Rob Lutton
By Rob Lutton

An experience of landlessness and working for Peace in Mindanao

June 1st, 2011

The 1997 film, ‘The Castle’ is centred around the Kerrigan family, who have been living in their airport adjacent home for many years. The airport authority wants the Kerrigan’s to move so that they can extend the airport. But husband and father Darryl Kerrigan, played by Michael Caton, does not want to leave and commits to fight the airport in court. What follows is the story of these little Aussie battlers fighting for the right to stay in their “castle”. At one point Kerrigan compares his plight to that of the Aboriginal problems about land with the following line:

‘I’m really starting to understand how the Aboriginals feel. This house is like their land, it holds their memories, the land is their story. It’s everything. You can’t just pick it up and plonk it somewhere else.’

In contemporary Australian life being without a home or losing our home is a common reality. In days of rising interest rates many families have lost their homes and during separation and divorce men, women and children are often left with no right to live in the traditional residence. And people are devastated emotionally and feel a sharp disconnect socially as a result.

I am wondering if this frame of reference might give us some sense of empathy for the many indigenous peoples in Australian and beyond for whom landlessness and its repercussions are part of their everyday reality

Last week I spent time in Western Mindanao as part of a Peace workshop and video shoot on the work taking place there. It was in this context that I engaged with the Subanon  Indigenous People (IP). The Subanon IP are a tribe of the Zamboanga Peninsula area of Mindanao. They lived along riverbanks in the lowlands, however due to disturbances and Christian Settlers some decades ago, they were left landless. This peace loving tribe are now found to be residing in the mountains, moving from one location to another to clear more forest for fields or serving as tenants on the land of others. All of this takes place in a context of conflict between Muslim and Christian groups and the activities of the New People’s Army (NPA).

Most of the Subanen IP are unable to obtain education because of poverty.  Literacy rates among the children is very low compared to children in other areas and from other backgrounds. Only a few ever reach secondary or tertiary level. Health issues relate to nutrition and living conditions.

As I visited Subanen IP villages I was struck how despite the situation they find themselves in, that there remains a genuine playfulness and friendly nature.  Meet above the Subanen’s answer to the Bandidos. These young men ride their home made bikes down a wet hill and for the camera strike a very cool pose. The smiles conceal a sadness however. Their people do not own the farming land or storage shed in the background. Rather they are allowed to live as squatters by the owners of the land as this ensures a supply of labour for their farm.

So how do we look at the landlessness of the Subanen IP theologically?  The land was central to the faith and history of Israel. In the Jewish experience, the promised land is also informed by the image of shalom. Shalom is the bible’s word for peace. Here enemies are reconciled, injustices righted, fears calmed and hurts healed. There is restored harmony with God, creation and one another.

Walter Brueggeman* states that the land for which Israel yearns and which it remembers is always a place with Yahweh, a place well filled with memories of life with him and promise from him and vows to him. Indeed the land becomes the conduit for identity, responsibility, and blessing.

The interesting reality is that such an earthed experience of land and shalom is elusive. For Israel in the Old Testament, there are movement between that of landlessness and landedness. At times Israel is landless such as during the Abrahamic sojourn (Gen 12, 15), the Wilderness wanderings (Ex 16-18), and the Exile (II Kings 24:14-15, Ps 137, Lamentations).

At other times the nation knows landedness. During the Conquest and the Judges Israel receives the gift of the bountiful land. There is the glory days of the nation through the time of the Monarchy, where Israel experiences a fuller measure of the blessing and at the end of the Old Testament we read of the Second Temple community (Neh 9, Ezra 9), where Israel renews the covenant of land and city.

Brueggeman notes that the Church like Israel, experiences both sojourn (Heb 13:11-13) and the hope of a land (Heb 12:14-24, Rev 21), and the larger New Testament vision is one that expands the landedness of Israel to the whole creation (Rom 8:18-25, Eph 1:18-23).

So where does this all leave us today?

It occurs to me that the realized land paradigm image of the Old Testament finds its fulfillment in the New Testament image of the Kingdom of God. The followers of the way are called to participate in the in-breaking of shalom, in the creating of shalom not through the holding of land but through joining with God in the work of peace-making. We become shalom activists who work to see model farms of the Kingdom in the here and now.

Therefore, with the landless Subanen IP our call and purpose is to stand with them in seeking to know shalom here and now. Where we cannot turn back the clock of dispossession, we can work to provide opportunity for the Subanen to work for solutions to their situation and to live with dignity, hope and peace.

It is this vision undergirds the work of Young Ambassadors for Peace (YAP) in working among the Subanen IP and for peace in Western Mindanao. At the peace 5 day intensive peace workshop, Subanen IP sat with other members of society that in the past have been associated with their dispossession and marginalization. A Subanen Councillor sits with the areas Mayor and the Deputy Chief of Police. Bridges are built, prejudices left behind and trust is built. Resolutions are made to correct past wrongs and work for a better future for those left landless by the events of the past which have often been reinforced by ongoing prejudice.

During the workshop, Yogi – a Subanen IP YAP Coordinator (picture below) meets with Joy Balazo (Associate Director, Peacemaking), local leaders and UnitingWorld Relief and Development Unit staff in regard to a significant development proposal geared to create a locally led livelihood cooperative for agriculture and livestock.

It is early days but with the new sense of mutual respect, renewed networks for action, local farming expertise and input from those with experience in best practice development, the prospects for initiatives that bring lasting change has all involved filled with a new optimism.

Join us in working for the in-breaking of shalom among the Subanen. Pray for those such as the Subanen who do not have land. Pray for the YAP team, including Joy Balazo. Consider giving fianancially to the work of Young Ambassadors for Peace.

* See Walter Brueggemann, The Land. Place As Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in these blogs are those of their authors and do not necessarily represent the views of UnitingWorld or the National Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia