Karl Gaspar – « Indigenous People’s Landscape and Its Direct Connection to Impoverishment and Un-Peace»

Karl M. Gaspar

« Indigenous People’s Landscape and Its Direct Connection to Impoverishment and Un-Peace: The Case in Bislig, Surigao in the Philippines »

Geraldo de Mori, Michel Andraos, Bernardeth Caero Bustillos

Concilium 2019-4. Christentum und indigene Völker
Concilium 2019-4. Christianities and Indigenous Peoples
Concilium 2019-4. Cristianismos y pueblos indígenas
Concilium 2019-4. Popoli indigeni e cristianesimi
Concilium 2019-4. Les peuples indigènes et le christianisme
Concilium 2019-4. Povos indígenas e cristianismos


Where there is no justice, there is no peace![1] This is an adage which has become a battle cry for many Filipinos and Mindanawons who through the last fifty years have been engaged in justice, peace and integrity of creation (JPIC) issues.

In the fields of anthropology and theology, there have been all kinds of theoretical frameworks that have arisen to both critique existing development paradigms mostly of nation-states as well as propose alternative models of development that create more equality and inclusive growth. From the perspective of the Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church, there have been papal encyclicals – from Populorum Progressio to Laudato Si – issued to provide the faithful with the moral principles on which to judge the policies and practices of the nation-states, and how these policies impact the social and ecological realities confronting the people.

However, despite the gains in Third World settings such as the Philippines, where civil society institutions – including the Catholic Church (through its various agencies like the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, the Association of Major-Religious Superiors of the Philippines, and locally – the Mindanao-Sulu Pastoral Conference (MSPC) – have been pushing for greater engagement in JPIC issues. At the grassroots level, however, the initiatives are hardly felt by the ordinary folks, especially the indigenous peoples, popularly known as Lumads.

There can be no denying the fact that after Vatican II, the Church no longer was the same institution as it was before the 1960s. But what was it about Vatican II that led to the seismic ecclesial changes? Harvey posits that what was “striking about Vatican II was its passionate commitment to human flourishing… [even as]…[i]ts anthropology and its understanding of culture emerged from its Christology.[2] In proclaiming Christ, the Church must also proclaim what it is to be human in the light of Christ, and thus the Church is called to serve humanity not only by spiritual and sacramental means, but also through ways by which she is to create, sustain and encourage those actions which bring about human flourishing and the lasting human good.

From Pope Paul VI’s Gaudium Et Spes (1965) to Populorum Progressio (1967) to Pope Francis Evangelii Gaudium (2013) to Laudato Si (2015), the faithful have been brought to new levels of consciousness as to how their faith should be bridged with socio-ecological issues.

As to what constitutes human development, Populorum Progressio makes this assertion: “Development cannot be limited to mere economic growth. In order to be authentic, it must be complete: integral, that is, it has to promote the good of every man and of the whole man”. (No. 14) After Laudato Si, the Church’s concern is not only the plight of human beings in the totality of their realities and needs but also of the plight of humanity’s common home – the planet that today is facing urgent ecological crises.

Fifty years since Vatican II, the Church’s mandate in the post-modern world is clear: to be immersed in the complexities of the planet and humanity and seek to fulfil the demands of the Missio Dei, with the love of the One and Triune God. This is the missiological perspective that should constitute the epistemological challenge for the Local Church that aims to seek to penetrate reality, discover the roots of injustice and contribute to propose alternatives for social and ecological transformation. This is especially true when dealing with the situation of the Lumad indigenous peoples in Mindanao, the southern part of the Philippines. 

This situation remains a desperate one urgently demanding alternative development models of engaging their communities that require mobilizing the kind of “creative imagination” that involves “protest…accompanied by alternative, well worked out policies and realistic plans through the exercise of imagination.”[3] This paper is a case study of how one local church – the Diocese of Tandag (which covers Surigao Sur) – has responded to the plight of the Lumad and specifically focuses on the parish of Bislig.

This study also describes the double-edged impact of the two extractive industries, introduced to the Lumad territory by corporate firms. While on the one hand these have provided them food on their tables, the entry of these industries has caused strife among the Lumads, between them as Indigenous peoples versus the land-hungry migrant lowlanders who are claiming pieces of their ancestral land, resulting in the eruption of various forms of violence.

1. Anthropology and Development

An attempt to come up with a study on how a local church responds to the realities of Lumads need not only the “see-judge-act” theological paradigm, but also anthropological tools especially as this relates to development theory and practice. Through the years, the encounter between these two fields has been a checkered one. This encounter brings the anthropologists with others interested in the development discourse including: “government administrators, missionaries, businesspeople, conservationists, and a variety of other scientists and explorers.”[4]

For whatever are their skepticism and criticisms regarding development paradigms, anthropologists through the years have been deeply implicated in many such efforts. While keeping a stance of “deep ambivalence about development,” many of them still are ”welcoming yet distrusting of social and economic progress, worrying about the damage change might inflict on diverse cultures yet acknowledging the misery of the present.”[5]

Another field of urgent attention is that of human security which “embraces the right of individuals and communities to live in safety, freedom and dignity …[and]… seeks to create an enabling situation for communities to define their own livelihoods and happiness and for individuals to have opportunities and choices to fulfill their own potential while living together in a safe and healthy environment.”[6]

Of special focus in the critique of development projects is how these have been implemented among Lumad communities. This is not surprising considering that throughout history, they have “faced the threat of genocide, of being massacred by powerful conquerors who consider them backward savages who had to make way for civilization.”[7].

This policies that have been in place in the country since the early years of the Republic, worsened during the Marcos regime, and has persisted until today, despite the promulgation of the Indigenous People’s Rights Act of 1997(IPRA) in the name of progress and the country’s over-all socio- economic well-being. If this major dilemma that comes with development is to be avoided, what is most important is that the indigenous peoples (IPs) themselves are able to “retain their autonomy and to control their own future development” within the context of self-determination that puts them “in charge of their internal affairs and territorial resources again.”[8] However, this is easier said than done, considering the twin realities of the fragmentation among the ranks of the Lumads themselves and the weaknesses and limitations of their tribal leaders who have mostly lost many of the strong traits of the traditional leaders of the bygone years.

2. The Province of Surigao del Sur

At the start of the Spanish colonial conquest of the Philippines in the early sixteenth century, the region constituted by the eastern coast of Mindanao today facing the Pacific Ocean – named Caraga – registered as an important outpost. A military district – one of six set up during the Spanish Occupation of northeastern Mindanao in 1860 – arose in Surigao. In 1870, it was renamed to Distrito de Surigao, and became a chartered province in 1901.[9] Six decades later, Surigao was divided into two provinces: del Norte and del Sur. 

Its total land area is 4,552.2 square kilometers. The population increased from 380,301 in 2000 to 523,900 in 2014; today’s most recent population stands at 592,250 (2015 NSO), with a density of 120 inhabitants per square kilometre. It is home to the Mamanwa and Manobo tribes, many of whom were Christianized in the early times of the Spanish occupation. After the Spanish era, migrants came to settle there.  

For a long time, Surigao remained one of the most isolated provinces in the entire country. Its infrastructure was quite primitive with bridges and roads across the province in poor condition resulting in limited transportation and communication facilities. This is one reason why the poverty situation was and remains staggering. Its poverty incidence is reported at 45.1% .[10]

3. Mining in the Province

There is no question that “Surigao del Sur is endowed with metallic minerals such as copper, gold, chromite, cobalt, nickel and lead zinc, as well as non-metallic (limestone, coal and feldspar, clay diatomite/bentomite and coarse/fine aggregates).”[12] This is why through the past half-century, there have been small and arge scale mining activities by corporations in the province[11].

This province – being gifted with abundant mineral resources – has been and may remain a major site of mining operations in the country, unless the State will acquire the political will to stop these destructive operations. Through the years, mining companies have come and gone, an/or expanded operations. After the Mining Law was passed in 1995, the province witnessed the influx of mining firms.

Mining is an extractive industry with a double-edge impact: on one hand it can provide employment for the residents and contribute to the country’s GNP but its ecological costs are high. A Rappler report[13] covering the impact of mining indicated how the Marcventures Mining and Development Corporation (MMDC) operations in Carrascal and Cantilan destroyed the fishing grounds as well as polluted the waters of the irrigation canals that affect the farmers. For this reason, the concerned citizens filed a complaint against MMDC for environmental harm caused by lack of protective measures in their operations. 

4. The Diocese of Tandag

Erected on June 16, 1978, the Diocese of Tandang was created from the Diocese of Surigao. At the turn of the century, when it was part of the Caraga pueblo, Spanish colonizers and missionaries penetrated this area which led to the entry of other peoples from the north, mainly Cebuano-speaking migrants. This Diocese along with Surigao del Norte was one of the early centers of the faith dating back to 1622 when the Augustinian Recollects arrived. 

The mining issue did attract the attention of the diocese. A statement signed by Fr. Emmanuel G. Dumadag then President of the Tandag Clergy and noted by the Bishop, Nereo P. Odchimar, expressed these sentiments:

The Diocese of Tandag, which the bishop and the clergy, representing the people of God in the province of Surigao del Sur, issued a statement in 2002, categorically opposing mining in our beloved province. Today, we reiterate our call to protect the integrity of God’s creation and to defend out people’s right to a healthful and balanced ecology. Likewise, it is our moral duty to protect and defend the right of our people to food security, today and in the future generations.[14]

Presently, this earlier dynamism has been dissipated for various reasons. The recent installation of Bishop Dael is providing the much-needed push to bring the Diocese back on track.

5. The Parish of Bislig

Bislig was once a sleepy town until the rise of the logging industry brought the Bislig Bay Lumber Company, Inc. (BBLCI) to its forests along with its sister company, the Paper Industries Corporation of the Philippines, Inc. (PICOP),which followed suit two decades later. “It was the first such company in Southeast Asia that would source its supply of materials from the mixed use of tropical forest trees for its pulp and paper operations.”[15]

Such a vast forest was required to become a whole concession area to “ provide a steady base for selective logging of the mature Philippine hardwood forests that have a natural logging cycle of 25 to 35 years… [and would] allow the cutting of logs for export and for further processing.”[16] The pulp and paper mill then required a steady supply of fast growing varieties of forest trees; thus it was “planned that up to 46,000 hectares of the logging concession area could be clear-cut for the planting of trees that mature in seven to eight years.”[17]

As the forested areas would not be enough, PICOP introduced the idea of setting up private tree farms or plantations. Its forecast projected an additional 20,000 hectares of private plantations that could be tapped to supplement PICOP’s concession area. It was PICOP then that introduced the planting of imported fast-growing trees to the plantations. Loans from the Development Bank of the Philippines (DBP) helped to fund these privately owned tree plantations, which acquired an initial funding from the World Bank.[18] However, thirty years later, PICOP fell apart “during the financial, economic and institutional changes that hit the nation during the late 1980s… Politically, these were the years when the country experienced political turmoil, as the country transitioned between the Marcos and the Cory Aquino years.[19]

Ironically, even as Bislig saw the rise, fall and demise of PICOP, this cannot be said of tree plantations which survived the collapse of the mammoth industry. When PICOP ceased operations[20] and had to give up their control over the forest concession they once held in their hands, there was “massive squatting on the land and intrusions on the property rights associated with the tree plantations became rampant.”[21] These tree plantations would expand through the years by both Lumad and migrants.

6. Coal Mining

According to the Department of Energy (DOE), the Philippines is largely a coal consuming country with coal having the highest contribution to the power generation and that its “local demand is not just for power generation, but also is utilized for the cement industry as well as other industries producing alcohol, sinter, rubber boots, paper and chemical manufacturing, fertilizer production and smelting processes.”[22]

 During the heyday of PICOP, coal mining explorations began leading to the entry of a few companies. Various companies came and went. Eventually the Department of Energy decided that it would no longer give permits to corporations seeking to do large-scale coal-mining in Bislig. Instead, they would only allow small-scale mining. However, it has not been easy for the Lumad residents to secure permit. First there is the need to secure an Area Clearance from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) as well as Free and Prior Informed Consent from National Commission for Indigenous People (NCIP), since most of the coal areas lie within the CADT-approved area. 

Mining across Surigao del Sur have brought about the area’s militarization, as government troops have been assigned to this province to protect corporate interests and also as part of the State’s counter-insurgency campaign. “Military presence in Lumad or indigenous communities in Surigao del Sur is meant to stifle local opposition to the entry of mining firms according to leaders of a Lumad organization.”[23]

The Lumads in this territory were made aware of the State’s insistence in providing the corporations an entry into their territory. “During the Indigenous Peoples Leaders’ Summit in Davao City on February 1, 2018, President Rodrigo Duterte declared he would choose the investors in Andap Valley Complex…” and told them to prepare for relocation, “insinuating the dislocation of the Lumad from their ancestral homes amidst combat operations of the Armed Forces of the Philippines to ease the entry of plantations and mining projects.”[24] Earlier in June 2017, through Executive Order No. 30, the President established the Energy Investment Coordinating Council to facilitate the processing of energy projects and investments with national significance. This could only mean that these areas will experience more militarization leading to evacuations.

7. Application and Approval of the Certificate of Ancestral Domain 

A potential violent eruption could take place in the villages of San Jose and Pamaypayan. Ironically, it was here that a Certificate of Ancestral Domain (CADT) was approved more than a decade ago. Since CADT arose from the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act of 1997, this historic legislative landmark that was envisioned to “accelerate the emancipation of our Indigenous Peoples from the bondage of inequity.”[25]

Approved in April 2008, the CADT of San Jose/Pamaypayan – which the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) listed as No. 070 – covers 15,399 hectares. Its list of claimants includes 2,910 Lumads of this territory who are 70% Mandaya-Kamayo and 30% Manobo. Thus, their IPO name – the Manobo-Mandaya Ancestral Domain Management Council (MMADMC). 

Years later, it would be discovered that within the approved 15,399 hectares, there were portions that were issued both as Certification of Land Ownership Awards by Department of Agrarian Reform or Community Based Forest Management by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Both agencies have insisted on the need for segregating these claims within the approved CADT. However, as members of the Joint Action Office, they have not done their collaborative work which is why until today the CADT has not yet been issued. 

This scenario that brings settlers and Lumads into a potential collision course owing to the former’s encroachment into Lumad territories – coupled with the impact of logging and agri-business penetration into the Lumad domain over a long period – have resulted in significant land loss tenure insecurity and lack of self-sufficiency, as well as serious degradation of resources. What worsens this situation is the “prominent role settlers have come to play in local government and as middlemen in trade places them high on the societal hierarchy.”[26]

The fieldwork done in the site of the study revealed that there have arisen so many complications through the years. While the Philippine Prayers for the Holy Spirit, Inc. (PPHSI) armed group had disbanded owing to the death of its Lumad leader, harmonious relations among the Lumads within the area covered by Certificate of Ancestral Land Title No. 070 for mining purposes and between them and the migrants who have found their way into their territory still do not exist. Among the different clans who are included in the list of claimants, tensions arose owing to conflicts in terms of delineating the borders of each clan’s claim within 070 area for mining purposes. 

Another potential conflict that looms over this territory is what happens with the coal mining once Lumino is in full operation with its tree plantations. Since it will cover 10,000 ha. only less than 3,000 has will be left for mining. This will ultimately displace the Lumads’ livelihood who rely mainly on income generated from mining. 

However, it looks like there is no stopping the movement towards the Lumino path of tree plantation in 070, partly because the NCIP is supportive of the MMADMC’s thrust in this matter. But the question is this: Does this IPO have enough management capacity to deal with Lumino in the long-term implementation of their corporate plans? 

In assessing the prospects of 070, one can only feel deeply frustrated with the turn of events in the Lumad communities of Bislig. When Indigenous Peoples Rights Act of 1997 (IPRA) was passed in Congress there was optimism that finally there was a legislation that could make a major difference in the lives of the Lumads. There are those who might claim that IPRA is not totally hopeless as there are a few CADT areas where things worked out better. Among the reasons why this took place include: a strong IPO with members actively participating in decision-making, effective leaders who are able to help resolve conflicts and minimize corruption, relative peaceful situation with no presence of armed groups, local NCIP staff committed to do good work and the adequate support of CSOs including the church. These factors are absent in Bislig. On the part of the local church, both the diocese and the parish had no direct participation in the CADT application and how it impacted the communities. 


Bislig’s Lumad territory could have provided the Diocese of Tandag and the local parish with a pastoral setting where the Local Church could have made such a major difference to the lives of the faithful, especially in terms of concretizing the prophetic call to be church of the poor. 

There have been no dearth of documents providing the local church with the inspiration to become this kind of church envisioned by Second Plenary Council of the Philippines. In addition to Vatican II, the Magisterium – from the Popes to the Bishops’ conferences – includes encyclicals, apostolic letters and pastoral exhortations to provide guidelines on how to respond to socio-eco-political and ecological issues which constitute the “contemporary signs of the times” and to reflect on these in the light of the Gospel. The pastoral paradigm see-judge-act is now quite popular, easily accessible method to pastoral workers in the field, and thus guide them in their ministry. The anthropological critique of development paradigms is also necessary and needs to complement the see-judge-act. Considering the early years of the local church’s pastoral thrust as inspired by the dynamism that arose in the Mindanao church in the 1970s-1980s (due to the MSPC vision-mission), it would have been possible for it to deal with the impact of the extractive industries that have penetrated this territory with its consequences on the most marginalized in the peripheries – especially the Lumad communities. But as these industries created more havoc to the environment while providing limited benefit to the residents, and as the Lumad tried their best to take advantage of the opportunity provided by IPRA, the local church seemed to have decided not to take part in the unfolding of these events. It has its reasons but in the end one can say there was some talk to be engaged, but the walk did not take place. In the end, the Lumads have been left to themselves. Consequently, this pastoral setting has become a site of contestations where constructive negotiations hardly exist paving the way for the eruption of violence.


[1] This is an adage that is now a popular slogan. Two sources however can be cited: 1) The distinguished civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King chanted the words – “There can be no justice without peace, and there can be no peace without justice,” at a Vietnam War protest march on December 14, 1967, <https://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/reverend-dr-martin-luther-king-jr-and-no-peace-without-justice/>. Pope John Paul II in his 2001 Message for the World Day of Peace wrote these words: “True peace is the fruit of justice.” He states also in his 2002 Message for World Day of Peace, <https://zenit.org/articles/no-peace-without-justice-and-forgiveness-john-paul-ii-warns/>.

[2] James Harvey, “The Challenge and Hope of Gaudium et Spes,” in Erin Bugham, ed., The Church in the Modern World: Fiftyy Years after Gaudium et Spes (New York: Lexington Press, 2015), 3-11.

[3] Dermont A Lane, “Anthropology in the Service of Hope,” The Furrow, January 2018, 13-14.

[4] John H. Bodley, “Introduction,” in Tribal Peoples and Development Issues, ed. John H. Bodley (Mountain View: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1988), iv.

[5] Frederick Cooper and Randall Packard, “The History and Politics ofDevelopment Knowledge,” in The Anthropology of Development and Globalization: From Classical to Political Economy to Contemporary Neoliberalism, eds. Marc Edelman and Angeliqe Hangerud (London: Blackwell Publishing Co, 2010), 131.

[6] Wun’Gaeo, Surichai, “Acknowledgements,” in Surichai Wun’Gaeo, ed., Rural Livelihood and Human Insecurities in Globalizing Asian Economies(Bangkok: Center for Development Studies, Chululongkorn University, 2007), 3-4.

[7] David Maybury-Lewis, “Development and the Human Rights of the Minorities,” Beyond Economics, ed. Kikuchi, Yasushi (Quezon City: New Day Publishers, 2004), 34.

[8] Maybury-Lewis, “Development and the Human Rights of the Minorities,” 34.

[9] Municipal Planning Office, Bislig City Comprehensive Land Use Plan Report (Bislig City, 2018), 4.

[10] Cfr. Philippine Information Agency, <https://pia.gov.ph>.

[11] Data mainly from The Caraga Watch, October 2009, http://www.insidemindanao.com/february2010/Mining%20Caraga.pdf>.

[12] Municipal Planning Office, 5.

[13] Pia Ranada, “Mining in Surigao del Sur: Soil of Life, soil of Death,” Rappler Report, 2019. See < https://www.rappler.com/science-nature/environment/101038-mining-surigao-del-sur-farmers-fishers >.

[14] Diocese of Tandag Pastoral Statement on Mining, issued September 10, 2014. See: <www.cbcpnews.com/cbcpnews/?p=42245>.

[15] Gerardo P. Sicat, “Rise and fall of PICP – Mindanao’s Timber Plantations (Part II),” Crossroads, Philippine Star, August 11, 2015, 5.

[16] Sicat, “Rise and fall of PICP, 3.

[17] Sicat, “Rise and fall of PICP, 4.

[18] Sicat, “Rise and fall of PICP, 7.

[19] Sicat, “Rise and fall of PICP, 8.

[20] PICOP’s demise affected 3,000 direct employees and 5,000 workers.

[21] Sicat, “Rise and fall of PICP, 9.

[22] Department of Energy Report. DOE Head Office, 2018. See <https://www.doe.gov.ph/>.

[23] H. Marcos Morderno, “Group Says Mining Interests Behind Military Presence in Lumad lands,” Mindanews, 24 July 2018, <www.mindanews.com/top-stories/2018/07/group-says-mining-interests-behind-military-presence-in-lumad-lands/>.

[24] Morderno, “Group Says Mining Interests Behind Military Presence in Lumad lands.”

[25] Statement of the Coalition for Indigenous People’s Rights and Ancestral Domains (CIPRAID), Guide to R.A. 8371. Quoted in Bennagen 2007: 179.

[26] Irina Wenk, “Indigenous-Settler Relations and the Titling of Indigenous Territories in Mindanao: The Case of Matigsalug-Manobo.” In Augusto B. Gatmaytan. Ed. In Negotiating Autonomy: Case Studies on Philippine Indigenous Land Rights. IWGIA Document 114. (Quezon City: LRC-KSKFOE Phils, 2007), 137-178.


Karl M. Gaspar is a Redemptorist Brother who currently teaches anthropology at the Ateneo de Davao University, and Theology/Missiology at the St. Alphonsus Theological and Mission Institute. He is a member of the Philippine Catholic Theological Association (DAKATEO) and the Philippine Anthropological Association (UGAT). He is also a member of the Redemptorist Itinerant Mission Team. His current advocacies involve promoting solidarity work with Indigenous peoples, interfaith dialogue among Christians and Muslims, as well as care for the earth via environmental campaigns.

Address: Redemptorists, P.O. Box 80511, J.P. Laurel St., Bajada, Davao City, Philippines.