Meek Subanons May Not Inherit the Earth

Zamboanga City – THERE are an estimated 2,500 ethnic Subanon families living as very poor, subsistence farmers in a logged-over, highland area of the three contiguous barangays of Labuan, Limpapa and Patalon in this city. Archeological records say their forefathers had inhabited this enclave and other parts of the Zamboanga Peninsula as far back as 1,500 years ago – or a thousand years before the Spaniards came to Mindanao to establish modern settlements. Despite their native title to this piece of ancestral land and because they dared to apply for a tenurial title to it as allowed under the country’s Indigenous People’s Rights Act (IPRA), they now fear they instead will be mass-evicted from their homesteads.

Last August 27, the directors’ board of the Zamboanga Economic and Freeport Zone Authority (ZamboEcozone) passed a resolution prohibiting “all activities of the indigenous people” in the now contested area. The agency says the same area, measuring over 15,000 hectares, is theirs through Presidential Proclamation No. 1099 issued in September, 1997. The city government chimed in and has filed with the National Commission on Indigenous People (NCIP) last September 3 its opposition to the ancestral domain claim of the Subanons. City Hall said the area is not alienable, it being “within (its) territorial and governing jurisdiction”.

The twin opposition has effectively put a stop to the tribesmen’s 10-year old claim. NCIP executive director Rosalina Bistoyong issued a memorandum to the agency’s regional office in Western Mindanao last October 3 ordering a suspension of all survey activities in connection with the claim “while waiting for the settlement of issues brought about by the opposition of the city government officials”. The survey referred to is part of the official process to delineate the perimeters of any proposed ancestral reservation. Priscilla Saladaga, director of the Rural-Urban Missionaries (RUM), a local Catholic Church-based civil society group that is helping the Subanons, fears that by failing to say how or when the opposition should be resolved, Bistoyong’s order will indefinitely delay if not bury the petition for good.

In September, 1997, as the IPRA law was being adopted by Congress that year, the Subanon families had filed their initial claim to the land. But in December of the same year, then President Ramos issued a proclamation that transformed the area into an economic land grant and placed it under the charge of the ZamboEcozone for its development and use. The local city council at the time sympathized with the Subanons and in a resolution expressed its objection to Ramos’ presidential proclamation. However, the present Sangguniang Panlungsod has practically reversed that position by passing a resolution last August 23 opposing a major aspect – related to foreshore rights – contained in the tribesmen’s petition. Incumbent councilor Kim Elago in the resolution even denied that the Subanon claimants are from Zamboanga City.

RUM’s Saladaga said the Subanons were not able to immediately pursue their initial claim because of the long and complicated process requirements. However, since 2000 RUM has been assisting off and on the ethnic group to prepare their documents such that by last year most of it have been filed with NCIP and the next remaining step would have been the estopped perimeter survey.

Nevertheless, Saladaga and the nine Subanon chieftains, or timuays in the ethnic vernacular, of the affected families remain optimistic because they believe the IPRA law leans explicitly in favor of their claim. NCIP said that although only about 9,000 hectares of the 15,000 can realistically be granted to them since the rest have been titled to private entities, the area is classifiable under IPRA as land held under a “native title” and, hence, cannot be considered as public land. The existence there of pre-Spanish burial grounds and other archeological tribal artifacts, the documented genealogies of the occupant petitioners, the extant pre-historic Subanon names of the barangays, rivers, mountains, trees and other landmarks, all attest to their primordial “native title” to this land, Saladaga said.

Also, Timuays Antonio Bernardo and Abelardo Sangadan of Patalon; Lumilid Ansilan and Terson Banguih of Latap; Rodolfo Banding, Bakil Gumandao and Pablito Lumapay of Limpapa; and, Rafael Pandalan and Pablo Lomoncon of Labuan have jointly filed a complaint with the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) against the ZamboEcozone for its restrictive and threatening August 27 resolution. Years ago, the same petitioners had also filed with CHR a case of land-grabbing against the same office.

The Ecozone was created by Congress in 1997 through a special law authored by the late Maria Clara Lobregat, mother of incumbent city mayor Celso Lobregat, while she was the city’s congresswoman. Todate it has nine locator investors at its complex located in remote and rural Barangay San Ramon, situated at the fringe of its land grant. It now plans to construct there a retirement village for elderly foreigners.

The NCIP has issued ancestral domain titles to other Subanon communities in Siocon, Zamboanga del Norte and Zamboanga Sibugay, NCIP Zamboanga sub-office head Engr. Humphrey Hamoy said. In Zamboanga City, the office two years ago issued a similar title to a Sama Badjao community residing on a strip of mangrove in Barangay Sangali, where the Canadian government built stilt houses for them. Many Badjaos though, who were traditional sea gypsies displaced in recent years from the sea by rampant piracy and diminished fish stocks, now hang on to life as barefoot street beggars dispersed in major cities of the Philippines and are probably in the brink of cultural extinction.

In comparison to the Badjaos, the naturally meek and peace-loving Subanons – of whom there are an estimated 400,000 living mostly throughout Western Mindanao today – are a little luckier as over centuries of intrusions by settlers into their lands they had their valleys and mountains to run away to and to shield them. The IPRA law is but designed to protect them as well through the legalistic ancestral domain rights mechanism.

Saladaga and anthropologists who have studied the Subanons note that land is the essential element in the tribe’s culture and self-identity, which are substantially well-preserved because of their resiliency and self-imposed isolation. In a paper presented during the Subanon national conference conducted by Ateneo de Zamboanga University in 2002, Datu Mangura Dr. Vicente Imbing said that while his fellow tribesmen believe in a supreme deity they call either Apo Asog or Diwata Megbabaya, they also worship a host of spirits who they believe inhabit the land, rivers, forests, air and even inanimate objects. Hence, they hold the environment as sacred and till their land as traditional kaingin or swidden farmers only after performing many animistic rituals to pray for good harvests. They never use synthetic fertilizers even today, Saladaga noted. Without their land, she said, the Subanons’ ethnic identity will die.

With their 12 known epics as compared to the Maranaos’ only one but famous epic called the Darangan, the Subanons have a very rich and unique culture, anthropologist Dr. Jesus Peralta of the National Commission on Culture and the Arts had observed. He cited the Subanons’ buklog ritual festival as the only one of its kind in the world. In the buklog, which they perform mostly as a thanksgiving ceremony, the community led usually by a priestess called balyan dance on a large swinging platform hanging meters above the ground from posts. As they jump and dance to the beat of tinkling gongs, a pole attached to the swinging platform strikes a set of jars lying on the ground to create a booming sound that can be heard for miles around. The frenzied merriment accompanied by eating and drinking of rice wine can go uninterrupted for days. It is not unusual for the young to find their lifelong partners while dancing high up on the virtual cloud nine, Dr. Imbing said.

Timuay Rafael Pandalan ruefully said the clouds in fact will be the only refuge left for his clansmen if government would not give them back their ancestral lands and the ZamboEcozone will evict them from the last of their mountain sanctuary.

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