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Crusade for peace: A hope for Agusan’s Higaonon tribe to thrive

In a mountainous and most remote village of Sinakungan, Esperanza, Agusandel Sur in the island of Mindanao dwells the Higaonon, a peace-loving indigenous tribe, also called “people of the wilderness.”     

Over the years, they are a staunch defender of their ancestral homelands; keen in preserving their rich culture, beliefs, and traditions; and are determined to retain their ancient way of conflict resolution that works well in keeping a peaceful community.

Higaonons’ confront challenges

These days, it is unfortunate that the enormous diversity among communities of indigenous peoples (IPs) is facing challenges. These created an impact which is detrimental to the enjoyment of a harmonious life.

The most recent incident that tested the resiliency and strong ties within the circle of Higaonon community was the brutal killing of defenseless Datu Bontola Tinaghao Mansinugdan, a respected community leader in Kinamaybay, Esperanza, Agusandel Sur, by the savagely cruel New People’s Army (NPA) terrorists.

Alias “Gali,” the fifth among the six siblings who were left orphaned, recalled in detail his traumatic experience about the unfavorable death of their father, DatuBontola, in the hands of the rebels.

It was midday of December 31, 2019, until the early morning of January 1, 2020, that the adversity of event transpired.

The 11-year-old Gali narrated that he went along with his father in going to the Upper Agsabo, in the hinterlands of Kinamaybay, to inspect the traps they set up for wild boars.

He said they stumbled upon more or less 30 fully armed NPA terrorists. There was one who approached them and called his father “bayaw” or brother-in-law. “They were talking and then tied my father’s hands,” described Gali.

They were brought near Kinabonglohan Creek and stayed there during the course of a night.

“We were not given with food until it’s morning. I was very afraid and after a while, I heard a gunshot a few steps away from where my father was executed by the ruthless NPA,” said Gali.

He cried her heart out upon seeing the lifeless body of his father lying on the ground. “I swiftly ran back to our village in fear that they would do the same to me,” he said.

The remains of DatuBontolawas buried by her relatives in the spot where he was mercilessly shot to death.

For a young Gali, he could never ignore the surge of anger towards the NPA and expressed of becoming a soldier one day.

The Higaonon tribe had long been threatened by the hostile actions and human rights atrocities brought about by the NPA in retribution to their decisiveness to dissociate from the communist-terrorist group (CTG).

Pursuing conflict resolution

About 45 kilometers away from the city proper of Butuan City, the officials of the National task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) and representatives from the local clusters, Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP), National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP), National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (NICA), Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), Philippine Army, Philippine Information Agency (PIA), Bishop of the Diocese of Butuan, and other government stakeholders managed to traverse the mountains just to reach the neck of the woods where a community of Higaonon resides in barangay Sinakungan, Esperanza, Agusan del Sur.

It can be recalled that said barangay was attacked by roughly a hundred of NPA rebels in 2018 during the local election that harmed some members of the Higaonon, one previous account of the persistent intimidation of the revolutionary movement of the leftists.

Amidst the tireless struggle of the Higaonon people to achieve peace and independence as a tribe, the leaders and members of the tribe converged in a ‘Dumalongdong,’ the highest form of ritual, in order to discuss the major concerns, resolve issues and conflicts.

The ceremony began with a special introductory performance called ‘Pamada,’ the Higaonon’s way of greeting and showing hospitality to the guests.

The ritual followed in which the ‘Ininay’ and ‘Inamay,’ or mother and father of their entire lineage prayed and blessed all the food at the ‘Bangkaso,’ the most sacred space where only the tribal leaders and individuals with significant accomplishments who were recognized by the influential parents of the tribe were given the privilege to come near it.

Prior the conduct of Dumalongdong, the Higaonon leaders from the provinces of Bukidnon represented by DatuAgolioNanulan; Misamis Oriental by DatuKailinganAsapon; Agusan del Norte by Datu Revise Mandahinog; and Agusan del Sur by DatuMalumabyongLidanhog reported their efforts in peace and order, community livelihood, leadership achievement, and other important undertakings.

They all came together to give honor, seek guidance, and express faith to the Magbabaya (Supreme Creator).

The gathering also aimed to determine and address the indigenous peoples’ plight and to close the gap by bringing the basic services of the government right at their doorsteps.

Pledge of support to EO 70

In time with the Dumalongdong, the tribes of Banwaon, Omayamnon and Polangiyon from the provinces of AgusandelNorte, Misamis Oriental, and Bukidnon, together with the Higaonon tribe, had also expressed their solid stand to support the Executive Order 70 of President Rodrigo Duterte.

They likewise condemned the communist terrorist group whom they declared as an enemy force for orchestrating atrocities; for stealing peace and development in their community; radicalizing the IP youths; and for the gross violations of human rights by the CTG.

“Even before the issuance of Executive Order 70, we, the Higaonon tribe, had already agreed to cut ties with the NPA rebels as they only violently attempt to disrupt the peacefulness in our community,” said IndayLindahog, BasbasunonngaBabaidan of the Higaonon tribe in Sinakungan, Esperanza, Agusan del Sur.

She cited how their ancestral lands became a battleground for killing innocent tribal members during encounters and snatching the life of tribal leaders who opposed to the demands of the NPA.

Lindahog said they want to quell violence as practiced by the NPA terrorists.

“They encroach in our individual liberty to enjoy the riches and resources of our very own ancestral domains. We have the right to defend our living traditions, culture, and our dwelling place which we inherited from our line of descent,” she added.

They have continued to live in the forested mountains. Traditional farming has been their source of livelihood. They grow organics, consume native rice and root crops. Their practice of protecting and conserving the natural environment manifests the abundance of their harvest.

They had to offer a thanksgiving to the “Magbabaya,” the ruler of all, in a ritual performance called “Pamamahandi.”

“Now that the NTF-ELCAC is established, this begins the giving of attention not only to the needs and clamor of the Higaonon in Caraga but of all the tribes in the whole of Mindanao,” said Leouel Santos, director for operations of NTF-ELCAC who was present during the Dumalongdong.

Atty. LeubenLingating, chairman of the indigenous people’s peace panel of OPAPP also emphasized the call to strengthen the implementation of the “The Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act of 1997” (IPRA) law.

“The government aims to further empower the IP communities. The IPRA law had opened greater opportunities and measures to protect the rights of IPs were implemented in the respective communities in order to achieve the dream for genuine peace and development,” Lingating said.

The DILG and NICA also assured to prioritize the needs of the indigenous peoples.

“Our office is open at all times to those who want to consult about certain issues and concerns. We are ready to help you so do not hesitate to approach us. Let’s work together in solving the problems in your community,” assured Donald Seronay, assistant regional director of the DILG Caraga, adding that peace and order is also their Department’s prime concern.

Seronay also said the DILG supports the indigenous peoples’ mandatory representative (IPMR) program in which more local government units (LGUs) were already accepting the involvement of IPMRs.

“Seeing all of you today, I can affirm the strength of your tribal structure. I look forward to your continued support to our government and participate in any work-for-peace undertakings,” said Seronay.

Meanwhile, Jun Bringas of NICA relayed to the Higaonon that the IPs themselves are the reason for the establishment of NTF-ELCAC.

“President Duterte knew the NPA rebels are preying on you and because of this, the government is taking bold steps to rescue you from such oppression. Duterte would not allow them to shatter your tribe by their cruel, unreasonable acts,” Bringas said.

Philippine Information Agency (PIA) officer-in-charge, director-general AbnerCaga was also grateful to have joined them in the Dumalongdong. He took the privilege to discuss to them the thrusts of the Agency.

“The CPP-NPA is relaying the wrong information to the public in a context that would discredit the government. Be discerning enough about what they say or post on social media. PIA is on track in fighting the spread of variety of fake news. That is why we increased our efforts in communicating down to the grassroots. I’ve learned your stories and will certainly disseminate these for other appropriate interventions to come through,” said Caga.

As for any religious faith and social diversity, the Higaonon remains a solid tribe who takes pride in the mountain range where they inherited from their aborigines.

Most Reverend Cosme Damian Almedilla, Bishop of the Diocese of Butuan, has truly heard from the horses’ mouth, the tribal leaders, about how they defended their lands from infiltration of the NPA terrorists.    

“I’m in awe of how you advocate in protecting our common home, our motherland, your ancestral domain. Your place is holy because it is where you get your foods and medicines. Continue aligning your efforts with the government’s strategic plans for IP communities in order to achieve the target goals for lasting peace and development,” said Almedilla.

Meanwhile, the visiting team through the NTF-ELCAC officials handed over an initial cash assistance to the Higaonon community inhabiting the site in Sinakungan, Agusan del Sur.

Call for peace

For decades, the Higaonon people are able to maintain their cultural integrity and function as intermediaries to solve internal conflicts, imploring the wisdom of counsel of the leaders of the tribe.

“We have high respect for our leaders. We may have varied opinions but heed and adhere to what the leaders would decide. Our tribe always considers peaceful means of solving a problem,” said Lindahog.

She mentioned that their elders and members are glad for the attention given and for the programs and projects offered by the government to the IPs, citing the scholarship grants from the NCIP, awarding of the Certificate of Ancestral Domain Titles (CADTs), serbisyo caravans, and livelihood trainings, among others.

However, they also seek justice for the harassment and killings of the innocent tribal leaders. They also hope that the lies and deceit of the NPA through continuous recruitment and propaganda, including the urge to overthrow the government and staging of the “bakwit” tactic will be over.

Known for their nature of peaceful approaches and behaviors, the Higaonon community not only seeks for their guardian spirits but for everyone to help out in solving the problem on insurgency.

The native people deserve a guarantee of equal protection from the endangerment by the terrorist NPA in order for their tribe to thrive. Venus L. Garcia/PIA-Caraga

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