school, and college students; health insurance support for households; livelihood covering new farm technology and farm support, selected crop production, and dressmaking among others; and planting or donating around 600,000 seedlings, were already done by SMI prior to the approval of the project.

However, the detrimental impact of the Tampakan project clearly outweighs its purported benefits. With a project life span of 20 years, the revenues gained cannot substitute for the massive scale of destruction to the environment, health, livelihood, food security, and quality of life of all people—Christians, Muslims, and Lumads living in Sultan Kudarat, South Cotabato, Davao del Sur, and Sarangani—that SMI would bring. The project has already divided and induced conflict among the tribes living in the area, which provides a good justification of deploying the military.

Mining waste and tailings, clearing of thousands of hectares of forests and agricultural lands, flashfloods, contamination of watersheds, drying up of ground water supply, and illnesses from toxic chemicals are among the negative effects, further aggravated by climate change, should the Tampakan project be approved. The proposed waste rock storage facility, fresh water dam, mine void, and tailing pond will be built above the Cotabato fault line, which, in the event of an earthquake, will cause one of the worst disasters in the world. The coal mines owned by San Miguel Corporation in Lake Sebu, South Cotabato, intended to be the source for the 240-megawatt plant in Maasim, Sarangani owned by the Alcantaras, will provide the electricity for the mining operations, now feared as the main cause of coral bleaching in Sarangani bay. The waters of Maasim is declared by the municipality as a marine sanctuary and considered as a world-class diving site.

Under the Philippine Mining Act of 1995, once approved, SMI will gain possession of the final mine area, which would require resettlement of communities—around 5,000 people from the Bong Mal Bong Banwe B’laan territory alone. Bong Mal is located at the borders of Tampakan, South Cotabato and Kiblawan, Davao del Sur.  In a press release by Tampakan Forum, the Bong Mal community’s consent is critical to the project because 70% of the proposed mining area is within their territory, under the Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title (CADT) 102. Three other ancestral domains, CADT 108 and 72, and Certificate of Ancestral Claim 74, will also be affected should the SMI project have the go signal. The Environment Code of the Province of South Cotabato banning open-pit mining; free, prior and informed consent; as well as the strong support of the Catholic Church and civil society organizations remain as major obstacles to the full operations.

On October 8, 2012, B’laan leader Daguil Capion’s pregnant wife Juvy, their sons John and Pop, were killed in an “encounter” by soldiers of the 27th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army, in their own house. Bullets rained their small hut early Thursday morning, mother and children still fast asleep.

Daguil was formerly a community relations staff of SMI for three years but after realizing the mining project will not only destroy their tradition but their environment, their lands, the mountains that they took pains to care for many generations—he was forced to take up arms and later join the New People’s Army (NPA).  Last July 2015, Daguil was arrested by combined police and military forces in Poblacion, Malungon, Sarangani. Upon his arrest, Daguil said in an interview that the only sin he ever committed was his open opposition to the SMI mining operations.

Last October 8, 2015, three years after, justice for Daguil Capion’s wife and sons remains elusive. Many Lumad leaders and supporters have been killed for the past decade due to their strong opposition to land conversion and development projects. Just over a month ago, Maluhutayong Pakigbisog Alansa sa Sumusunod (MAPASU) Chairperson Dionel Campos and Alternative Learning Center for Agricultural and Livelihood Development (ALCADEV) Director Emerito Samarca of Lianga, Surigao del Sur, and Tagdumahan leader Lito Abion of San Luis, Agusan del Sur were killed.

In Mindanao, we do not only have mining as concerns. In South Cotabato, we have vast plantations of pineapples, bananas, and papaya, among others, owned by transnational corporations such as under Dole Philippines, Stanfilco, Sumifru, and Lapanday Corporation, some situated in the ancestral lands of our Lumad brothers and sisters. According to the Office of the Provincial Agriculturist, of the 44% of the land area devoted to agricultural crops (148,000 hectares), 25% (41,420 hectares) are planted with high-value commercial crops, also known as “cash crops” – crops grown mainly for profit.

Just two blocks away from our house, a pineapple plantation extends to the adjacent barangay occupies what used to be verdant meadows occasionally grazed by goats and cows. The whole plantation traverses residences of the two barangays, a stone’s throw away, including the small Catholic church of the Poblacion, and the town’s cemetery. The plantation was initiated in 2013, allegedly because of dubious transactions between the former local chief executive, punong barangays of the concerned areas, and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Aside from land grabbing and violence – harassments, abuses, massacres, rape, burning and destruction, land conversion activities done by majority of large corporations focused on cash crops have also resulted to problems in environment, health, water supply, and genetic biodiversity.

Despite the call by large international agencies such as UN for the national government’s attention related to the spate of killings and the dismantling of paramilitary groups, the present government has chosen and continued to turn a blind eye, focusing instead on campaigning for 2016 election candidates and survey ratings.

The declaration of the Samal Island abduction last September 21 as a “national priority” by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), the continued occupation of military and paramilitary groups in schools which are sacred grounds and zones of peace, and repeated denial of access of the Lumads to their lands and mountains clearly demonstrate the apathy and disrespect of the government towards the Filipino people.

In the constitution, as part of the Department of National Defense, the AFP is not only mandated to protect the sovereignty of the country, but also support the government in socioeconomic development. However, what the AFP sees as “peace” and “development” is grossly misaligned with what the civilian communities perceive as peace and development. Differences in ideology are often used as a justification by the agency for conducting development-related activities and operations. Red tagging and red-baiting innocent people, for instance, the Morong 43 – a group of physicians, nurses, midwives, and barangay health workers arrested in February 2010 at Morong, Rizal for allegedly illegal possessing firearms and explosives, is a common military strategy. The group was conducting a community health training in a farm house when they were raided by around 300 soldiers and police, then illegally detained and tortured. And despite a resolution released by the Commission of Human Rights last April 2015 confirming the Morong 43’s claims, the AFP has continued to deny the arrest, detainment, and torture of these health workers.

On the other hand, the presence of NPAs in the province has also been a concern as far as I can remember. Stories of ransacked or damaged properties and burned crops because of failure to pay revolutionary taxes are not new. We are also situated near ARMM, in which Moro freedom fighters and terrorists are problems. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, when I was younger, sometimes we would hear gunshots and blasts from far away. We would turn off the lights and TV, listen, open the windows and take a peek outside, and wait silently—anxiously for the noises to stop. In 2002, when I was in first year high school, to celebrate the victory of our school during a division-wide contest we went to a food court in a well-known mall, when we suddenly heard a blast. It was from an improvised explosive device (IED). We heard the sound of windows shattered in the ground floor. A stampede ensued. All around us, people were screaming and running for their lives. Our group was paralyzed from the shock. For the first time, my teeth were chattering and my hands and knees were shaking—I have never felt so afraid in my life. I was only 12 at that time, full of dreams, and not ready to die.

In the end, for us civilians, it doesn’t matter whether it is the military, paramilitary, NPA, mercenaries, or terrorists—all groups are to be feared. We all want to live in peace and exist harmoniously—Christians, Muslims, and Lumads. To be caught in conflict and displaced, to be subjected to inhumane treatment and traumatized, to be deprived of living and functioning normally—these are just some of the realities we have in Mindanao, and are not even given the national attention it deserves.

Perceiving and treating the happenings in Mindanao as merely political and ideological in nature completely dismisses the fact that Mindanao is very abundant in natural resources, and therefore, the root of these decades-long abuses, killings, and unrest, is profit. Millions—billions of profit. Profit that will benefit those in the higher status. For those interested in running during the May 2016 elections, profits from mining operations can generously fund their campaigns. Those with connections to shareholders, whether through blood or business interest, have a significant edge over their counterparts.

How many farmers, fisherfolks, laborers, and IPs do you think know Marx, Lenin, and Mao very well? Most are ready to die for their struggle, without knowing what communism is. Concrete conditions, such as inequitable distribution of lands, opportunistic merchants and corporations, and abuse by the government forces, provide the impetus for organized movement, not ideologies—which many of them do not completely understand.

Alternative community schools such as ALCADEV are perceived as threats and are either occupied or closed down because of the empowering effect of literacy and education to the Lumads. By being able to read and write, and by being fluent in languages spoken by the majority, they are able to effectively convey to many people and represent themselves in many problems and issues thus avoiding exploitation.

Spilling the blood of innocent men, women, children, and elders for the sake of “peace” and “socioeconomic development”, health and environmental problems for the sake of “socioeconomic development”, guns and bombs for “peace and security”—how much more can we Mindanaoans take?

Rotating brownouts and shortage of water supply continue to plague Mindanao while the majority worry about getting the latest fashion or gadgets, ratings, and trends. Violence, crimes, and illegal drugs continue to rise in the provinces because of worsening poverty. Migration to major urban areas including Metro Manila and abroad to work as contractuals or domestic workers has already become an inevitable choice for many.

We Mindanaoans dream about the very same things as the people in Luzon and Visayas: we all want to sleep peacefully at night, eat at least three times a day, gain equal access to clean water, electricity and basic services especially education and health, secure stable employment, send all our children to school, and gain respect for our culture, including language and religious beliefs.

If you were inspired by the movie “Heneral Luna”, this is a chance to show your love for our country by demanding that the national government look into the parties involved and hold them accountable while maintaining impartiality; demanding that the military and paramilitary forces be disarmed and pulled out from the communities, and the Lumads sent home to their lands; supporting the repeal of the Republic Act 7942: Philippine Mining Act of 1995, and helping us share our stories and resisting development projects and activities that are damaging to the people and environment. MAPASU, ALCADEV and other Lumad representatives are in Metro Manila since September 2015 to seek help and justice to their plight, giving talks in schools and other avenues, where many could hear and heed their call.

I will not remain silent. I cannot stand watching at the sidelines, helpless, as more and more innocent Lumads are harassed, killed, and driven from their lands. Standing in solidarity with our Lumad brothers and sisters—standing in unity as Filipinos, therefore, means standing for human rights, social justice, and sustainable development. The Lumads are one of the kindest, bravest, and most resilient people I know, and represent the core of who we are as Filipinos, before being colonized and influenced by foreign nations.

If your hearts have been squeezed by the plight of the Rohingya and Syrian refugees, then you should definitely be distressed by what is happening in our own backyard.

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