Days before the first anniversary of the murders of eight indigenous people of the Philippine village Datal Bonglangon, Mindanao Island, on December 3rd, 2017, one of the lawyers supporting the local community, Pochoy Labog, directly accused the company that has been occupying this native territory since early 1990s. He is also accusing Rodrigo Duterte´s administration, due to its policies complacent with the company and against human rights.
“What happened in the TAMASCO area, in their ancestral domain, is an illegal encroachment of a certain corporation, Silvicultural Industries”, said Labog in an interview with Real World Radio. This company is part of the “Consunji” conglomerate and it has planted coffee crops for export on the indigenous lands.
Labog is the Direct Legal Services coordinator of environmental organization Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center – Friends of the Earth Philippines, which supports the cause of the T’boli–Manobo indigenous people, gathered in the organization TAMASCO to claim their rights.
“They want to have the IFMA (the Integrated Forest Management Agreement), the source of their troubles, cancelled”. The IFMA allowed in 1991 the invasion to indigenous territory and then in 2016 it was illegally renewed. “They want that cancelled so that they can once and for all claim full enjoyment of their rights to their ancestral domain lands”, added Labog in the interview conducted by Norly Grace Mercado, of Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center – Friends of the Earth Philippines, for Real World Radio.
The indigenous communities were displaced from their lands and are being persecuted by the security guards of Silvicultural Industries, and they don´t even have a piece of land where to grow their food.
On December 3rd 2017, the Philippine Army shot to death eight T’boli–Manobo indigenous peasants from the Datal Bonglangon village, in South Cotabato.  Among them, Datu Victor Danyan, TAMASCO Chairman at that time. The excuse given by Duterte, renowned for his heavy hand policy, was that the indigenous people were “rebels”, “communists”, members of the New People’s Army (NPA). Several social and human rights organizations, among them Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center – Friends of the Earth Philippines, state that the accusation is simply false.
This environmental organization, member of the federation Friends of the Earth International, one of world´s most renowned environmental organizations, explained that the IFMA 22 that benefited Silvicultural Industries expired at the end of 2016. The corporation requested the prior, free and informed consultation of TAMASCO, and the indigenous response was a resounding “NO”.
“But to TAMASCO´s surprise, this IFMA was magically… we think it was fraudulently renewed through a merger process” said Labog. “This IFMA 22 was consolidated with another IFMA, IFMA 18, which is set to expire in 2032. So imagine the disappointment of the indigenous community. They thought that this IFMA would be cancelled in 2016”, explained the lawyer.
It was then that the communities decided to protest and mobilize. The price was the death of eight people. The different organizations that support TAMASCO, which created an umbrella group named “Task Force TAMASCO”, are certain of the fact that Datu Victor and his seven comrades were deliberately silenced.
The indigenous cause against fear and persecution
The Philippines saw last year how over 40 people were murdered for defending their lands and the environment. This persecution, blood and fire policy of Duterte puts the defenders of territories and life on their knees.
Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center – Friends of the Earth Philippines, just like the many organizations that are part of the Task Force TAMASCO want the ancestral domain lands to be returned to the T’boli–Manobo communities. They provide several services, support in case of emergencies, research and legal assistance, and submit cases to the judiciary.
However, their work and activism could provide better results if the national political reality was different, said Labog. While the lawyer stated that he doesn´t feel personally threatened, he recognizes that he can´t go to the community because it is dangerous. “We are advised to, whenever we have meetings, to meet elsewhere, we do not go to the community, it’s not a secure place”, he said. Also, the local groups that support TAMASCO and that work more at territorial level are threatened and characterized as rebels.
Our interviewee also warned that “the problem also with the National Government is that the rhetoric of the president against human rights and his very aggressive war on drugs which has already killed so many, 20 000 and more, has resulted in the erosion of human rights and erosion of the rule of law”. The lawyer added that there is a Martial Law in Mindanao, a state of exception of the enforcement of ordinary laws that grants extraordinary powers to the repressive forces of the State, and concluded that this national scenario “also exacerbates the problems of the indigenous community”.
Strategies and tactics: the road ahead
But human rights defenders have to work under these conditions in Philippines. That´s why the Task Force TAMASCO wrote a letter to the national government asking to investigate the irregular extension of the IFMA that favors Silvicultural Industries. Nevertheless, Labog said that the Environment and Natural Resources Department answered that they will study the case, but they advanced that the extension is legal.
In addition, the Task Force TAMASCO continues studying different courses of action and is elaborating a strategy that will need the support of the international community. Nothing can be expected from the national government. Meanwhile, the Sultan Kudarat province administration is also demanding an investigation of the illegal renewal of IFMA and does not want Silvicultural Industries in the area, according to Labog, which provides an opportunity for the cause of TAMASCO and the organizations supporting it.