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Tongtong: The basis of ‘alternative’ dispute resolution
by Jane Cadalig

Thomas Liwan of Barangay Pico in La Trinidad, Benguet does not hold a degree in mediation, but for years, his job has been concentrated on reconciling conflicting parties.

Liwan, 64, has been dealing with numerous individuals involved in disputes. His job requires him to be objective so he has to pay attention to the accounts of both the complainant and the respondent involved in conflicts that range from petty civil cases like physical injuries to the more serious ones such as land disputes and marital conflicts.

He could not remember how many misunderstandings were referred to him and his colleagues for resolution. What’s clear to him is that several of the misunderstandings his group has dealt with were settled amicably.

Liwan heads the lupong tagapamayapa of Barangay Pico. Lupons are administrative bodies created under the Local Government Code to make the barangay justice system or the katarungang pambarangay work. Lupon members are the modern versions of the age-old council of elders.

Barangay Pico is a hall of famer in the Lupong Tagapamayapa Incentives Awards (LTIA) program of the Department of the Interior and Local Government. It won for three consecutive years from 2002 to 2004.

Conventional, not alternative
But even before the incorporation of lupons into the country’s system of governance, the indigenous peoples in the Cordillera have long established a method of resolving disagreements outside the halls of the courts. These methods are in fact the basis of what we regard today as the "alternative" method of dispute resolution.

Benguet for one has the tongtong council, a body composed of elders in the village whose main function is to meet and decide on conflicts involving individuals, groups, tribes, or families.

Virginia Fianza, a retired educator and now considered an elder of Barangay Pico, said tongtong is a consultation process where the conflicting parties are summoned for a meeting. In that gathering, the cause of the misunderstanding is identified – each party giving their side – until a settlement is reached with elders giving their words of wisdom.

If cases involved problems between two villages, the tongtong of each village would meet to settle their differences. The elders’ decisions have the force of the law and changes can only happen upon the agreement of majority of the people during the gathering, according to researcher June Brett-Prill in her paper, "A survey on Cordillera individual political institutions."

Fianza agreed with Prill’s assertion. "Proceedings of the tongtong are not written but parties do not need documents as proofs because they respect the elders’ decision. The people consider the ruling sacred," she said.

Extreme regard is given to the elder’s decision given the fact that they are considered the wisest men, the most experienced in the community.

In penalizing the offender, the elders also assess the gravity of the wrongdoing or the dispute being settled. For civil cases like physical injuries, asking the offender to butcher an animal is one of the customary methods of penalizing him. For more serious cases, the offender could be asked to compensate the complainant with materials that have higher value like family heirlooms or other real properties like lots.

Sometimes, merely tossing the coin would suffice if both parties agree, Fianza said. As conflicts are often settled amicably, the victim and the defendant have nothing to lose. They just have to agree with the conditions or the impositions made during the tongtong.

Public service
Elders are not paid for their job. They do this as a form of public service. Their compensation is the prestige they gain and the respect they earn from the villagers as they perform their duties as tongtong council members.

Liwan said that compared to the elders, lupon members who dispense similar functions receive payments, albeit these come in the form of honoraria.

"We receive allowances. Just enough to cover our transportation expenses," he said. But he said the amount allotted to each lupon council depends on the financial capability of the barangay. There are some villages that cannot provide allowances to their lupons as their budget could not afford it.

"But every lupon member understands this. We do not demand that we be paid for our services. At the end of the day, nothing is more fulfilling than knowing you have done something good for your fellow citizens and to your community," Liwan said.

Culture preservation
Conflict resolutions at the barangay levels have not only strengthened the power of community elders, it is also an avenue for the indigenous peoples to document and eventually preserve their customary practices.

Elders need not worry that the tongtong process would vanish, like the other indigenous practices.

The system is now adopted as one of the means by which local government units, particularly the barangays, can help facilitate the delivery of justice and also a way by which the indigenous practice is recorded.

Proper documentation is among the criteria devised by the DILG in the search for the best lupon. Also evaluated are the creativity and resourcefulness of the lupon, including innovative techniques like incorporating traditional modes of conflict resolution. Cris Rimando, DILG information officer, said every barangay in the Cordillera is an automatic nominee to the regional LTIA, which aims to recognize and grant incentives to the lupons for their contributions in attaining the objectives of the barangay judiciary system.

The performance and accomplishments of the lupons are evaluated by committees organized at the regional, provincial, and municipal levels. The efficiency of their operations, effectiveness in securing the katarungang pambarangay objectives, creativity, and resourcefulness of the mediators have greater pull in the overall score of the contendinding village.

However not all could manage to document their proceedings, which limits the number of villages participating in the LTIA.

Rimando said there are various barangays that employ indigenous ways of resolving conflicts but are not being recognized.

The reason, she said, is lack of documentation. She said the DILG had been encouraging barangay lupons to be keen in documenting their proceedings to improve their chances of winning and for them to also make their practices recognized. In Benguet, barangays Pico in La Trinidad and Ambassador in Tublay hold the hall of famer distinction.
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