PEACE PROBE by Gene Stoltzfus


Philippines: Carabaos and Spider Webs by peaceprobe
February 5, 2007, 9:10 am
Filed under: Militarism, Philippines

“Our law here is like a spider web.” says Jimmy whose single tooth infectious smile in the shadow of his blue hat, welcomes our group of visitors, “If a fly or mosquito tries to pass through the spider web it will get caught and die but if a carabao (water buffalo) passes through the spider web of law, the law will be destroyed.” Jimmy describes himself as an activist who helped to organize a cooperative in the 1000 acre (475 hectare) plot where his people were invited to settle many years ago.

For the Manobo (one of several native groups called Lumads in Mindanao) like many native North American people – the land, the forests and the animals constitute an earth based religion where tiny sacrifices are left to honor the spirit who gave the gifts of nature. Their attachment to land survives the conversation of many Lumads to Christianity. Private ownership of land is foreign because the earth is sacred and cannot be divided or bought and sold. The forest and land is sacred. The heretical notion of private ownership of the earth is impossible to harmonize with a universal notion of the inherent connection of the divine and the material. Manobo stories reach back to the creation of light and darkness, the earth and life. Verbal agreements and vague treaties made way for settlers to take over land that the Manobo understood to be a sacred trust. In Manobo territory, the land has been heavily settled by outsiders, themselves often pushed from other lands in the now overcrowded northern Philippine Islands. These victims now suspiciously face each other and their grasp for livelihood occasionally erupts into anger and clashes.

The native people of Armonan were the first to come and claim traditional rights to the land. Lingka P. Ansulang, cooperative leader and Bible translator leads us in prayer as we begin our meeting over fried bananas and brewed coffee from local coffee trees. I don’t understand her Manobo words of prayer but I can feel the passion for God and all of creation, and also the respect for this strong willed spiritual woman in our circle. The coffee is the best I have had since my visit to the Philippines began a month earlier. “Starbucks should come here and learn to do it right,’ I whisper to my companions.

The folks here have fasted, prayed, marched and protested for a generation.. They have just one goal, recovery of their ancestral lands. Life may be hard but they don’t think of themselves as poor. They point a few yards away to a banana tree, once their land, now the domain of a settler. They describe long forgotten and poorly documented verbal promises and say, “The government is like a Father to whom we must complain but now we have learned that our Father is a bad parent.” Their inherent kindness has no more reach. On the fringes of our talk we hear that there are voices among them who watch a government negotiating with Muslim neighbors for control and governance. And their friends are heard to say, “Oh so you only get meaningful negotiations when you have an armed revolutionary body. Maybe we need a liberation front with arms, too.”

As the first cup coffee grows into a second, my mind wonders deeper into the landscape of the their struggle, the one time Spanish then American occupiers, their present political leaders in Manila. I am in the midst of a community made wise to the ways of the forest by generations of hard work, prayer and lubricated by wise sayings and humor. They know that far beyond their corn fields is an international world guarded by gated communities and military might designed to protect the systems that accumulate and define wealth. And I hear the voice from somewhere within, reminding me that visits to communities like this carries responsibility and hope and promise. I know that there have been groups of development artisans and peacemakers before us whose visit implied promises – often unkept and misplaced. I feel the stretch of moral responsibility for my visit and my words. I see the possibility of distant allies, lawyers, long marches and fasts – the hard work of organization. And I think of healing journeys of Jesus, and consider how Lingka’s sharp mind put those stories into Manobo words. I catch myself asking, “What is she thinking or expecting of us?” Yes, behind the twinkle in her eye I bet she had some real good Manobo metaphors to translate that story of the long walk of Jesus to Jerusalem, the misunderstandings, the healings, the killings all the Way to Pentecost. .

The firm words of the Manobo people are hard to hear in a world bent on rational land management, according to a rule of law and guided by lawyers retained by systems so distant from a single mango tree that I now view. I touch the warm bags of corn collected in the cooperative shed, grown on tiny plots of land and sold , they tell me, to a market economy for 10 pesos (4 cents a pound). The bags are full – ready for market. “Very little income”, says Jimmy before his face lights up with another wise saying hidden in a mind, hidden behind that ruddy face that knows from experience how the world works. As I depart with my companions I think of the caravan of visitors who have come and gone from this place reaching back to the time of Spanish Priests, through American Protestant missionaries, development experts, armies and artisans of peace. I wonder how the promises of creation stories that it was good, that they now help translate will be honored by this thing we call civilization and by me.

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