By LEON DULCE
MANILA – The 12,600-square kilometer Pantaron mountain range in Mindanao is home to one of the last remaining old growth or primary forests in this country. It has also been home to one of the longest and most courageous defence of its existence by the people living on it. This defence is ongoing, and it can flourish, as its forests, with our continued support.
Pantaron’s ecological importance is described best by University of the Philippines Mindanao professor Aya Ragragio. She called it a “biogeographic sub-sub region under the Greater Mindanao ecological zone, one of our few remaining biodiversity corridors with old growth forests that house rare species of flora and fauna,” where the headwaters of major Mindanao river systems are also located.
Pantaron is also the ancestral home and source of subsistence of various Lumad indigenous people’s communities, including the Manobos, Higaonons and Bukidnons.
Prof. Ragragio pointed out that the story of the Pantaron Manobos, the ‘natural nurturers’ of the mountain range in Talaingod municipality, Davao del Norte, is an “admirable example of environmental conservation going hand in hand with cultural conservation and self-determination.”
In fact, it is mainly through the Pantaron Manobos’ historical defense of their ancestral domain that the mountain range has been protected and conserved, so far.
The Pangayaw declaration
Since 1991, the timber plantation operations of logging firm Alcantara and Sons (Alsons) began encroaching into the upland forests of Pantaron, practically covering the entire Talaingod.
Datu Guibang Apoga, one of the most respected tribal leaders of the Pantaron Manobos, united the tribes in declaring a pangayaw –a tribal war in defense of their ancestral lands. They formed the Salugpungan Ta Tanu Igkanugon, a Manobo federation that led campaigns against Alsons and its corrupt backers from local and national government.
After repeated warnings to Alsons, Datu Guibang and the Salugpungan datus clashed with Alsons security personnel using only their indigenous spears and arrows. The Salugpungan‘s actions prompted the cancellation of Alsons’ Integrated Forestry Management Agreement (IFMA), and eventually drove the Alsons out of the ancestral lands.
But for this, a warrant of arrest was issued against Datu Guibang and 25 other Salugpungan datus. A PhP500,000 reward was offered for his head, forcing him to retreat deep into the forests, and giving him the moniker of ‘the Fugitive of Talaingod.’
But also for this, Datu Guibang was hailed as an environmental hero by the very first Gawad Bayani ng Kalikasan, an awards event and lecture series honouring individuals, groups and communities who protect the environment at the grassroots level.
Many environmental advocates regard the Pantaron people’s struggle as a legitimate and just defence of Lumad land, life and the environment.
Endless exodus in Pantaron
Unfortunately, every narrative on protecting Pantaron seems to run the common thread of militarization and dispossession. From March 3 this year to early April, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) conducted intense military operations and a series of aerial bombings in Talaingod claiming these are part of its counter-insurgency campaign against the New People’s Army in the area.
The Pantaron Manobos, who had been forced to leave their communities in 1994 because of Alsons’ military backing, are now being displaced again from their homeland by the state military operations.
The fascist troops commit vicious human rights violations and other unspeakable crimes against the Manobos. In the course of conducting aerial bombardments and razing down the homes of civilian-populated communities, state soldiers were also documented to have sexually abused an elder Lumad, as well as harassed, threatened, and intimidated residents and school personnel from the Salugpungan’s Learning Center.
In response, over 1,300 Pantaron Manobos went on an exodus to Davao City as the AFP-sponsored violence in Talaingod intensified. The exodus is both a way of achieving a temporary refuge and amplifyng an action call to local government to help in the pull-out of AFP troops in the area.
The Salugpungan is striving to expose the real motive of the AFP in militarizing Talaingod and Pantaron. They are saying that under the cover of the state troops’ anti-communist excuses at indiscriminate repression of communities, they are really paving the way for the entry of ‘development aggression’ projects of big mining corporations and hydro-dam power plants.
The continuing struggle
Thanks to the resolute struggle of the Lumad people and the support of various progressive organizations grouped under the Defend Talaingod, Save Pantaron Alliance, they were heard by Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, Davao del Norte governor Rodolfo del Rosario, and the Eastern Mindanao Command of the AFP, such that last April 29, some of the state troops were pulled out of Talaingod.
As the Pantaron Manobos return to their villages, our solidarity and support is needed more than ever, to ensure the state troops are completely pulled out from the communities, schools and ancestral lands in Pantaron. The Talaingod communities also need continued aid as they strive to rebuild their lives, once again.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines have to be held accountable and prosecuted for its ever growing number of war crimes toward our fellow Filipinos. Let us work together in upholding and winning the Pantaron Lumad’s continuing struggle for land rights, self-determination, and environmental protection.
If you are interested in supporting the Pantaron, contact Defend Talaingod, Save Pantaron Range Movement: email email@example.com | mobile no. +63 939 166 9065
LEON DULCE is the campaign coordinator of Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment (Kalikasan PNE).