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THE MINDANAO ADIVASIS

By Atty. Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco



The term adivasis is the generic appellation used in India for the various ethnic
groups duly recognized to be its aboriginal population. This designation is similar to the
Visayan word lumad which means native or indigenous. Curiously, lumads in Mindanao are
differentiated from moros even though ethnic tribes within these two groups are all
recognized as original inhabitants of this great big island. Indeed, this dichotomy departs
from the Indian concept of adivasis wherein ethnic lineage is the lone basis of indigeneity. In
determining the aboriginal peoples of Mindanao, religion has somehow been factored in.

This unusual polarization of indigenous identity follows the conventional view that
divides Filipinos in Mindanao between Christians and Muslims. In fact, these competing
claims of Mindanaon identity have given rise to the tri-people imagination of the islands
census which remarkably echoes the colonial categories that divided the natives of the
colony between Christian, Moro and Non-Christian (with the modern day understanding of
lumads presumably falling under the last category).

One notably consequence of this archaic classification of the Mindanao population is
the relegation of the non-religious indios to the background of public discourse. In fact,
non-Muslim lumads desperately struggle to have their voices heard amidst the noise and
notoriety generated by the Bangsamoro campaign. It is even more tragic that they continue
to wallow in their marginalized state whilst being effectively dismissed in all the talks
pertaining to Mindanao development. This arguably controversial observation is easily made
precisely because state attention and resources seem to be directed primarily to the
creation of a segregated Bangsamoro area within Mindanao. Should this anachronistic view
of its population then be challenged to achieve a more inclusive development of Mindanao?

Indeed, no one disputes that this big island was, and continues to be, inhabited by at
least 31 different aboriginal ethnic communities some of which have Islam as their chosen
faith. No one contradicts either that droves of other ethnic groups emigrated to this region
from Luzon and Visayas at the onset of the American colonial period. Therefore, the more
historically and empirically accurate demographic divide in Mindanao would be between
indigenous and immigrant. The former comprise those who trace their lineage to any of
those 31+ ethnic groups and the latter from those migrs from the north such as the
Bisayas, Ilokanos, Kapangpangans, et al.

Following the adivasis concept, the point of difference most vital to the Mindanao
story ought to be ethnic origin and not religious faith. This alternative approach is actually
buttressed by the secular regime in the country wherein religious freedom is guaranteed.
More importantly, this means the state is not an arena where the various religions compete
for control. It is a neutral ground where any religion can lay claim to its own space. Any
problems concerning the right to practice ones religion automatically become a
Constitutional issue with the courts as the only available recourse. Indeed, in the realm of
public policy, where the matter of Mindanao development belongs, religious concerns
should carry no purchase at all.

Furthermore, according to Section 22 of Article II of the ConstitutionThe State
recognizes and promotes the rights of indigenous cultural communities within the
framework of national unity and development. Like the adivasis paradigm there is no
religious qualification or limitation with regard to indigenous cultural communities in this
provision. Correspondingly, by constitutional fiat the development process should be truly
secular in all its stages.

The shift in outlook proposed here paints Mindanao as an island amalgamation of
different ethnic groups and not a divided region of two religious faiths. Indeed this
alternative picture of Mindanao facilitates a collective view of it, both as a territory and as a
community of Filipinos, and not as a partition of two (or of three). In development parlance,
Mindanao when viewed as such becomes a huge integrated market that demands a
coordinated and comprehensive approach. Ostensibly different to the one implemented
now as a consequence of the splitting-Mindanao-into-two development model instituted
within the Bangsamoro campaign.

Furthermore, abandoning the religious overtone in the Mindanao narrative is largely
relevant to the most important concern in the development discourse for this regioni.e.
the adjudication of claims pertaining to traditional lands. In a 1987 public lecture, well-
respected Mindanao historian, Professor Rudy B. Rudil, asserted that the 13 different ethno-
linguistic Muslim communities and the various lumad tribes are the only groups of
indigenous people in Mindanao who can make an ancestral domain claim [See
http://www.muslimmindanao.ph/ancestral_domain_a.html]. Therefore, Moros, as defined
in the various peace agreements, strictly speaking do not have any ancestral domain claims.
Only particular sub-ethnic groups such as the Badjaos, Yakans, Tausugs and so forth, have
this inherent right. Consequently, development planners for Mindanao must reckon with
specific and individual ethnic groups, and not artificially created consortiums, when faced
with ancestral domain issues.

Without a doubt economic development is the answer to many of Mindanaos woes.
President Aquino promised a positive transformation in Mindanao to keen investors
based on the potential enactment of the Bangsamoro Basic Law. However, will this really
bring genuine and inclusive development to Mindanao considering he is boasting of policy
reforms still deeply influenced by old, and possibly outdated, attitudes and perceptions?