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Balit Mission 2015: Mga Bakwit sa Lupang Ninuno

Displacement, Human Rights Violations in Balit, San Luis,
Agusan del Sur

On January 23 of this year, 174 Banwaon families (composed of around 1,000 individuals, approximately 80% of whom are women and children) from the communities of Kimambukagyang, Tabon-tabon, Tabanganan, Nakadayas, Pig-ulingan, Mimpalaos, Maputi, Kandiisan, Tambo and KM 48 went on a massive exodus to the village center of Balit in the municipality of San Luis, Agusan del Sur. They were running from forced development.

The communities were at odds with Mario Napungahan, a former member of the Civilian Armed Forces Geographical Unit (CAFGU), who wanted to include their lands under his Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title (CADT). The communities had been resistant to a unified CADT given that Napungahan was encouraging the entry of mining companies into the ancestral lands of the Banwaons. Napungahan, who leads a private armed group himself, joins with the Philippine military in the pretext of counter-insurgency operations, threatening and killing the leaders of the communities resisting mining and other environmentally-detrimental ‘development’ projects.

In November 30 of 2014, members of the 26th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army camped at the barangay hall of Balit, conducting Community Organizing for Peace and Development (COPD). They were recruiting community members to join the CAFGU or the barangay-based Peace and Development Volunteers.

Learning from the experience of the neighboring CADT under Benhur Mansulonay where the chieftains who refused to sign the Free Prior and Informed Consent to allow a mining company were threatened with military force, the Balit community countered the military with streamers saying they wanted the military to leave. This aggravated the accusations against the community as supporters of the communist armed group, the New People’s Army (NPA).

On December 22, the village captain of Balit, Necasio Precioso Sr., was shot dead. Previously, he had argued with MSgt. Andres Villaganas, who accused Precioso’s family of being supporters of the NPA. The two clashed during a meeting where the military had demanded the appearance of two other community members whose sons they accused of being members of the NPA. Precioso, being the village leader, had accompanied them.

The start of 2015 witnessed an intensified COPD of the military. Fearing for their safety – from the direct harassment of the military and the possibility of getting caught in a cross-fire should there be an encounter between the military and the NPA – the communities demanded that the military pull out from their village centers. According to protocols, the military should be camping far from civilian houses and establishments. However, this was not followed.

The families decided to come together, believing they would be more secure if they would stay together. However, already one was reported missing and three children have died of sickness because of the drastic condition at their evacuation area. After leaving, some of the houses they left have been burned, their meager possessions divested by the private armies under Napungahan. At least 50 individuals have fallen sick because of their living conditions. But to them, it was still better than being out alone, scared that a bullet would strike them any time.

(More stories and images at www.rmp-nmr.org)