Bai Bibyaon Ligkayan Bigkay
Peace has been an elusive goal in Bai Bibyaon Bigkay’s lifetime, but she has never stopped working for it. For the Manobo leader, there can be no peace without the right to live and work in her ancestral lands in western Mindanao.
Bai Bibyaon was born during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines in World War II. She rose up to become the only woman chieftain of the Manobo Tribe.
Today she is at the forefront of fighting off a new kind of occupation. It started in 1994 when a logging company came into the Pantaron Mountain Range– the ancestral lands of the Manobo. When the Alcantara & Sons timber company began cutting down trees, the tribe issued a warning. When the warning went unheeded, under the leadership of Bai Bibyaon and her colleague Datu Gibang, the people launched a tribal war against the logging company. The company backed out and the forest stood.
But mining companies soon replaced the loggers, backed up by soldiers and native Lumad men recruited into a paramilitary group called “Alamara.” “The paramilitary and the military sow terror in our communities,” Bai Bibyaon reports. “They are again displacing the Manobo to pave the way for the intrusion of another destructive project—mining.”
The Pantaron mountain range has caught the eye of major transnational investors due to its extensive mineral deposits. Mindanao is estimated to hold around half of the Philippines’ substantial gold reserves. But where the companies see profit, the Manobo people see the loss of the mountains that are their age-old source of food and livelihood.
“Our ancestral lands are being taken away and in its place we are given, for example, one kilo of rice and some canned goods,” Bai Bibyaon says. Through deception and repression, land grabs are severely eroding the basis for the tribe’s physical and cultural survival. Bai Bibyaon now lives in an evacuation camp in Davao City. Her people were forced off their lands by the military occupation, in the name of counterinsurgency operations that actually serve to facilitate land grabs. If they return, many—especially outspoken leaders like Bai Bibyaon —will likely be killed by the army; if they remain in the camps and lose their lands they will die off with nothing to leave behind. There is only one option: to fight back.
From the camp, Bai Bibyaon has continued to lead her people in protests and demand a safe return to their ancestral lands. A formidable figure, she has stood up to government officials and corporate representatives.
In the midst of displacement and disillusion with the government, the tribe still looks ahead. They have built their own schools to teach children to work the land and defend it. “I am inspired by the new generation – the young Lumads. I want them to have a better life than what I have experienced. I want the younger generation to harvest the fruit of our sacrifices.” Now in her seventies, Bai Bibyaon says the only hindrance she feels is the physical limitation of age. “But my fighting spirit is very high.”
Bai Bibyaon sees a universal thread uniting battles for defense of land throughout the world, especially when bound by an indigenous worldview. “The protection of the mountain, the protection of our ancestral domain, means the protection all of humanity,” affirms the tribal chief. “So this is not only my struggle, but the struggle for my people and our struggle in defense of humanity.”
This is not only my struggle, but the struggle for my people and our struggle in defense of humanity.”Bai Bibyaon