Guardian of the mountains and the lumad peoples: Datu Tomas Ito
At the time of his demise, the 84 year old Datu Tomas Ito (1925-2010) was among the respected and esteemed indigenous people’s (IP) elders, having lived a long and full life dedicated to uniting many of the region’s tribes and against threats to their ancestral lands.
The fight for the IP rights in this country faces many difficulties: the failure of policy to effectively and genuinely uphold IP rights and the dire conditions faced by IP communities in war-torn areas with slim access to basic amenities. But these difficulties were noy obstacles to Datu Ito’s commitment to serve his fellow Bagobos, lumads and other IPs. His life of service and ability to educate others was such theat even youths from metropolitan Manila attended his eulogy.
Born on December 25, 1935 in the foothills of Apo Sandiwa (Mt. Apo) among the Bagobo peoples of Kapatagan, Davao del Sur, Ito knew the value of land to lumads, and fought hard for their right to cultivate and live in the lands that their ancestors have occupied. Popularly known as Datu Birang, he became one of the country’s most recognizable tribal leaders, known for his charismatic leadership that used indigenous practices to promote and support their struggles.
During the Days under the Marcos dictatorship, Datu Ito urged and led the historic contributions of lumads against Martial Law. After EDSA, he continued to be a voice for IPs against the imposition of policies and programs detrimental to their rights.
He was a lifelong defender of IP ancestral domains, recognizing these as a source of all life and livelihood for the people. In 1989, Ito led communities in opposing the plan of government owned Philippine National Oil Company to build a geothermal plant in IP territories. He successfully united different lumad groups together to streghten the opposition against the plan and protect the sacred 76,000-hectare land near Mt. Apo, between North Cotobato and Davao del Sur. That same year, he unified nine tribes in the foothills of Mt. Apo through a dyandi, a Bagobo blood compact serving as a peace of ritual, which was later on transformed into a solidarity pact to resist the PNOC plant’s encroachment and desecration of Apo Sandawa. This was the first day dyandi held since the 14th century.
Ito immersed himself fully in the struggle to protect ancestral domains and help communities prosper by cultivating their land. In 1991, one of Ito’s projects as Chairperson of the Senubadan ka Bagobo Mekatonod (Unity of Awakened Bagobos), a group based in Kidapawan, North Cotobato, was to plant fruit trees, set up tree nurseries to nourish the watershed, and provide for the community’s irrigation needs. He helped communities displaced by militarization, earning threats from the military.
Over the years, he led alliances formed to defend ancestral domains and national patrimony, such as the Alyansa ng mga Lumad sa Habagatang Mindanao, Pasaka Confideration of Lumad Organizations in Mindanao, and Kusog sa Katawhang Lumad sa MIndanao.
Datu Ito effectively adopted methods derived from the IP’s reverence for nature. He integrated environmental advocates. Colleagues recount that Tiyo Ito, another of his nicknames, often gave a sermon to non-Ips on how they can best practice their Christianity. His prescription: care for the environment.
He was also respected for his eloquent use of words. He maximized his literacy skills to document indigenous practices and beliefs for non-IPs. He could also communicate in English, using witty remarks to punctuate his speeches and articulate sharp stances on crucial issues. Yet, in spite of Ito’s daring calls and messages, many best remember him for bearing a soft spoken demeanor.
By the early 1990s, Ito’s leadership and ability to articulate the people’s aspiration was so renowned throughout the South that he was chosen by indigenous and environmental movements to represent the Mindanao lumads to the Earth Summit, or the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992. He was also the first recipient of the Bayani sa Katawhang Lumad, an award conferred by the Kalumaran Mindanao Alliance of Indigenous Peoples.
Even in his elder years, Ito never wavered in his advocacy. Before theAboitiz company turned Todaya Falls to a component of a hydro-electric powerplant, it faced opposition from Ito, who actively campaigned despite his declining state of health. Ito served as a member of board of convenors for INPEACE, a grassroots-based multisectoral movement, when it was founded in 2003 until he finally succumbed to illness on February 2, 2010. Eh left many organizations behind to continue the work he started.
Datu Ito’s contributions may not be measured according to standards, which often look into the essential impacts of actions on the present and on the future, Datu Ito will be remembered as the traditional, political, and spiritual guardian of Apo Sandiwa: an organic intellectual from the ranks of the lumad peoples who articulated his wisdom far and wide, to advantage the IP core belief that land is life.