The Zamboanga Subanon: Their Historical Past and their Present Challenges

Silsilah Dialogue Movement, in its commitment to social solidarity and peace, has again conducted a Kapihan sa Silsilah. Now in its 39th conduct, this public forum focused on the theme, “The Zamboanga Subanon: Their Historical Past and their Present Challenges.” It was held on October 1, 2016 (Saturday) and was attended by representatives from the academe, Philippine National Police, Barangay Officials from different barangays in the city, members of the Inter-Faith Council of Leaders, Muslim and Christian Religious Leaders, and the Subanon Tribal Leaders.

The rationale of the 39th Kapihan sa Silsilah states:

The Subanon people are said to be one among the first land dwellers of the Island of Mindanao, and are found mostly in the northern, western and southern portions of the Zamboanga peninsula. They are likewise known to have a rich cultural past that we marvel at in the present as their tribe’s contribution to Mindanao’s own history. But as this tribe endures throughout history, they also continue to experience struggles and challenges as a people – the issues of ancestral domain, unity within the tribe, and potential abuse against them being indigenous people.

In solidarity with the Subanon people in the challenges they are continually facing, the 39th Kapihan sa Silsilah aims to be a voice for them to the society at large. This is an opportunity to inform the wide public of the rich historical and cultural past of the Subanon people and the ways to help them face the said present challenges.

For years now, Silsilah had been active in promoting the wellbeing of the indigenous people in Zamboanga City. The Subanon, in particular, are among the focused indigenous group that Silsilah had been following up specially on matters like this group’s struggle for their ancestral domain, leadership, etc. During this Kapihan, two resource speakers were invited to share basic information about the history of the Subanon people and their present struggles. The first resource speaker was Mrs. Gloria Cecile Bernal, the former Dean of the College of Social Work in Western Mindanao State University (WMSU) and now currently active member of Silsilah as its Human Resource Personnel. The second speaker was Engr. George Jocutan. He is a graduate and licensed genetic engineer who had been active at the National Commission for Indigenous People (NCIP) and now its Officer-in-Charge for Zamboanga City and Basilan.

As an experienced social worker with her years of experience being with the Subanon people, Mrs. Bernal related the rich history of this people, citing that they are the original and first land dwellers of the Zamboanga Peninsula. Zamboanga City, in particular, is a witness to this fact being seen in the naming of the many places in the city. These names as “Tetuan,” “Baliwasan,” “Patalon,” are Subanon words.

The first Zamboangeños who had encounters with the Spanish colonizers are the native Subanon. Building upon this argument, Mrs. Bernal pointed out the rights to Ancestral Domain that belongs to the Subanon people. Their claim for Ancestral Domain is based on the strength of the “Native Title” meaning “the continuous possession and occupation of the land in the concept of an owner since time immemorial, or as far as memory goes; it is a pre-conquest rights to land and domain,” Mrs. Bernal said. The present struggle of this tribe therefore is focused on this claim. They hope that the government may recognize this claim for their identity as a people. For years now, their tribe’s struggle had been also largely dominated by the presence of Zamboanga Economic Zone and Freeport in the native area where they live (areas of San Ramon-Patalon). This struggle on the other hand, is characterized by the tension between the rights belonging to the government to utilize the area and their ancestral domain rights. In the words of Mrs. Bernal, “There is danger that the government will pursue projects in the name of development yet counterproductive to the welfare of the tribe.”

Being the Officer-in-Charge of the Commission for Indigenous People (NCIP) in Zamboanga City, Engr. Jocutan reiterated the fact that the tribe has all the rights for the awarding of the Certificate of Ancestral Domain. He went into details about the application for this title. The challenge that is present in line with this is the openness of the government for faster grant. Engr. Jocutan further said that this recognition shall be the “Peace Pact” between the government and the concerned indigenous people.

Substantial sharing coming from concerned institutions like the Ateneo de Zamboanga University and the Department of Education in Zamboanga City followed during the open forum. For the closing message, Fr. Sebastiano D’Ambra, PIME, pointed out the importance of the support for the Subanon people coming from the society at large. This can be concretize in being involved in the cause of pushing for the granting of the certificate of ancestral domain and the support for the tribal leaders to be strong in their leadership. Fr. D’Ambra further stated that the unity within the tribe is very important in their hope to thrive.

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