Living in hope with continuing conflict

Pedro Walpole SJ

Culture refers to the pattern of life constructed by communities over generations and within its language and landscape that in its uniqueness not only describes but inhabits every nook of the land and relation of the people. There is no culture without land or sea. Culture gives communities the identity and resilience to cope with change in its biophysical and economic environment – in its oikos.

These personal reflections draw on several decades of journeying with Indigenous Peoples1 of Mindanao and, in particular, my direct relationship with the Pulangiyēn2 in Bukidnon3. I share them in the hope that it may help towards an understanding of the indigenous cultural communities, the need for continuous dialogue and their contribution to the integrity of the larger society. We need broader and deeper anthropological studies of the Indigenous, Muslim and migrant communities of Mindanao to better guide the understanding of the national identity and the formulation of policies and economy that enable greater inclusion and care. Economic competitiveness is valueless, if not inclusive of and responsive to the basic needs of the people. The process of discerning the correct directions must include listening directly to what these people have to say and including them in the process.

Recurring and extended economic, environmental, and public health crises add to the escalating tensions between Great Power rivals in Asia Pacific and exacerbate the chronic economic and political problems of poor countries like the Philippines. These crises and tensions are counselling restraint and respect for the integrity of earth systems as the condition for human continuity, while upholding the human rights of peoples in the margins.

Each generation must engage and struggle with the ever-changing social system to secure its welfare against the worst inclinations of the powerful. But it also bears the responsibility to give the emerging generation the chance to create its own future. Did the generation of the 1970s strengthen the local communities and national institutions so that they are more resilient now to cope with today’s comparable threats? This question challenges our understanding of the diversity of our society and tests our willingness to address the needs of our different communities with consistency and inclusion, especially the Indigenous and those most vulnerable. The corruption and violence that came with martial law exacerbated the plight of the Indigenous communities. Since then, however, society has done little to address their problems of growing poverty, food insecurity and land degradation. These problems call for a conscious effort to integrate, with recognition of the contribution to society, of these marginalized communities with the larger society and not simple assimilate them at the bottom. Trickle-down benefits from those prospering from the expanding globalized economy will not achieve this integration. This reflection, then, comes from something of a parallel world to general Philippine society that is still not connecting with or listening to a world in the margins that seeks to speak with hope to its youth.

Journeying with the Pulangiyēn

Journeying with the Indigenous in Mindanao is deeply humbling and humanizing on a personal level, given the shared simplicity and resilience of their own lives and their unique, open acceptance of the different context of other people’s lives impacting their domain of interaction. Within the local Pulangiyēn culture, my differences and inabilities are quietly understood and accepted, while my path is reckoned as spiritual.

Pulangi is the name given to the river by the people living along its banks and from which they draw their identity. Most cultures are traditionally taga-ilog, or “of the river,” “of the island,” or “of the mountain” that they have named. The Pulangi River is the hidden valley on the east side of Bukidnon, with an economy more similar to Agusan del Sur than the Bukidnon plateau. The word pulang in the culture means to sit (without weapons) and discuss with those who may be in conflict, through the night, if necessary, in order to resolve the differences or even the killings that may have occurred. The focus is on paghusay or mediation. This is certainly one group within a broader identity today in northern Mindanao that does not practice magahat4, or retribution killings, as a form of local justice.

In 1982 Fr. Aling-Al was shot in his convento in Kibawe. Shortly after, as a young scholastic I was standing in the doorway of a bus going down the first canyon in Bukidnon, and there on the first turn was a butchered body laid out. I could not forgive myself for weeks for not having stopped the bus and gotten off to pray. What struck me most awful was not the act, as much as the immediacy of someone dead who should not be abandoned like a roadside kill. In San Fernando, Tigwa River (the southern tributary of the Pulangi) where I was assigned for the summer, I would bless the bodies of those who were brought to  the convento before being carried to the cemetery. One woman that I had seen the week before on the back of a truck brought the body of her husband. I asked her how he had died; it was ulcers. I checked out the deaths for the summer, six people had died likewise. They would go out in the morning to prepare the fields for corn without eating, leaving what food was available for the children, but the work and climate got the worse of them during the long summer.

Standing in the local barangay hall one evening, I remember waiting with a grandmother and her grandsons for the headless body of her son being carried down the mountain (one of six killed that day). With only my Feriolian in-depth Tagalog (Ferriols 1999), a smattering of Bisaya and a few Binukid words,  I prayed for peace, not retribution, hanging on to every word I knew and making  the best of “kalinaw, kalinaw, kalandang” (peace).

Logging companies were operating over the whole Pulangi Valley and also regulating communities and movements. Many sacred areas were logged or bulldozed and indigenous communities were often shifted or found large numbers of migrants moving in as company laborers. Sumagibo, with the influx of migrants, became barangay St. Peter. The traditional hunting ground of Kias-u was to the north, where the connecting roads of the company join at a log deck. Datu Menaling told me long after how Kias-u was named Bendum by local families from Busdi and how he moved here near the end of the logging era.

In 1992 I was assigned as assistant parish priest to the new parish of Zamboanguita. I walked to all the chapels and visited the small clusters of houses up the hillsides on the west and east sides of the river. Everywhere I went, I visited the community water source, looked at its distribution, usually using split bamboo, and talked about how the community was protecting it; I am still remembered in some areas as Fr. Watershed. The traditional uma (garden of about one hectare and the manner of preparation [sakum]), by brushing, burning and clearing but not ploughing, was common where fifteen to thirty different food items could be harvested in a plot over the course of a year. People grew traditional hill rice and corn and shared their different seed stocks.

While passing through Bendum, as with many villages, I accepted the community’s offer  to build a resting place for me for my return. On a return visit, Datu Menaling and some of the community had already built the frame and amakan (bamboo woven) walls of a lawig (seasonal housing), and I stayed the night. From there the relationship grew. I then started to stay there more frequently, and I continued to visit after the end of my parish assignment, starting studies on forest hydrology that took ten years to complete (Walpole 2002).

There were few people in Bendum; most lived out by their uma. Concerns were always, water, education, literacy, medicine, and peace, in a revolving re-ordering of what was next. People had built a classroom, but no teacher came from the Department of Education as requested. At times, children got sick as the split bamboo network was easily contaminated. We began basic education with the children and literacy classes for the adults in the evening with tilley lamps, with the help of some adults who had attended school. For the sake of the children going to classes, parents kept a house in the centro, while still working on very dispersed fields in the logged-out forest. The community built a spring box and piped the water to community faucets. Years later, we built a mini-hydro and a livelihood center.

The community started talking with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) over community-based forest management agreements that became ancestral claims as government programs evolved. Central and Regional DENR officials listened to the community concerns and helped in crafting new land management programs for the uplands (Manila Observatory 1993).

My interaction with the Indigenous has been built through planning and implementing with them community projects and organizing activities through civil society engagements. This process required broader capacity-building and social enabling of local institutions, recognizing that real growth takes a generation (FAO 2009). It has been a process of learning that included for a long time the strengthening of policy and participation from local to national government offices (ESSC 1999). The challenges met along the way called for great trust in the human spirit and the healing that time can, but does not always, bring.

During this time, if I were coming from Cagayan de Oro, the bus took four hours to Malaybalay, a further four hours on the jeepney going in and out of the barangay along the road before reaching Zamboangita, then a three hour walk to Bendum. The whole journey took the better part of a day with stopovers and delays along the way. Any materials needed had to be hauled by buffalo from Zamboanguita across two rivers.

Today the road from Aglayan crossing is paved to St. Peter, the local government has more consistently graded the old logging road to Bendum and the habalhabal (motorbike with  extension board(s) to carry to carry up to six people or sacks) are everywhere so the whole journey can be done in seven hours. People are constantly now on motorbikes moving between the barangay and going to the city. These are not the idealized farm to market roads, but in reality are trader to client roads. The huge ten-wheeler trucks come for bulk extraction of corn for animal feeds, sugar, and falcata, while connecting one city to another, enabling global market distribution.

Before traditional subsistence cultivation was sustainable with occasional sales of abaca, rattan baskets, and beautiful family-designed banig (mats woven and dyed from different materials) and kamuyot (cloth woven from abaca), but they lacked health services. Today health services have improved, while resource extraction can be manipulative and armed conflicts are sustained and have further impinged on the safety and peace of the communities.

Culture is a way

Marking the changes in this valley over the last fifty years, the community still seeks a path forward with reference to what we can learn from the ancestors and elders and from working on the land and with natural systems. Datu Nestor Menaling is the chosen leader and spiritual guide of the Pulangiyēn community and the Bendum Tribal Council. Each year, he goes with the youth to the juncture of the Pinamangkulan-Pulangi Rivers for the panalawahig, a ritual to thank the Creator for the gift of water. Water for others is a service paid for in society and for the urban poor it can be a daily struggle. Upland cultures know healthy water cannot simply be assumed. They know where to settle in relation to water, how to manage it, and give it proper respect. Datu speaks of the importance of culture in this way:

The strength of the culture is also the strength of our community. It is the culture that guides us to sustain our livelihoods, our daily needs, our gaup, and our peace. Through the wisdom of our ancestors, we learned to give value to the culture as if it is a person with bones and veins and life. We know that we need to take care even of the rocks and the trees because these are all part of the system that protects us. This is the culture that we want to pass on to our youth in the hopes that they will sustain it for generations to come.

We hope that they see the sacredness of what we are doing. Our cultural identity is rooted in our respect for the forest and the mountains, the spirits that live among us, and Migtanghaga (Creator), the one who has control over everything: those you can see, and those your eyes cannot see. Our ancestors protect us from disasters and calamities through the wisdom they passed on to us, and we use this wisdom to take care of the forest, water, and land, because we acknowledge that what we have today, we inherited from them.

We are brought together as a community through our culture. In gratitude of the water that gives us life, we come together to offer thanks to Migtanghaga. During conflict or sickness, we gather to ask for peace and protection. The youth today have the opportunity to learn many different things and pursue various interests, but I hope that they never forget about their roots. I hope that they continue to strengthen the culture, never lose interest in learning about it, and take on the responsibility of passing it on to generations after them. I hope that in the future, the bees are still free to live, the wild boars are still in the forest, the water source will still provide water, and we can still catch the fish that we need. (“Culture and Integrity from the Ground” 2019, 30-40)

The vision for the community he shares is very spiritual, focusing on the personal call and needed shift in response, not on personal advantage or political strategy. He centers the discussion on the integrity of the community and the community’s relation with the land, and through the land, the relations with others.

The external influences and pressures are accommodated, not fought, or fully embraced. There are no strategies to defeat something disliked, but there is enough trust for participation in  a ritual where the best is expressed, and prayers are offered for the joint challenges faced. Many miss the integrity and sincerity of these efforts and the hope they express.

People often see poverty and justify the advancement of indiscriminate development, not realizing its differential impact. There was a visiting student who, not being condescending in any way, but just desirous of wanting to reach out, simply expressed her sadness at the community’s poverty as she saw it. Datu laughed kindly and replied that the community has just shared its best food, rice, and chicken and fed her and the twenty companions during the pandawat or welcome. He said “I am rich, I have all my family with me and friends; it is you who have traveled far and have no family or food here. We take pity on you and look after your needs.”

Members of the community had gathered to welcome the visitors, and as seen across many cultures for those who are still reliant on the land, the slow and timely gathering showed (but unnoticed by others) the respected relations shared with the passing of mamaēn (betel nut), manika (leaf), and apēg (lime) to wrap the mamà or quid for chewing and then pop in alag (small rattan fruit) and tresbi (tobacco), if available. The mamaēn is also part of the ritual plate with candles, coins, and galang (brass bracelet) during such gatherings where purpose and thoughts are simple and deep, sustaining integrity of relations of those gathered and the inherent values they share – identity, gratitude, peace, belonging, children, sufficiency, and dreams.

The Datu offers a different reference point for understanding the way they live. The lifestyle of others may not appeal to us but should invite our understanding and respect. Datu reminds all that their culture is a way of saying things, of celebrating and preserving the enduring values of the community. Thus, among the Pulangiyēn, land cannot simply be sold for profit. As one elder said to me “Would you sell your mother?” They fix life on a point of reference fundamentally different from what a world focused mainly on financial gain is anchored.

Power-based history: The call to listen to people and land

Cultural neglect and abandonment of the margins goes a long way back; when the Spanish could not get the infieles (infidels) to conform and join designated settlements, their mountain lands were declared property of King Philip II. Changing Spanish for American-inspired colonial process only lead to Regalian Law, and with the declaration of the Republic the country made the uplands property of the DENR.

The outlawing of a generic kaingin, or slash-and-burn, was promulgated. Sadly, kaingin and kaing (the tall basket for hauling the harvest from the mountain) gained a bad name. Obviously, there were no prisons big enough for “violators,” but the threat was often heard. Indigenous practices of sakum (Menaling and Walpole and 2013) were lumped with the migrants’ sustained clearing of the land outward (and usually upward) from a settlement, creating rain-fed areas of extensive agriculture and cogon lands. Attention was not given to the Indigenous practices and what could be learned from the generations of those living lightly on the land. The Indigenous were light-footed, circulating generally around a series of fallow areas of partially regenerated plots (lubas kagulangan) within the forest over a ten- to twenty-year period. Knowing this natural process and sequencing of trees in a regenerating plot is of great value in assisting forest regeneration today by the local community.

Logging by companies with Timber License Agreements (TLAs) began in the 1960s and in the 1970s began to overtake the forest. The ecological disaster of the Philippines was the broad-scale issuance of TLAs during the Martial Law era, particularly in Mindanao (Vitug 1993). Research showed that the TLAs were “abusive of political and military powers, the local people, national policies, and forest resources. TLAs (built many political platforms and) sustained the growth of a whole era of Philippines political history, contributing significantly to the GDP for more than a decade (though not to national revenue) and gave a form of feudal employment to hundreds of thousands of migrants. The elite and military in most tropical counties have exploited forest resources for their own benefit.” (Vitug 1994)

Subsequently the migrant labor force sought agricultural lands and burned the residual forests to settle absolving the companies of any responsibility for regenerating the area. By the 1980s, logging and migrant pressure had drastically reduced Indigenous lands and literally exposed them as frontlines of the forest edge. Many other claims were made on Indigenous lands and organizations like the Federation of Free Farmers gave voice to these in different cases (Federation of Free Farmers, n.d.), and continues today with issues of land leasing for pineapple (Bilyonaryo 2021).

The last logging company stopped to the south in San Fernando (Media Mindanao News Service 1987), in 1987. Fortunately, the geology of the upper Pulangi offered no tempting mineral wealth. Other, better-endowed lands were greatly devastated, like Surigao (ASOG and ESSC 1998-2012), or threatened, like Tampakan (Walpole 2020), again for the good of the national economy, resulting in the polarization of local communities and their displacement. Corporate-political influence in communities invited military intervention, mobilizing other armed interests, and raising the potential for violence. Different sides in a conflict manipulated the communities, who did not realize that they were selling out their people and lands until it was too late, entrenching them in someone else’s war and destroying the community’s integrity, identity, and belonging.

The Indigenous communities of Mindanao occupied coastal areas, marsh lands in the premontane uplands of 300 to 1000-meter elevations (ESSC 1998). The degradation of land, water and sea, of biodiversity and biome, paralleled the degradation of local cultures associated within these land- and seascapes. Local cultures and landscapes suffer directly from forest loss, as well as from the advancing fields of corporate agriculture, livestock and feeds, and mining. The mono prescriptive development of the economic model and the lack of cultural support for diversity further increases their marginalization.

The whole inhumanity of the martial law period and land grabbing has been documented for those who want to understand where society might be heading. The use and division of the Indigenous in recent decades by oligarchical corporate and political machinery further impoverished and reduced the options of the vulnerable, as well as the landscape itself and its regenerative powers. These reduced options are felt all the more by the Indigenous as they now have to reckon with more variable seasons and extreme climate that are not noticed in the cities where one can turn on the fan and demand bigger dams for water and power.

While the 1987 Constitution recognized and respected the plight of the Indigenous and the country passed laws for DENR and National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) to implement; these did not adequately protect the communities. The DENR is the biggest landowner with increasing recognition of the Indigenous, but there is still much land going to corporate ventures and justified by the need for economic growth in the face of global competition. People are still suffering from  corporate investment strategies, Manileño colonial politics, and media alliances under the guise that such development is progress.

In Bukidnon, agri-business has grown and the migrant farmers’ land of promise or the Indigenous home or gaup is not the focus. The extension of the animal feeds corn industry, in particular, pushed into the uplands of Pulangi in the last ten years and has been devastating soil and water resources. Poor farmers cannot afford to take the risks for the potential, idealized profit margins that corn is purported to provide in the flat lands. Trader-led corn growing is more like playing bingo, with occasional wins that are often lost to relatives in greater need or the urge for an instant motorbike. Savings traditionally might be in the form of an abaca patch, continuous production of consumo, and/or seed stocks for the next planting; but with the corporate corn, all is reduced to money transactions. Approximately 7 percent of the economy generated by upland farmers’ efforts are gained by the farmer, far from a glass being even quarter full, this is but a drop for survival (ESSC 2019). The drive for economic development often leads to the neglect of the land. There is no adequate or integral understanding of the need to sustain land and water resources or biodiversity, or  ecological and cultural services. Simply “giving the same opportunities to all” but not listening to, and supporting the needs of cultural communities for self-employment, is leading to development failure. One size does not fit all.

Indicative of the continuing armed conflict between government troops and the New People’s Army (NPA) of the Communist Party of the Philippines in the region are the continued military operations and attacks on NPA camps and the capture and killing of NPA leaders. While it is reported by government that the NPA has declined from its peak of 28,000 in the mid-1980s to about 4,000 in 2015, the military still considers the NPA a major security threat. NPA operations mainly attack equipment used in road construction, corporate compounds, and AFP outposts. But these targets are often located in upland areas and the skirmishes thus disrupt the daily life of Indigenous communities.

Poverty, weak governance, and ideology are the key elements driving recruitment. Perhaps, the ideology appeals more to the core intellectual members. For the majority, the persistence of poverty and economic inequity, and lack of governance in much of the region and other rural areas continue to sustain the recruitment. The oppressive structural conditions that sustain socio-economic injustices, the lack of redress for these grievances, the corrupted political culture that frustrate efforts to bring in change, continue to compel disgruntled and frustrated young people to join the NPA ranks. With few available employment opportunities because of their limited access to education, young people in the margins view the NPA option as a way to earn a living. Military recruitment among the Indigenous add to the problem of maintaining peace, when different cultural communities become engaged fighting each other on either side of an ideological conflict they hardly understand. Other institutions have to provide the venue for the Indigenous communities to be heard on issues of justice and peace. Indigenous schools have suffered from red-tagging. It is easy to accuse people broadly of being communist when there is a lack of due process and inquiry to clarify each case. The lack of judicial investigation fails to prevent intimidation and, at times, killings. Without a process for hearing grievances and sustained support for reconciliation mechanisms, frustration and anger make violence the recourse to the search for justice.

The war that is fought on Indigenous lands and has disrupted the daily life of the people for decades is not recognized for the damage it has done to the cultures in these lands. This dimension is not visible in the minds and hearts of both armed groups and in society. How can that cultural dimension of the land and the communities within emerge and be recognized as such?

Society does not hear of military operations or NPA camp locations in the “ancestral domains” of cultural communities. The evacuation of communities is not reckoned for its impact on livelihood and crops abandoned. Perhaps, the IPRA provisions do not apply when it comes to threats to national security The situation is not unique to the Philippines, but it requires government and the larger society to go beyond cultural tokenism to enable the Indigenous Peoples to exercise their rights.

Many communities are clearly not more resilient than they were in the 1960s to address contemporary challenges. Indigenous lands are still being directly taken for major infrastructure projects. Unless carefully supervised, mining will once again threaten communities.

Youth and improvements

When the community in Bendum started the literacy program it very quickly created a context and culture for the children and for those older youth who joined the classes, there was no shame in learning together. The teachers were those from the area, migrant and Indigenous, who had gone to school, along with some volunteers from the Jesuit Volunteer Program and the Year of Service from Xavier University. The school activities quickly increased the number of families with houses in the village, then relatives from neighboring villages sent their children and the house became a dalēpaan. The change in the children and in the older group of youth was striking in forming an immediate collective venue of peers where they could find themselves as youth.

Recognition of integrity gives the local context the strength to create kahigayunan (opportunity) amongst the youth. With this opportunity came responsibility, greater relationship in community, and pēgpangamangēl, or leadership, that call for occasions to serve. The personal active presence of the school in accompanying (dumala) the youth opens the exchange and occasion for greater dialogue (amulamul), so that the youth can define their identity (tuus) and sense of belonging in this world, bridging in a way how one youth can hear the other (IPEd 2013).

The youth in their self-expression and willingness to engage in the challenges work hard for identity and change, providing the basis for hope. This is what gives peace, hope, and integrity. “When a culture can express a gratitude for life, a people can look for a way of life that will form a more sustainable livelihood. Here we recognize a culture’s uniqueness and contribution to society and work with society emerges (Walpole 2019).” I have noted that “we are not just developing an educational framework, but also a cultural framework where not just language is upheld, but also culture. Thus, if education goes beyond language and becomes culture-based, then education will much likely enrich any peace initiative” (Walpole 2010).

For the Indigenous youth, much uncertainty is felt and much unsustainability is experienced in this new journey beyond their parents’ ken. Many youth live an unnoticed life and suffer low self-esteem; seeing few opportunities for advancement, they feel diminished if not betrayed. This gap fuels frustration, the lack of belonging, identity, and hope. Others can be angry in growing up, not fully understanding why. They may be challenged or intimidated by the presence of others, and this is so often easily traceable to the suffering in the family of an earlier generation. There are always youth who want to explore heroism through arms in either the military or armed insurgency. This recruitment of youth is easier to focus when corporate engagement and grievances over how permits and lands are claimed, usually justified under an alien concept of development, but where the local population has at some time been dismissed or manipulated only to feed resentment.

Today, Kinder to Grade 12 culture-based education starts with Pinulangiyēn as the medium of instruction and parents feel they can participate in their children’s education. The teaching of English begins in Grade 3 and the culture is integrated in much of the context and content, along with the necessary competences. These is also a registered Farm School of “Forest, Farm and Leadership in the Margins” is also offered in the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) level programs as well as training in  forest management and other critical cultural practices.

A recent experience in this cultural context for learning was a high school internship where the youth for one day a week worked with an ongoing project of rehabilitating the community water system; a new pipeline was needed. Also important was connecting some of the elderly couples directly to the main line and digging for them a biopori to drain off surface water generated where there was no slope. Though everybody knew everyone else, relationships radically shifted, with the youth actively giving beyond what was expected and appreciation of the work deepened for all. The sense of being able to do something for others opened a new way of accompanying in community.

The dialogue in society asks: Is there a basis for hope and integrity to take up the challenge of working hard for broader social and environmental change? At the local level, how can community and society seek real justice in the present system? What processes can help form the youth at the barangay level beyond the school?  Local governments offer job orders and the language of loyalty so that people hang on to the little they get or are promised in the next round, and justify all else that may be happening, only making others more despondent by what they do not have. What is needed are commitments and programs with budget line items that are permanent and critically sought out to engage communities for their own resilience.

Indigenous voices, climate change vulnerability, and responses to human rights are a renewed global challenge. People’s intentions, for example in agribusiness, may not be so designed and strategic as to create an orchestrated undermining of the poor’s recovery, yet they do so because of the economic climate. Nationally, we care primarily about our economy, and our sovereignty when challenged, but it’s another attitude when we talk about our culture’s integrity. We have to speak and act with integrity for all our cultures and languages and not just talk of dialects that colonialism has taught in its efforts to have a melting pot.

How have things – rather life – improved in Mindanao in the last fifty years? Yes, people generally have many more helpful things in life. People point immediately to the health advances of the times, and the push, for example, for greater sanitation, health education, and electrification that continue to make a difference. Things have improved in the village here, the first government services to arrive without a gun were an anvil for the salsalan (local metal forge) and greater distribution of polio vaccines in 2000. Now there is electricity, the community health worker, and the annual grading of the road. Culture-based education in the mother tongue reflecting their cultural identity was recognized and with it the deeper integrity and spirituality so easily forgotten, not simply in the show of dress and dance (Walpole 2010). They are better off with the 1987 Constitution with the formation of the NCIP and recognition of the Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title (CADT). Slowly over thirty years, the community’s Certificate of Ancestral Domain Claim (CADC) was processed as a CADT for which an Ancestral Domain Sustainable Development and Protection Plan (ADSDPP) is being reviewed.

Collectively, these improvements can be easily argued as achieving a better world, but are not easily compiled as socio-economic advances for there are other “developments” that compete for people’s attention. These do not seek local wellbeing as with the broader context of resource exploitation, armed conflict, and extreme climate events affecting people. There is still the mundane and unchecked nature of marginalization and how this sustains the present gaps in society while tearing at the web of life.

Value of the margins, dreams and visions

There are forty-six different language groups in Mindanao, and many are threatened with extinction as the elders age (Environmental Science for Social Change 1998). The Indigenous have more paper rights today and some are more certain of who they are; others are divided and manipulated, some are opportunistic while many are unsettled by the world pressing in on them. Cultural identity is becoming the business of complying with government opportunity, and on the other hand, many in society see culture as light entertainment rather than life-invigorating. What are the future consequences of losing locally unique cultures? Many people come to meet the youth and absorb the landscape in Bendum. They are willing to listen to how the youth work on the farm and use the local resources, each according to their experience and talents. A great sense of gratitude and learning about local practices in assisting the regeneration of the forest over sixty years is a good occasion to put the margins at the center (APC 2019).

The Indigenous continue carrying the greatest vulnerability in daily living of the larger society, along with informal settlers of riverbanks and garbage mounds in our cities. All the production risks are with the small farmer families of today who have no insurance against crop failure, climate events, transportation costs, poor educational standards, seasonal food shortages, military operations, mineral exploration permits, and global market fluctuations.

Apparent changes and recognition – ancestral domains, mother tongue education – make for limited difference in today’s world, as the people remain vulnerable to arms, extractive development, and orchestrated division. The failure of our institutions to build local capacity and rights, to sustain ecological services and resources, and of not investing in the youth, culture, and the land, are some of the greatest losses. Though the hoped-for ecological recovery might be symbolized by the highlighted protection of the Philippine Eagle, behind such images of biodiversity care there is the grave unsustainability of the uplands, the unsustainable lifestyles of the rural landscape, and poor zoning and engineering of our cities.

In a much-divided world, those calling for inclusion are seen as the voice of humanity, yet nationally they can be subjected to much misrepresentation. Voices must be heard and not branded. Global powers have simply branded opposition and other opinions as terrorism. The Philippines has in part given way to a global culture while losing hope and resolution in inherent cultural capacities for reconciliation. Extreme elements will enter where there are grievous imbalances, where these are not brought to the fore, but the whole culture of men, women, and children are branded, and the injustice is magnified not resolved. The destruction of Marawi resolved nothing. Cultures are silent and suffering, and at some point, justice needs to be served. No other service or promise will outweigh the need for justice and the return of a people to their lands.

NCIP seeks to keep Indigenous Peoples in an inclusive and equitable relationship with the rest of society. However these semi-independent institutions can be manipulated and politicized resulting in new vulnerabilities and disappointment. As new policies emerge there is generally a lack of prepared integration and the old policies may be forgotten while the economic, social, cultural, and ecological integrity of the whole may be lost.

In the waiting period, the purpose of the initial objective of addressing specific needs and areas of justice hopefully do not worsen. The value of the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps) in Bukidnon took some time to show its worth. DOST, TESDA, the Department of Education (DepEd), and now the Development Academy of the Philippines (DAP) are increasingly seeking purposeful engagement at the regional and provincial levels. Their work needs to be written into the national budget as a sustained item rather than tied to loans and as social add-ons for a time. We have in recent decades failed to be truly inclusive in the revision of the political and economic reforms; the challenge is to rebuild, reintegrate, and reconcile together.

As people in transition with this present world order and national disjuncture, culturally and integrally people are possibly worse off. For many, given their land situation and ecosystem integrity, they are clearly worse. Economically these people may have more pesos, but what is the value and duration of this money and is money the only measure?

Older people in community are accepting of many things: of peculiarities of character, of reality at a given time, of the need for a ritual to settle differences that have emerged, or of the need to recognize new initiatives to be taken. When changes come to a village, these are not introduced equally affecting all; the agenda is set and often the traditional process gives way quietly. This acceptance in life can be seen as a weakness and a disadvantage for the Indigenous in response to broader demands not open to true dialogue. Tribal councils work with different senses of authority and politics today, but also some with spirituality and care. This may be seen however, as their peace of mind – and peace of place – trusting not in their power but in the slow renewal of goodness. In holding on to this simple truth there can be a quiet transformation that endures the confounding logic of inaction and non-consequential change. The end of Martial Law allowed  return to something of a democratic normal, a desirable outcome; this was not enough, a more inclusive economy fostering a shared participation of its fruits to ensure a fundamental level of wellbeing: the key to a sustainable peace.

Culture is getting up at four o’clock in the morning, perhaps preparing a little something before going to work in the uma, working all morning, often with the rhythm of mamà, resting in the heat of the day and then carrying home some of the family needs. It is often done together, wife and husband, and it is beautiful to see. Now there are times for broad cultural gatherings, kaamulan, and there is spirit in presenting the dugso (prayer dance) to the dasang (chant), and great dancing and song, memories, and visions. These are for local show and to catch the eye of another special youth finding a partner in life and are not designed for public show. The transforming value of dancing and dress can only be experienced given the persistence and resilience of life around the forest and its daily demands: it starts with getting up at four o’clock in the morning.

For the youth with motorbikes in the last sixteen years, then cellphones, and now tablets given modular-based studies, the world is immediately accessible without having to consider the cost. Visiting other villages and cities is now possible in a moment’s decision. There is a much greater mileage to “freedom” than in past years, and the risks of wrong decisions can be very rapid, not to mention the number of road accidents without helmets. The risks, the vulnerabilities, the opportunities (that could go either way) all add to the uncertainties of today that undercut the experience of belonging and identity before such thoughts are even recognized. How does a local culture today prepare its youth to make decisions that are less fragmented or truncated and enrich the meaning of life wherever they go? The youth must be respected for what they hold still within, as they move toward greater integrity they discover what they alone as the new generation can draw from their ancestors as their own reflection of the landscape. This is their journey but still with doubts and moments of pain.

Peace is the most important celebration in a rural living community. On every occasion, peace needs to be affirmed by all in community as one dissenting voice leads to a reporting voice creating unease and pain. Amidst the daily struggle to meet family needs, made more difficult by COVID-19 and reported armed encounters, it is through the family and community lines that some peace of mind and soul is kept. When there is a dialogue where differences can be respected, the Indigenous say their piece, but if it is proforma or merely an occasion to lecture, then they hold their peace. This is the primary cultural thesis of “the middle ground” (Edgerton 2008), and where the importance of civil society awareness and sensitivity in participation is critical in rural upliftment. This choice to participate openly with other cultures is one of respectful dialogue not isolation.

Peace is of generations, it is not of the moment, and if it is to be found, it must be lived from within and in community, not seeking to be greater than any other in the past and present, but being responsible for handing on the one capacity the human person has, to seek to love and to live in peace even if it, sadly, is a generation of conflict. As with anyone in pain, society needs to begin by listening to their story and valuing their lives.

There are two armed groups fighting in the ancestral land but not respecting what is sacred in Tanduwalang, the high sacred places on the ridge. Datu Menaling does not speak of the killings during Martial Law and is not drawn into the discussion, but tells me, when I ask, of the peace that is necessary and how this needs to be valued by the youth. Sometimes it is to have a ritual, deep prayer and desire of healing where an untimely death has occurred. In a recent singampu (ritual) on the mountainside coming down from the ridge, the community sought to heal the conflict where men on both sides died in a conflict while removing a mohon marking the CADT boundary on a sacred peak. There was a need to smoothen the rupture with the land and conflict that people had brought to the place. No one from either side of the conflict was present to mark the community’s integrity or call for peace where the land bled.

Datu Menaling, in his lifetime, moved through many communities, and with the leaders, sought peace in Pulangi and along with the Adgaoan, Maasamnēn, and Tigulwanēn spread the same message. The Pulangiyēn are united because of their ancestors’ promise and would not want the peace to be broken. In the 1860s or 1870s, a ritual was conducted opposite the Tipal River junction where the Pulangiyēn called all tribes to a singampu in order to seek to stop the continuous warfare and capital punishment (Biernatzki 1973). This was by the same tradition of datuship that focuses not on power of resistance, or magahat, but on peace – the spiritual datu. Over the years, I have learned much from this datu of what it is to seek peace, to act for healing, to close a wound on the landscape. It is deeply part of my reasoning as to why such Indigenous cultures are the source of reconciliation with the land and this same reconciliation grows with what a culture can share as a sense of belonging and in understanding the dream and vision of a people.

Datu speaks of his community and ancestors being known for taking in the orphans and widows from other communities in conflict (and this I have witnessed). Now, with those who followed him they look after this ancestral domain with no political persuasion or power, but only that of the wisdom of age and vision of peace, protective and caring for local culture. Though he sees no set way for this to happen in the culture today, it does not dim his vision, always framed within the mercy of the Lord.

We have worked together through many armed trials, presences, and accusations in community and together we have professed peace, sought understanding, and even though I am deeply and openly aggravated by particular acts on different sides, I seek the endurance he expresses in humble acceptance. As a result, I learn to respect this way of spiritual healing, however tattered it may seem. Such actual response of the margins is lost with the different groups who chose to carry out their war on this land of peace and it is deeply saddening to see such people of the land enmeshed, and at times, accused of abetting one side or another. The witness given of the culture is tied to an ancestry of peace and yet the people are entrapped in fighting the wars of others. I ask of Datu a double portion of his gift as peace maker.

Love of the Creator given in creation, love of the partner in life, of the family, community, and of humanity are what are redeeming of the human spirit in each moment and each life. My generation was bred on the notion of progress, of development, and has brought us a mixed contribution to a better world, through a technocracy inadequately held accountable and a consumerism disregarding the majority. It is the act of caring for each other that redeems the lives lived. Co-creation in an era is ultimately how we treat each other; we have improved vastly on the first century of industrialization, while we have learned and are technologically advanced, we are not equitable in distribution. Humanity is further challenged to reach greater balance. Progress in ideas, technology, economics, and institutions is ultimately measured by the human heart and by asking how are they integrated for the human good. What we must now ask is: Are they integrated for the good of all creation – the biodiversity and ecosystems of the country and of the biome where we belong? We clearly need the “progress” and the balancing of this progress to keep up with the challenges of the times, otherwise we lose all social sense of human dignity.

The call today is to spell out needed inclusive ways forward, and possible learning and unlearning that is necessary. Sharing in a sense of belonging, the cultural and national dreams and vision, is not idealizing, but appeals to the diversity of experiences and understanding of the Indigenous cultural communities and their contribution to the integrity of the larger society. When the culture has worked on a particular land for generations, it knows best its care, having been sustainable, and is the best in making adaptations to strengthen its ecological services rather than degradation. The need is for genuine focused main line government support in environmental policies and programs.

There is a war still in the hills, blamed on some recruited disenfranchised, Indigenous youth amongst others, but effectively branding them all. This is not a war of the Indigenous Peoples, though fought on their lands and denying them, as it has done for decades, with little true social upliftment in dialogue with society. They do not blame the cities and towns for shunning the conflict, ironically now marginalized with them! What role did Martial Law or subsequent laws play in this and what could have and needs to be sought?

In the case of the Indigenous Peoples, martial law intensified the pressures that continuing in-migration, population growth, and an extractive economy exert on these societies, accelerating the disruptive processes that they triggered, specifically by the violence that authoritarian rule abetted and returned anew in 2017 until 2019. Simply, these are other dimensions and voices of reflection of the last 50 years that need inclusion.

Maybe lessons to be learned from a time of martial law and continuing violence, need to include: listening, negotiating and considering the greater good of peace for all. It is easier to talk from greater economic and social advantage while offering money or threat, often without understanding or enabling local opportuities and service to emerge that are not tied to the status quo economy and power distribution.

Yet, this is the story of the power of peace that we humans have in our weakness. The strength is in the hope that people share beyond the darkness. Forgiving the other, and recognizing all have the power to forgive, even if the other does not want forgiveness, is key to a renewed freedom and is also a step in the path of a broader reconciliation.

Must we carry life-long the grief or grudge in our hearts to give witness to the wrong? This does not mean justice is less sought;  in the margins, justice is usually not found in a life time when the crimes are so grave. Are we seeing it in society now? No, and here we rather go on in hope. While there are many stories of those who have died unjustly, these are not the stories told to the youth; some local people still have a parallel story of hope we all can share.

Datu Nestor Menaling (right) and another elder from the Bendum Tribal Council with the author, Pedro Walpole (middle).

I conclude with clear recognition of Datu Nestor Menaling and his great contribution to my understanding and life here by the Pulangi. I respect the ancestors and elders who have cared for this land, life, and integrity, and pray that their children’s children will rejoice in that identity and integrity.

This text is part of the publication Martial Law in the Philippines: Lessons and Legacies, 1972-2022, edited by Edilberto C De Jesus and Ivyrose S Baysic, and published by the Ateneo de Manila University Press in 2023.


1. Indigenous Peoples is capitalized as this is not a generic collective but one that embodies the history of self-ruling practices and institutions of governance usually handed on by oral tradition.

2. The language Binukid, locally referend to as Pinulangiyēn, has the vowels “a” “ē” “i” and “u”, there is no distinguishable “o” or “e”, if these occur it is due to Visayan influence. “The pepet sound, made in the center of the mouth with unrounded lip position, is represented by ē rather than o, as preferred by some, in order to prevent confusion with the Cebuano o symbol which is used interchangeably with u and represents a different sound; namely, one made in the back of the mouth with rounded lip position.” Ursula Post and Mary Jane Gardner, Binukid Dictionary. Studies in Philippine Linguistics, Volume 9 Number 2 (Manila: Linguistic Society of the Philippines and Summer Institute of Linguistics, 1992).

3. The Pulangiyēn are considered to be of the same broader ethnolinguistic group of the Bukid-non, a Visayan term for all those “taga-bukid”. Yet as a group they prefer drawing their identity from their area like the Adgaoanon, Umayamnon, Taguluanon, Talandig and others. 4. In earlier periods magahat was used to refer to a “deviant behavior” subgroup, other groups like Higaonon referend to hinterland dwellers, but all are part of the Bukidnon ethnolinguistic group. The apparent shift in meaning is often due to the Visayan use of the same word, but different application as with kinaadman in Visayan meaning wisdom and locally meaning more anting-anting or black magic. Francisco Claver, Vincent Cullen, and William Biernatzki. “Bukidnon Politics and Religion,” IPC Paper no.11 (1973), Institute of Philippine Culture, Ateneo de Manila University.

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