Threatened Land, Threatened Lives: The Bagobo-Klata of the South

  • Written by  Maria Rowena Beatriz Q. Inzon and Lucille Elna P. de Guzman
  • Published in Features
© OVCRE/Maria Rowena Beatriz Q. Inzon © OVCRE/Maria Rowena Beatriz Q. Inzon

Datu Danny walks ahead of us, with a confident gait, on a narrow path and stops. The 26-year-old Chieftain of the Bagobo-Klata tribe points to a fenced area where a religious sect lays claim to a portion of the tribe’s ancestral domain. He then waves his hand to the eastern side where a larger part of the land is now occupied by a private banana plantation. Up on the slope, he says, is his meager land where he and his family grow abaca and other crops for their daily subsistence.

As we reach the end of the trail, Datu Danny clutches the air and points to a spot where the house he grew up in once stood - the house where his father, the tribe’s former Chieftain, was gunned down by unknown men.

The fight for ancestral domain

Datu Danny’s personal fight is a reflection of the larger fight of the Bagobo-Klata, a fight that involves 50 families trying to uphold their ancestral rights over the land they sustainably till.

The Bagobo-Klata or Guiangan Tribe of Brgy. Manuel Guinga, Tugbok District, Davao City is one of the Indigenous Peoples (IP) identified by our DA-BAR funded project “Documentation of Indigenous Knowledge for Climate Change Adaptation,” as a wellspring of sustainable agricultural practices.

A big portion of the ancestral domain of the Bagobo-Klata was fenced off and claimed by a religious sect known as the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, The Name Above Every Name, Inc., a Philippine-based Restorationist church. Founded and led by Apollo C. Quiboloy, the sect started its incursion into the Bagobo-Klata ancestral domain in 2000 when it built a mansion with a landscaped-garden for tourists.

On the other hand, the entry of Sumifru, a large-scale banana plantation, added yet another threat to the Bagobo-Klata’s lands.

The encroachment left most of the Bagobo-Klata farmers landless; they had no choice but to work as farm laborers in the plantation. Adding insult to injury, the community members who have already lost their lands were also losing their once environmentally-stable and healthy lives.They are continuously exposed to aerial spraying of pesticides which they believe are the cause of their constant headaches. Some say that the pesticides are the roots of the recent pregnancy miscarriages in the community.

The fight against nature’s imbalance

For the Bagobo-Klata, losing a part of one’s arable property coupled with the uncertainty of regularly producing their own food from a smaller piece of land is a fight they have acknowledged.

In their remaining lands, the tribe plant abaca, assorted root crops, cereals, banana, coconut, and coffee. Men and women engage in subsistence farming. Children are trained at a very young age to help out in farm work. Every family heavily relies on abaca, the main and most important commodity grown in the area, as their major source of income.

On the average, an abaca farmer can harvest 100 kg/week at PhP 30-50.00/kg. Unfortunately, landslides following a series of heavy rains occurred in 2008, making the tribal families lose majority of their abaca stands. Disheartened, most of the farmers have not gone back to abaca growing ever since.

According to the Bagobo-Klata, the rainy season became so unpredictable that farmers do not know the right time to plant their crops anymore. They have also observed that it is now hotter than it used to be. In the past, they can still work in the fields even until high noon. Due to the intense daytime heat, they have cut short their work time and are forced to instead start very early in the morning.

The struggle for survival

Even if they are more than 25% of the country’s population, indigenous peoples remain among the most disadvantaged. The struggle in claiming their ancestral domain has long been their concern - most of the IPs are upland dwellers and depend on traditional kaingin or swidden agriculture as a means of livelihood. The lack of tenurial security of their traditional lands bears even more pressures to the marginalized tribal communities.

In addition, climate change has become a major threat to the livelihood of many IP farmers. Despite having little or no responsibility for current and future climate changes, the IPs are the ones likely to suffer the most from the consequences. And because they inhabit the most fragile ecosystems and depend on its natural resources, they are the first to suffer the brunt of the impacts of climate change.

But even if there are possible imminent difficulties ahead, the IPs have better chances of survival as compared to their modern, input-intensive farming counterparts. IPs have intimate understanding of the environment and many of their indigenous farming practices are largely hinged on traditions that are deeply rooted in their lands.

Because of this rooting, their indigenous knowledge, customary laws, and practices have contributed to the protection of the forest, preserving biodiversity, and enabling them to adapt and even mitigate climate change.

Like most IPs, the Bagobo-Klata are great adapters. They have been known to adapt and accept realities surrounding them and their struggle for survival – even those against climate-induced problems.

Practicing crop diversification is one major adaptation of the Bagobo-Klata to climate change. Families have learned not to rely on just one crop in their farm because if that one crop fails, this can result to starvation for the whole family.

Their remarkable respect for nature is also a given. They know how to nurture the forest, which is also a source of food, lumber, medicine and other services. So in order to prevent landslides, they plant native hardwood trees such as almaciga (Agathis philippinensis), karengag (Cinnamomum sp.), bansilay (Cratoxylum sp.), blising and sedar (Dacrycarpus sp). They plant tiger grass (Thysanolaena maxima) near the riverbanks not only to prevent erosion but also as another source of income when made into soft brooms for selling.

Co-existence with man and nature

Although the threats to their land and livelihood has subsequently weakened some of the traditions, beliefs and practices of the Bagobo-Klata, the tribe’s resolve to adapt and live as a community remains untarnished.

Throughout the process of reclaiming their ancestral domain and addressing the challenges brought about by the changing climate, the inherent trait to cope, adapt and fight for their rights to land, territory, resources and self-determination still remains.

While their ancestral domain issues may be a gargantuan problem for the long-term, most of the Bagobo-Klata are ready to fight a battle against two simultaneous foes.

We go on silent as the Datu reconnects with the essence of the land, right there where his forbear was felled by a type of atrocity commonly attributed to land disputes.