The call time was 7AM.
Just a few minutes before that, I was already at the premises of Social Action Center or SAC of Diocese of Marbel in Koronadal, South Cotabato. It was not an ordinary day for this inspiring team who has been working hard to protect the welfare of the indigenous people. Our destination that morning – to the mountainous town of Tampakan.
I traveled all the way to South Cotabato as part of the SOS Diaries project of Philippine Misereor Partnership Inc. or PMPI, an NGO that upholds environment protection as well as the rights of indigenous people. I was there to write and share the stories of people under imminent threat of mining like the current situation of the Bla’an tribe, one of the largest indigenous people of Southern Mindanao.
SAC together with Professor Rolando Esteban of the UP Department of Anthropology was about to present to the Bla’an community the result of a project which they called the Genealogy of the Puli Clan, it started over a year ago by gathering data and tracing the roots of this clan up to the very first generations. Puli clan is one of the biggest families in the Bla’an community.
Though it may look as a usual “family tree” to some, but not to the tribal leaders. The result of this data is a way not just to trace the long lost relatives of this family, but also to assert their rights as the original settlers of the community, their land which is under risk of possible mining.
Past 7 in the morning, we were in a van going to Tampakan. It was my first time to talk to Ms. Sandra and Junrey from SAC. Just looking at them while conversing was already a breath of fresh air. For someone like me from Manila who is used to talking to people who are working for money, it was a different perspective to be with people who are working their lives helping others with zest and compassion.
After like a lifetime of rough roads on the mountain, we finally arrived in a meeting area which was a bare roof and posts. We found some children and women at their best attires. I thought they all went to church but weird, it wasn’t Sunday. Then it all became clear to me when Junrey told me, that day was actually the Puli family reunion, then they decided to coincide the presentation of data along with the celebration. Smart move right?
Prof. Esteban, then brought out this long tarpaulin with names like in a family tree set-up. And since they traced a number of generations of the clan, it was too long that it almost covered the entire one side of the venue.
Soon, more and more people looked at the tarp searching for their names and giggled when they found theirs.
Then the program finally started, Sandra and Prof. Esteban delivered a short speech. One that really struck me was when they emphasized that they (SAC) will support the community to have a well-informed decision in whatever issues they face.
That’s when I started to have a clear understanding of why there’s a need to empower the community to assert their rights for their land, why there is a need for them to bond as one. If they don’t do that, if no one will be there to help them, there is a wealthy mining company ready to own their ancestral land.
Two Decades of Fight against Mining
The day before we went to Tampakan, I arrived in Koronadal with a mixture of excitement and confusion. Though the travel was sponsored by PMPI, I traveled their alone, trying to figure out the way. Until I was told to ride a tricycle until I reach the back of the church where I would meet Sir Rene of SAC.
When I reached the SAC office, it was then when Rene presented to me the whole story of mining in Tampakan.
The threat of mining has been going on for two decades in Tampakan. Since the passage of Mining Act of 1995 which allows ownership of foreign companies of Mining operations in the Philippines, Tampakan mining project was first owned by an Australian mining company, Western Mining Corporation or WMC. The mountains of Tampakan is rich in gold and copper, something this company is eyeing for a long time.
In the duration of one decade, the company tried to comply with the FTAA or Financial and Technical Assistance Agreement to the community, but early on there has been some resistance from the tribe as well from the local government. The LGU was against the plan to do an open pit mining, which is considered one of the most destructive.
In the next 10 years, the project’s ownership was then transferred from one company to another. Violence also occurred during this time due to resistance from the indigenous tribe. Until last year, it was reported that the mining project was acquired by a new owner, this time by a wholly-owned Filipino corporation. SAC confirmed that this Filipino mining corporation is an investment from the biggest conglomerates in the country. I think you already have an idea which conglomerates are these. Right?
Rene said that the battle of mining has gone too long because the previous owners which were foreign companies were compliant of the process, but this time is a different story. A Filipino company knows better on how to get what they want, how to play the game, which posts a greater danger of possible manipulation to speed up the permit.
The Bla’an tribal liders expressed protest against the meeting and consent process of the current owners with a different group of people in the community, which is more likely in favor of mining. They wanted to be heard as the original settlers of the land. It’s their land, so they should be the one consented for their fate. That’s the reason, why the genealogy or tracing of roots was initiated, to serve as a formal protest and proof in case a favourable consent report will be released by the mining company.
I was just standing there in the crowd, looking at these family having a great time at their reunion. They were laughing and smiling, especially during the picture taking. Then I started to think, what’s in store for them? What’s going to happen with the bond and laughter I was witnessing.
The Pinoy owned company backed by the biggest conglomerates is serious for mining to finally push through by seeking faster approval from the government. They mean business and they’re hungry. When that happens, these people will be displaced and transferred to a different place, away from the legacy of their ancestors, away from their homeland.
In the middle of the program, I met a young mother carrying her baby. Her name is Myla, 27 years old and a proud Bla’an. She recounted her story when she was a scholar of the mining company about 20 years ago. It was the company’s way of showing they care for the community with a promise of better life through jobs and education.
But after many years, the monthly allowance decreased until it stopped. Myla said it was because of the changes of owners, and it made her realize that mining companies are only willing to invest in the community at the beginning, when the time they feel they have something to gain. But when resistance occurred, followed by challenges, they can just sell their assets and leave.
Myla added, now that she has her own children, she realized the importance of their roots and homeland. She is contented with the simple life at the mountains. As long as they live on their ancestral land, they will all be fine..
As the program ended, an old lady came up to me. She tried talking to me, in her native Bla’an dialect. Though I didn’t understand her I just nod my head and answered her with a smile. She was like telling me a story but I didn’t have any idea about what it was. Then suddenly, a man approached me and introduced himself as Bernie, the son of the old lady named Lola Talila
Bernie apologized but I said there was nothing to apologize about. He said that his mother was just happy that people from the city visited them considering the rugged mountainous terrain of their place.
He shared his appreciation for the group who visited them (me included), saying that most of the people in his community lack proper education thus more prone to manipulation. All he wanted was someone to help them have a well-informed and balanced decision from some pressing issues in their place, and one of them is mining.
After a long conversation, I felt he was already comfortable with me that I could ask him a direct question. “Are you in favor of mining?”
I was stunned by the honesty of his answer. He said he didn’t know. There were times that he felt his community needs jobs from mining, but there are times he gets sad of thinking of giving up the land where he grew up. He said all they need is proper information, someone who could present them the facts, the pros and cons, someone with good intentions, so they could decide on themselves.
For some, a mountain is just a mountain, a usual land form.
But for some, just like for the Bla’an, it’s their identity, their soul and legacy. In some countries, indigenous people are considered treasure. In the Philippines, the same image is what we all wanted to portray. But right now, action is needed than words.
Let’s ask ourselves, in spite of the overwhelming number of mining operations in the country, do we ready need more? Seriously, after all these years do we still need money?
Is mining worth it?
And with the history of its destructive effects on nature and people, are you still willing to choose money for just a few rich businessmen over an entire community of Bla’an? Just choose. Money or our indentity, our culture? If you choose the latter, then join this crusade. Save the Bla’an tribe of Tampakan. Let our voice be heard. It’s about time to make a stand for what is right.