It has a hostile reputation of being a killing field. But deep within its undisturbed landscape, Lawiga Datu is home to 10,000 hectares of fertile soil and watershed serving thousands of lives in the lowlands of Lanao del Norte in southern Philippines.
My journey to this restricted territory happened in July 2007. This after a friend, who is among the few who hold his ground on this forbidden territory, offered an invitation. For its intimidating notoriety, Lawiga Datu is never a dreamland even among the settlers of the province.
My trip started just before the break of dawn. I boarded a motorcycle at the town center in Tubod. My 2-hour morning ride via rough and deteriorated road ended in a secluded area in Palau village. It was the farthest point any vehicle could take us. Lawiga Datu could only be reached on foot.
I did not mind the bumpy and dusty ride. My attention was focused on the fate that awaits me on the prohibited territory. I could be killed or kidnapped. Or I could help rewrite the history of this forbidden mountain ranges.
We crossed over a river for 11 times in search of better trails. We literally traversed two huge mountains, endured an hour of cliff walking, and defied the staggering heat of the sun.
We reached Sitio Balimbingan at 3:00 in the afternoon. A handful of settlers welcomed us with a meal – our first in the day. The adrenaline rush on the mountain trail took away my exhaustion. I failed to notice that we were walking for more than seven hours.
We spent the night there to reserve our energy for our final ascend – a 6-kilometer forest trail with about 60-degree rising slope.
I spent few hours with resident-farmers around a bonfire to warm ourselves against the dropping temperature. The stories I heard were beyond fairy tales and far better the any fiction.
“I tried to apply for any kind of work, but no one will hire me because I can’t read and write,” said 19-year-old Robert Onga.
He discounted the threats and dangers of Lawiga Datu. For him, this is the only place that offers a good chance for his future. Robert was tending a 3-hectare farm. On a good harvest season, his farm could yield up to 1,000 sacks of yellow corn. Farming was a good option of livelihood there. The soil is fertile. The weather us cold.
Among the farmers that sit down with us, I noticed 16-year-old Peter Hagun. He was still a boy, playing catch-me with his dog. But he caught my attention when he joined us slinging on his shoulder an M-14 sniper rifle.
“Why do you need such high-power gun,” I asked.
“Our forest is the favorite hunting ground of lowlanders. Wild deer and pigs still roam this forest,” he said. He was the designated security guard of the night. His order, “To kill any unwanted stranger that may come in the middle of the night.”
The flaring fire that crackled in the darkened jungle; the voices of wild that break the silence of the forest; and the sounds of the waters that rush by the rivers – all but perfect elements of a hypnotic night that put me into a deep slumber.
I woke up at 5 a.m. It was the best time to start the ascend to the heart of Lawiga Datu. As I went out from the bunker, I found myself covered in fogs. It was cold that I shivered.
En route to a newly cultivated farmland, deep into shrubs and bushes, to a multilayered virgin forest, we trekked on foot for hours to scale the towering mountain ahead of us
Before 9 a.m., I found myself standing at the highest peak of this forbidden landscape. Beaming into my sweating face was the morning glory of sunrise.
At more than 1,800 meters above-sea-level, it overlooks almost 70 percent of Lanao del Norte. With nothing but the dancing trees and singing birds, Lawiga Datu offers simplicity, tranquility and harmony.
This gigantic natural icon stands side by side with Mt. Malindang, Mt. Sleeping Lady, Mt. Nunungan. On its north-east are the mountain ranges of Tangcal and Munai towns. Its wide valleys were speckled with Mt. Pendulunan, Mt. Karkum and Mt. Torongtorong.
Lawiga Datu sits within the disputed boundaries of the municipalities of Tubod, Magsaysay, and Tangcal towns in Lanao del Norte.
In the 90s, the area took stage in history when the Adamic Crusade, led by Edmund Pamintuan (also known as Kumander Lahi) flocked into this gigantic and undisturbed terrain.
Around 10,000 individuals from different parts of the country congregated there and established the biggest Adamic community in the Philippines.
Once unproductive, the land was transformed into an agriculture hub during their occupation. Farm products such as yellow corn, upland rice, vegetables, spices and wide arrays of fruits flooded into lowlands.
A weekly average of 15 truckloads of agricultural products was delivered to various commercial centers in Lanao del Norte and the neighboring provinces.
But in 1998, peace broke in the area when the Adamic settlement was attacked by Moro guerillas. Staged in the wee hours in the morning, the village was surprise by the raiding rebels. No police or military ever reached the area for rescue efforts. Towards the end of the day, the attack left hundreds of villagers dead.
During my visit, I stumbled various graves containing skeletons of people that fought against the aggression. I visited ruins that witnessed the unwritten history of this forsaken land. The efforts in establishing settlements here were wasted when the rebels razed the houses to the ground and destroyed every edifice in the area.
The assault fueled hatred between the Moro and Adamic settlers. For years, the area was a ‘no man’s land’. It turned into a warzone between Muslims and Adamic fighters. The hostilities ended the short-lived flourishing agriculture industry of Lawiga Datu
A handful of settlers stayed to protect the area against Moro invaders.
“These woodlands were showered by the bloods of our brothers and sisters who held their grounds against the invaders,” said my friend, who invited me there but wished not to be named.
POACHERS AND LOGGERS
Their vast timberlands were among the favorite targets of illegal loggers and poachers. Rich and influential people from the lowlands offered bribe money in exchange for their timbers.
As I listened deeper and deeper into the stories of their lives, the farmers there have one common dream — that they will be respected as individuals worthy of esteem and not as war-freak or bloodthirsty killer.
“We cannot let ourselves live in such bounty while the people in the lowland die. This forest is the last remaining watershed of Lanao del Norte,” he said.
Lawiga Datu is also among the biggest watersheds supporting Lake Lanao and Agus River – both vital components of power resources in Mindanao. It is the last remaining watershed the protects the people of Lanao del Norte against flash floods. And the people that remained there were the few surviving caretaker of the last environmental frontier of Lanao del Norte.
Few years later after my climb, the handful of uplanders who were protecting Lawiga Datu watershed succumbed to the pressures of the rich and powerful of Lanao del Norte, especially those involved in illegal logging activities. They brought their armed men in the area to sweep it from the remaining occupants.
In 2011 and 2017, tropical storms Lando and Vinta unleashed flash floods and set off landslides killing hundreds of residents of Lanao del Norte. Today, the entire province — flooded every rainy season — is being haunted by the ghost, nightmares, and terrors of the environment that erstwhile protecting its people.
(Note: This article was originally written and published in 2007)