In November 1981, a three-member delegation from the human rights group Amnesty International arrived in the Philippines to investigate numerous reports they had been receiving on the alleged violation of human rights under the martial law regime. These reports spanned provinces from Northern Luzon all the way to the southern areas of Mindanao. In the provinces of Agusan del Norte and Agusan del Sur, specifically, reports were being made on the violent activities of paramilitary groups and armed composite task forces. The delegation found that these groups were being hired to carry out “protection rackets” for transnational corporations that controlled economic activities in the two provinces, including gold panning, fish and meat supply, and palm oil production.
The need for such corporations to hire armed groups for security arose from the manner by which these same corporations acquired land for production. A 1986 human rights study by the Protestant Association for World Mission reported “large-scale invasions” in Mindanao and the forced relocation or hamletting of families into small settlements, sometimes several kilometers away from their original homes. The study summarized that such an approach meant that “[i]t was always the poor farmers who lost.” Resistance was countered with military force. This, in addition to the Moro National Liberation Front’s struggle for independence and the burgeoning of the communist New People’s Army (NPA), compelled the Marcos administration to concentrate more than half of the country’s military forces in Mindanao, where only less than a quarter of the country’s population lived. Mindanao was locked in a vicious cycle of oppression and violence where a large number of farmers and their families suffered immeasurably. Historian Juvanni Caballero says the NPA in Mindanao swelled in number at the time, not so much because people understood and wished to espouse the ideals of communism, but because they simply wanted to fight back.
In Agusan del Norte, in the year 1983, a young Carmelite seminarian named Isagani M. Valle was living out his personal mission to join the poor in their struggles against these abuses. He supported student organizations demanding change from the government, and was a staunch believer in immersing in the lives of those who struggled. He longed to practice a theology that “proceeds from the people and goes back to the people,” a theology that is lived rather than left at the armchair.
Being a government critic, as Valle was, placed a hefty amount of risk on his head wherever he went. Cecilia Miro Ohiman, a cousin of Valle, recalls that he once confided in her that he felt his life was at risk because of his activism. He was particularly worried on one such occasion, as he had set an appointment with a group of farmers in Buenavista, Agusan del Norte. Nevertheless, on the 14th of May 1983, Valle fulfilled his commitment and met up with two of them amidst celebrations during a fiesta in Buenavista.
It turned out that the municipal police had recently received a tip that the two farmers were members of the NPA. Police hitmen were on their trail that very day. While they were on a walk, Valle and his two companions were ambushed with a barrage of shots from the police. The three died on the spot. Their bodies are said to have been displayed in front of the Buenavista Municipality Hall, and were later dumped in a common grave. Valle was only 24 years old.
Seven years later, Fr. Jun Adeva Jr., a friend and classmate of Valle, visited the burial site with Valle’s two elder brothers and exhumed his remains in the hopes of giving him a proper burial. His bones were washed and transferred in a box to the Ormoc Cemetery, where Valle’s father and other relatives were buried. Eventually, his remains were transferred to the Carmel-Ormoc Spirituality Center at Barangay Milagro, Ormoc, Leyte.
Sr. Asuncion Martinez, ICM, in a poem dedicated to Valle, brings attention to the fact that her late friend had not yet been ordained into priesthood; his ultimate sacrifice, however, made him a prophet for the people: