“Typhoon Yolanda destroyed our houses and our trees in November 8 last year… Now, more than two months after, the 61st IB-PA and the NCIP suddenly remembered to conduct a relief distribution operation, come here in the middle of our assembly preparations and in full battle gear?”
By RAYMUND B. VILLANUEVA
The Tumandok indigenous people’s group in Western Visayas held their biggest assembly last January 17 and 18 despite harassments from the 61st Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army (IBPA).
One thousand two hundred Tumandoks attended their ninth assembly (held every two years) at Aglinab village, Tapaz, Capiz, a remote upland village that can only be reached by all-wheel drive vehicles, motorcycles, or by hiking.
They were joined by at least a hundred Bukidnons and Atis, two other indigenous peoples groups in Western Visayas, as well as progressive and human rights groups based in Iloilo and Capiz for the Visayas-wide consultation on the formation of the Philippine Platform for Indigenous Peoples Rights (PPIPR).
The soldiers arrived in six trucks, accompanied by an armored personnel carrier and two helicopters.
The PPIPR consultation was held immediately following the assembly last January 19.
Assembly delegates braved incessant rains, make-shift conditions at the venue recently devastated by Typhoon Yolanda, and bad road conditions made worse by the heavy trucks used by the 61st IBPA three days prior to the event.
The assembly unanimously passed four resolutions for the defense of Tumandok land, opposition to the Jalaur River Multipurpose Project (JRMP), resistance against the Benigno Aquino III government’s counterinsurgency program, and demand for social services.
Land grabbing remains the Tumandok’s biggest problem, outgoing Tumandok ng Mangunguma nga Nagapangapin sa Duta ka Kabuhi (Tumanduk), Inc. president Roy Giganto said.
Originally comprising just one village in upland areas of Iloilo and Capiz provinces, the Tumandoks have been driven away from their original settlement by land-grabbers who had their ancestral lands titled, he said.
Giganto said land-grabbers colluded with corrupt government officials to produce false land titles and force them to relocate to remoter upland areas to live on banana and coconut farming.
He said many of them were even made to pay for the small plots of land where their houses are currently built at P100 ($2.20) per square meter.
“Even with their so-called one-year grace period, many Tumandoks simply could not afford to pay,” Giganto said.
He also bewailed that the rice lands surrounding their villages are owned by non-Tumandoks.
“With Typhoon Yolanda destroying our banana and coconut trees, it could take us more than a year to recover,” he added.
The assembly particularly scored the planned P11-bilion ($242 million) JRMP Phase II mega dam project, which, the Tumandoks said, would flood 13 of their villages.
An Aquino administration cornerstone project for its so-called accelerated infrastructure and sustained economic development, the JRMP was proposed by Senate President and Aquino ally Franklin M. Drilon.
In a recent statement, Anakbayan-Iloilo’s Jessa Aligasen said the mega-dam project would dislocate at least 6,300 Tumandoks anew.
The Social Action Center of the Archdiocese of Jaro (Iloilo) also said the JRMP poses grave danger not just to the Tumandoks as it is would sit on top of the West Panay fault.
Former Iloilo representative Augusto Syjuco charged that the JRMP’s budget was bloated from P8 to P11.2 billion ($176.6 million to $247.7 million) to fund Drilon’s ambitions for higher elective positions.
Syjuco earlier filed a petition before the Supreme Court last December against JRMP Phase II, naming as respondents Drilon, the National Irrigation Administration, the National Economic Development Corporation, the Department of Agrarian Reform, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Public Works and Highways.
Tumanduk, for its part, said the mega dam project is another form of land-grabbing against the Tumandoks.
In their resolution, it said that even the basic requirement of “free, prior and informed consent” was not complied with by the government.
“Are they deliberately trying to incite the Tumandoks to rise up against this government?” Giganto asked.
The Tumandok leader said they will resist all plans to transfer them to any relocation site.
“Their so-called development projects only benefit them while perpetuating the injustices we have been suffering these past many decades,” Giganto said.
The assembly delegates said the military’s unannounced arrival in Barangay Aglinab while they were busy preparing for the event was pure harassment.
Led by a certain Major Peralta and a 1st Lt. Pascua, about 50 elements of the 61st IBPA based in nearby Camp Peralta in Napindan, Capiz arrived at the Tumandok area last January 14 at 10 in the evening.
Residents of Barangay Aglinab said the soldiers told them they were to conduct a medical mission and relief distribution, accompanied by two Canadian doctors and employees of the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP).
But the Tumandoks said they were not informed by the military about the mission.
“Members of the Aglinab barangay council did not have any knowledge of these plans; they were not informed,” village Aglinab resident Teresita Gayas said.
“We believe that the presence of the 61st IBPA here is to derail our preparations for our assembly, and to harass our members with their presence,” Eliseo Gayas Jr., another Tumanduk leader from the same village said.
“Typhoon Yolanda destroyed our houses and our trees in November 8 last year… Now, more than two months after, the 61st IB-PA and the NCIP suddenly remembered to conduct a relief distribution operation, come here in the middle of our assembly preparations and in full battle gear?” Gayas asked.
“We demand(ed) that the military leave the community and to follow civilian protocol of asking the permission of the whole barangay council first before conducting any activity in the community, especially if they are going to be armed and in full battle gear.” Ailyn Catamin, another Tumanduk leader from Tacayan village said.
“It looked like as if they were going to war, and not assist civilians in their hour of need,” Catamin said.
The soldiers left the area last January 15.
The assembly’s third resolution also condemned the killing of six-year old Rodelyn Aguirre and the wounding of her younger sister Roda in Barangay Tacayan, Tapaz, Capiz last March 11, 2012.
Both Rodelyn and Roda were playing in their yard when a bomb from an M203 grenade launcher exploded beside them.
Herminia Aguirre, Rodelyn and Roda’s cousin, told human rights groups investigating the incident that she saw two soldiers of the 61st IBPA running from the scene immediately after the explosion.
Giganto said Rodelyn’s death and the harassment they suffered while preparing for their assembly are part of the Aquino government’s counterinsurgency program Oplan Bayanihan.
“Is it not true that these military operations ultimately aid those whose only aim to is grab our lands and deprive us of our ancestral domain?” Giganto asked.
Indigenous People’s Platform
Amid binanog dances and ambahan and komposo songs, the Tumandoks, Bukidnons and Atis unanimously approved their inclusion to the proposed PPIPR, jointly organized by Kalipunan ng Katutubong Mamamayan ng Pilipinas (Kamp), Koalisyon ng mga Katutubong Samahan ng Pilipinas and their respective local and regional member organizations.
Once formally formed PPIPR aims to formulate a common legislative agenda for all indigenous peoples groups in the Philippines, which would then be presented for sponsorship by individual legislators, and submitted for deliberations and possible enactment by Philippine Congress.
“The PPIPR shall unite our different organizations and networks for a common goal. Together, we will push for the recognition of our rights and for the attainment of social justice for all indigenous peoples in the Philippines,” Kamp secretary general Joan Jaime said.