Land and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding: The Peace Deal for Mindanao and its lessons for practitioners of environmental peacebuilding

by Paula Defensor Knack

Paula Defensor Knack is a is a former assistant secretary for Lands and Legislative Affairs at the Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources. She wrote on “ Legal Frameworks and Land Issues in Muslim Mindanao” in Land and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding and provides an update in this guest posting. NB: This material may not be published, broadcasted, rewritten or redistributed in whole or part without due reference to the author.

This blog provides a guide to peace-builders in analyzing developments in the Mindanao peace process that occurred since the publication of my chapter on “Legal Frameworks and Land Issues in Muslim Mindanao” (available here in pdf) in Land and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding. The recent signing of the Bangsamoro peace deal for Mindanao or the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) has received both praise and criticism. It is a work in progress as the CAB has been submitted to Congress for the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law.  This posting, therefore, represents a guide to peace-builders in understanding the implications of these latest developments .

This blog post is part of a continuing analysis, shared with the 700 or so members of the Environmental Peacebuilding group and policymakers, regarding each phase of this protracted conflict and its series of failed peace agreements. The analysis raises questions relevant to conflict studies, negotiation, mediation, law, political science, natural resources and environmental management, governance and peacebuilding, which may serve as guidance to both students and practitioners. A full-blown academic  analysis of this latest peace deal is to follow, but readers are also encouraged to familiarise themselves with the volumes in the Environmental Peacekeeping series related to land, natural resources and governance for case-studies providing lessons on effective post-conflict governance.

The Demands on a Peacebuilder

The work of peacebuilder can be complex, demanding and even life-threatening. The author has spoken to female field practitioners who were harassed by armed men and who have had their laptops confiscated and were detained for interviewing farmers. Were it not for the intervention of local leaders who knew their research project, they would no longer be alive. The author has travelled to conflict areas where both sides of the road are barren, destroyed by war, and where trucks with floodlights suddenly appear from the shadows to inspect every person that passes at gunpoint.

On another occasion, the author recalls attending a dialogue arranged by a Catholic bishop in the middle of a war torn area to address the proliferation of illegal land titles of various kinds in the area and ensuing conflict among warlords, feuding families, farmers and illegal settlers. It was a short meeting. When one warlord arrived and saw that another warlord was not present, he turned around immediately and left without uttering a word, despite the presence of all the other local leaders. Not a pleasant experience when one had to fly from a northern city to a southern city across the archipelago, stay overnight in a cramped room, then depart at dawn on an empty stomach to travel for hours on rough roads with armed escorts. The whole place was barren but pervaded by an eerie stillness. The once thriving farmlands, now full of huge potholes from explosions, were devoid of anything living. Even grass seemed afraid to grow.

Yet every effort towards peace is necessary and significant in improving the quality of life of human beings and promoting sustainable development in this planet. We promote peace because we value life and recognize that peace is necessary in order to accord dignity to human affairs. But it is always important to remember that those opposed to a peace plan are not necessarily our enemies. Peacebuilders should not be thin-skinned. We make it a personal issue when we show displeasure over criticism and lose patience. It is about the details of the peace agreement. In public relations, we do not repeat the criticism. Instead, we show the broader picture and argue for viable alternatives short of recurring violence. Peace plans often fall short of expectations but we can and must learn from them.

The professional experience of a peacebuilder is criticial to understanding land conflict. Expansion of territory is often met by opposition. Expanding a particular territory to benefit one group frequently comes at the expense of another group whose territory is diminished. Land conflicts are often lengthy and violent, involving groups with incompatible aims. Each land conflict has its own dynamics. While a comparative study may yield similar patterns, solutions to conflict cannot be imposed by transporting foreign ideas to local cultures. The value of nature, the relationship of one tribe to another differ. Thorough research and preparation are critical in order to understand context and gain trust from stakeholders. Consultation with those who know the history and values of the place is important. Knowing the preferred negotiation and mediation techniques in particular cultures, as well as the individuals who have moral ascendancy in local culture are also significant.

The Moro People and the Road to Peace 

My chapter in the land volume traces the history of the Moro people and their sultanate from ancient times to the policies imposed by colonial and post-colonial regimes in Mindanao that have resulted in the marginalization of the Moro people. It analyzes the socio-economic factors that promote poverty, violence, and demands for cultural identity and even secession. It is then followed by a summary of the peace agreements that unsuccessfully sought to resolve the conflict in the past.

Mindanao in general, and Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) in particular is rich in natural resources. Mindanao accounts for nearly half of the country’s gold reserves and 83 percent of its nickel reserves.Globally, the Philippines rank third in gold, fourth in copper, fifth in nickel and sixth in chromite deposits (my chapter contains a map of nickel and limestone deposits in the current autonomous region of Muslim Mindanao at page 468). The Philippine Mining Act of 1995 allows 100% foreign ownership of mining entities. For a long time, the law was opposed by activists, environmentalists, and indigenous peoples. The war in Mindanao must be seen as not just a struggle over secession and cultural identity, but also a conflict over natural resources.

The Framework Agreement

In The Diplomat, the events that followed after the publication of the book chapter are summarized by the author:

Hailed as a historic agreement, the latest deal with the MILF has some serious problems.

Last week, amid considerable fanfare, the Philippine government announced the signing of (yet another) historic peace deal, the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB), with the rebel group Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a breakaway group from the secessionist Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in Mindanao. The agreement would create an autonomous Bangsamoro political entity that is bigger than the current Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao.[1] The term Bangsamoro does not appear in the constitutional provision on Muslim Mindanao, but supposedly refers to the Muslim population in Mindanao, also known as the Moro. Brokered by Malaysia, the CAB follows a long list of failed peace deals to settle the armed conflict in Mindanao, which spans hundreds of years.

From the beginning of the peace process, however, all has not been well. Immediately after the Framework Agreement for the CAB was signed two years ago, it was met by strong opposition from constitutionalists, other armed groups, indigenous peoples, and concerned citizens nationwide, and was followed by two major armed conflicts with the MNLF, in Sabah, Malaysia and in the city of Zamboanga in the southern Philippines.

The first red flag appears on reading the parties to the agreement: The deal has been made only with the MILF, and excludes the secessionist MNLF, private armies, and paramilitary civilian groups and militias roaming the area. It also excludes the heirs of the Sultanate of Sulu, which ruled the territory as a thriving empire in ancient times, and the indigenous tribes whose rights are protected by a UN convention and who also claim the territory as their ancestral domain. In rejecting the peace deal, the armed followers of the sultanate in August of last year attacked Sabah in Malaysia, which it tried to reclaim. Sabah is being leased by Malaysia as successor to the British North Borneo Company, which leased it from the sultanate in 1878. Malaysia claims it was ceded, yet it continues to make annual lease payments to the sultanate.

The MNLF supported the sultanate’s followers and quickly proclaimed Mindanao independent, with Nuri Misuari as president of the Bangsamoro Republik, the proposed federal state that encompasses the whole island grouping of Mindanao, including non-Muslim provinces and cities, Sabah, and Sarawak in Malaysia’s Borneo. Malaysia retaliated with air strikes that prompted the rebels to retreat into the jungle. A crackdown on hundreds of Filipino migrant workers who support Malaysia’s oil and petroleum industry followed, with some fleeing back to Mindanao. Ironically, Malaysia had previously supplied the rebels with arms and munitions, for use against the Philippine government. A book published by the Office of Strategic and Special Studies, the think tank of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, suggested that Malaysia is using a deal with the MILF to suppress the MNLF, which Malaysia had previously funded and trained.

Months later, a faction of the MNLF led by Misuari launched another attack, this time in Zamboanga, a southern city with a predominantly Christian population, and took hostages. According to the city mayor, Isabelle Climaco-Salazar, “The main target by the MNLF in encroaching Zamboanga City is to raise their banner of independence at city hall.” About 200 people were killed, tens of thousands displaced and thousands of homes destroyed by fire. Arrest warrants for rebellion and human rights violations were issued against Misuari and MNLF leaders.

A second red flag appears to lie in the lack of provision for total disarmament of the MILF. The CAB calls for the decommissioning of weapons before a joint international and national group. Yet four commanders of the MILF, with about 4,000 followers, have refused to accept that requirement and returned to the MNLF fold, vowing to resume their secession bid. For its part, the MNLF views the peace deal between the Philippine government and the MILF as a violation of the 1996 peace agreement brokered by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

Another serious problem is the legal framework itself. The CAB is almost a carbon copy of the failed peace deal of 2008, the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD), signed by then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo with the MILF, which created a new juridical entity similar to the CAB. It was struck down by the Supreme Court that same year, on the grounds that it was unconstitutional. The court may well vote the same way on the CAB. Both the CAB and the failed MOA-AD provide for the expansion of the current Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) embodied in the Philippine Constitution. The proposed territory consists of the current autonomous region and encroaches partly on non-Muslim regions. Blood feuds among the Muslims often spill over into areas that are predominantly Christian. Including the latter in the proposed Bangsamoro territory is expected to produce more bloodshed and heighten the conflict between Muslims and Christians.

In the MOA-AD case, the Philippine Supreme Court also ruled that the president does not have the authority to delegate the power to create a political entity. The court additionally noted that there had been no prior consultation with the affected areas. Father Joaquin Bernas S.J., a leading constitutionalist, noted that a memorandum of agreement cannot cede territory of a sovereign state that requires a constitutional amendment. That issue persists in the present peace deal. The chair of the Senate Committee on Constitutional Amendments, Revision of Codes and Laws, Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago, points out that the provision violates the principle of constitutional supremacy and that the new political entity is actually a sub-state with exclusive powers, including matters of authority and jurisdiction that run contrary to the Constitution. The Transition Commission created under the peace deal is meanwhile tasked with amending the Philippine Constitution as necessary to accommodate the peace deal, which again assumes a power that the president does not possess.

All of which raises a question: Where’s the peace?

Reviewing the Tasks of a Peacebuilder

Why is the Bangsamoro peace deal meeting opposition from various sectors prior even to the drafting of the Basic Law in Congress? Can the Constitution, the fundamental law of the land, be changed to accommodate the interest of one group, while another armed group is determined to perpetuate a war of secession? Are there benefits in dealing with the biggest armed group and allowing this armed group to negotiate peace for all within the territory? Can territorial sovereignty be the subject of negotiation?

To answer the questions, we review the tasks of a peacebuilder in the face of current developments in the Bangsamoro peace deal. A peacebuilder must set a realistic goal and must know how to get the goal accepted in a given socio-political system where the surrounding circumstances might be chaotic – residents have been displaced, illegal settlers are present, homes destroyed, the environment damaged, natural resources pillaged, armed groups not yet disbanded, and criminal groups rife.

What particular concept of peace is going to be utilized in peacebuilding?  Is it the absence of war or is it the absence of poverty that leads to war? Whose concept of peace is it? Is it the peacebuilder’s or is it the definition of peace by warring groups and other inhabitants? What about the concept of peace of those who have been displaced decades ago? Can they still reclaim ancestral domain or privately owned land that is now the subject of another title? Who is the preferred occupant?

Peacebuilding, requires a multidisciplinary approach in understanding the roots of conflict, the actors involved, the natural resources at stake, the legal frameworks, and complementary governance at various levels.  Often peacebuilding is the product of compromise. But who offers the compromise ? Who holds the trust of people in the community? Is it better if the facilitators are foreigners? What if the facilitators have vested interests in the peace which might be in conflict with the interests of the residents? How is the compromise offered?  Is it legal? Does it correspond to customary practice? How can such compromise acquire legitimacy and acceptance? Are reparations part of the solution? Should prosecution for war crimes be pursued despite risks to peace? These are some questions that face peacebuilders in the complex task of presenting compromises and seeking their acceptance without breaching the trust of the parties.

Looking Forward

In a more extensive journal article that will be published a few months from now, an analysis of various legal issues in the Bangsamoro peace deal will be discussed in-depth.  The Bangsamoro peace plan will have been presented to Congress and congressional deliberations on a Basic Law for the Bangsamoro region will have started. The most controversial provisions deal with territorial sovereignty, DDR, wealth-sharing, and foreign investments. Further developments will also be analyzed. In 2016, the Philippines will hold national elections and a new president will be elected. Can Congress finish its work of passing the Bangsamoro Basic Lawn by then and will it be acceptable to majority of Filipinos? Or will rapid approval be dictated by the need of legislators to obtain campaign funds  from the administration? On the other hand, should the opinion of voters dictate the manner in which legislators will tackle the proposed Basic Law? Time will tell as we return to these questions again in the future.




[1] See map of proposed Bangsamoro core territory as opposed to the current Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) in Springtime of the Nations or here at the Mindanao State University.

4 responses to “Land and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding: The Peace Deal for Mindanao and its lessons for practitioners of environmental peacebuilding

  1. Pingback: Announcing a new book and guest posts on post-conflict land management and peacebuilding | TerraNullius

  2. Thank you for allowing the guest post ! I hope that other peacebuilders will post their experiences too and try to answer the guide questions.

  3. Sorry, I think their replies are in the Environmental Peacebuilding platform, for those who want to share….thanks

  4. Pingback: TN mellows out at five | TerraNullius

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