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Datu Victor

I don't know how to start with the story of Datu Victor Danyan's death. I could tell you how, since Duterte imposed martial law on Mindanao, there has been a considerable rise in the killings of civilians in the region, including the clergy and the lumad (indigenous people).

I could remind you that in the midst of the climate crisis, as we applaud the many mostly privileged protesters volunteering to give up their freedom for a day or two to make their voices heard, indigenous peoples across the globe continue to pay a much higher price for voicing out their opposition to environmental destruction—they lose their lands, their livelihoods and, in many instances, their lives.

Or maybe we could just talk about Filipino billionaires. As of February 2019, there were 18 billionaires in the Philippines. Imagine this. In a country where a quarter of the population can barely manage to earn $2 a day, there are 18 families who can each afford to spend $1,000 a day for the next 2,740 years. It's atrocious and grossly unjust, and in a caring world would be considered criminal.

Instead, we worship at the feet of these billionaires and hold them up as paragons of hard work—see how successful you can be if you just dream big and never give up!—while ignoring the fact that most of them are land grabbers who made their money on the backs of millions of underpaid workers and through the destruction of the ancestral lands of the lumad.

Once there was a very wealthy Filipino family. Their tale of success is widely known and their late patriarch is hailed even now for growing his construction company into a formidable business empire—an empire that includes mining companies and power plants notorious for causing widespread, irreversible environmental damage.

When the patriarch passed away in September 2017, even Rappler published an obituary so effusive in its praise and that completely glossed over his company's many transgressions and the fact that he was a Marcos minister at the height of martial law.

Nor did the obituary mention that the business empire had won Integrated Forest Management Award (IFMA) contracts that allow it to hold logging and mining operations on more than 100 thousand hectares of ancestral lands in Mindanao, which have led to the displacement of thousands of lumad and massive deforestation. There was also nothing said about how a young Dulangan Manobo activist, John Calaba, was disappeared by the company in Sultan Kudarat in 2015.

Silverline Industries Inc., an affiliate of the billionaire family's empire, built a 1,800-hectare coffee plantation that encroached part of the ancestral land of the T'boli-Manobo S'daf Claimants Organization (TAMASCO) in the secluded village of Ned in Lake Sebu. The plantation is guarded aggressively by a private army trained by the Philippine military.

In 1991, the TAMASCO lumad were forced to flee their homes because of violent harassment from the plantation guards. The trek to the nearest safe village took them eight hours on a rainy night, during which two children and an old man died from fatigue and hunger.

Many villagers, like Datu Victor and his family, eventually decided to move back and assert their right to their land. Life was tough for the villagers, who all made a living through subsistence farming. Datu Victor's young children had to go on a two-hour hike to school each day in order to avoid using the terrain covered by the plantation.

The TAMASCO people's rights to their land were formally recognized by the government in 2013. The contract for the land was set to expire in 2016, and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) was not allowed to award it to any business unless it had the permission of the ancestral domain owners—the TAMASCO, led by Datu Victor. During the consultation in 2015, Datu Victor firmly said no.

Imagine his anger then when the government awarded the contract again to the coffee plantation. Datu Victor, however, was a gentle, honourable man. Instead of resorting to violence, he lobbied the government to hear his people's case. His pleas fell on deaf ears. A Catholic church group, which had been helping the lumad out since they were first displaced, managed to arrange a meeting between TAMASCO and some DENR representatives for December 4, 2017.

At noon the day before the meeting, Datu Victor asked his two sons to check some suspicious activity near a mountain slope. When the two young men reached the area, gunshots rang out. Datu Victor heard what happened and left his house.

None of the men made it back home. Members of the 27th and 33rd Infantry Battalion of the Philippine army had attacked them, and in the aftermath, Datu Victor, his sons and son-in-law, as well as four other villagers lay dead. Five other villagers remain missing.

At first, the army said that the eight men were communist rebels. After human rights groups and witnesses, including Datu Victor's family, refuted this claim, the military then peddled the story that the villagers were caught in the crossfire between the soldiers and the rebels.

The land that Datu Victor had died fighting for is a mere 300 hectares, a tiny fraction of the lands currently being exploited by the billionaire family. How greedy does one have to be to consider 300 hectares of land worth killing people for?

There were no obituaries for Datu Victor in news outlets, of course. In the Philippines, the voices of the lumad are often ignored and their deaths, shrugged off. The billionaire family dismissed the few news reports implicating them by saying they had nothing to do with Silverline, despite it being known for years that they did own it.

In 2018, the billionaire family was given an award by an Australian Catholic school for "qualities of courage, compassion, energy, and effort."

Datu Victor's family and the rest of the TAMASCO people are still waiting for the day when justice is served and they finally get their land back.




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