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Volume 3,  Number 34              September 28 - October 4, 2003            Quezon City, Philippines


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Dumagats: A People's Struggle to be Free

No one can own the land, and nobody should claim ownership to it. This is Mekedyapat's (God) gift to the community and not to any individual. Whatever is gained from the land is shared by the community...for without the land, the community dies.

By Dennis Espada

No one can own the land, and nobody should claim ownership to it. This is Mekedyapat's (God) gift to the community and not to any individual. Whatever is gained from the land is shared by the community...for without the land, the community dies.

This perhaps sums up Malu Maniquiz's Laweg on Laye (In Search of Freedom, produced by Archipelago Productions), a stirring documentary film about the Dumagats. The film, which aims to promote awareness and enhance the mass work among tribal communities using audio-visual presentation, is based on the life and struggle for land of the Dumagats in Southern Tagalog.

The Dumagats are one of the major groups of indigenous peoples living in the Southern Tagalog region south of Manila. The Dumagats, now numbering only about 30,000, inhabit the fertile Sierra Madre Ranges on Quezon province's northern tip. A large throng of this ethnic tribe can be found in the town of General Nakar, while a few of them can be spotted in three municipalities of Polillo island.

Primarily, the Dumagats depend on farming, kaingin (orchard farming or slash-and-burn agriculture), paid labor, vending logs and other forest commodities as livelihood. Secondarily, they rely on fishing, hunting animals, gathering crops and other natural bounties for survival. Loan dependence (usury) has reduced many of them to dismal poverty.

The government has even allocated more than 47 settlement areas as their home. But the tendency to become wanderers or nomads is still practiced among Dumagat families and this brings them deep in the Sierra Madre forest.

Despite the passage of the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA) in 1997, conflicts still crop up between the tribal communities and what community organizers say are their modern-day colonizers - foreign capitalist investors, big landholders and government itself.

Colonial legacy

In recent decades, big landlords have used land titles to claim and exploit the ancestral land that Dumagat communities insist belong to them. During the U.S. colonial occupation, for instance, the Mon-Sor family placed under its ownership more than 29,000-hectare ancestral land in Barangay Umiray in General Nakar including large tracts of land in Aurora province (which is at least 17,000 hectares). Later, in the 1960s, the Mon-Sors sold the entire property to Go Pasuoy, also from a rich landlord lineage.

The Dumagats are in a struggle for ancestral domain claim inside the more than 50,000 hectares of landmass in General Nakar. They allege that Green Circle Properties (or Pacific Coast City, a developing firm owned by lawyer Romeo Roxas) is out to grab the property to build a grandiose "eco-tourism hub." The Dumagats through their mass organizations, see an intensifying commercialization of indigenous culture under the pretext of "development."

Green Circle's purported project includes modern seaports, schools, buildings for government offices, Olympic-style sports facilities and other lavish amenities.

Sources told Bulatlat.com that Green Circle has "pulled off" with its alleged logging activities in the lush forests of Quezon and Aurora provinces. The sources said that logging has devastated the environment and ancestral land, not to mention the displacement of tribal communities within the developing firm's areas of operation.

Aside from the Green Circle project, a conferential road connecting the municipality of Infanta to Umiray is also under construction. Tribal villagers say that the project will make it easier for the military to enter their communities to carry out counter-insurgency operations against New People’s Army (NPA) guerrillas said to be active in the area.


The Bigkis at Lakas ng mga Katutubo sa Timog Katagalugan (Balatik), a regional indigenous peoples alliance, says that tribal communities have known no peace since the time soldiers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) were deployed in their areas. The soldiers accused them of being members or supporters of the NPA.

A Dumagat leader of Balatik, Henry Borreo, lamented on the increasing cases of brutal killings committed against members of tribal communities under the administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. He called the killings "ethnocide."

"Kung ang mga nag-alsa sa Oakwood ay hindi masikmura ang kabulukan sa militar, kami pa kayang mga katutubo na tuwirang nakararanas ng kanilang kalupitan?” (If the mutineers at Oakwood could no longer bear the military hierarchy's rottenness, how much more for us, indigenous people, who have directly experienced brutality from them?), Borreo said during the commemoration of National Minorities Week last month. He also denounced the forced recruitment of many Dumagats into AFP-directed paramilitary units for counterinsurgency operations in the vicinity.

Borreo recalled the slaying last December 2001 of Nicanor "Ka Kano" delos Santos, a Dumagat chief, allegedly by elements of Task Force Panther of the Philippine Army’s 2nd Infantry Batallion. Ka Kano is well-known for opposing the construction of the Metro Manila Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS)-sponsored hydrothermal dam along Kaliwa and Kanan Agos Rivers, which will affect at least seven barangays (villages) in the municipality of Tanay, Rizal province.

Land has been the material base for the Dumagat tribe's unique culture, beliefs and way of life for centuries. To deprive them of land would, of course, lose their identity as a people.

"Now is the time to give back the land that rightfully belongs to our people, as well as our right to self-determination," Borreo said. Bulatlat.com

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