An old platitude about the conflicts in Mindanao traces it back to one of the most basic commodities of men: land. Just a few hectares of corn, rice or sweet potato ensure the livelihoods of several families or communities. Land is a gift given from one generation to the next. And in case of the indigenous tribes of the Southern Philippines, land is not only the material expression of the people’s lives, but also a token from nature, and thus a precious part of earth itself.
The meaning of the land, and disagreements over how to use it, often intersect with religious and spiritual concerns; dissension among indigenous tribes over these kinds of issues is nothing new. But in the last few decades, given that an armed conflict has been fought in these southern islands between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), such age-old conflicts can take on an increasingly intense and dangerous tone.
These land conflicts involving indigenous peoples deserve particular attention. Much has been written about the plight of indigenous people in the Philippines, in Mindanao and in other provinces. Most writers agree that the peace agreement might offer a chance to reverse the decades-long history of injustices perpetrated against the native population of the “land of promise”. But the road to peace is a long one.
Since a peace agreement, called the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro, was signed in March 2014, there have been no direct armed encounters between the government and the MILF. But local haggling over land and crops still sometimes triggers violence, and, augmented by 3rd parties, these can gain momentum and spread, potentially endangering the ceasefire and indeed the peace process itself. These disputes are hard to solve and they continue to disrupt people’s lives, interrupt the education of young people, displace communities, and of course, cause many deaths.
Nonviolent Peaceforce is well-positioned to give such disputes careful attention. Due to our long history in the region during the past seven years, and to the many relationships our staff has carefully cultivated, our teams canmake a big contribution towards defusing these festering disputes.
Take the case of a barangay (a village) which has certain subdivisions (sitios) being contested by two municipalities on the island of Mindanao. Imagine that the sitio and adjacent areas are home to constellation of the Bangsamoro, the Settlers and the Manobos (an indigenous tribe). Think about the vast land tracks among green hills, hanging gardens and picaresque mixtures of churches and mosques along slopes surrounded by rice fields. And understand that this precious land has, at least on paper, many owners, and even more claimants. Remind yourself that the indigenous community has been the most remote and the most marginalized, and sometimes even divided among themselves in their allegiances to armed groups, and political and legal entities. You might conclude that only a spark is needed to create a volatile situation.
That is what happened at the boundary of the municipalities of Isulan and Esperanza. Conflict broke out between two groups over their border. Armed violence resulted in the displacement of several dozen families.
When this particular fight broke out, NP’s South Central Mindanao Team acted quickly to help defuse the situation. Field members visited the displaced community, and consulted with the local monitoring team of the structure for monitoring the peace agreement. NP staff joined with the monitoring team to speak to several key players in the conflict, seeking a localised solution. Together, the local monitors and NP staff acted as witnesses to negotiations and agreements. NP works unobtrusively, sometimes behind the scenes, but maintains a presence until such a situation is clearly calmed down. Once that happens, NP resumes other programmatic work of conducting community-centered orientations on human rights and child protection, inclusive of a module teaching how to help distressed children. This integrated approach sets NP apart: the teams support where they can, but they leave ownership to the locals.
Weeks after the conflict resolution, the team was surprised to hear warm words from the community. One Manobo leader said that “even the visits, even the mere presence of these people helps. We did not know we have rights. How many times in the past have we been taken for granted by our rulers? We underestimated ourselves. But now we also re-discovered strength and confidence.” And another young man added: “When you visit, people still see you. They wonder why this group is visiting. And they understand…NP is monitoring. It doesn’t blame. But it listens to voices which have not been heard for a long time.”
Civilian peacekeeping may not be a catchy fashion trend. It is a new movement, and is refining itself every day. It’s not very flashy, because it’s most effective when it works unobtrusively. In the Philippines, NP’s field staff are busy every day tamping down small flare-ups in a forgotten conflict in a remote corner of the world, far from the headlines.
By Georgi Engelbrecht, Head of Field Office, South Central Mindanao Team