- At age twenty-five, Abadiano wandered into Paitan, Mindoro Oriental where he started the Tugdaan (Seedbed) Center for Human and Environmental Development, now a thriving institution with classrooms and meeting halls, a library, science laboratory, preschool, and a Mangyan cultural resource center serving hundreds of Mangyans of all ages.
- In 2001, Abadiano led the efforts of the Assisi Development Foundation in Mindanao to assist hundreds of thousands of people, uprooted by war, to return home and re-establish normal lives, developed a rehabilitation program that integrated social welfare, governance, and livelihood measures with peace building and helped set up fifty-four Sanctuaries of Peace across Mindanao.
- Abadiano connected with Mindanao’s indigenous groups, or Lumad, and founded the ILAWAN Center for Peace and Sustainable Development and ILAWAN’s Pamulaan Training Center which now provides a culture-based education program like that of Tugdaan.
- The RMAF board of trustees recognizes “Abadiano’s steadfast commitment to indigenous Filipinos and their hopes for peace and better lives consonant with their hallowed ways of life.”
Given the clamor of national politics in the Philippines and the dominant presence of Manila in the nation’s consciousness, it is easy to lose sight of the country’s great size and diversity. But in the highlands across the Philippine archipelago live several dozen groups of indigenous peoples whose ways of life stand in contrast to those of the lowland and urban majority. Although theirs is not wholly a world apart, it is a world still on the margins of the country’s major political, economic, and cultural systems. As a young man, Benjamin Abadiano discovered this world and became part of it.
Born in 1963, Abadiano was raised by his grandparents and educated at Xavier University in Mindanao. A mentor there introduced him to the country’s indigenous peoples. During a brief exposure among the Manobo in Bukidnon, he found himself drawn to the spartan simplicity of upland life. In 1988, at age twenty-five, he wandered into Paitan, Mindoro Oriental, where the Servants of the Holy Spirit missionary sisters worked among the Mangyan. Abadiano volunteered to help and stayed on for nine years.
The nuns asked Abadiano to focus on the people’s basic needs. He proposed an education program to emphasize literacy as well as livelihood and leadership skills, and to uphold Mangyan values and traditions. This became the Tugdaan (Seedbed) Center for Human and Environmental Development. Abadiano launched the Center with only twelve students and a small hut, which he shared with them night and day. Soliciting donations from friends in Manila and acting as principal and teacher all in one, he built his small school into a comprehensive learning center with classrooms and meeting halls, a library, science laboratory, preschool, and Mangyan cultural resource center. In time, it served hundreds of Mangyans of all ages who, at Tugdaan, were encouraged to speak their own language and to wear Mangyan clothing. Abadiano learned all he could about them and compiled the first Tagalog-Mangyan dictionary. He recruited new teachers for the Center and raised funds by organizing a business to produce and sell calamansi juice and other local products. When he departed Mindoro in 1997 to enter the Jesuit novitiate, Abadiano left behind a thriving institution. Today, it is training nearly two hundred students and more than half of its teachers are Mangyan.
In 2001, the Assisi Development Foundation called upon Abadiano to lead its efforts in Mindanao to assist hundreds of thousands of people, uprooted by war, to return home and reestablish normal lives. As executive coordinator for Tabang Mindanaw, he developed a rehabilitation program that integrated social welfare, governance, and livelihood measures with peace building. Working tirelessly to coordinate negotiations between local authorities and religious leaders, the military, armed insurgents, and the people themselves, Abadiano helped to set up fifty-four Sanctuaries of Peace across Mindanao. At the same time, he connected with Mindanao’s indigenous groups, or Lumad, and founded the ILAWAN Center for Peace and Sustainable Development. ILAWAN’s Pamulaan Training Center now provides a culture-based education program like that of Tugdaan. Through ILAWAN, which means “holder of light,” Abadiano hopes to foster the kind of volunteerism that first led him to Mindoro and to the work that has brought much meaning to his life.
Indeed, Abadiano’s heart is in the highlands with the Mangyan, Lumad, and other indigenous peoples. The passion he brings to everything he does comes from the example of his grandparents and, he says, from “a feeling of gratitude and of being blessed.” And if you are blessed, Abadiano believes, “You have to share your best.”
In electing Benjamin Abadiano to receive the 2004 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Emergent Leadership, the board of trustees recognizes his steadfast commitment to indigenous Filipinos and their hopes for peace and better lives consonant with their hallowed ways of life.
Chairman and Trustees of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation Distinguished Guests, Fellow Awardees and Dear Friends.
Agkanggayan! Peace to one and all!
I stand here before this esteemed gathering today grateful yet awed for this recognition you have given me. It is wholly undeserved as I am aware that there are others out there, hundreds of men and women who live lives of dedicated service to the indigenous peoples, who are more deserving than I am in receiving this award. In honor of their quiet and oftentimes, unrecognized work, I dedicate this award first and foremost.
In giving me this award, the Foundation affirms its conviction that only a life dedicated to others is a life truly worth living. I see myself, therefore, not so much as a model that can inspire others to a life of service, but as a channel of that one eternal message that brings life and hope to people — which says: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
My life and work these past fifteen years serve as testimony of my great love for the Mangyan people of Mindoro, the Lumads and the Muslims of Mindanao. Greater still, I am here before you today as a witness to the kind of love I have received from them, our indigenous peoples and Muslim brothers and sisters.
It is their love that has spurned me on to dream the dreams they have nurtured through generations — of a better life for themselves and their children. It is their love that continues to make me courageous in the face of the myriad of challenges I encounter in bringing education, peace, and development to the indigenous peoples and Muslim communities.
I want to thank all the indigenous peoples and Muslims I have lived and worked with, especially you who are connected with the TUGDAAN Center for Human and Environmental Development, ILAWAN Center for Peace and Sustainable Development, and the Assisi Development Foundation. In loving me, I have learned a love that serves. In leading me to discover my life’s mission, I have learned the essential lessons in leadership. From you I have learned that to lead people is to share in their lives and to hold their deepest aspirations as my own.
I receive this award in recognition also of the Mangyan leaders who shared with me their vision and dreams for their communities and children. Fifteen years ago they dreamed of having a program that would equip their communities to face the on-going changes in their lives while also promoting and enriching their culture as a people. Thus was created Tugdaan as a center that would respond to the Mangyan’s clamor for an educational program that was relevant to their realities, culture and aspirations. To the Akingans who are here with us this afternoon and to all other Mangyan Alangan leaders, thank you from the bottom of my heart. This too is your award, for without the kind of leadership you have shown me, I could not have learned what it means to lead.
With this award, I recognize, too, the people who have been my mentors in learning about loving service and leadership. I would like to thank Sr. Victricia Pascassio, for her trust and confidence in my early years of mission work. I also want to thank the SSpS congregation and our partners and benefactors for their support in my work all these years.
I want to thank in a very special way Ambassador Howard Dee and the rest of the Assisi Development Foundation family for providing me a home and a place where I could continue in sharing dreams with others.
My deepest gratitude, also, to the men of the Society of Jesus, for the formation that has taught me the value of service, of being a man for others.
I want to thank my grandparents who have gone ahead of us. Their love and care throughout the years of my childhood has become the foundation of my life values.
And to my dearest of friends, you who have shared love, laughter, and tears with me as I journey through my life’s mission — thank you. You know who you are and what you mean to me. Thank you. Thank you.
I thank also the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation for entrusting me with all that this award stands for. I pray that my life and work in the years to come may deserve the weight of this honor that you have so generously bestowed on me.
And finally, to the Almighty, I say thank you with all that I am. May it take me a lifetime and forever to express my gratitude.
Buwaywa! Sukran! Thank you and peace be with you.
Benjamin Abadiano grew up not knowing the circumstances of his birth, but that hardly matters to him. What does matter is that he has long known where his heart is. For twenty years now, he has been living a life of utter simplicity focused on those whom Philippine society has marginalized, if not forgotten—its indigenous peoples.
Abadiano never knew his birth parents and until today is unclear about who they were. He was born on February 11, 1963, in the town (now a city) of Mandaluyong in Metro Manila. When he was three months old, he was taken to Maigo, Lanao del Norte, on the island of Mindanao, by Leonardo and Salud Abadiano, whom he always assumed, but never confirmed, were his maternal grandparents. They died three years apart when Benjamin was in his teens, and took the secret of his birth to their graves. In fact, when Benjamin got hold of his birth certificate for the first time, he was surprised to learn that his middle name was David rather than Flores. Flores was his grandmother Salud’s maiden name, and he had used it in all his school records.
Leonardo and Salud Abadiano were a prosperous couple who owned large farmlands planted to coconut and rice. Their house was the largest in all of Maigo. It had once been the municipal hall and the town jail, and it stood across from the Maigo School of Arts and Trades, the biggest public school in the province of Lanao del Norte.
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