Monday marks the first anniversary of the massacre of eight indigenous people in Datal Bonglangon village, South Cotabato province, on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. The inhabitants of the small community paid with their lives the demands for their ancestral lands and the resistance to the coffee and mining industry for export.
Their blood taints the company and Rodrigo Duterte´s administration with guilt. Duterte is globally renowned for his indiscriminate fire policy: “First shoot to kill, then ask”. There was an investigation over the crimes, but nobody has been prosecuted. Some local inhabitants have not returned to their homes due to being afraid. Last year, over 40 people were murdered in Philippines for defending their lands and environment, which turned it into the most dangerous country for defenders in Asia, according to a report by Global Witness.
The organization Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center – Friends of the Earth Philippines, which is publically demanding this Monday justice for the murders that took place a year ago, conducted an interview for Real World Radio with Datu Dande Danyan, who is now Chairman of the T’boli–Manobo Sdaf Claimants Organization (TAMASCO). They are demanding their lands back and justice for what happened last year.
Dande is the nephew of Datu Victor Danyan, community leader murdered in the attack. Dande lost more relatives that day: two cousins, sons of Victor, Victor Junior and Artemio, and the husband of her cousin Marivic (also daughter of Victor), Pato Celardo.
“I want justice for my relatives killed by Government soldiers. Justice for the community means giving back our land”, said Dande to Real World Radio. The interview was conducted in Ilonggo, their local language, and Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center – Friends of the Earth Philippines translated it.
Dignity and struggle: false claims by the government against the right to life and land
The excuse given by Duterte´s regime, which currently defends and even expressly promotes a dictatorship like the one of Ferdinand Marcos (1965-1986), in which thousands of people were arrested, murdered, tortured and disappeared, was that they suspected that the inhabitants of the Datal Bonglangon village, in Lake Sebu, South Cotabato, were rebels of the New Peoples´ Army (NPA). And in this way the government explained that the 27th Infantry Battalion opened fire on December 3rd last year against the wood houses of the village, with their nearby corn crops.
A week before, Duterte´s administration had suspended peace negotiations with the Communist Party of the Philippines and implemented a heavy hand against the communist insurgency.
Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center – Friends of the Earth Philippines said on Monday in a Facebook post where they also shared a video about the anniversary of the attack, that tagging “them as “rebels” is to disregard their rights as defenders of their land and ancestral domain. For more than 28 years, they have struggled, with Datu Victor, to protect their ancestral domain from the encroachment of coffee plantations and coal mining”.
There are many groups that argue that the explanations given by the national government are simply false. Environmental federation Friends of the Earth International (FoEI), present in over 80 countries, issued a public statement on December 14 last year where they add: “The attempt by the Philippine military to justify the killings by labelling Datu Victor a communist rebel simply does not hold; Datu Victor fought tirelessly from 1991 when the coffee plantation was first granted a license, for legal and peaceful means in seeking redress for these corporate landgrabs despite continuous persecution by company guards and government military forces”.
Dande explained to Real World Radio that the struggle started when indigenous communities requested a certificate of ancestral domain title over their lands.
An article published by British newspaper The Guardian on July 21st, 2018, explained that in 1991a logging company arrived to the area with bulldozers and chainsaws and that according to older villagers, they were ordered to evacuate by armed thugs. The forest of the area, which provided food and medicine to the local communities, was cleared and 11,862 hectares were acquired by Silvicultural Industries for 25 years.
The people living in Datal Bonglangon and environmental organizations explain that this company is part of a huge agribusiness, mining and construction conglomerate built by David M Consunji, a former minister during the Marcos dictatorship. Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center – Friends of the Earth Philippines added that Silvicultural Industries has an auxiliary military unit trained by the National Army.
According to the statement issued in December last year by FoEI, Consunji owned companies encroached on ancestral territory for coffee plantations and coal operations. Datu Victor and the T’boli–Manobo local communities waited 25 years for their lands to be returned. But in 2016, when Consunji´s coffee plantation permit expired, the national government granted an extension through legal manipulation and without free, prior and informed consent from the indigenous communities, against what is established by Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization (ILO) on Indigenous People.
It was then that Datu Victor and other local community members, certain that they had the legal right over the lands occupied by Consunji, entered the land and hacked down the coffee crops. They also told the security guards to leave. There were arrest warrants issued against the indigenous leader and other members of the community.
Through mediators linked to the Catholic Church, talks were arranged between Datu Victor and the government on December 4th, 2017. But the meeting never took place. A day before, soldiers shot him and his seven comrades to death. What the local inhabitants say about what happened that day and how they had to manipulate the bodies of their relatives and neighbors in order to bury them are eerie.
The article published by The Guardian in July states that human rights groups, indigenous campaigners, independent forensic experts and legal activists say, just like FoEI, that the chief was a respected and peaceful campaigner who was deliberately silenced.
Living under threat
“I have gone into hiding because of the threats and harassment”, said Dande, who is now the Chairman of TAMASCO, in the interview with Real World Radio. This was what Datu Victor suffered as well, who more than once had to leave his lands to protect himself. “It has significantly affected my family (…) I can barely join or be with my family. It has also a big impact in my community, I am no longer with my community now, we no longer have meetings, we don´t hold sessions. It has largely affected the community as almost all members are afraid about the issue of being associated with the NPA”.
The leader also made reference to the demand for justice of indigenous and peasant communities gathered in TAMASCO. “Justice for me is holding accountable those who sow intrigue or issue that justice will be given to my relatives who were killed during the attack of the government soldiers. And justice for the community is giving back our land and expulsion of the foreign capitalists managing the coffee plantation inside our ancestral domain”.
Then, Dande said that TAMASCO passed a resolution to accept and request national and international support, which was already extended. And explained that they made calls for support to several groups and the government to help them meet their basic needs, something they can´t do properly due to the context of insecurity they are experiencing.