Writing this quick note to process one of the many strange developments of the week, which included my being roped in last minute to present a study conducted by the World Bank and the International Organization for Migration on marginalization through land dispossession in the Bangsamoro region. Presentations are part of my usual day-to-days but this was unusual—it was a launch at Camp Darapanan, the present headquarters of the largest armed revolutionary group in the Philippines, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (or MILF, read as M-I-L-F, not the lewd joke familiar to most westerners).

It just so happened that our lead author, Dr. Fermin Adriano, was unable to fly to Cotabato and our rather crazy and generous team leader, Matt, chose to gleefully task me with translating the key technical messages in a vernacular that would be understood by the larger audience, and not just the international actors and VIPs present in the room. And that entailed being the lost young female non-Muslim, non-Mindanawon pseudoacademic on the dais with Mindanao peace process heavy hitters such as Ishak Mastura, Guiamel Alim, Rufa Guiam, peace panel chairs Mohagher Iqbal and Irene Santiago, plus the amerul mujahid himself, Al-haj Murad Ebrahim. Kumbaga sa Tagalog, pinabili lang ng suka, napadpad na sa Darapanan. (Which actually describes a fair chunk of the seven years of this life, to be fair.)

Entitled “Land: Territory, Domain and Identity”, loosely translated in Maguindanaon as lupah, dalepa, kasakupan, bangunan, bangsa, the study was intended as a data-driven document that would examine patterns of land dispossession and its social, economic, and political impacts among the Moros and indigenous peoples of Mindanao, from 1898 until the present day. By doing so, it was meant to inform the recommendations of the Transitional Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) created under the peace agreement between the Government of the Philippines and aforementioned revolutionary group.
I was part of the multidisciplinary team that pulled it together for the TJRC study group on land. We started writing the damned thing in the first quarter of 2015, and plotted it out long before the events of Mamasapano and the turning of the tide leading up to the May 2016 elections. In hindsight, having it out and published after two years signifies a huge milestone in my life, personally and professionally. It was the last big thing I worked on with an amazing cast of characters: Fermin, Matt, and IOM’s Peter Van der Auweraert leading the way, with Mitch Abdon, Assad Baunto, Elmer Mercado, Erwin Tiamson, Bane Agbon, Pam Clavio, Shem Guiamil, Michael del Mundo, Marife Bacate, and a host of other people pitching in so much time and talent. The datasets were scraped together from the dusty archives and the maps were built as I finished the first MA degree in the Philippines; the elections happened and final revisions were conducted whilst I was crying over my MPhil dissertation and other things in Cambridge, and I joined in on the peer review meeting through Webex shivering in Corpus Christi Oxford as I wept for a week at the Bodleian; and now, it is out.

Mitch: Assad, alam mo ba ang pinaggagawa mo diyan? (And yes, we know that we shouldn’t be handling century-old documents with plastic palengke gloves but that is the sorry state of our National Archives, dios mio.)

Much of it is not new. Dozens of Mindanao experts have written so many historical accounts and case studies of land conflict in Southern Philippines. But I learnt so much from a) mining all the possible archival materials, particularly on settlement patterns and archival trends; b) plotting it out with a spatial lens; c) listening in on the analysis of informal and formal land dispute/conflict mechanisms, ably done by Bane, Erwin, and Elmer, legends in their own right; and c) forward-looking to possible solutions to these contemporary dynamics, also factoring in global experiences (c/o Peter, Matt, and a few other land restitution specialists).

Beyond the technical pleasures, however, it was striking to see how a familiarity with the empirical data leads to an even deeper emotional understanding of  the Mindanao issue. And in a deeper sense, to the question of the Philippines as a whole, because as any economist or development worker worth her salt will tell you, these issues of land dispossession are the same everywhere in the country, but their effects and social complexities are intensified in Mindanao.

To quote Dr Adriano’s original speech, it made him realize–and we should note that the man has had a major role in at least 60% of the solid academic literature on conflict, security and development in Mindanao in the last two decades–“that all the development indicators we fondly summarized, culled out from official statistics, and analyzed and interpreted should be informed by the historical context within which they evolve to ensure that the proffered development trajectory is not only just, but more importantly humane.” Hindi lamang makatarungan, kundi makatao.

I started seriously working in Mindanao after the 2010 elections, for reasons that I still don’t completely understand. I was born and raised in Manila, and as everyone would well know, even the best education available in this country is horrifyingly silent on anything beyond the Katipunan and what is readily available from Yoyoy Villame’s playground ditties. I first started digging into non-Luzon history at university after an eye-opening Kasaysayan 1 class with Vic Villan, who looked at the decolonization process from the lens of the island of Panay, where my grandmother was raised. And then came personal encounters with Cordillera (the other proposed autonomous region) through William Henry Scott and a few other things, then the work with PAGASA, and eventually, finding my way to the south through the community health work of Dr Maglana, and most importantly, Kids for Peace–still my most beloved network of young people running peer-led creative processes for young people in Mindanao, which allows kids (like I once was) to tell their own stories on their own terms. We’re not so young anymore, and many of those belonging to the network now play interesting roles across institutions. But seven years have passed, and both nothing and everything has changed. Not so much externally perhaps, but certainly, on the inside…

There is much work left to be done on the ground, and despite my own personal challenges and the daily butthurts that come with the painful work that is peacebuilding I think this member of the conquered lowland tribes of the Philipines would still dearly like a chance to be a part of this work, as a researcher and development worker, in the years to come. Although the hard road from writing a pretty report to concrete implementation is another heartbreak altogether.

But as the disturbing post-truthy events of the last months illustrate, I realize more and more that the work can no longer be stuck within the technical realm of legalese and subject-matter specialization. These stories must be told, in language that your average twitter millennial and manong driver and sari-sari store worker alike can understand.

I think this is a request to the Universe for enough time, energy, and resources to help tell those stories.

The official download link to the WB-IOM technical report still hasn’t been uploaded, but I’m sharing it here anyway: land-territory-domain-and-identity_web-16jan

The TJRC’s main and supplementary reports are available online at


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