FAST BACKWARD: Davis’ 1930 visit in Davao

The name Dwight Filley Davis Sr. may not ring a bell to most people but to tennis aficionados he is remembered as the tennis player who founded in 1900 the Davis Cup, a global tilt that has so far produced a doubles champion for the Philippines. He was also the country’s American governor-general (1929-32) after leaving his position as the US secretary of war.

As the country’s American administrator, Davis, along with son and namesake, visited Davao in 1930 as part of his familiarization tour of the colony. It was deemed a pioneering trip for a government executive like him. At the time, the American Chamber of Commerce Journal reported in its September 1930 edition, Davao district was described as having “an area of 7,574 square miles, 4,847,185 acres, with 16 people to the square mile.”

Davis, a keen bystander, made two interesting comments during his trip, namely the utter neglect of the natives by the government, described as the “blackest page in American history in the Philippines,” and the land grabbing of indigenous lands. Without delay, he relayed his observations to Honorio Ventura, then interior secretary under the American administration.

His remark apparently triggered an immediate response in Manila. Though three decades late, the idea of opening reservations for the natives was broached. But the honest to goodness execution of the concept, however, was only pushed seriously in 1974 with the creation of the Office of the Presidential Assistant on National Minorities (PANAMIN). Twelve years later, under the first Aquino leadership, the Office for Southern Cultural Communities (OSCC) and the Office for Northern Cultural Communities (ONCC) were instituted.

The idea of creating reservations was seen by Davis as a way of stopping the incursion by Japanese investors in regions in and around the gulf of Davao. The creeping intrusion was viewed as “an international problem,” and the reservations were “a decent measure in behalf of the aborigines.” His observations were first-hand, and he got them from the nightly huddles he had with the tribes along the wilderness. So impressed was he in meeting the tribes that the journal called the Davao-Agusan region as “a veritable laboratory for the ethnologist,” adding:

“One tribe is as modern as an army, it bestows sartorial insignia for every man one of its braves exterminates: the dress of one chief who talked with Governor Davis attested a total bag of 134-evidently with no more observance of the game laws than a Christian army would exercise, when God got on its side, and with plenty of orthodox potting from cover.”

Targeting land-grabbers, consequently, resulted in the hunting of Japanese who were poaching of tribal clearings. The journal even cited an incident where a land grabber was ambushed:

“A Japanese, bent over his hemp-stripping, suddenly feels a crick in his back, an arrow from ambush, or a spear–then he doesn’t feel anything, not even the hemp rubbish piled over him,” adding: “That’s not a very nice game. But it isn’t any nicer to see your lands taken away from you and given to strange immigrants, by laws you cannot read nor understand–with which sharpers stand ready to swindle you at every turn.”

The agrarian problem eventually reached the 1934 Constitutional Convention where Davao delegate Pantaleon Pelayo Sr., on September 20, 1934, exposed local politicians, mostly lawyers, for conniving with the Japanese in acquiring lands through marriage, dummy, or harassment. His feisty expose eventually led the convention to institutionalize a provision that makes ownership of land by foreigners as prohibited.

The land-grabbing of indigenous lands, sad to say, continues to this day despite the issuance of a certificate of ancestral domain title (CADT). A visit to the Davao-Bukidnon boundary, which has slowly been turned into a high-end resort country, tells a complete story.

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