Several years ago, Barangay Saniag – a remote barangay of Ampatuan Municipality in Maguindanao province and home to Indigenous Peoples (IPs), Muslims and Christians – was known for its abundant natural resources. These include, among others, the rainforest which serves as the main source of livelihood of the Teduray and Lambangian IPs due to its abundance of rattan, wild animals, birds, timber, flowers, mushrooms, medicinal plants, and Saniag river that flows at the heart of the barangay. This river has been the main water source of residents for washing clothes and dishes, bathing for both people and animals, irrigation for the rice fields, and for the ablution (prayer process) of Muslims. Overall, the barangay’s cool weather and fertile soil made it as one of the main sources of agricultural products in the municipality. IPs claim this area as their ancestral domain.

Things drastically changed as time passed. The residents’ accessibility to the natural resources was limited by the encroachment in the mountain areas by a logging company. When caught inside the forest area, the residents are either apprehended or killed. The entry of outsiders inside the barangay also contributed to the gradual loss of control of the IPs to their ancestral land.

Worse, Saniag River became contaminated due to the growing population. It became polluted since the last 5-8 years because households dispose garbage and defecate directly to the river. Unfortunately, violators were no longer penalized when the barangay leadership changed at that time.

As a result, residents especially children got sick. Outbreak of diseases such as dengue and skin diseases became common. Water was no longer safe for drinking and bathing. Livelihoods were likewise affected because of the decrease in the number of fishes caught; moreover, the fishes were no longer safe for consumption.

The series of activities attended by the women and youth leaders under the Applying Binding, Bonding and Bridging for Peace (A3B4P) in Mindanao Project helped them realize the urgency of the situation. Women leaders came up with an action plan during the Gender and Peacebuilding Orientation and the youth leaders formulated its peace agenda during the Joint Interfaith Youth Camp. In these plans, the river clean-up was identified as one of the activities to address this issue.

Thus, on 23 June 2018, women and youth leaders of the A3B4P Project – who are also officers and members of the Tri-People Women for Development and Tri-people Youth of Saniag – spearheaded a bayanihan clean-up drive covering Puroks 3 and 4 to save the river from contamination and prevent the occurrence of diseases. The said clean-up drive was participated by around 50 residents composed of barangay officials, women and youth, parents and farmers. Women and youth provided root crops and vegetables while the A3B4P project provided food for lunch and snacks. Cleanliness in the barangay and proper waste disposal, through the installation of signages in strategic areas near the river, were further promoted.

These were followed by other clean-up drives in the public market and school grounds where more people including residents from the farthest sitios of the barangay were encouraged to participate. Since then, the clean-up drive has become a monthly activity in the barangay.

The community’s endeavor highlighted the importance of doing a collective approach in resolving a community issue, even if there is weak governance in the barangay. Moreover, this joint peace activity lessened discrimination, especially against IPs who were often perceived as the perpetrators of improper waste disposal as they are the ones living beside the river. Because they worked together in the clean-up, this gave residents an opportunity to be more open and accepting of other groups.