Marginalized indigenous tribes on Mindanao Island, collectively called the lumad, are finding themselves in the thick of an armed battleground in their own ancestral lands, pushed to the fringes of the country. After a recent spate of killings that broke through into public notice, their plight has exposed the Philippine complexities of heritage, natural resources, exploitation and internal wars.
The communist New People’s Army (NPA), which had been written off as a dwindling threat in the past three decades of free-wheeling democracy, has resuscitated the hinterlands of northeastern Mindanao into a comeback and their fighting base. There they believe they can revive mass support from among the impoverished tribes that anthropologists call the invisible Filipinos.
More than half of the country’s 110 ethnic tribes, at latest count, or “Indigenous People” as they are known legally, are found in Mindanao, which is in itself a keg of violence spawned from the Muslim rebellions since the 1970s. The lumad, a native term distinct to the various non-Muslim tribes of Mindanao, occupy the remote forests in the Christian majority provinces of Davao, Agusan, Bukidnon and Surigao.
Until the news went viral giving symbol to their name, they were a group of people who wore their costumes in public cultural shows and had strange supernatural beliefs in the eyes of most Filipinos, who are more than 80 percent Catholic.
In late October, a mayor from the fierce Manobo tribe and a former communist rebel himself was killed along with his son in the little-known town of Agusan del Sur. The NPA claimed responsibility, saying he had sided with the enemy, meaning the military, after the mayor had posted Facebook pictures of himself in the jovial company of army officers.
Previous to that, in September, a teacher in a lumad school was brutally killed, allegedly by paramilitary forces. He was found hogtied in his classroom with his throat slit. The school was said to have been teaching children the basics of communist indoctrination and how to use rifles. These incidents and a series of evacuations in other tribal communities since the middle of the year have been triggered by clashes and violence from all sides – Communist rebels, soldiers and private armies.
The Commission on Human Rights said all sides are to be blamed. During a recent weeklong cultural foray held for the lumad at the state university in the capital Manila, many saw the signs of the left using the issue for political purposes. The revival of long lost patrimony may have caught the imagination of the millennials, but their social media hash tags didn’t quite inspire the radical activism that is now considered passé.
The genesis of the issue lies in the land: the grounds on which the lumad have stuck to their origins were not only fertile, they hold a wealth of gold, nickel, copper, and timber for which mining and logging companies have put their interests at stake. The communist rebels have thus learned to extort “revolutionary taxes” from the companies, mostly foreign-owned, to fuel their war against the government, supposedly in the name of social justice.
The presence of the companies has created fissures among the lumad communities, which were vulnerable to begin with, pushed and pulled between promises of jobs and schools and the tradition of keeping their natural resources untouched. Under threat from the rebels, these companies hire their own militia forces from the lumad themselves and sometimes aided by the military already spread out in other flashpoints of Mindanao.
In theory the lumad as well as other ethnic groups throughout the country could derive power from a law passed almost 20 years ago giving them rights or titles to their ancestral homes, although it is this that has made them prey to powerful and manipulative business players as well as corrupt politicians and civil servants who want their hands in the land for excavation and exploration activities. (When the Supreme Court had to decide on a landmark case on ancestral domains, the justices were divided on the concept of “indigenous,” on what is theirs and what is the state’s. The law was passed by default after two consecutive tie votes.)
For the communist rebels, it’s a perfect breeding ground for recruitment, building up their army from the lumad communities, which had lost their spirit to fight and for whom the rebels stand in as their leaders in their limited guerrilla warfare. The arrangement is not as simple as that however, with the rebels free to stay in the ancestral territories, exploiting the lumad as do the big-time companies.
“It’s very divisive because the land rights are contentious,” said one worker in community development for non-government organizations, asking not to be named. “Because of their ancestral lands, outsiders will keep coming and encroaching and the result is demoralization for the lumad. Nobody is actually giving them back their heritage,” he said.
After all these years of struggle, “You can see that almost all of these companies are recognizing the political authority of the revolutionary movement,” said an unidentified NPA leader, an elderly white-bearded man in a YouTube video showing an impressive battalion-size formation that burned down trucks and bulldozers of a mining company in Surigao del Norte a few years back.
“That’s why some of them are being warned, reminded, that they should comply to all the policies,” he said. “Otherwise they will be sanctioned, we will destroy their equipment that has done so much damage to the environment and we will drive them out.” Actual damages have gone up to millions of pesos, according to army reports.
The military has estimated that there are about 2,000 rebel fighters in the eastern region of Mindanao, describing the areas as the training and financial strongholds of the NPA. Their slowly growing strength went unnoticed almost, foreshadowed by critical events and much more publicized peace negotiations in the Muslim provinces seeking autonomy.
To some organizers helping the tribes reclaim their place equal to other Filipinos in an archipelago made up of ethnic groups in the advent of Spanish colonization in the 16th century, the lumad as a whole remain outcasts. Easter Canoy, who runs an NGO in Bukidnon province, said she was disappointed that any talks of integrating the lumads’ recognition of their ancestral rights into the government’s peace talks with the Muslim tribes were treated as “spoilers.”
The NPA has then grabbed the opportunity to keep the lumad within their boundaries, trying to rebound from their losses from the late 1980s throughout the 1990s by carrying out a massive and bloody purge within their ranks. It is unclear for now whether they could sustain a mass base in Mindanao, currently a murky terrain of different interests in the turns and twists of the island’s volatility.
“If they mean well for the lumad and understand their nature, they should not even be recruiting them,” Canoy said. “These tribes are a peaceful people and the rebels don’t think that what they’re doing is part of the injustice.” She related one incident three years ago when the military fired mortars into a tribal hamlet to ferret out rebels. The elders simply asked the army commander to apologize, if not the spirits warned of a big earthquake for “shaking up” the land.
Acquiring land was a turning point in Mindanao’s history. Armed conflicts flared up because of it, when land was discovered to be a valuable commodity – an idea lost on the lumad who saw land as communal and which they might have already lost in the bloody conflicts in the heart of their fragile domains.