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2: Return to Mindanao

Lee McKenna is a trainer, teacher, writer, facilitator, musician and storyteller with more than 20 years of experience working in Conflict Transformation. Her areas of expertise include non-violence, economics, human rights, ethics, public policy, anthropology and theology. Lee is highly recognized as a Peacemaker and in 2010 was awarded the YMCA Peace Medallion. She holds a MDiv degree and is a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto.

The rain is pouring down, obscuring the passing landscape. Our minibus roars its way first along the coastal road, where sunshine earlier displayed the waters of the Sulu Sea and the modest Nipa leaf-thatch-and-bamboo-slat huts of fisher families. I think of their Sri Lankan neighbours whose homes, of undoubtedly similar construction, and livelihoods and, for tens of thousands, their lives, were washed away with the tsunami of Christmas 2004.

Now we are climbing, wending our way through a wet green landscape of palms, bamboo forests and rice paddies in various stages on the way to harvest, punctuated occasionally by the large brown-black hulk of a carabao, the bovine workhorse of this part of the world. The driver reduces speed but ramps up the horn-honking as we pass through village after village of colourful houses, shops, tuk-tuks, flapping clotheslines and uniformed school-children caught in the downpour. When we pull into the pension house that will be our home for the next few days, it feels as if we have not just arrived, but survived, somehow making our way through human settlements – and steep, narrow, winding ocean-side precipices – without loss of life, theirs or ours!

The work in Sindangan will be complex, bringing together indigenous Subanon, Bangsamoro, Muslims and Christian settlers – the latter being part of the flood of southward internal migration that began with a presidential decree of 1955 that mandated a ‘people with no land’ (land-poor residents of the northernmost Island of Luzon, home to the capital, Manila) to a ‘land with no people’ (the Island of Mindanao, never conquered in the course of 350 years of Spanish rule and only annexed to the Philippine archipelago with the U.S. victory in the Spanish-American War. The indigenous tribal peoples and ancient Islamic communities of this stubbornly non-compliant land governed by sultans responded variously to the unwelcomed invasion: some retreated to the mountains, ceding rich valleys of lands of a thousand generations to the light-skinned Christian settlers from the north – unable to produce the sine qua non of the outsiders’ rules of who owns what, a deed; others took up arms in violent resistance, forming the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

With George W. Bush’s declaration of the Philippines as the ‘second front in the war on terror’, the then-government of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was happy to be at the receiving end of the hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars that flowed into the country in the form of armaments and 'advisors’. The Philippine Armed Forces got both resources and training in counter-insurgency – tactics that they turned on both the now-splintered MILF and the decades-old insurgency arm of the underground Communist Party of the Philippines, the New Peoples’ Army (NPA), whose forces were and remain entrenched in scores of communities across the principle islands of the archipelago.

A section of the Boac River following the 1996 spill of 1.6 million cubic metres of tailings from the Marcopper Mine. Here, street names, schools, parks and government buildings honour the name of José Rizal, the hero of the Spanish-American war who was exiled to this part of Zamboanga del Norte. It is also the land of Toronto Ventures International (TVI), one of a long list of Canadian mining companies applying for concessions, exploring, extracting and exporting in this country, most sticking to the letter of the generous Mining Act of 1995 which, along with its more recent amendments, allows the creation of militias to enforce displacement and compliance, open-pit mining, clear-cut, 100% ownership and export of profits, placing no limits of foreign national employees or requirements for local inputs. The endless stories of tailing spills – the Marcopper/Placer Dome (now owned by Barrick Gold) Marinduque disaster a 16 year-old example – have set numerous precedents of impunity for both national and foreign companies, leaving communities uncompensated and forced to move away from the formerly life-giving rivers and lands of their ancestors. Illegal logging is slowly stripping the landscape of its groundcover – nature’s bulwark against erosion and deadly landslides. 

Emboldened by the invitational ‘war on terror’, Abu Sayyef ramped up its activities in the Sulu archipelago, outsourcing its fundraising kidnapping-for-ransom to  Kuratong Balaleng, formed in 1986 by the Armed Forces in the final months of dictator, Ferdinand Marcos’, régime as an anti-communist vigilante group, and based not far from here. I will spend days here without seeing another non-native face. The long stares in the streets and markets are not accompanied this time, as last, by obviously tailing strangers nor pointed interrogations as to my financial situation and destination.

With the replacement of the President acro-nymmed down to GMA – here in this land of ubiquitous acronyms and funny-sounding (to the foreigner) nicknames – by the son of the much-loved Corazon Aquino, Benigno ('Noynoy'), it’s hard to tell what’s changed. Manila’s precarious bamboo-and-tin housing destroyed by typhoon Ondoy three years ago has been rebuilt with little follow-through on promises to re-settle water’s-edge squatters. Clear-cut river banks and mountain slopes provide no impediments to typhoon torrents that carry away millions of cubic tonnes of rich soil, leaving the land impoverished and the rivers heavily silted and sluggish. Though there are mining moratoria being declared by local governments and, it is said, fewer successful large-scale mining applications, both transnationals and nationals are finding ways around the pesky obstacles that are the result of local-to-international organising. Twenty-hectare or smaller operations are permitted within areas under local moratoria, driving the mining companies to apply, under the names of paid-off locals, for ten or twenty or thirty small-scale applications. 

In this land of abundant rivers, so many of which are little more than cesspools, both dumping grounds for human, animal and farm waste, and the source of water for drinking, washing and cooking, water systems are owned by various of the 200 families that make up the Filipino oligarchy, often with European partners, making clean water out of the reach of most. Access to health care, pharmaceuticals and schooling – even though elementary is free – remains limited to those with discretionary income. I hear or read of proud families of OFWs (Overseas Filipino Workers), whose billions in annual remittances are keeping this island nation afloat, of proud harvesters or producers of ‘export-quality’ goods.

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