Unending struggle for land in the Bangsamoro

Lending an ear to the stories of aggrieved parties in Bangsamoro land conflicts gives the impression that each woeful tale is unique, with different beginnings, twists, and turns.

However, data collected over 10 years show distinct patterns in how land disputes can turn violent and spiral into more violence, prolonging and widening the impact of the original conflict. These patterns reveal how enduring land conflicts can destabilize a region that is in a conflict-to-peace transition.

International Alert Philippines’ just-released report, “Conflict’s Long Game: A Decade of Violence in the Bangsamoro,” tallies hundreds of land-related conflicts that displaced thousands of Bangsamoro residents over the 2011-2020 period, disrupting livelihoods and stalling the education of children and youth.

Land disputes turn violent when weapons are used. They unravel a string of violence when relatives become involved in long-standing clan feuds and revenge killings. Among other reasons, disputes break out due to unclear or contested borders between properties, conflicting claims, lack of proof of ownership, informal transfers such as sales and mortgages, and the formalization of ownership, such as through surveys or titles, of lands that had been informally or communally held for a long time. The fragmented land administration system also causes conflict as different agencies issue land tenure instruments that may cover the same properties.

There are times when the escalation of violence cannot be prevented by local conflict resolution, especially when the contending parties are affiliated with the Moro National Liberation Front, Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), or the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). Firefights break out as their heavily armed combatants are drawn into the conflict.

Conflicts from decades ago also continue to create flashpoints in the present. In the early 1970s, the municipality of Upi, later divided into Upi and South Upi, was riven by sectarian violence as Maguindanaon landowners were accused of forcibly acquiring the lands of the Teduray indigenous peoples (IPs) who, in turn, allied themselves with the armed Christian settlers of the Ilaga gang to drive off the Maguindanaon. Nowadays, land conflicts in South Upi indicate that the Maguindanaon landowners are back with a vengeance. Numerous attacks on Teduray and Lambangian residents by armed groups, including those associated with the MILF and the BIFF, have been documented.

Moreover, the development of enclaves where MILF combatants and their families were allowed to set up their camps during the years of conflict with the government has been ring-fenced by the government, mainly for the MILF, causing tensions among indigenous groups with ancestral domain claims. The camp development program includes land distribution for decommissioned combatants and their families but encompasses Mount Firis, a place that is sacred to the Teduray and Lambangian IPs, and other lands claimed by the IPs.

To make matters worse, clashes between the BIFF and the military have repeatedly caught the IPs in the middle, forcing them to evacuate. Teduray leaders have also been killed.

There may be some truth in the argument that the political settlement embedded in the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) and the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) may have lit the fiery struggles for land, particularly among residents in the mainland provinces of Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur. The CAB raised expectations as well as uncertainties about land ownership as it recognized “vested property rights” and promised land restitution in cases of wrongful dispossession. Meanwhile, the BOL has empowered the regional government, now in the control of the MILF, to act on contested issues such as the delineation of ancestral domains, the conduct of cadastral surveys, and the reclassification of public lands—as if the MILF has no conflicts of interest.

A land law, as civil society organizations have suggested, will provide clarity to land tenure issues as well as resolve and avert land-related conflicts. Land administration, overseen by multiple regional ministries, also needs streamlining and simplification to prevent disputes. Finally, the land law must be informed by a code that will uphold IP rights, including over their ancestral domain.

These must be treated as priority measures. Failure to do so risks turning the new Bangsamoro into another sad story of failed promises. The peace and security everyone longs for hangs in the balance.

This op-ed was originally published on the Philippine Daily Inquirer.