Beauty and madness

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By Arnold Alamon

Wrapped in Grey

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

I WRITE this under a canopy of pine trees with a hot cup of coffee in this quaint little cafe in the middle of nowhere. Between the three provinces of Bukidnon, Cotabato, and Davao is a magical place that seem to have been lifted from the scenery of the Swiss Alps.

You have green rolling hills awash in sunlight and you could easily pretend that you are part of the von Trapp family from the Sound of Music. As a stupid lowlander used to smog and dust, the cold and fresh mountain air unfortunately give me the desire to pollute. So what I imagine instead is Marlboro country with matching spaghetti western music.

To reach this place, it will take you four to five hours from Cagayan de Oro through the heartland of Bukidnon. It is a long and arduous ride through the canyons and great agricultural plains of this province which in itself is like a mini-exposure trip to the economy that makes possible the wealth concentrated on its trading centers. You want to know where the money that paid for those fast and huge SUVs plying the Sayre Highway? You can see the source of all that wealth in the tired and weather-beaten faces of the plantation workers riding on the back of the sugarcane and pineapple haulers.

Further on is the mountain pass traversing the three provinces and on its highest point are a slew of mountain resorts and private log cabins offering cool mountain living for the lucky few. As a stark reminder to the hidden realities of the place are military detachments and checkpoints all over.

Also on strategic locations this Christmas season are positioned an army of kids where vehicles are forced to slow down because of potholes and other road indentations. They stretch out their hands while chasing after vehicles. And this goes on from one little sitio after another that at some point it becomes terribly disconcerting.

Apparently, it has become a tradition in this place. Which also tells you that despite the many decades of exclusion, the lumads remain at the margins of mainstream society.

A couple of years ago in a similar road trip through this zigzag road, there I was driving lazily through the highway when a burning 10-wheeler tractor head and its trailer appeared ahead blocking the road. Shots were then fired as I stopped about a hundred meters away. I learned from residents who also went out to the streets alarmed that it was an operation by the rebels as enforcement of their capability to extract taxes in areas they have control. Fearing that the truck will explode anytime, it took a brave colorum van to lead through the steep embankment on the side of the road an hour later for us to get through.

The view of the valley below is breath-taking. Majestic mountains and rolling hills as far as your eye can see. The quality of the light in this place is clear and bright far from the smog-filtered sunlight below. The air is of course crisp and clean with a hint of mint and it is free but the land is not. Blood has been spilled for decades for fertile land that seemed endless.

There is great beauty in this place but also great violence and sadness. This is after all frontier land for us who came from the Visayas and the North hoping to get our piece of earth upon which we will built lives anew. It was the promised land for the landless only to find out that landlords and corporations have already staked a claim for most of the land driving the lumads and the new migrants to the margins.

So this is the heartland of Mindanao. Not only is this place the source of the headwaters of the mighty Pulangi river and the Cagayan and Mandulog rivers, but the contradictions in this place also reverberate down Surigao, Compostela Valley, and Maguindanao, and even as far as Zamboanga and Cotabato. There is so much abundance here but also a lot of want which is mind-boggling.

Which is the story of Mindanao come to think of it. All of us here are ensnared by both her beauty and this unfortunate man-made madness.

Published in the Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro newspaper on December 31, 2013.


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