In Mindanao, the southernmost island region of the Philippines, armed groups have struggled against the central government since at least the time of Spanish colonial rule. Setbacks have marred the implementation of a 2014 peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, such as the failure by the Filipino Congress to pass a key provision regarding governance of the current autonomous region in February 2016. Such complications have heightened fears of renewed violence and continued conflict. Catholic Relief Services directly addresses a key root cause of the ongoing violence through its Applying Binding, Bonding, and Bridging to Land Conflict (A3B).
CRS Program Manager of the Peace and Reconciliation Program Myla Leguro describes land disputes among Muslims, Christians, and indigenous groups as a primary driver of conflict and violence in Mindanao. A history of Christian settler colonialism and systematic land grabs through bureaucratic and legal mechanisms are significant contributing factors to intercommunal tensions and the insurgency of Moro Muslims against the government of the Philippines. Nonetheless, the conflict in Mindanao is frequently described as religiously-motivated, underscoring the dangers of reductive culturalist explanatory frameworks of the relations between religion and violence. Such frameworks ignore the relevance of a deep historical analysis of, in this case, patterns of colonial exploitation associated with Christians.
Colonialization manifests itself through a variety of forms, and one such form is its legal and bureaucratic logic. The colonial infrastructure’s legacy of privileging Christian settlers and a commercial (now neoliberal) agenda over and against Muslims and other indigenous communities undergird contemporary land disputes at the epicenter of the broader conflict in Mindanao. Leguro reads such disputes as loci of “collision” between competing modern property law and traditional conceptions of land ownership. Escalating land disputes over the past three decades, she adds, have deepened fear and prejudice among communities and have contributed to social disintegration and violence. Further, outcomes of judicial mechanisms can themselves turn into drivers of conflict because such mechanisms tend to determine winners and losers and refrain from a more communal restorative approach to justice that takes into account multiple stakeholders. Hence, CRS enters as a tradition-grounded organization that sees its involvement in inter-religious action in terms of active accompaniment through strong partnerships with local actors and NGOs.
Before turning to the analysis of the A3B program, which was implemented in Mindanao in an effort to reduce land dispute related violence, one needs to dwell on a few themes that arise from an examination of the historical foundations of Muslim-Christian hostility and (small and large-scale) violence. Modern Filipino history is marked by the experience of colonialism and its technologies of domination. Around the world modernity, as enshrined in colonial administrations and legal mechanisms and codes (for example, property rights), has been a source of conflict and structural and cultural violence—including ethnic cleansing, the displacement of populations through bureaucratic maneuvering or actual force.
In Mindanao, Spanish and U.S. colonial administrations invited predominantly Christian settlers from crowded Luzon and Visayas islands and provided them with land titles, disadvantaging indigenous Muslims and non-Christians who were gradually stripped of traditionally-held communal lands and political systems. Hence, land and property rights are not merely “legal” issues but also communal issues laden with sociocultural meanings and drawn along ethnoreligious lines. This case raises a variety of questions including whether the role of traditional (religious) authorities is oppositional to a legal-bureaucratic rationale. How can one conceptualize the relations and tensions between seemingly competing sources of authority? How can historical memories of displacement through colonial modernization be redressed and what might be the roles of inter- and intra-religious work in such processes? In the case of Mindanao, the dynamics of violence spanning over decades enhanced intra- and inter-group religioethnic tensions. Thus, religioethnic constructive engagements constitute necessary (albeit not sufficient) mechanisms for building inclusive societal relations and reducing violence.
The A3B project, or the three-step approach for reconciliation through Binding, Bonding, and Bridging activities, cultivates alternatives to violence on (inter)personal, communal, and municipal levels, Leguro explains. Binding activities focus on self-transformation, including trauma healing and dialoguing. Bonding activities seek to strengthen intra-group relations, operating with a theory of change that suggests that improved intra-group relational patterns will benefit inter-group action and dialogue and capacity to negotiate land disputes. Within this space, traditional and religious leaders (TRLs) are trained to act as peace facilitators. Bonding activities also involve TRLs leading group celebrations and land conflict mapping and analysis (hence intra-group activities). Bridging activities eventually cultivate inter-group trust, reinforced by activities such as interfaith celebrations, implementing community-based reconciliation projects, joint legal literacy trainings, and inter-group dialoguing. The cumulative desired outcome of A3B is a set of pragmatic and implementable mutually agreed-upon negotiated resolutions that can garner support from stakeholders at the local, municipal, and regional government levels. Indeed, the accomplishments of A3B, implemented in the course of 3 years from 2012 to 2015 by CRS and local partners in 20 districts (barangays) in 4 municipalities in Central Mindanao, are impressive. These accomplishments include the resolution of 35 land conflict cases by TRLs working alongside Lupong Tagapamayapa (LTs or village pacification committees), the mobilization of 143 TRLs as community peace facilitators involved in the formation of 4 municipal interfaith networks, the completion of 379 binding and bonding activities involving 5,991 individuals, the completion of 18 community-based reconciliation projects, training of 293 LTs from 20 barangays in peacebuilding and conflict mediation, and the establishment by CRS’ partner organizations of four municipal inter-agency working groups facilitating connections between horizontal community-based work and vertical policy support. This suggests a strong potential relationship between community-based 3B activities and strengthening of governance and cultivation of democratic values and practices.
The many outcomes of the A3B project in Central Mindanao reveal the complex ways in which community, identity, and authority play out in post-colonial conflict zones. They also highlight the ways in which religion and religious actors can participate in binding, bonding, and bridging activities that contend with and innovate within the otherwise colluding forces of judicial mechanisms (with their colonial baggage) and the experiences of communal disruption and divisions along ethnoreligious fault lines. Indeed, in Mindanao inter-identity or bridging activities (including the formation of the interfaith networks) among Christians, Muslims, and other indigenous people focus on mediating land disputes, a secular conflict at the intersection of modern legal constructs of property rights, histories of targeted colonial displacement, and long-term deepening of post-colonial inter-group hostilities, stereotyping, and othering.
Because traditional modalities of authority were deeply disrupted in the colonial era, the A3B focused on training and mobilizing local TRLs and LTs as agents of peacebuilding and land dispute mediation. Religious actors, therefore, are featured here as pivotal agents in conflict transformation from below, bearing synergistic relations with policy and governmental decision making levels. However, their centrality does not bear so much on theological and hermeneutical work but rather on bolstering their traction within and beyond their communities and enhancing their conflict resolution skills.
Augmenting the authority of TRLs and LTs, not surprisingly, also carried some spillover effects. According to Leguro, TRLs and LTs began to apply conflict resolution skills to non-land related conflicts. During the course of the A3B program, 3B was applied to family disputes and other types of conflicts. Likewise, community-based reconciliation projects influenced collaboration over other local development initiatives designed specifically to benefit women and children. Improving health facilities and services and installing water systems in barangays, for instance, increase women’s ability to partake in communal activities because they do not have to spend as much time fetching water. The interconnections between 3B’s emphasis on TRLs and LTs and the development agenda highlight religion’s mainstreaming in conflict analysis and sustainable peacebuilding processes. Enhancing traditional authorities and local patterns of reconciliation as well as facilitating various bridging activities to challenge other-ing and reinforce governance capacities contribute to and reinforce development foci on women’s empowerment.
Some gendered aspects of the A3B project were cause for concern, however. Notably, the focus on TRLs and LTs already presupposes and builds upon men’s authority within their local communities, as their credibility and influence are necessary starting points for boosting their capacities through training and 3B activities to function as “connectors” in inter-group efforts to mediate land conflicts. Yet the fact that all TRLs and LTs are male complicates the aspiration to establish mechanisms for more inclusion of women in 3B activities and other public roles and even positions of authority—all of which are crucial building blocks for cultivating inclusive societies and advancing an expansive view of development. Due to lessons from this project, CRS has expanded its understanding of “community leaders” to intentionally include women in 3B activities and affect highly male-dominated conflict resolution structures. Future 3b processes may also directly engage topics of gender identity in addition to religious and cultural identity.
A3B, therefore, raises questions concerning how the strengthening of religious male authorities furnishes resources for moving beyond a collision course of land disputes through intra- and inter-communal relationship-building. However, while potentially offering an avenue for constructive engagement over land issues, an approach that relies upon enhanced male-dominated religious authority–despite some positive spillover effects to the domain of development work, with its focus on greater quality of life for women and girls–reinforces gender inequality and the perpetuation of patriarchal sociocultural patterns. Future iterations may better realize a vision of women, youth, and children as actors of change in and of themselves. Nonetheless, the example of interreligious action in Mindanao illumines the complex ways in which religious and communal leaders can transform into agents of peacebuilding and social cohesion.
 Vellema, Sietze, and Francisco Lara Jr. “The Agrarian Roots of Contemporary Violent Conflict in Mindanao, Southern Philippines.” Journal of Agrarian Change 11, no. 3 (2011): 298-320.
Featured photo courtesy of Catholic Relief Services and CRS A3B Project Team.