Hinilawod, a 28,000-verse epic that takes around three days to chant, is an ancient literary work that has been passed on orally through many generations by the Panay Bukidon people. This fascinating poem about the exploits of three demigod brothers uses the Halawod River, now known as Jalaur River, as its setting, and is a testament to the cultural wealth and oratory prowess of the Panay Bukidnon people, now primarily known as the Tumandok.
One would think that we Filipinos would be dedicated to preserving the culture of our indigenous communities who have lived for centuries along the fabled river. But time and again, we have seen the erasure and dehumanisation that indigenous peoples are subjected to—first, by colonisers, and in recent years, by greedy corporations and corrupt government officials.
In 2011, the Philippine government submitted a feasibility study on the construction of a mega-dam along the Jalaur River to the Korean Export Import Bank that would lend billions of pesos to finance the project. The project was approved, but there was one thing that the government had failed to do prior to this—secure the consent of the Tumandok people who have ancestral domain rights to the land by the river.
The government also failed to consider the huge ecological and human cost of the dam construction. Building the dam would mean flooding the river, which could wipe out the existence of 78 plant and animal species, and submerge entire Tumandok villages in the highlands, including their ancestral burial grounds and sacred sites. An estimated 17,000 residents will be displaced by the project.
Consultations with the Tumandok didn't start until 2013. Many of them staunchly opposed the project. The Tumandok are dependent on kaingin (slash-and-burn farming), foraging and fishing. To give up the right to their land would mean not just the desecration of their culture, but the loss of their livelihood as well.
I'm not going to claim that the Tumandok had it easy before the Duterte administration took over. Villages that opposed the project were harassed by the military and police even before Duterte came into power. In 2014, for instance, after an encounter with armed rebels, soldiers from the 61st Infantry battallion branded the entire village of Lahug as National People's Army (NPA) symphatisers and threatened to encamp in the village and its surrounding areas for ten months.
However, it's not an exaggeration to say that the Duterte administration has been relentlessly pushing for big-ticket, foreign-funded construction projects all over the country, despite strong opposition from indigenous people (IP) communities and environmentalists. Land grabbing has intensified since 2016, with campaigns that almost always start with the military red-tagging and eventually killing community leaders who oppose them, thus forcing the rest of the community to flee their homes in fear.
In 2018, the pressure on the Tumandok grew even stronger, with government officials threatening villagers into giving their consent to the dam construction. Construction crews would arrive with armed escorts, and police patrols were replaced by military ones. The Tumandok were told that no matter what they did, the dam would be built anyway, so why not say yes and get compensated for it? The compensation was a measly 50,000 pesos per hectare and would only be given to those who had ancestral ownership certificates.
In 2020, the Tumanduk nga Mangunguma nga Nagapangapin sa Duta kag Kabuhi (TUMANDUK), a joint organisation of the indigenous communities in the area, became a constant object of threats and false rumors from government and military authorities. As Duterte's terror bill passed its way through Congress virtually unopposed, the contested Tumandok lands became heavily militarised.
Roy Giganto, the chairperson of TUMANDUK, had lived with constant harassment from the military for years. When Lahur was accused of being inhabited by NPA sympathisers, the military singled Roy out as being a communist rebel and broadcast false reports about him being 'killed in an encounter.' An officer once blatantly told him that he could end up just like the farmers in Negros who were murdered by the police and military in separate 'operations' in 2018 and 2019. These farmers had been red-tagged too, shortly before they were massacred.
Sure enough, in June 2020, Roy and other leaders of Tumandok villages were summoned by the military. They were told to sign statements admitting that they were NPA members in exchange for having their names 'cleared.' The leaders refused, knowing full well that signing the 'confessions' could mean imprisonment or even worse for them.
On 30 December 2020, Roy and his family were roused from their sleep by a loud banging on their door. When they got up, they found three men already inside their house. The men claimed to have an arrest warrant for Roy and he had to go with them straight away. It was 4 o'clock in the morning.
Roy calmly told them to come back later in the morning and he would go with them peacefully if they indeed had a warrant for his arrest. The men refused, ordering Roy's wife Analyn and their six children to get out of the house, and shouting 'Assault' at them the whole time.
Roy still refused to go with the men, knowing that if he left, he wouldn't see his family again. Analyn then heard a gunshot from a neighbour's house. She then saw her husband get shot twice.
Analyn and her kids dragged outside where they were threatened by soldiers and police and forced to lie down on the wet, cold ground. For the next six agonising hours, Analyn would keep begging to go back into her house to see her husband. At one point, she asked to go in to get some milk for her starving one-year-old but was still not allowed in. She saw blood pooling on the ground underneath the house.
It wasn't until 10 a.m. when Roy's body was finally brought out of the house. The soldiers told Analyn that Roy had been wounded in an accident, attempting to gaslight her in the midst of this horrific event. She saw the bodies of two other Lahur village leaders, Mario and Reynaldo. All three men were taken aboard a military helicopter.
On that fateful day in December, nine Tumandok were murdered in cold blood by soldiers and police:
All men were unarmed and shot at point-blank range. All had been red-tagged. One of them, Eliseo, was said to have been recently arrested and tortured.
Sixteen other people, including six women, were also abducted and later imprisoned on trumped-up charges.
There's an even heavier military and police presence in the Tumandok villages now, and many residents, including Analyn and her children, have been forced to flee their homes. They're now relying on donations to help them survive, and to shoulder funeral expenses for their murdered leaders and legal fees for those who were illegally arrested.
Analyn says all six of her children are ill from the physical and emotional trauma they went through. All their father wanted was to protect them and their home from the greed of the government. And now they have lost everything. How can anyone justify this cruelty to them and all the others who have lost their homes and family members?
If you would like to donate to help the displaced Tumandok, here's a list of items that they badly need, as well as bank and GCash details. If you're not in the Philippines, you can contact me for information on how to donate.