MANILA — The potential locked up in the island of Mindanao — in its resources, its environment and, perhaps most importantly, its people — is just waiting to be tapped.

Few people or companies are willing to take on the mammoth task of trying to give a better life to the indigenous people of the “wild south,” which could accurately describe the Philippines’ second-largest island. Even fewer would be interested in the job unless there was a large profit in it for them, which is why someone like Dorian (“everyone calls me Dorsky”) Sicat makes such a refreshing change.

An honorary “datu,” or tribal elder, of the Manobo tribe, 52-year-old Sicat is attempting to secure public and private money to help the highland tribe overcome years of exploitation and stand on its own two feet again.

“What we’re trying to do is provide socioeconomic progress, provide literacy, and at the same time make it harmonious with the native culture, their Earth culture, and with the people,” he said as we sipped Mindanao coffee in a hotel in Manila.

“Nearly all the indigenous tribes here have been exploited. It’s the same as Manhattan being bought for a bunch of beads,” he added, referring to the corruption of Native Americans by the first settlers.

“You’ve got people living in the forest who have no means of livelihood, but they are sitting on wealth,” Sicat said. “My vision is to allow them to capitalize on that wealth, while at the same time maintaining and sustaining the forest as their livelihood.”

Sicat was not born into tribal life. Born in northern Luzon, he moved to Hawaii as a child when his father found work there, and eventually ended up in California. He joined the U.S. Army in the mid-1960s and during a four-year tour of Vietnam rose to the rank of captain in the Green Berets.

After the fall of Saigon, he was involved in covert operations in Central America, spending time fighting what he terms the region’s “dirty war” in Honduras, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador. Disillusioned with the army, Sicat resigned his commission in 1978 and — after failing to settle down as a civilian — decided to go freelance.

As a “merchant soldier,” he was again at the sharp end in Central and Southern Africa, parts of Southeast Asia and Central America. His lineage, however, eventually drew him back to the Philippines.

After getting involved in efforts to bring peace on Mindanao, where the separatist Muslims of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front were pitted against government forces, Sicat was shot in a firefight with bandits as his team protected the Manobo tribe’s ancestral domain.

To express his gratitude, the supreme datu of the tribe named him Sicat Datu Makatabang, which translates to “He Who Helps Us,” and he has devoted his life to that aim ever since.

“In the 1950s, Mindanao was seen as the land of promise,” he said. “It was the Philippines’ version of the American West. It was primarily unsettled, land was available and all people had to do was cultivate it.”

The Manobo, however, had no concept of land having a price, and began to ape the ways of the pioneers as the outsiders showed the indigenous people that everything has a price and that their lifestyle was superior to that of the natives.

Next to arrive were multinational companies, which razed the forests for timber and replaced them with plantations of rubber, coffee and rice. Tribespeople were given jobs as laborers, until legislation was introduced to halt the rape of Mindanao.

The first people to feel the pinch when the bottom fell out of the economy were the locals. They had given up their traditional ways and become used to having a company store, wearing Western clothes and eating imported, exotic food.

“Today,” Sicat said, “the Manobo are used as a political football. They can’t get work down in the cities because they can’t get travel clearance from the police, they don’t have the money it needs to put a CV together — even if they did find a job, where would they live?” More importantly, he says, they still receive no education.

His main priorities are schooling for the children of the tribe, a health center staffed by professional doctors and nurses, and getting the trade in wood products, Manila hemp, rattan and highland gemstones off the ground.

“I’d like to get this stuff done yesterday,” he said. “It needs to be done because the tribe is in a crisis, even though the people don’t realize it. They are content with what God has given them, but unfortunately that contentment does not follow the fact that they are hungry.”

There is next to no support from the provincial government, says Sicat, but at last the national government is taking notice of his demands. National-level funding is a possibility in the future, he adds, but so far they are surviving on assistance from private supporters.

“Once we have socioeconomic development that is sustainable, the Manobo will be liberated,” he said. “We’re not looking to make every Manobo a millionaire. We’re not even looking to make it so that every Manobo has a car. We just don’t want to be dependent on the government or to be used as a football.”

The latest project to make the tribe’s resources economically useful is Sicat’s Dark Cloud Adventures, which he hopes will appeal to Japanese customers looking for something a little different to the resorts of Cebu or Boracay, something off the beaten track, he says.

“We don’t want mass-scale tourism in the highland domain, so we will have a maximum of 30 people in the forest at any one time,” he said.

Dark Cloud Adventures is running four- and five-day trips into the mountains and the tribe’s ancestral domain to witness a way of life that few others have ever had the opportunity to see before.

Travelers will have the opportunity to live as the indigenous people do and share their food and drink — although I would suggest that only the particularly strong of stomach try the coconut beer.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.