Burnishing “Bona Fides”

by Juan L. Mercado

In Sunday’s Inquirer, Columnist Randy David  recalled the “Mang Pandoy” tragedy.  On a 1992  TV show with 11 squabbling  presidential  contenders,  this dirt-poor gardener offered a startling swap: his life for cash. His kids could then  finish studies and break free of poverty that  sapped his own life.

The nation was haunted by a man  “whose unspeakable despair  stood as an indictment of the sharp inequalities  and poverty in our society,” David  wrote. President Fidel  Ramos hired the gardener as his anti-poverty program icon.  “Mang Pandoy’s circumstances never improved”. He died as poor as he was before plucked from anonymity.

Multiply “Mang Pandoy” by 12 million  plus. That’s roughly the “Lumads” or indigenous people in 19 provinces. Many  cluster in the conflict-torn Mindanao. There, they used to assert native title over swathes of land as their “ancestral domain.”

Waves of migrants, spurred by resettlement programs over the years, shoved  “lumads” into eroded uplands with thin forest  cover. There are 18  tribes,  from the B’laan in Davao del Sur and South Cotabato,  Manobos in Agusan del Sur, Davao, and Bukidnon to Subanons in  Zamboanga peninsula.

Their predicament is carved into  in “Timbang Tungkay’s” face.  He heads a  T’boli  village of 14 families, by  Allah River in South Cotabato. “Hunger defines our lives,” this father of 24 children  told  researchers  from Environmental Science for Social Change at Ateneo and United Nations.

Many of his children “died from coughs, fevers and bad stomachs”, his interview says in the book “Forest Faces: Hopes and Regrets of  Philippine Forestry.”  Before, there were “many months that we were hungry. Now, it is seasonal.”

Landless Hilongo migrants came to settle. “They did not have money, so the T’Bolis let them use the land —  which the migrants now claim as their own.…The  T’Boli were  elbowed into plowing  remaining areas not occupied by migrants.”

“The need is for children to go to school,’ Timbang Tungkay’ adds. How they continue as T’Bolis is not clear. There is need for our children to “be conscious  they are T’Boli.”

Today, lumads find their future teetering  again  in the jerky  peace talks  process between  government  and  the Moro Islamic Liberation Front   (MILF).

“If and when a settlement is reached, thorny questions about protecting the (lumad’s) distinct identity and land, (must be )  addressed,” the Brussels-based International Crisis group cautioned last week. Ignoring overlapping claims “will be a shaky foundation for peace” and stoke “further claims of injustice.”

Lumads “will benefit from a political settlement” that’d end armed rebellion”, MILF asserts.  “On surface, it seems natural that Moros and  lumads would share common interest.  Both were pushed off their land as Mindanao was incorporated into the Philippine state.”

This solidarity does not smudge the differences among tribes. Some see themselves as distinct. They resolutely oppose  being included in an expanded Bangsamoro homeland. “Others are resigned to their fate”.

“In practice, relations are uneasy,” notes Asia Report No. 213, released by the Group’s Jakarta office. Tribal leaders recall enslavement by some Moros.  Will lumads be better off under a Moro sub-state?  Many doubt it,  “especially if it  will not respect existing land titles. And “other indigenous rights, in national legislation, could be curtailed.

Lumads are also frustrated by government’s  flawed implementation of the 1997 Indigenous Peoples Rights Act. In  any case, IPRA does not apply in the sleaze-bugged  Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, now being overhauled by President Aquino.

Since PNoy took office, GRF and MILF held consultations with Lumad leaders. “But these efforts have neither dispelled the fears of Lumads. Nor have they reassured them that their rights will be guaranteed after a settlement.”

Both GRP and MILF “must address the issue of land because it is the bedrock of tribal identity and self-governance.  The Aquino administration ought to prioritize implementing indigenous rights in ARRM.

Specifically, “applications for ancestral domain titles from tribes, who live in areas that may be included in an expanded Bang­samoro homeland should be processed without further delay,” the Group said.

MILF should clarify  “whether IPRA would apply in a Bangsamoro sub-state”  That would dispel  suspicions.  How  will  overlapping ancestral domain claims be resolved?. “The issues at stake cut to the heart of many concerns about how democratic a sub-state would be.

Lumads never took up arms against the Philippine government. Is  that  why “they are not one of the parties at the GRP-MILF   negotiating table”?  Divisions within and between tribes make it also  difficult for the Lumads to unify.

“The vast majority of  Lumads are impoverished and marginalized,” the Group points out. The handful of leaders, who speak on their behalf,  struggle to be heard.”  Thus, their grievances and problems  rarely   blip on  national radar screens.  “Out of sight, out of mind,” Homer curtly  says in “The Odyssey.”

President Aquino can burnish his bona-fides for lumads by jump-starting the stalled probe into the assassination of Fr. Fausto Tentorio.  The Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions priest, who served lumads of North Cotabato for 33 years, had been gunned down, ironically in Indigenous People’s month.

Nailing  Fr Tentorio’s  assassin sooner, rather than later, will not only strengthen PNoy’s  hand in MILF peace talks. It  complies with his oath to do justice for vulnerable peace-makers.

(Email:juanlmercado@gmail.com)

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