The Lumad and grassroots governance

September’s first sunrise was tinged in red. A paramilitary group entered a Manobo community in Han-ayan, Surigao Del Sur, and gathered the students and teachers of the Alternative Learning Center for Agriculture and Livelihood. Three civilians were executed in front of the whole community. Emerito Samarca, Alcadev’s executive director, had his throat slit from ear to ear. Dionel Campos, Manobo and chairman of the education-centered NGO Mapasu, was shot in the back of the head. Bello Sinzo, also a Manobo, was tortured, bones broken and then executed.

A few days later, over 3,000 lumad civilians from five municipalities left their ancestral homes and their livelihood out of fear.

Unfortunately, this act of injustice isn’t an isolated incident. Stories of displacement and killings have always littered our history. The reasons may vary—be it to make way for infrastructure like dams, business exploits such as logging and mining operations, or simple exhibitions of military or rebel force—but the unfortunate truth is that these stories have become footnotes. The tragedy within the tragedy is that these incidents have become a pattern of life.

How do we stop these atrocities?

Perhaps a way to create lasting peace lies in further cultivation and strengthening of grassroots governance. This pertains to designing certain political processes wherein the power of decision-making is shifted towards the lower social rungs of a particular group, community or society.

The Philippines, as a whole, already uses certain aspects of grass-roots governance. The barangay system is a powerful example of this. Rather than having the mayor of a city control each individual barangay sector, a certain amount of autonomy is seeded to the barangays themselves via the barangay council system. Furthermore, it is solely the members within the barangay that vote upon the members of the barangay council. As such, the problems of the barangay are tackled in the micro level via projects that are created by the barangay representatives.

Furthermore, if we look at the barangay council, the members that comprise the council do not always come from affluent members of society. Typically, the members represent a certain group within the barangay community, such as the palengkeros/palangkeras, fisherfolk, tricycle drivers and the like. This is done to ensure that each group within the community is able to voice out that specific group’s problems. Because of this, even the minorities are able to exercise a certain amount of political will.

It exemplifies the idea of the community solving the community’s own problems. After all, who is better qualified to know the needs of a community aside from the community members themselves?

In the face of multiplicity of identity, grass-roots governance becomes a necessity rather than a luxury.  Geographical hindrances alone are enough for certain societal groups to need a particular amount of autonomy. Properly done, grassroots governance can give avenues for small communities to create their own projects and infrastructure that will benefit the community as how the community itself sees fit.

Of course, a perfect political system or process is impossible. Grassroots governance has had negative impacts in Philippine society. Most notable of which is how it can enable political clans or dynasties to simply rotate political control amongst several families. Seeing as the appointment of officials are isolated within a smaller population, political control and influence are that much more powerful. And though one person may not hold a political position for an extended period of time, having another family member take the position by virtue of the “goodwill” that the family name has amassed can easily circumvent this.

However, despite this, grassroots governance is integral to Philippine society, not just politically, but as a whole. It creates a more fluid and dynamic relationship between the government system and the people by allowing minorities to exercise greater political will. Additionally, it is the minorities that suffer the brunt of problems, be it economic, infrastructure or natural disasters. By giving these minorities a voice within the political system, they have a greater chance to address the worst problems of a community and possibly mitigate future disasters.

Control, or rather, the lack of it

Despite being the oldest roots we have to our indigenous Filipino culture, the lumad are among the most persecuted of minority groups. Political control has been wrested from their grasps because of the minority status of what we classify as Indigenous People.

There are very few members of the IP communities who are able to exercise their own political will. IP communities have some of the lowest numbers when it comes to education and literacy, thus preventing them to fully engage in the political and government systems that we hold today. Meanwhile, the government system in place doesn’t provide the proper avenues for these minorities to voice out their needs and offer proper solutions to their specific problems.

This is why there are numerous non-governmental organizations that continuously fight for rights of IP communities, such as Alcadev. However, while their efforts are extremely laudable and heroic, it will not be enough if the IP minorities themselves are not able to gain control for themselves.

How can we talk of peace, freedom and justice when minority groups such as the IPs cannot even have a semblance of control within their own communities?

Dialogue is key.

For minority groups such as the lumad to engage in our political systems, there is a need for dialogue between both government and its people.

The ones who have the best understanding of the prevalent problems of the community are the community members themselves. Let us allow these community members to exercise their political will and help them create solutions. Instead of just blindly creating government projects that seemingly work in theory but not in application, let us allow the minority groups to create their own projects and guide them along the way. Teach important members of the local communities how to draft project proposals, create budget estimates, give them business contacts, and do whatever it takes to cultivate proper ventures.

Of course, this approach may seem off-tangent to the overwhelming problem of violence. However, we must come to the realization that peace isn’t achieved simply by the prevention of violence. Peace isn’t a concept to be simply handed down. It is co-created by each member of a community—an ambition that is continuously strived for. Grass-roots governance creates avenues in which citizens, even from the smallest of minority groups, are allowed to engage within the political sphere. And though these avenues may seem small, people are still given the ability to exercise an amount of agency within their own lives. For far too long, minority groups such as the Lumad and other members of the Indigenous Peoples communities are treated like dolls in a glass menagerie. Even when treated with caring hands, ultimately, they serve only to be displayed and gawked at.

Control must be given back and the agency of citizens fully cultivated, invested and practiced. This is the only way we can deal with them as we should.


Jose Socrates delos Reyes,  23, is a writer.  

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