Apr 6, 2020

On a warm Sunday morning in Sitio Malasag, Brgy. Cugman, east of Cagayan de Oro City, the datus and baylans (community and spiritual leaders) of the indigenous groups of northern Mindanao gathered as early as 3 a.m. 

It was Mar. 22. Later that afternoon, President Duterte would ask the Congress for special powers to address the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the country, which by then has surpassed 300.

[READ: Duterte signs law declaring national emergency, granting special powers vs COVID-19]

In northern Mindanao, where the coronavirus has yet to fully infiltrate, the Higaonon Catanico-Tablon-Cugman-Ancestral Domain (CATATCU AD) organization is conducting the Panagpeng on the hills, a traditional ritual that invokes the protection of the Magbabaya (The Creator) from deadly diseases that plague their communities.

Present were Datu Masikal Jude C. Jabiniar, the Indigenous Peoples Mandatory Representative (IPMR) in the Cugman Barangay Council, Buntola Sayuda (liaison officer) to their tribe; Datu Sumisilang (Roger A. Painato), Bae Florita Sayongan, baylans of the 2nd District of Cagayan de Oro; Datu Lumad (Ireneo L. Jabiniar) who is also the Higaonon Chieftain of Brgy. Cugman and other members of the Higaonon Tribal Council.

During the ritual, a chicken was offered as a sacrifice with its blood shed on a white cloth. What appeared as patches of red seemed to be a woman, sitting. “Our baylan believes it could be the picture of the woman who could have been the first victim of this virus,” Janiniar said.

***

Some 50 kilometers south of Cagayan de Oro is Malaybalay, the capital of the province of Bukidnon. There, four days prior to the exercise of Panagpeng in Cumag, the elders of the Taalandig, Bukidnon and Higaonon groups performed their own rituals, this time near a body of water, the Kalawaig River at the Kaamulan capitol grounds.

Bae Inatlawan and Datu Makapukaw send offerings down the Kalawaig River during the Panalawahig ritual to ask for mercy for the wrongdoings of humanity that have caused the water to be unclean and subsequently for water to heal and protect people from the virus. Photo by Easter Canoy

Two ritual prayers were done to seek protection from the coronavirus disease. The first one is the Panalawahig addressed to the guardian water spirit Bulalakaw to ask for mercy for the wrongdoings of humanity that have caused the water to be unclean and subsequently for water to heal and protect people from the virus. The Pamugsa, on the other hand, was directed to the earth spirits of the mountains and forests, to protect all life forms from catastrophes.

Bukidnon, Talaandig and Higaonon tribal elders at the Kaamulan Grounds, Malaybalay City, Bukidnon on Mar. 18 during the Panalawahig and Pamugsa rituals. Photo by Easter Canoy

Dressed in ceremonial garb of red woven cloth, the members of the group led by Datu Makapukaw (Adolino Saway) and Bae Inatlawan (AdelinaTarino) gathered under a tent at the side of the river with offerings to the spirits. 

 

Beyond rituals

According to a report by MindaNews, Mindanao has so far recorded over 100 COVID-19 cases, with Davao region leading the statistics with 69 cases including 11 deaths.

Cagayan de Oro, where a patient reportedly died while waiting for their test results at the Northern Mindanao Medical Center, was placed under community quarantine mid-March along with Bukidnon, where roughly half a million indigenous peoples are residing.

“When natural or manmade emergencies occur, experiences on the ground show that indigenous peoples and other minority groups are at risk of being excluded from humanitarian interventions. The current COVID-19 pandemic is no different.”

Easter Canoy, the executive director of the Kitanglad Integrated NGOs Inc.—a non-profit advocating for the rights, welfare and cultural survival of indigenous peoples through sustainable development, ecological integrity and cultural democracy—said, of the 500,000 indigenous peoples population of Bukidnon, there have not yet been reports of COVID-19 infections.

However, it might just be a case of media erasure or even unreported cases. Still, there is a great risk for such communities, which for decades suffered neglect from the government, and who are now still struggling to get access to medical services in their remote areas. Canoy said, most IPs rely solely on PhilHealth coverage, which may not be enough in some cases.

 

IPs in the time of COVID-19

Of the country’s indigenous peoples population, over 60 percent are living in Mindanao and Visayas, where they are not only some of the lowest-income earners but are also the most affected by military conflicts.

On Mar. 25, the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) released a statement on COVID-19 relief for indigenous peoples and minority groups saying, “government responses should leave no one behind, including our indigenous communities and other minority groups.”

“When natural or manmade emergencies occur, experiences on the ground show that indigenous peoples and other minority groups are at risk of being excluded from humanitarian interventions. The current COVID-19 pandemic is no different,” said CHR Spokesperson Atty. Jacqueline Ann C. de Guia.

De Guia, citing several community dialogues that the Commission conducted with IP groups, said these communities continue to be discriminated against when it comes to healthcare and government aid owing to their lack of proof of identification.

The irony is, in lieu of this crisis, they remain to be the most vulnerable owing to systemic injustices that they have experienced since time immemorial and will likely experience even after this pandemic. 

“We demand that both local and national governments ensure indigenous peoples’ access to food, basic nutrition, and clean water. All COVID-19-related health services should also be provided free of charge to indigenous peoples who cannot afford to pay.”

The rollout of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) financial aid part of the national government’s social amelioration program, along with local government units’ food ration, is said to be ongoing in Cagayan de Oro, according to a report by MindaNews.

Apart from the P5,000 to P6,000 financial assistance per household (based on the regional minimum wage, which averages P300+ in Mindanao), a food package consisting of five kilos of rice, five cans of sardines, six cans of corned beef and beef loaf will be distributed. 

According to Charmaine Tadlas, DSWD Region X information officer, senior citizens, persons with disabilities, pregnant and lactating mothers, solo parents, overseas Filipinos in distress, indigent Indigenous Peoples, homeless citizens and the informal economy workers are the priority.

However, beneficiaries should be in the master list endorsed by the LGU to the DSWD Field Office, which again, circles back to the point CHR raíces about IPs’ lack of proof of identification.

 

Helpless guardians of nature

Indigenous groups’ oneness with nature can be traced back to pre-Christianity Philippines’ animism or the belief in physical inanimate objects in their surroundings. Today, despite the prevalence of formalized religion, their beliefs and understanding of human existence and natural balance still exist and rule their daily lives.

If anything, it can be argued that these communities are guards of nature, who maintain a harmonious relationship with other life forms among them—the antithesis and the cause of pandemics such as COVID-19. 

3 years ago and now, Mt. Kitanglad is still under threat by forest fires, intruders out to distribute its forest lands…

Posted by Kitanglad Integrated NGOs (KIN) on Sunday, April 5, 2020

“The tribes depend their lives on natural resource-rich forest domains in which investors and developers and even the government take a portion of in the name of development,” Canoy said in an email interview.

Mt. Kitanglad Range Natural Park. Photo by Ben Maputi Jr./Kitanglad Nature and Wildlife Photography

Mt. Kitanglad Range Natural Park in Bukidnon, a vital landscape of 47,270 hectares is home to the indigenous peoples of Bukidnon and also a major water source for power generation, irrigation and domestic use in the region, Mt. Kitanglad has been a full-pledge protected area through the passage of R.A. 8978 in 2000.

Three tribes—the Talaandig, Bukidnon and Higaonon—are members of the multistakeholder Protected Area Management Board, a local multi-sectoral body chaired by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources with representation from the local government units, NGOs or civic organizations, people’s organizations, indigenous peoples through their Council of Elders and national government agencies.

Canoy said that for two decades, concrete benefits afforded to tribal forest guardians remain to be seen apart from the monthly honorarium, which ranges from P500 to P1,000 or P2,000 depending on the LGU provider.  

Members of the Kitanglad guards and volunteers (KGV) photographed in 2018. Photo courtesy of KGV Facebook page

This is despite their indispensable service to the forest range, which has evolved to more complex roles over time, said Canoy. “Now, 350 Kitanglad guards and volunteers (KGVs) are putting off forest fires because it’s summertime and the heat spark fires in the grasslands.

“The KGVs, who are mostly composed of indigenous volunteer-farmers, are our frontliners to protect the forest from illegal activities like trespassing/squatting, illegal logging, treasure hunting, illegal collection of plant and animal specimens or biopiracy, etc.”

The irony is, as Canoy, pointed out, in lieu of this crisis, they remain to be the most vulnerable owing to systemic injustices that they have experienced since time immemorial and will likely experience even after this pandemic. 

For the time being, they have their nature spirits and their rituals to protect them. But if and when the disease reaches their community, these invisible powers may prove to be insufficient against an equally invisible foe. They, too, will need help from their fellow mortals.

 

Header photo courtesy of Easter Canoy/Kitanglad Integrated NGOs Inc.

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Read more:

What’s next for Mindanao and Cotabato City after the historic BOL plebiscite?

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TAGS: baylan bukidnon Cagayan de Oro covid-19 datu Higaonon indigenous peoples Malaybalay Mt. Kitanglad Panagpeng Panalawahig region x social amelioration Talaandig