Planting the initial steps towards achieving peace is the most difficult phase in the peacebuilding process. However, reaping the gains from the efforts initiated can be rewarding, as seen in Barangay Matagabong in the Municipality of Ampatuan. Datu Teng Dilangalen Kusain, an MILF commander from a powerful Muslim family, had a competing land claim against two Christians, SPO2 Larry Mileton and Atty. Gary Gargaran – both of which are also farm owners and businessmen. Some portions of the contested 139-hectare land claimed by Datu Teng were occupied by Mileton and Gargaran’s farmlands with a size of 5 hectares each. Datu Teng claimed that he had a title approved in 1959, while the other parties claimed that they had a title approved in 1963 with the same lot number.

During the harvest period in February 2017, Datu Teng tried to stop the harvest because he demanded a percentage of the harvest from the farm owners. Fearful of Datu Teng’s armed men who positioned along the farm areas of Mileton, Gargaran and other Christian and Muslim families, the farm workers discontinued their harvest activity.

Upon knowing what happened, Barangay Captain Datukan Masukat of Matagabong approached Muslim Traditional Religious Leader Abusama Agao, an MNLF Commander and at the same time a barangay kagawad, Kagawad Galib Dalundong and Purok Leader Guiamadel Buyoganand asked for their assistance to negotiate with the conflicting parties. As a response, the negotiating group pleaded with the conflicting parties to desist from fighting. The group also advised the parties to give the municipality and barangay copies of their supporting documents as their reference for the next steps to be taken. Because of the negotiating group’s calm manner, Datu Teng’s group relented and left the area.

Since then, series of formal and separate informal meetings with Datu Teng and with the other parties were initiated by Traditional Religious Leader Agao together with Muslim Kagawad Bai Salipia Masukat, and Christian Kagawad Fe Fornales. Traditional Religious Leader Agao also coordinated with the Sangguniang Bayan (SB) of Ampatuan, Philippine National Police (PNP), and the 57th Infantry Batallion (IB) of the military. Supporting documents were gathered from both parties, such as copies of land titles and the decision of the Shariah Court of MILF from Camp Darapanan in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao as reference of the barangay and SB in coming-up with decision. Because of these efforts, the conflicting parties agreed to dialogue.

Finally, on 24 April 24 2017, the final dialogue between the conflicting parties happened. This was initiated by the Barangay LGU of Matagabong headed by Chairman Masukat, Land Conflict Committee of the SB Chaired by SB Member Banaga, 11th Mechanized Company headed by Captain Edgel D. Vera, PA and the Office of the Mayor of Ampatuan. This was also attended by TRLs Agao, Fornales and TRL Bai Patalaga Mangelen. In the discussion, they agreed that while the holder of the original land title is still being determined, the land will be divided amongst the parties involved. A total of 12 hectares would be occupied by Datu Teng, and 6 hectares each for Gargaran and Mileton. It was also agreed that the SB Land Conflict Committee will review the land titles of the conflicting parties to check the validity of the documents and identify which party has the right to permanently occupy and own the land.

On 21 May 2017, TRLs Agao, Fornales and Masukat together with Barangay Chairman Masukat of Matagabong accompanied again the 11th Mechanized Company headed by Captain de Vera and the conflicting parties to implement the agreements.

In this whole process, the Traditional Religious Leader applied effective dialogue and communication in what could have escalated into a violent encounter. The Traditional Religious Leaders also learned that securing relevant supporting documents really helped in building a case and resolving an issue. The process also helped in avoiding the loss of economic opportunities of other residents in the barangay.