By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO and ANNE MARXZE D. UMIL
MANILA – Contrary to military claims that they were members of militia of the Communist Party of the Philippines, the slain indigenous peoples in Panay had long been asserting their right to land and life in the face of so-called development projects. In return, they had been tagged as enemies of the state and subjected to intense militarization over the years.
For the past decade, the Tumandok of Panay island has been opposing projects that would end up submerging their communities, their sources of livelihoods, and their centuries-old culture and tradition.
Just before 2020 ended, state forces carried out a “Synchronized Enhanced Management of Police Operation” that left nine dead, including the chairperson of their local organization Roy Giganto and two village officials Reynaldo Katipunan and Mario Aguirre.
Two weeks before this, their organization TUMANDUK or Tumanduk Farmers in Defense for Land and Life was tagged as a front organization of the Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People’s Army during a Senate hearing, which reeked of McCarthyism in the 1950s.
But who are Tumandok and why is the Philippine government hell-bent on quelling their resistance?
Fight against displacement
The Tumandok have been resisting the P11-billion Jalaur dam, which stands to displace 17,000 of their tribe and at least 1.2 million residents living near the vicinity of the river basin due to flooding.
Government agencies started their feasibility study on the dam construction back in 2009 and later submitted the results to a Korean firm in 2011. Consultations with the affected communities, per the Philippine laws on the need to secure Free, Prior, and Informed Consent, only took place in 2012.
The Jalaur dam construction initially offered about 17,000 low-paying and temporary work posts to the Tumandok. After the construction, tribal leaders said they would be without jobs, and their lands completely submerged in water.
The dam will pose dangers to immediate communities as the proposed site lies about 11 kilometers away from a fault line – the West Panay Fault – that caused one of the most catastrophic earthquakes in the Philippines. In a 2014 press release, the Dagsaw-Panay-Guimaras Indigenous People’s Network said the 8.2-magnitude earthquake back in 1948, dubbed as the “Lady Caycay” earthquake, is one of the biggest in the last 500 years in the country.
In recent history, the 2012 earthquake that shook Central Negros with a 6.8-magnitude and the 2013 earthquake in Central Visayas that recorded a 7.2-magnitude were enough to bring massive destruction in Panay.
In the middle of a pandemic, the Duterte administration announced in August 2020 that the Jalaur project was added to the list of priority infrastructure projects under the “Build Build Build” while striking out yet another controversial dam project on the same island, the Panay River Basin Integrated Development.
Presidential Adviser for Flagship Programs Vivencio Dizon, a month later, called for the expediting of the approval of water infrastructure under the Build Build Build.
Knowing the adverse impacts of the dam to their lives and to their communities, the Tumandok were among those who steadfastly and consistently resisted the dam construction, from the Aquino administration until now. This led to the founding of their group TUMANDUK in 2014, considered as their biggest gathering to date, in the face of increasing state surveillance and militarization of their communities.
On its founding, the organization passed a resolution against the Jalaur dam construction despite six truckloads of soldiers and two military helicopters hovering in their ancestral domain.
Even the local government has supported the construction. For instance, in 2012, Jalaur River for the People Movement (JRPM) said the local government recruited individuals for Kabayan Action Group, a paramilitary group under the Department of Interior and Local Government and the Philippine National Police to militarize the community.
Those who are firm in their stand against the construction of the dam are threatened to be charged with a case for “delaying” the construction, the JRPM said.
Spouses Nestor and Mary Castor and Romeo and Berna Castor who were steadfast in their opposition and refusal to sell their land were slapped with expropriation cases by the National Irrigation Administration (NIA).
According to the JRPM, two of the three dams, the Jalaur main reservoir, and the afterbay, are located within the ancestral domain majorly owned by the Castor clan.
According to JRPM study, Romeo’s brother Nestor lost almost one hectare of his lands due to road construction going to the main dam site. He was only paid P1,800.00 (US$38) for the damages to his coffee plants and fruit-bearing trees, but during the court trial where he was a witness, the National Irrigation Administration (NIA) presented a document showing that he received P180,000 (US$3817).
Residents were also forced to accept money from the representatives of the government dispossessing them of their ancestral land for P50,000 ($1040) or lower for those who do not have titles. This is due to the increased presence of the uniformed personnel accompanying government officials in going to the houses of the residents and constant patrolling in their area.
As the government project commenced, military operations also intensified.
As early as February 2020, the Philippine Army announced that it will step up its fight against the CPP and the NPA with a 501-member 12th Infantry Battalion undergoing an organizational and community support program training.
From handling administrative work, the PNA reported that the 12th Infantry Battalion was converted to a maneuver battalion, which now included foot soldiers as they try to beat their “deadline” to beat the CPP and the NPA before 2020 ended or before President Duterte’s term.
Such pronouncement was coupled with progressives being branded as leaders of front organizations and as recruiters of the underground movement, including their names and faces plastered in posters in communities and in social media pages that have purported links to state forces.
The Philippine Task Force for Indigenous Peoples’ Rights also reported that on June 16, 2020, the 47th and 12th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army (IBPA) and the Philippine National Police Regional Mobile Force (PNP-RMF) “forced Tumandok indigenous communities in Capiz to permanently relocate from the uplands to the roadside in order for their names to be cleared from the list of communist supporters.”
Just recently, Col. Enrique Ancheta, chief of the PNP Crime Laboratory Office in Western Visayas, confirmed that seven of nine leaders who were killed tested negative for gunpowder residue. For telling the truth, Ancheta was relieved from his post at the Police Regional Crime Laboratory central office.
For the Tumandok, the fight for their ancestral land means a fight for their very survival.
In the 2012 environmental investigation mission, AGHAM or Advocates for Science and Technology for the People noted the rich resources in the Tumandok ancestral domain. There are medicinal herbs as well as hardwood trees for the construction of houses and furniture. The river where the Tumandok get their food is also rich but was affected due to the construction of the Dingli Dam, which apparently obstructed the breeding cycle of Sili, a kind of freshwater eel.
The Jalaur river also serves as a venue for Dangsaw, a gathering of the indigenous peoples where they perform collective fishing.
“The river and the structures along it serve as landmarks for the IPs, some of which are even mentioned in Sugidanon, the epic of the Tumandok. Adding to the richness of their culture is the ethnic dance called Binanog inspired by the movements and the flight of the bird locally known as Banog (Changeable hawk-eagle),” the mission report of AGHAM read.
AGHAM said the “construction of the dam will wipe out these structures and animals leaving the epic, the dance, and other forms of tradition meaningless and empty in the next generations.”
For NGO Pesticide Action Network-Asia Pacific, “The massacre of the Tumandok farmers is a grievous loss not just for their families, not just for the indigenous peoples’ movement, but for a global community that values small food producers and how indigenous knowledge is inextricably tied to the land and the protection of biodiversity.”