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The B’laan

We’ve just come back from a half-day of driving on rural Philippine roads to visit with a clan of the B’laan tribal group. This tribe has been planting coffee on Mt. Matutum, part of the agricultural land reserve that they occupy, for the last 20 years. Their coffee farming helps them achieve economic stability and gain a voice in leveraging the government for land that was taken from them in the last 200 years.
The B’lann lived at the foot of Mt Matutum for hundreds of years until fifteen sixty-five when the Spanish invaded the island and took control. The Spanish created paper titles for the land so that king Phillip, who the island was named after, would have authority over the land. The B’laan had no knowledge of the system that the Spanish were imposing on their land and because of the hostility of the Spanish the B’laan were forced up the mountains. During the next five hundred years the B’laan were pushed off the land over and over again. They have been pushed by missionaries seeking the riches and prestige of owning land and they were pushed by Dole Inc. for their soil.
In the name of peace the B’laan often moved away from the struggle, because the opposition was often heavily armed, so they forfeited their right to self-determination. In the last twenty years their awareness of the rights they have as Indigenous People to determine there own destiny has been illuminated by acts of a local leader, Suya Buan.

In the early 1990s, he was convinced by big business people and powerful politicians to allow logging within the Ancestral Land of the B’laan people around Mt. Matutum in the province of South Cotabato.  He sincerely believed it was a path to alleviate his people from poverty.  At first, he enjoyed the rewards of logging in terms of wealth and power among his people.  But such rewards were short lived. Soon, Suya Buan realized that while the owners of the logging companies and the politicians were getting extremely rich, his people’s economic life was not improving and their Ancestral Land was being desecrated and destroyed.  Through community consultations and spiritual discernment processes, he decided it was time to stop logging within the B’laan land.1
The political leaders and logging bosses applied as much pressure to Suya Buan using lies and violence to try to scare him into passivity. These actions did nothing to hamper Suya’s efforts, and he stood firm, confident that justice would be achieved. On October 28, 2000, a group of armed men came to his house and knocked on his door. When he answered the door he was shot in the chest at point blank range with an m14 rifle and died instantly.
Although, when questioned later, the armed men hoped that these terrorist tactics would scare the people away and allow them to continue to rape the land of its resources uninhibited, in the memory of Suya’s vision for the B’laan the young men of the community gathered. A group of activists would stand as the Bantaygubat or Wilderness-watch. They would study the laws concerning their land and continue to be actively aware of what is happening on their land. It is the BantayGubat’s job to report illegal action within the conservation area, and pursue the prosecution of people who would exploit the natural resources of the Mt. Matutum reserve.
These men are honoring Suya’s memory by crediting his vision for an economically stable B’laan tribe in their pursuit of economic stability through coffee farming on Mt. Matutum.. Along with a local agriculturalist they are learning about the full potential of their land through planting coffee within the the forest and adding to the ecosystem rather than taking from it. .They are also taking advantage of a well balanced ecosystem that will feed the coffee and guard it from the threats of pestilence that come with mono-cropping or even intercropping. In the last twenty years the B’laan have planted an estimated two-hundred hectares of forest in patches all over Mt. Matutum, and in the last 2 years they have been selling their coffee the same agriculturalist who is also a local distributor. The B’laan people are beginning to see the fruit of Suya Buan’s vision and struggle for self-determination for their people..
Our vision as peacebuilders is to support the B’laan as brothers and sisters. We hope to learn from their struggle for self-determination and their new agricultural endeavor, and hopefully empower them in how to price their coffee justly through exposing them to fair trade principles. We also hope to give them the skills to hone their planting technique so that it will be as productive as possible. We also want them to be able to reproduce this teaching within their tribe and other tribes.
The vision is very hopeful for the B’laan, as they are starting to see the fruit of their labour and gain economic stability and expertise in coffee farming. I hope that as they grow to determine their own future they can give hope and skills to the other tribes of the Philippines who are in a similar struggle.