The Path to Reconciliation: Indigenous Leaders Integrate Traditional and Legal Practices in a Conflict Transformation Process

Rosemarie Guilingan "I will call him my beloved uncle again," reaffirms Rosemarie Guilingan as tears flowed down her cheeks. Rosemarie is the daughter of Datu1 Dalepusan Isis Guilingan and the niece of Barangay Captain2 Luciano Tanglanan, the two main actors in a conflict that once divided Pikumpungan Subanen Lupa Pusaka3 (PSLP), the Indigenous Peoples' Organization (IPO) of the Ancestral Domain Council of Sindangan-Godod in Zamboanga del Norte Province on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines.

The conflict between Datu Isis Guilingan and Barangay Captain Tanglanan emerged out of the difference the two indigenous leaders had as to how they wanted to relate to mining concessions in their communities. The divisions among the Subanen people of Sindangan was a prime example of how extractive industries, such as mining, which often operate with little consideration for the environment, can destroy not only the natural surroundings and ecosystem of the community, but also can shatter human relationships, regardless of blood ties. Mining investors and politicians who chose to shortcut and circumvent the legal processes to expedite their mining operations were those primarily responsible for the confrontation between Datu Isis and Barangay Captain Tanglanan.

Because he remained steadfast in his constant demands for a legal and culturally-bound process, tribal elder Datu Isis was identified as responsible for the slow and uncertain progress of the mining operation in Sindangan. To further their interests, the mining investors sought ways to "unseat" Datu Isis and enter into negotiations with a "new" PSLP that would accelerate the approval process for operating mines in the area.

Eventually, when the mining company failed to keep its commitment to Tanglanan and his associates, Tanglanan realized his mistake, regretted his action and sought forgiveness from Datu Isis. For his part, Datu Isis and his council made every effort to deal with this resource-based conflict through a conflict transformation process, integrating traditional indigenous practices with newly acquired skills in conflict transformation.


Datu Isis and Barangay Captain Luciano share ancestral roots from the same Bawang (tribal community) called Titik from the two towns of Leon Postigo and Sindangan, Zamboanga del Norte. In fact, they are first cousins as Datu Isis' father is the brother of Barangay Captain Luciano's mother. Barangay Titik can only be reached through a four-hour journey by habal-habal, a local and customized motorcycle for traveling to remote areas. It is both a cultural and political center for the Subanen Tribes in this part of the province. It is here where rituals and large gatherings are held. It is where the reconciliation of this story was conducted.

Titik is within the municipality of Sindangan, Zamboanga del Norte, in the northwestern part of Mindanao. Subanen Elders claim that their 45,199 hectare ancestral domain in Sindangan and the neighboring municipality of Godod was endowed with rich natural resources, especially metallic minerals, by Megbebaya4. Because of this, many extractive large-scale mining companies have shown an interest in the area.

Divided leadership

More than five years ago, Cebu-based mining investors and politicians questionably funded a gathering of more than 40 PLSP Timuays5 and Baes6 led by Barangay Captain Tanglanan. The meeting held in Sitio Kalawit, Tinaplan, Sindangan, was an unscheduled election at which Tanglanan was voted in as the new PSLP Chair. The event instigated a leadership and resource-based conflict within the ancestral domain council of Sindangan-Godod. The other Timuays and Baes of Sindangan-Godod became divided as intrigues, mistrust, and backbiting prevailed between the parties. Sadly, the Pikumpungan Subanen Lupa Pusaka was eventually divided into two factions—one siding with Barangay Captain Tanglanan and the other with Datu Isis.

The original PSLP remained under the leadership of Datu Isis, who continued to work to preserve the IPO with the remaining Timuays and Baes that were left on his Council of Elders after the defection by the Tanglanan group. Instead of violently confronting the Tanglanan group, they partnered with Pikhumpongan Dlibon Subanen, Inc. (PDSI) and the Mindanao Peacebuilding Institute Foundation, Inc. (MPI) through its Resource-Based Conflict and Peacebuilding Training Program. The program focused on their desire to commit time to and having the passion for enhancing the capacity of their membership in the fields of conflict mediation and negotiation, and strengthening their ancestral domain council through documenting their Indigenous Political Structure (IPS), genealogy and engaging the mining company through the Free and Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) process. Six members of the Council of Elders, including Datu Isis himself, became active scholars of MPI's project with the support of the German-based institution, Bread for the World-Protestant Development Service.

In God's perfect time, Datu Isis received communication that Luciano Tanglanan was willing to go back to the fold of the original PSLP under his leadership. They learned that the Cebu-based mining investors abandoned the Tanglanan group and the mining operation failed to materialize due to non-compliance with policies, legal processes and respect for cultural consent.

The reconciliation route

With the communication from Luciano Tanglanan to Datu Isis, the process was set in motion for reconciliation. Before the formal public declaration of the reconciliation, though, the parties had to comply with two preliminary indigenous practices.

The first step in the process occurred late in the evening of November 20, 2014, on the eve of the set unification day. Bal'yans (ritualists) coming from both factions came together to discuss and agree upon the appropriate ritual and processes that were to be done based on the nature of the conflict and its effect on their tribal community. The agreed upon process was an interfacing of the indigenous customs and legal approach.

On the same evening, the Bal'yans performed the traditional rituals called Bangon Tubu (bringing back to life the good relations) and the Samaya (a pact or commitment of reconciliation from disunity). The Council of Elders also agreed to have a written Resolution of Understanding for Reconciliation drafted by Eliseo Mandih, the Timuay Menunulat (secretary), to be signed by Datu Isis and Barangay Captain Luciano Tanglanan with the entire Council of Elders signing as witnesses.

Barangay Captain Luciano Tanglanan and Datu Dalepusan Isis embracing each otherIn the early morning of November 21, 2014, the group of Tanglanan arrived in four habal-habal motors. Luciano Tanglanan alighted, proceeded to the house of Datu Isis, approached and shook the hand of Datu Isis. The people rejoiced at the humbling scene. It was their first encounter after more than five years. Datu Isis declared it is "truly a beautiful gift" on his 64th Birthday.

Soon after, the Council of Elders convened the second indigenous session, which was held in the tribal hall of Datu Isis. The session was facilitated by Timuay Menunulat Eliseo Mandih. Tanglanan and Datu Isis were asked to speak, one after the other before the process was laid out and explained to them. With all humility, Tanglanan confessed his wrongdoing and disrespect, not just for Datu Isis, but to all Elders. He admitted that he allowed himself to be used by the politicians and mining investors. He did not "name names" of those who used him, but for the Subanen culture, a sincere apology was more than sufficient for the Council to decide that Tanglanan would be reinstated as member of the Council of Elders representing Barangay Titik, Leon Postigo. Datu Isis accepted Tanglanan's humility with warm gestures. The event was brief but genuine. Timuay Mandih explained to them that the last part of the whole process would be making it public in the Barangay Covered Court of Titik, Sindangan, where almost 500 people and the entire Council of Elders from different Bawangs covered by the Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title (CADT) 075 awaited.

Public reconciliation program

Public reconciliation programThe public reconciliation program was filled with rejoicing, speeches of apology, and acceptance from Tanglanan and Datu Isis, respectively. The program also included a ritual called Daga (sealing the pact through wiping the blood of chicken on the palm with Sumaya leaves) and signing of the Resolution of Understanding for Reconciliation. The event was officially witnessed by the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) provincial director, Mrs. Belen Cahoyop, the Punong Barangay (Barangay Chairperson) Aresenio T. Pandic of Titik, Sindangan, Abel A. Moya of MPI and the entire Council of Elders from different Bawangs covered by the CADT 075.

Lessons and reflections

Even in the absence of a formal mediator, conflicts can be resolved given the right time and place and the willingness of the conflicting parties to initiate an informal dialogue that can lead to formal negotiation and reconciliation. This was the case in Sindangan. The passage of time allowed good intentions to prevail over bad.

The Sindangan conflict had three elements that enabled a resolution without a formal mediator. First, because Datu Isis and Barangay Captain Tanglanan are first cousins, the old adage "blood is thicker than water" (sug dugo mekpated melengket pa dig tubig in Subanen) certainly applied. Second, the fact that Datu Isis kept the lines of communication open, even during a conflict, served as a doorway to reconciliation. Third, instead of antagonistically dealing with the Tanglanan group, Datu Isis and his council preferred a peaceful and sober approach and welcomed the opportunity for reconciliation when Barangay Captain Tanglanan extended his hand as a gesture of asking forgiveness. The necessary skills for a peaceful resolution were developed and enhanced through PDSI and MPI's Resource-Based Conflict and Peacebuilding Training Program in which Datu Isis and others participated.

Being a resource-based conflict, it was evident that a factionalized Council of Elders endangered the indigenous communities. The divisions placed them in a disadvantageous position in negotiating favorable conditions with mining companies, government agencies and others who look to utilize resources within their ancestral domain. As they move forward, adequate negotiation and governing skills combined with a strong and unified Council of Elders can lead to strengthened indigenous leadership, which would in turn ensure that the collective rights of the indigenous communities are protected. With adequate knowledge and skills, the leaders of the Indigenous Peoples of Mindanao can assert that their rights and demands be truly reflected and enforced in legal and formal agreements in which they engage the government, corporations and other external parties.

Abelardo Moya is the Program Officer for MPI's Resource-Based Conflict and Peacebuilding Training Program.

  1. Datu means chieftain, a tribal leader of a certain ancestral domain.
  2. Barangay Captain is a village chief executive. A Barangay, the equivalent of a village, is a basic political unit of a town or a city.
  3. Pikumpungan Subanen Lupa Pusaka is an aggrupation of Subanen tribes organized together for filing the claim to their ancestral land.
  4. Megbebaya is a Subanen term for Creator or God.
  5. Timuay is a Subanen term for a tribal leader. In the Sindangan Subanen Tribe context, Datu is higher than a Timuay in terms of rank as a tribal leader.
  6. Bae is a rank of a female tribal leader.

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