When the soldiers opened fire on Datal Bonglangon village, there was first confusion, then terror, then grief. But Marivic Danyan – one of the younger, quieter members of the community – decided to be strong. Reluctantly, heartbreakingly strong.
The young T’boli woman had been preparing lunch when her remote, indigenous community on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao was peppered with gunfire. One bullet ripped into the wooden wall beside her. Another pierced the corrugated tin roof.
Ignoring her pleas to take cover, her father – Victor, the village chief – rushed out with a handmade rifle and bow and arrows. He staggered back soon after, shot and bleeding. Danyan held his hand as he breathed his last.
For the next 18-20 hours, she and her two young daughters cowered inside the family home along with a handful of survivors, wondering what had happened to other menfolk who had been working in the cornfields. It was not until the next morning that they ventured out and saw the carnage.
In total, eight people were killed by the Philippine army’s 27th Infantry Battalion on 3 December 2017. Half of them were Danyan’s close family. Along with her father, she lost her husband, Pato Celardo, and two brothers, Victor Junior and Artemio.
“That’s when I decided to be strong so I could tend to the bodies,” she recalls with evident pain. “I had to put part of my husband’s brains back inside his skull so he was fit for burial. I tried to change the clothes of my dead brothers, but their wounds were too bad.”
She also inherited the ceremonial dagger of the tribal chief, or datu, from her father, along with the campaign he had fought for almost three decades against a coffee plantation on community land.
Danyan believes it was her father’s determination to regain territory from the plantation, Silvicultural Industries, that led to the killings.
Short, thin and soft-spoken, Danyan appears far younger than her 28 years, but her eyes radiate intelligence and a fierce determination. Even before the attack, she was respected as the first member of the community to graduate from high school. In its wake, she has become the head of her family, a candidate to become the first female chief of the village and a leader in the community’s efforts to regain its land and protect its environment.
The Philippine government says the villagers were caught in a crossfire between the military and the New People’s Army (NPA), one of many rebel groups that have turned Mindanao into one of the deadliest conflict zones in east Asia.
A bumpy four-hour drive to the massacre site reveals how a simmering land dispute exploded into violence – an all-too-common occurrence under the shoot-first-ask-questions-later presidency of Rodrigo Duterte. Last year, 41 activists were murdered in the Philippines, making it by far the deadliest country in Asia for environmental defenders.
Datal Bonglangon is a cluster of one-storey wooden homes, cornfields and a small dirt square where local children play basketball next to a water buffalo pen. It would be bucolic if not for its neighbour. Plantation security guards look down from a watchtower amid hillsides of stubby, dark-green arabica coffee bushes.
Danyan was a year old when an earlier leaseholder – a logging company – arrived with bulldozers and chainsaws in 1991. Older villagers say they were ordered to evacuate by armed thugs. Some of their homes were burned, destroying the resting places of their ancestors. (In those days T’bolis interred the bodies of their loved ones inside tree trunks that they would use as benches.)
Most of the nearby forest – on which the community depended for fruit and medicine – was cut down. The birds, wild boar and monkeys disappeared along with the trees. Since then, the young are no longer taught how to use bows and arrows, because there is nothing left to hunt.
After the land was cleared, 11,862 hectares were acquired for 25 years by Silvicultural Industries. Little is known about this company, but villagers and environmentalists believe it is part of the vast agribusiness, mining and construction conglomerate built by David M Consunji, a former minister during the Marcos dictatorship.
Villagers say the plantation – also known as Dawang Coffee – left them struggling for survival. “We have very little land left. Not enough to grow the food we need. People go hungry,” says Dande Dinyan, the regional chieftain of Tamasco, the umbrella group campaigning for T’boli, Ubo and Manobo rights.
These indigenous peoples once inhabited the fertile plains. Centuries of colonisation pushed them into the hills near Lake Sebu. In recent decades they have been squeezed further with the arrival of extractive industries.
“This is their last frontier. If they lose this land, where else do they have to go?” says Sister Susan Bolanio, executive director of Oblates of Notre Dame-run Hesed Foundation, who has worked with the community for decades.
Danyan’s father dedicated his life to recovering the territory. For 25 years he waited for the expiry of the plantation’s lease, which was up in December 2016. Shortly before then, however, the government declared an extension of this lease and a bundle of others linked to Consunji.
This was the final straw for the chief, who hacked down a 150-hectare area of coffee trees and replanted the land with corn. With her husband and brothers, he then marched into the camp of the plantation guards and ordered them to leave.
Arrest warrants were issued for Victor and several other members of the community. They say they received death threats from fellow T’boli tribesmen who were employed by the company?
Then the army became involved.
NPA insurgents praised the villagers’ resistance against what they called the “environmentally destructive enterprise” of Consunji.
With tensions rising, mediators linked to the Catholic church arranged talks between Victor and the government on 4 December. Hours before they were due to go ahead, soldiers opened fire.
Army commanders may genuinely have believed they were attacking a guerrilla base. The government claims two soldiers were killed along with an NPA leader, and that four guns were later found at the site.
But human rights groups, indigenous campaigners, independent forensic experts and legal activists say the chief was a respected and peaceful campaigner who was deliberately silenced to end his protests.
Danyan is convinced her father was killed because he stood up against a powerful company, and tried to grow corn for a hungry local community instead of coffee for export.
“I want his protest to be remembered,” she said. “I urge people not to buy coffee from this region. It has caused us so much suffering.”
Her supporters have called for an independent investigation into both the killings and the dubious extension of the plantation’s lease. The campaign goes on.
“I don’t have a choice,” Danyan says. “Blood has been spilled and we are ready to give our lives. I won’t use violence. I will use the law, but I will continue to fight.”
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