By Phillippe Angelo Hiñosa

Every year on August 9, the International Day of Indigenous Peoples is observed. The purpose of this commemoration is to promote awareness of and safeguard the rights of indigenous people worldwide.

Cartoon by Brandon Jon Delos Santos

In our country, indigenous people are among the most marginalized sectors. Panay Island's Tumandok, for one, are the victims of our government's development aggression. In 2019, I integrated into one of their communities in the mountainous area of Capiz, a province north of the island, to help organize cultural training. There, I met a Tumandok leader named Tiyo Unol. 

The Tumandok, particularly their youths and Tiyo Unol, augmented my knowledge about development aggression in the form of the Jalaur mega dam, also known as the Jalaur River Multipurpose Project Phase 2, which has threatened to inundate their ancestral lands since 2013 when construction was supposed to begin. They were concerned that the negative effects of the Jalaur mega dam might displace them from their communities, resulting in the permanent loss of their livelihood.

The Jalaur mega dam is endangered by an active fault nearby, landslides, and a poor foundation at the construction site. A powerful earthquake could destabilize it and force it to collapse, drowning the Tumandok who live downstream. Meanwhile, those who are on the higher slope could endure habitat degradation, reduced water quality, and unfavorable changes in biodiversity, which might ultimately lead to the extinction of aquatic species. Worse, it could accelerate climate change.

According to Tiyo Unol, they organized the largest Tumandok assembly in 2015, along with two other indigenous groups and progressive and human rights organizations in Panay, to vehemently protest the construction of the Jalaur mega dam. Despite persistent opposition, their efforts were ignored by the government who pushed through with the project. Four years later, the mega dam construction finally commenced, heightening the concerns of the youth, which, of course, did not go unnoticed. 

So, before the cultural training ended, they staged a series of plays depicting their struggles against the mega dam. Some of them sang, danced, and performed to express how the government stole their lands, jeopardized their livelihoods, and threatened their lives for defending what has always been rightfully theirs.

Returning home, the integration provided me with a stronger sense of direction in advancing the Tumandok rights. In the many opportunities I have had to speak about indigenous people, I have always underscored the Tumandok struggles. It was a responsibility driven by my recent eye-opening experience with them.

Sadly, about a year later, the police and military had undertaken an operation in the community where the cultural training was held. They massacred nine unarmed and non-combatant Tumandok leaders and unjustly arrested 17 others, all of whom were vocal critics of the Jalaur mega dam. When I learned that, I was stunned. Tiyo Unol was among the dead.

I returned to Capiz in the midst of the harrowing event to accompany an independent fact-finding team to gather relevant information about the massacre and see for myself the dire situation at the evacuation center where the Tumandok sought refuge after the state forces left their communities in shambles. There, I reconnected with some of the youths from the cultural training. Their eyes were red and swollen. They couldn't mask their pain. I held their hands as they poured their tears over me. I, too, could not help but cry.

In the weeks that ensued, Panay bled red for the Tumandok. In 2021, I joined my fellow Panayanons in an indignant protest to condemn the state forces for the atrocities they committed during the Tumandok Massacre. In commemoration of the forty days since the event, I volunteered in an online benefit concert, Basibara, to remember the Tumandok victims and their bravery in defending their rights in the face of a towering opponent.

Looking back, I am reminded of lessons I have learned since my integration into the Tumandok community. Development that solely benefits the people in power is the development that empowers the people to fight back. This development can come in various disguises, the Jalaur mega dam is one. Whatever form it takes, it will never be enough to contain all the tears and blood of the Tumandok who tended the land on which it now stands. The only way we can reclaim it is to stand with them in defiance of development aggression as we demand justice from the government.

The Tumandok 9, particularly Tiyo Unol, and the rest of the people in the communities would be heartened to know that their sacrifices did not go in vain, as Panayanons continue to wage their struggles today despite the impending dangers around them.

Moving forward, I promised myself that no matter where I am, whether at school, in the streets, or at the source of the struggle, I will always remember what the Tumandok taught me—development for the few is defiance for the many.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Phillippe Angelo Hiñosa, 23, is a senior Sociology student taking units in History as a second major at the University of the Philippines Visayas. He is a part of the UP Visayas-University Student Council, Sandigan ng Mag-aaral para sa Sambayanan, and Kabataang Artista para sa Tunay na Kalayaan. His essays have appeared in Rappler's New School, The Philippine Daily Inquirer's Young Blood, and Transit Dialog. You may reach him at [email protected].


Explained By The People is a collaboration between Explained Opinion Desk and Explained Community that aims to give campus journalists, youth leaders, and other advocates a platform to let their voices be heard on the country’s current issues.

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