Reclaiming paradise lost

by Krysten Mariann Boado

They came unarmed without the company of the male members of their tribe. Arms laced to form a human barricade, the Manobo women banded together and rose to defend their own land and their people, blood be the price.

Undaunted and unfazed, they stood before the fearsome blue guards of Del Monte pineapple contract grower Pablo “Poling” Lorenzo in hopes that they would not shoot at them. Lorenzo had looked forward to robbing their land yet again and `turning it into a pineapple plantation.

Their leader, Bai Jocelyn Agdahan, remembers that encounter very well, for it was the day that fanned the flames of indignation already fueled by blue guards’ everyday threats thrown towards their community.

“Kami ang may-ari ng lupa. Ang dugo namin, ibubuwis namin sa aming lupa,” she says.  

The women held their breaths, maintaining their claim to their ancestral territory, yet the guards remained ruthless and fired at them, shooting at the ground where the Manobos stood so they would run off and cease their protest.

Agdahan survived the encounter and lived to tell the tale, but so did their oppressors who remain in their ancestral lands, brutally taking away both their lives and livelihood.

Because of this, Bai Jocelyn, together with her fellow Manobos, braved the more than 1,500-kilometer distance for Lakbayan ng Pambansang Minorya, coming together with fellow national minorities to bring their plights closer to the country’s capital city.

“Kaming mga katutubo, ang lupang ninuno namin, yun ay paraiso para sa amin,” she said. “Kaya iyon ang aming pinanindigan: Hindi pwedeng agawin ang aming lupa.”

Trouble in paradise

To visitors of the Lakbayan, Bai Jocelyn is known for the rhythmical hand gestures and the graceful footwork she exhibits every time she engages in the Manobo traditional dance.

Be it in a cultural performance, a protest action, or an immersion with individuals who wish to listen to the struggles of her tribe, she dances with the nimblest movements and the most expressive eyes–eyes that have witnessed blood spilt by bullets and blue guards on their homeland.

Aside from spearheading discussions for visitors who wish to immerse with the Lumads, leading the Manobo traditional dance is part of Bai Jocelyn’s role as the Pulangihon Manobo’s bai, the indigenous community’s female counterpart of a datu.

Being the wife of a datu herself, Bai Jocelyn was selected to become one of the Pulangihon Manobo’s bai, as per custom. Besides this, she has been deemed worthy of leadership by the Manobo community due to her active participation in the struggle against the plunder of their lands and the militarization of their communities.

When asked if she had any setbacks that prevented her from taking on the role of bai 12 years ago, she admits that at first, she was nervous to accept the appointment and fulfill the popular adage that women hold half the sky.

For Bai Jocelyn, back then, being a bai meant holding half her community and reciprocating the support its women receive from its male tribespeople. Until today, these duties continue to ring true to her.

Bilang isang bai, ang responsibilidad ko sa pagiging lider ay nangunguna sa pakikibaka para sa pagdepensa sa at pagsuporta sa mga kalalakihan namin para walang mangyari sa paligid namin,” she says. “Yun ang responsibilidad ng isang lider. Kung mayroong mga problema, andyan ako.”

According to the Kaliwat Theater Collective, Inc., the bai (alternatively spelled as bae), mediates social disputes ranging from the proliferation of gossip, morality issues between young men and women as well as other issues that need not involve the datu.

More importantly, the bai is also in charge of the community’s economic activities, especially farming; hence, Bai Jocelyn’s great contribution to the movement against Lorenzo’s occupancy of their land.

Back in Quezon, Bukidnon, Bai Jocelyn would fearlessly confront Lorenzo’s guards, asking them to stop barricading their lands as the Manobos were already terrified of the day-to-day bullets they fire at the tribe.

She is especially concerned with the Manobo youth who, at their early years, experience daily assaults brought about by Lorenzo’s blue guards.

“Hanggang ngayon, andun pa rin ang mga security guards ni Poling Lorenzo doon sa aming lupa, malapit sa aming bahay,” she recalls, her voice suddenly shifting into a firm yet more somber tone.

“Palagi silang nagpapaputok… Pinuputukan kami, sinasabihan ng ‘Labas! Labas! Kung hindi kayo lalabas, papatayin ko kayo!’”

Their struggle dates back to 2007, when Roberto Montalvan was issued a permit by the local government for a ranch operation. His nephew, Lorenzo, manages the ranch and has been  transforming all the other lands outside the area into pineapple plantations.

Historically, the 630-hectare land where the ranch stands belongs to the clan of Datu Santiano Andong Agdahan, Bai Jocelyn’s husband. Their clan was forced to leave when the Agro-forestry Farm Lease Agreement (AFFLA) was granted to Montalvan, rendering them landless along with at least eight other groups.

The AFFLA’s expiration on Dec. 31, 2009 brought bliss to the Manobos who lived in makeshift houses beside the guarded fences of the ranch, forced to face nearly everyday attacks brought by Lorenzo’s men.

Expecting to finally reach the calm after the storm, they were instead met with a more vicious tempest whose rains continue to drown their ironic plights for a permanent settlement and an end to the vicious cycle of violence in their communities.

On March 28, 2012, Lorenzo’s guards fired at Manobo families who have set up their homes in the area and started tilling the land, which initially belonged to them. Headed by Joy Peductche, a former member of the Philippine Army, the guards destroyed the Manobos’ makeshift tents and belongings, firing at them as they ran from the scene.

In response, indigenous peoples’ organization Tribal Indigenous Oppressed Group Association (TINDOGA)—a group Bai Jocelyn and her husband is part of—-has been doubling its efforts ever since, negotiating with government agencies for help.

Often, they were met with lip-service decrees and bogus promises, with the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples even asking them for a P30,000 fee for document processing.  

They have not ceased their attempts until today, in spite of these and the bloodbath they faced at the bullets of Lorenzo’s guards in March 2015’s Bungkalan, which left one TINDOGA member dead and wounded two others.

“Pinanindigan namin ang aming lupang ninuno na ayaw naming ibigay sa kanila [Montalvan Ranch]…. dahil kami, doon nakasalalay ang aming buhay doon sa aming lupa.”

For land and life

While Bai Jocelyn holds a big responsibility in upholding the Pulangihon Manobo’s claims to their yutang kabilin, she counts small victories in the harvest that they have from the communal farm she set up for Pulangihon Manobo mothers.

She smiles as she proudly recounts its success, saying last year, the Manobo mothers grew munggo while this year, before some of them journeyed for Lakbayan, they raised corn.

“Lahat [ng ina] nagkilos doon, lahat nagtanim… Para pantay ang kilos namin, nagcommunal kami,” she says. “Sa aming komunidad, sa aming kultura, walang mayaman. Kung ano ang tinanim ng isa, dapat pareho ang kalawak,”

Besides their community’s communal farm, Bai Jocelyn also oversees the Pulangihon Manobo’s cooperative, which has funded tribespeople in time of dire need.

It has been efficient when emergencies arise, she says, narrating the instance when one of the Manobos needed to be hospitalized. She adds that the cooperative made it possible through supplying money for the patient’s hospital bills—another feat that makes Bai Jocelyn proud of her community.

“Magbigayan kami sa aming kultura,” she says.

When she is not busy with community affairs and struggling to defend their ancestral domain, Bai Jocelyn is simply a mother of seven.

While her eldest, 20, has already settled down and started a family, two of her kids have joined her in their long and tiring journey to the metro, performing in cultural shows with the same grace as their mother.

At an early age she has exposed them to the persisting conflict in their community as well as their efforts to thwart those who have taken their paradise. Such is the way of the Pulangihon Manobo tribe whose youth are expected to carry their traditions and perform the same responsibilities as adults at a young age.

Bai Jocelyn mentions she has a 2-year-old grandchild who already knows how to eat without adult supervision as well as 6-year-old kid who already knows how to set the table.

Meanwhile, the rest of the Manobo youth busy themselves in the community involvement—tilling the fields, planting crops and crafting colorful accessories—which have become a hit for Lakbayan visitors—among others.

Proudly, she utters, “Kagaya sa akin, dapat panindigan ko ang aking pagkaina dahil para sa aking kabataan na nangangarap na mabuhay, nangangarap na matuto sa eskwela.”

While both entail different responsibilities, Bai Jocelyn says being a mother is similar to being an activist, to being a modern-day warrior resisting heartless corporations responsible for the plunder of their lands.

For the iconic community leader, despite its overwhelming task, motherhood is empowerment personified.  Back home, not only are Pulangihon Manobo mothers tasked with rearing their tribe’s children, they also carry the weight of securing their ancestral domain for these children’s future.

And for Bai Jocelyn, that is the most arduous duty, the most crucial battle yet to be won.

“Malaking halaga ang papel ng kababaihan dahil maraming kabataan ang inaalagaan,” she says. “Bilang ina, hindi ka papayag na may masaktan na mga tao dahil ang ina ay isang sagradong babae.”

So she marches. She marches and joins her voice to the chorus of others who hail from different parts of the country yet long for the same—stable settlements, land ownership, an end to violence, a better future for their children.

She holds her head high, leads her people and remembers their children—those who have yet to live the day when gunshots no longer ring in the air, those who have yet to witness the absence of Poling Lorenzo’s brutal blue guards.

She remembers them, and together with the other Pulangihon Manobo women and men, she fights for another day to reclaim paradise lost.

Author: TNP

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