FOR AS LONG AS ANYONE who came to Guinoman can recall, the hills of Balabag on the northern edge of the sleepy town of Bayog, Western Mindanao had been a peaceful forest of maple-leafed trees and bamboo.
Certainly if one goes on foot, by bike, in a truck on the brow, the impression is that it takes you deep into the heartland of the peninsula. That Guinoman, like the meaning of its name is unlike any other place. Here the municipality seem to lose its central force. The network of rudimentary thoroughways interposes itself: it makes you put your feet on the ground for sure. It seems that this area, surrounded by the great gash of the countryside, up until today, has had its own independent breath that is not part of the larger community.
Means of travel is by riding a camper van, which funny enough is called “bunggo” by the locals and could be translated to “bump into” descriptive how rugged the terrain is. A good visit like a courtesy call to the officials of the municipality especially the mayor is taken to mean respect and literally access. Photo by C. Guerrerro
The fear engendered by encounters is the fear of slipping through the cracks; the fear of losing oneself in no-man’s land; between one village and another; in the sea of clouds between mountains and the places that by convenience would be ignored. Photo by Beth D.
All of these make us think of a great inclination towards refuge. This part of the town succeeds in not moving away; not only that, it creates spaces where the people are, where they stay, and to which they have become habituated to resisting from major threats to their future.
Recently, Balabag’s earth has come to be known as yielding not only prized minerals but stones to drive away raptors, while drawing, students, religious leaders and, potentially, a stream of human rights defenders to a place where unfortunate events shaped indigenous Subanen people’s history and identity.
“The sound of the gongs wafts away/ as far as the joining of the streams./ Because of its floating downstream/ intentions are unfulfilled.” - Subanen poem
Photo by JP S.
The peninsula and its people
Subanen means “riverdweller.” They were originally residing along the river banks (or “suba” in vernacular). Today, they occupy only the mountains as dialectic tensions arose between other groups, including loggers, who stripped off the tropical interior cover as well as settlers, who have taken over the lowlying areas for agriculture.
Zamboanga peninsula has a very intense history of discord between its inhabitants and their natural environment, and between nonresidents and the built environment. Many Subanen have a tenuous hold on life and have worked as artisanal miners, which in practice means blasting away their own tunnels with improvised explosives in the search for the elusive gold. Most critically, along with a depressed economy, these miners have been largely blamed for the degradation of Mount Balabag and the immediate vicinity continually under siege.
Worsening circumstances as a result of dispossession and lack of social support services to promote the basic material wellbeing the people need keep the Subanen economy at subsistence level.
Like residents in Guinoman, people elsewhere in Zamboanga peninsula also tried to adjust to the changes. In the case of Barangay Dumalian, municipality of San Miguel, most people were either tenants or agricultural laborers, tending cornfields or harvesting cassava. Discontentment echoed the growing unity among villagers trying to survive and protect their lands. Incidents of human rights violations also followed conducted by paramilitary groups, and elements of the government’s armed forces, who operate in the interest of multinational corporations, including agribusiness and mining firms.
TVI Resources Development (Phils.) Inc., a subsidiary of Canada’s TVI Pacific, hold three “mineral-sharing production” agreements: Canatuan, province of Zamboanga del Norte; Bayog, Zamboanga del Sur; and Tamarok, Jose Dalman, Zamboanga del Norte.
In the Canatuan mine experience, ramped-up excavation for copper and zinc for more than a decade ago caused massive disruption to the people’s lives. Consent for mining were disputed by the ancestral leaders (called Thimuay or timuay) who were driven out from their land. Yet it was the first foreign investment mining company to reach production stage under the Philippine Mining Act of 1995 and conclude operations.
Since then, the company prepared expansion in Bayog for gold and silver mining an hour trucking distance away from Canatuan. Locals reported a climate of aggression and intimidation around the project. Armed security called “blue guards” were made available by the Philippine military carrying low-calibre guns with families on the receiving end of bullets.
As almost half of the total land area of Zamboanga peninsula is covered by 278 mining tenements,the sacred domains of the Subanen were continually destroyed and their culture, threatened. Even so, there are attempts from people to defend their lives and to protect the environment.
Based on an interview with a Thimuay, there are many hungry mouths to feed, infrastructure to build and institutions of governance that need to be revamped to provide the basic needs of the local community (e.g. the existence of a health clinic without any medical supplies or health professional). This shows why there are folks who have pronounced urgency to take arms given that they are in a more precarious position.
Learning from the Lumad
Facing harsh conditions, indigenous peoples began to organize themselves. They formed a number of organizations. A few of them became sizable to encompass their villages: Namaba (Nagkahiusang Mag-uuma sa Bayog or United Farmers in Bayog), Lumagu (Lumalabang Magsasaka sa Guinoman) and Dufarma (Dumalian Farmers Association).
Increasingly, peasants realized their common predicament. With the clergy (priests, bishops, nuns) from the local parishes, imams and ustadz from Moro communities, and leaders from the Salabukan Nok G’taw Subanen (Unity of the Subanen People or SGS) formed PROTECT! as a regional alliance opposing large-scale mining.
The sanctuary of the church helped the delegates of an International Solidarity Mission recover and rewind the thread of time. Missioners, including activists from Kenya, Australia, US and Canada, listened to testimonies from former mine workers and families. Intake forms were used to record the human rights violations, by casual conversation in semi-structured interviews and audio or visual recording. Photo by JP.
What was striking in Zamboanga peninsula is the capacity for people getting together, the vital force with which people take possession of spaces, and the strategies they pursue to make that end work. Living and sleeping at least overnight in the hut, one would find to be part of the group–albeit a temporary and highly privileged part. Passing of knowledge is not through a well where one can easily scoop out water and hand out buckets. Everything is shared, from resources to responsibilities.
In remote Dumalian, village folks have created a defensive and domestic retreat where social life is protected. This is what we can call “zone of resistance.” The physical terrain gives an overlooking view and the social terrain is a mass base of supplies, intelligence and influence. Despite the impassibility of the space, efforts in the past have opened up doors for forging solidarity.
The situation in the region is comparable to the rest of the island of Mindanao. The fight of indigenous peoples (collectively called Lumad) grew out of the peasant movement and it had expanded beyond what it had become. They have gained momentum in promoting the notion that they are the best conservers of biodiversity by setting up Lumad schools for the young ones whose lives are not too encumbered by the administration. In this terrain, though spatial definition is minimum, social utilization is maximized.
The Algiers Declaration, which set in motion the decolonization process that swept Asia, Africa and Latin America, maintains the legitimacy of Indigenous peoples struggles for development and peace based on economic justice. Thus, being indigenous does not equate to being indigent. The culture of wealth of the people is inextricably tied to the rich biodiversity of their ancestral lands.
Ultimately, it is the people who is decisive. For them, to struggle is one step to move forward, and it’s a persuadable path.