In the latest of a wave of deadly attacks on indigenous peoples in the southern Philippines island of Mindanao, a community leader was gunned down by armed men on a motorcycle in Agusan del Sur province on Sept. 28. Lito Abion, 44, a leader of the indigenous organization Tagdumahan, was slain in Doña Flavia village, San Luis municipality, where he long been an advocate for land rights and local autonomy—especially opposing large-scale gold-mining operations in the area. This year has seen several killings and violent attacks on Lumads, as the indigenous peoples of the region are collectively known. Following a call from the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines, the central government has formed a commission to investigate the attacks, led by Edmundo Arugay, director of the National Bureau of Investigation. But local rights advocates see the government's hand in the violence, pointing to a paramilitary group called the Magahat Bagani Force, said to be linked to the Philippine army. Some 3,000 Lumad residents of the municipalities of Lianga, Marihatag, San Agustin, San Miguel and Tago have been displaced by fighting in their villages and are currently taking shelter at a sports complex in Tandag City, Surigao del Sur province. The abuses have escalated along with a new counter-insurgency offensive against guerillas of the New People's Army (NPA) in recent weeks. (Rappler.com, Oct. 1; PIPLinks, Sept. 30 Inquirer, Sept. 6)
Rights advocates in the region also see a corporate hand in the violence. "The [tribal people] who firmly stand against mining activities were the ones being intimidated by paramilitary forces," Fr. Bong Galela, social action director of the Diocese of Tandag, told reporters in Manila, where he testified before a Senate panel Oct. 1. In his testimony to lawmakers, Galela said: "We call for the disarming and arrest of the members of the Magahat-Bagani group. We also demand the government to ensure that there will be no cover-up in the investigation of these gruesome murders."
The Philippine Senate Committee on Peace, Unification and Reconciliation launched an inquiry into the Mindanao violence after the Sept. 1 killing of Emerito Samarca, director of the Alternative Learning Center for Agriculture and Livelihood Development in Lianga, Surigao del Sur, along with local Lumad leaders Dionel Campos and Aurelio Sinzo. No arrests have been made in the slayings. Galela charged the killings were part of a campaign to "terrorize" Lumad communities that are organizing to oppose mining operations on their traditional lands.
Elmer Billedo, assistant director at the government's Mines and Geosciences Bureau, admitted that some mining companies use military and police personnel to secure their operations. "But when [the mining companies] are accused of militarization, they pull [the military and police] out," Billedo told the National Catholic Reporter. "Then what happens, their base camps are attacked. These reports do not reach you."
Billedo also blamed traditional indigenous leaders for conflicts in the area. "There are many self-proclaimed tribal leaders and politically-anointed chieftains who say that they represent the indigenous peoples," he said, adding that indigenous communities should come up with "proper designated officials and representatives" to negotiate with mining companies.
Rights advocates, however, point to plans by the military to form "auxiliary units" to secure mining operations. The faith-based civil society network Philippine Misereor Partnership said in a statement that an investigation should explore this link, "as more people observe the seeming connection of the killings to mining activities." Fr. Stephen Brongcano, director of a social action center in the Diocese of Butuan, cited a case in 2013 in South Cotabato province where government and army officials admitted that a mining company was funding a military unit suspected in the killings of a B'laan tribal woman and her two sons.
San Luis municipality, where Abion was killed, was earlier this year the target of army operations, ostensibly against the NPA, in which several villages were cleared as residents fled. In February, a pregnant woman and two children of the Banwaon indigenous ethnicity died after fleeing Tabon-Tabon village to an emergency evacuation center established in nearby Balit village. Displaced residents charged the army was actually clearing the lands to make way for mining operations. Bagal Mauro Mansilyohan, datu or traditional chief of Tabon-Tabon, said paramilitary groups were pressuring the community to give up their ancestral domain to mining companies through changes to their Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title (CADT). "The forcible evacuation is the effect of the army and paramilitary groups' coercion to allow the entry of mining corporations in the ancestral domain of the Banwaons," said Datu Jomorito Goaynon of Kalumaran, an alliance of indigenous peoples in Mindanao.