[Part 1 in a 3-part series]
By JOHN RIZLE L. SALIGUMBA, EARL O.CONDEZA & TYRONE A. VELEZ
DAVAO CITY — While the streets of Davao reverberated with dances and chants during the Kadayawan parade over the weekend, 500 Lumad evacuees saluted their own escape from threats to their lives and safety.
They also longed to return to their communities in Loreto, a town six hours away from Davao City, but only if their governor can assure them that there would be no more red tagging, searches, surveillance and food blockade — things being done, they said, by the military and paramilitary groups.
Indeed, the irony was not lost to many that while local residents and some 70,000 tourists and visitors gloried with the festival in honor of indigenous peoples, the oft-repeated woes of national minorities displaced by development aggression are being played out, with Davao city as the latter’s sanctuary.
Already fed up with their situation, the Agusan Manobo evacuees staged a rally Monday at the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ Eastern Mindanao Command headquarters to demand the pullout of troops and an end in the food blockade in their villages.
The Agusanon Manobos came to Davao City in August 7, after finding no solace from their own governor, Adolph Edward ‘Eddiebong’ Plaza, who ordered them to go back to their villages and face the object of their fears: the military’s 26th Infantry Battalion.
Support groups — the same ones who helped them when Typhoon Pablo hit their communities last December — brought them here.
The evacuation has been difficult for the Manobos as many got sick, some hospitalized, after being exposed to changing weathers.
No other recourse
“We are not used to the life here. As much as we want to return, the soldiers and Bagani are still there,” said Marilyn Edgames, KASAKA spokeperson.
Ricky Lope, a sitio (sub-village) leader from Sabud said soldiers questioned them why they had to leave.
“Do we have to wait when someone get shot? Is it not reason enough that they mauled one of our people? Or that they stayed at our villages, mixing with us civilians?” he told them.
In contrast, the Agusan del Sur government website claims, in a news article, that Lumads expressed support to the military operations.
But Egdames said that it was the military that caused all their troubles.
“They warned us that when something happened to them up there, they will kill us,” Egdames said.
One of the residents, Maki Malayan, asked why the government always targets Lumads in its military operations.
“Why is it that farmers, in times of war, are the ones being victimized of psychological warfare while it is obvious that we are not NPAs but are farmers — look at our hands. They should have understood this,” Malayan said.
Edgames criticized Gov. Plaza and his provincial crisis coordinator, jail warden Jocelyn Bejade for forcing “ambush negotiations” during their campout at the provincial capitol. She said Bejade came surreptitiously in the middle of the night — clearly, after office hours – and forced their leaders to sign an agreement to return to their homes.
Malayan said they heard that the military would put up a detachment in Brgy. Kauswagan and Sabud.
In the meantime, Richard Lumapay, one of the leaders of KASAKA, said more troops from the 26th IB have been deployed in their villages.
“More soldiers came, instead of pulling out. Who wouldn’t be worried about that?” he said.
Malayan, also one of the leaders of KASAKA, said the soldiers enforced a food blockade among residents who remained in Loreto. Residents were reportedly allowed to carry a maximum of five kilos of rice, thus forcing more Lumads and farmers to flee to other villages.
Lumapay said soldiers also held barangay workers from leaving their communities, and livestock were reportedly stolen.
S.O.S. from Agusanons
The plight of the Manobos prompted cause-oriented groups to form the Help Agusan Sur network to support their needs and their calls.
The group has been drawing support from churches and NGOs to help the Lumads from food, beds and efforts to call the government attention to these evacuees. They are also looking for a better facility to provide shelter for the Manobos to prevent more of them from getting sick.
Last Sunday, a mass was conducted for the Manobos, as more support groups pledged to help them. Susan Claro, spokesperson of Help Agusan Sur network said, “we want to make sure that the Lumads can safely return.” But until now, Gov. Plaza has not responded to their calls.
Edgames said they are grateful to people who have provided them material, medical and moral support, and thanked ABC Chair and Councilor Edgar Ibuyan Jr, who is also the barangay captain of Bankerohan for allowing them to stay at the gym.
Oil and mining interests
Juland Suazo, spokesperson of Panalipdan, blamed the entry of multinational investors for the intensified military operations in Loreto.
In his blog, Loreto Municipal Information Services officer Juvanie Espana said, a British New Britain Palm Oil Limited (NBOL) is said to be planning to invest in Loreto as part of its 36,000 hectare-expansion in Asia.
“NBOL, a medium-sized Papua New Guinnea-based company has eyed barangay Sta. Teresa as the pilot test area and demonstration farm for palm oil. According to Mr. Clive Taylor, assistant operations manager, the plan is a part of the company’s thirty-six thousand hectares target expansion of palm oil plantation in Asia. He added that Sta. Teresa is chosen as the pilot area for this plan because of the soil suitability and the availability of land which is at least one thousand hectares for the initial operation,” Espana said in his blog.
Suazo also said the Chinese oil company Seng Hong Exploration entered a contract last year with the government to explore the 750,000 hectares of natural gas deposits in Agusan marsh where Loreto lies.
Lope, likewise, revealed that they have heard of mining companies having interest in gold and other ores.
“They wanted the capitalists to come in to solve poverty, but experiences in other mining areas showed that Lumads were displaced instead when the capitalists took over,” Lope said.