Mangyan Center for Learning and Development

Development on the Margins: How Indigenous People Chart Their Own Progress

By Benjamin Abadiano, Assisi Development Foundation
* Benjamin Abadiano, Executive Coordinator-Human and Development for the Indigenous Peoples of the Assisi Development Foundation, Inc., presented at the 2004 Magsaysay Awardees’ Lecture Series at Magsaysay Center, Manila, 27 August 2004


Agkangayan sa Kanyo buo! Greetings of peace to everyone!

I am deeply grateful to the Ramon Magsaysay Foundation and for all of you present here this afternoon for giving me this opportunity to share with you the inspiring story of the indigenous people of Mindoro.

It is a stoey of a people who, despite poverty and the lack of opportunities, continue to journey together in building a foundation for their children’s future and for their community through education and sustainable development.

It is a story of a people whose desire and commitment for a more humane and just society has inspired me to extend my mission to other IP communities in the country and to our Muslim brothers and sisters in Mindanao, particularly to those who have been displaced by war.

This story began in 1989 when I first encountered the indigenous people of Mindoro – the Alangan Mangyans. I had just graduated from college then but I already had a desire to live and work with the Mangyans as a volunteer.

Despite my limited knowledge and experience in development work, I decided to stay in their communities and to share in their lives. Gradually, I came to understand their long-drawn struggle for survival, and self-determination and soon enough, I wanted more and more to take part in the challenges they themselves encountered as a people and to carry with them their dreams and visions for a better future.

I learned much about life, self, and the world from innate wisdom and I acquired knowledge from their deep understanding of their realities as a minority people. And as they shared with me their very selves, I came to understand the external of their marginality and the may social realities that have been and remain to be obstacles that hinder the total attainment of their visions for peace and development.


The first reality that hinders community development for the Mangyans of Mindoro is the security of tenure and protection of their lands and domains. It is sad to note that for decades now, hundreds of hectares of their ancestral lands have been unjustly owned and occupied by influential people and big companies. Time and again, they are forced to leave their own lands and relocate in areas inhospitable to their way of life.

The second reality is the need for them to protect their cultural integrity and to restore their self-esteem. More often than not, they experience discrimination from other social groups and institutions. Their cultural traditions and practices are belittled and treated as inferior.

The third reality is they lack accessibility to basic services. Many of the Mangyan communities have little access to basic services compared with those living in lowland communities. The lack of support for agriculture, infrastructure and health services have caused malnutrition and, in many cases, death among their children— a tragedy that outweighs even the gravity of their physical poverty.

The fourth reality is the need to enhance and protect their human rights, including their right to pursue a culture of peace in the midst of the perennial armed conflicts between the Philippine government and insurgent groups. For many of them, the old most especially, cross fires and evacuations are as recurring as their rituals of life and death. Long have they sought freedom from fear, from humiliation and from forced recruitment into violent engagements.

The fifth reality is the difficulty of acquiring the skills and opportunities that would enable them to direct their own development as a people. They find themselves helpless as they struggle to protect a culture and a way of life that are constantly threatened by the bigger societies that surround them. Most of the time, survival for their communities remains a matter of cultural assimilation, at best, and of dissolution, at worst, rather than of balances integration. They feel that if they do not assimilate into the more dominant culture, they and their way of life would eventually disappear. And so they live from day to day always insecure about their place in the world. They grow older with each passing year uncertain of how they will pass on their ancient ways to their children and of how these, in turn, will care for their Mangyan identities in their own lifetime.

The Mangyan people know that these realities are beyond what they can handle all by themselves. They have no illusions about the complexity of the problems they face. And so they have come to see the need for linkages with other groups and of acquiring for themselves and their children a proper and sufficient education. They know that without education, they will remain helpless against the harsh realities of their lives.

They therefore dream of becoming educated. They aspire to learn and to know so that they and their children can become the empowered enough to face and overcome the enormous challenges that confront them.

They see it is an education that will enhance their skills and capabilities for survival in today’s world while at the same time enriching their own culture and traditions.

They desire it to be an education that will help them become self-sustaining and self-governing as a people.

It was in the context of such a desire that in 1898, the Tugdaan Center for Human and Environmental Development was established on a 4-hectare parcel of land within the 220 hectare Paitan Mangyan Reservation in Paitan, Naujan, Oriental Mindoro. It’s founding was made possible through the partnership between the Mangyan-Alangan, a handful of lay volunteers, and the mission Congregation of the Servants of the Holy Spirit (SSpS).

Tugdaan was originally envisioned as an institution that would offer a comprehensive and meaningful education program for the benefit of the seven ethno-linguistic groups of Oriental and Occidental Mindoro. Its rationale for existing was rooted in the conviction that through education, the Mangyan people will be able to gain empowerment and development for themselves and their communities.

Tugdaan wa established with the objective of organizing the Mangyan communities and providing them with the necessary skills that could help them build integrated and self-reliant communities. Its goal was to assist the Mangyan people in their efforts towards self-governance and self-determination using a general program designed to build integral and sustainable development for their communities. It sought to respond to the Mangyan people’s individual and communal needs guided by the uttermost respect for their rights, traditions, and culture.

In 1992, Tugdaan received recognition from the Department of Education, Culture and Sports (DECS) in operating a formal secondary educational program for the Mangyan communities. Four years later, the DECS gave Tugdaan recognition as one of the country’s outstanding literacy programs.

The past 15 years for Tugdaan have been years spent in dedicated and fruitful service to the Mangyan people of Mindoro. As Mangyan community leaders commented in one of their assemblies, “Tugdaan is one of our greatest achievements as a people.”

The program consists of the following major components:

  1. Formal Education: which provides education services to the youth and adults. It uses an enriched (indienized) DepEd curriculum. It operates on the principle of respect for, and recognition of the IPs’ life and culture.
  2. Non- formal Education: which provides literacy and skills training that are relevant to the needs and realities of the communities being served.
  3. Environmental and Resource Management: which is operated via a Sustainable Agriculture and Agro-Forestry Program.
  4. Research Center for Mangyan Culture: which consists of documentation, collection and classification of material and non-material cultural elements of the indigenous peoples in Mindoro. It aims to develop in both IPs and non-IPs alike a deep appreciation and respect for indigenous life and culture.
  5. Income Generating Projects: which enables the center to generate its own funds to answer for at least a portion of the operational costs, while at the same time providing hands-on-training for students. These projects consist of a poultry house, a pig pen, and a small fishpond. To create a fair market for locally grown calamansi concentrate.
  6. Capability Building: which provides an on-going values and skills formation for community leaders, development workers, and volunteer-teachers Contributing Factors to Program Success.

Several internal factors work dynamically to help the program accomplish its purpose and goals.

One such factor is the use of clear objectives and strong mechanisms, which enabels the program to be run with the full support of an effective human organization. These objectives and mechanisms came about as a result of wide consultation and collaboration among the various members and stakeholders of the center. They serve to define the “people structure ” of the center as and organization and directly come to bear upon the relations and work interactions of those involved in the program. With these in place, the people of Tugdaan are able to move in unison and fellowship.
Another contributing factors in the sense of ownership the beneficiaries have with regards the program. Through community atmosphere that encourages them to share their work and personal experiences with each other, the people of Tugdaan are able to build the program with a feeling that they are all part of the team. Thus, they are able to see the fruits of their work as a clear representations of their shared lives.

Incorporated into the program is the spirit of volunteerism and social service that graduates are encouraged to live out by returning to their communities and there, to offer their services and acquired knowledge for the benefit of their own people. This is part of Tugdaan’s value formation for it’s students, which finds concrete expression in the way school activities and educational experiences are infused with Christian virtues and Mangyan social norms. Through this, the work of education is able to reproduce itself in communities that are not directly within the reach of Tugdaan.

Finally, there is the all-important factor of the people involvement or community participation that acts as conduit linking all the preceding factors into an integrated whole. This is the means by which Tugdaan is able to effectively operate its programs and various projects — always with the conscious effort of using a consultative process and dependence on the contributions, be it work or resources, of the Mangyan people themselves. Likewise, this system of participation serves as the measuring stick with which Tugdaan is able to assess its own progress as an organization. It stands, therefore, as a primary value that empowers and guides the program. It is the very method that enables the people of Tugdaan to accomplish their work of Education and service.

The program also relies on external support in order to sustain itself and promote further growth. This is the integral of Tugdaan’s organizational aapproach which aims to actively build and nurture realtions with various partner groups and individuals who can contribute to the Mangyan people’s development. Such partnerships exist between the center and government agencies, non-government organizations, and benefactor/donor agencies.

Tugdaan puts much value to such relations as they not only provide needed financial and logistical support but also offer bigger society around them. Other Contributing Factors

A clear strengths of Tugdaan as n institute is its sensitivity to the dynamics of the Mangyan culture. It tries to integrate the various cultural traditions of the Mangyan People into the program’s philosophy, structures, methodologies, and activities. This is why research, documentation, and regular community consultation are considered vital components in the overall thrust of Tugdaan. With these, the Mangyan people are able to employ their own visions and perspectives in life in planning and implementing the many facets of the program. Thus, people empowerment and the valuing of the Mangyans’ own capabilities make up the main strategy of Tugdaan as an educational and developmental institution.

The problem confronting IPs have become more complex, such that it has now become more than just a matter of developing and giving the right kind of education program to benefit them. Other issues that bear upon IP life, culture, and survival have sprung up in years as a result of national and global developments. Generally, these are issues that require the immediate and concentrated attention of both government and civil society if IPs are to progress in their quest for peace, justice, and development. More particularly, these issues may be lumped together in what is now referred to as the new thrust in IP developmental. It is called by the term, “ Human Security”.

Even today, institutionalized injustice remains to be the greatest obstacle in IP development. This is the kind of injustice imposed by the powerful individuals and business interests in violation of IP rights and freedoms. Much of this injustice is linked to a land and forcible disenfranchisement of IPs from their ancestral lands. More plainly, it is the injustice that comes from systemic land grabbing which deprives hundreds of IP families and entire communities of their homes and the physical-emotional security that comes with them.

Institutionalized injustice in the form of land-grabbing, however, has taken on a wholly different form if the never-ending conflict between political and military organizations is taken into account. Land-grabbing in this context is no longer a matter of forcibly taking land from IPs in the interest of irresponsible capitalist business and personal wealth creation. It is now about the IPs having no alternative but to abandon their homes for fear of being caught in the crossfire of war and armed encounters. Without any choice at all, they give up their homes and run to the temporary shelter of evacuation centers just to stay alive.

Human security as the new developmental thrust, for the IPs concern themselves with the removal of unjust structures and situations that foment conflict between forces that eventually affect IPs life. It operates from the conviction that the security of people, particularly of thos who are directly endangered in battle zones, should be the highest priority of government in its conflict engagements with insurgent, separalist, or terrorist organizations.

More concretely, Human Security concerns itself with the plight and welfare of evacuees displaced by war. It means protecting people’s right to food, water,shelter, and medical attention; it means upholding their right to return to and rehabilitate their homes and farms, to reestablish their lives in dignity and to ensure the future survival of their children. Ultimately, Human Security is work that enshrines a human being’s right to live normal lives in communities of peace, free from sufferings and trauma of continuous armed conflict and free to exist and develop as productive citizens.

Current efforts for Human Security is multi-leveled. It deals with a host of concerns that cover the following:

  1. Assistance to government in implementing the IPRA law (Indigineous Peoples Rights Act);
  2. people empowerment and capability building in the area of conflict resolution and negotiations;
  3. The promotion and protection of their culture and knowledge systems;
  4. formal education, leadership formation, and skills training;
  5. Protection of ancestral domain from the ravages of war;
  6. The implementation of basic services like water, agriculture, and livelihood;
  7. The total protection of their communities against armed conflict through the establishment of “Sanctuaries of Peace”;
  8. The protection and promotion of human rights and the advocacy for peace.

Through a human Security program, particularly the one espoused and implemented by the Tabang Mindanaw (“Help Mindanao”) Program of the Assisi Development Foundation, the lives and well-being of the IPs in the face of armed conflict are directly cared for.

Tabang Mindanaw’s Human Security framework seeks to empower war-torn people in taking charge over their own lives through the active promotion and preservation of peace. This is the basic principle behind the Sanctuaries of Peace communities of Tabang Mindanaw which ultimately seeks to empower people, the IPs in p[articular, to participate in nation building.

The program allows them to embrace the ideals of nationhood more concretely and gives them a true sense of belonging people to one people, the Filipino people. It promotes in them a sense of patriotism and true nationalism in that they are given the values and skills needed to work for a more humane and just society through enlightened governance. Through the program, they come to directly work for the deliverance of their communities not only from crippling impoverishment, but from the root causes of conflict in their own lives, in their relationships, and in the whole of Philippines society. Ultimately, such a noble aspiration reflects the unique character and proud heritage of the indigenous Filipino.

Firstly, working with the IPs must be embraced not merely as a way of social service but as a grace in itself. It is a gift because it carries with it the blessing of a meaningful work and life with people endowed by the Creator with so much beauty, mystery, and human dignity. This ought to be one’s fundamental conviction in living a life in the service of the IPs.

Secondly, it requires openness to see the realities and complexities inherent in the life and culture of the indigenous peoples. It is work that demands a generous willingness to do more and to be more for the good of others, especially of the less fortunate.

Thirdly, it needs a certain amount of trust in one’s self and in others, especially in the face of the countless problems and challenges brought about by the many injustices which the Ips continue to experience.

Above all, one involved in IP work must see himself or herself as a bearer of hope. He/she must have the faith that despite all difficulties, the IPs, hand-in-hand with their developmental partners, do have the strength and the courage to continue the struggle for a better life.

Words of advice (to the youth, particularly, and to all those who want to make a difference in serving people)

We must begin by accepting our own incapacity to handle everything on our own. We have to collaborate and work with others in order for us to be able to respond to the many realities we face.

We must also learn to dream not so much spectacular achievements, but of the simple actions that brings goodness to people. Rather that dreaming of things to gain and self-recognition to receive, we have to let ourselves take part in the dreams of others. We ought to welcome the simplicity of being active participants in the building of the lives which are not our own. For this, we will need a spirit of generosity that will enable us to always be ready to respond to the call of others. It is a spirit that makes us men and women at the service ot others. In a word, it is the spirit of volunteerism.

This spirit of volunteerism is what empowers and sustains us in our work in ILAWAN. When we decided to replicate in Mindanao the work we have done in Mindoro, we had nothing except the right intention and the desire to be of service to others, especially to the IPs.

At the onset of our work, many people including some IP leaders questioned our sincerity. We cannot blame them because of the many negative experiences they have had with other groups in the past. All we could do is to be consistent in our words and actions. For what is important to us is not what we can achieve but, rather, how we can touch people’s lives through our simple yet loving ways of service.

As young people responsible for shaping the future of our country and of our people, we must embrace the mission of serving others as a direct invitation from God. In our own varied and unique ways of responding to this call, we have to strive with our best so that we come to be channels of God’s great love for people. Our very lives have to become instruments of His work for peace, justice, and development among the least and the poorest in our world.