death by paper cut

{June 19, 2014}   The Aeta of the Philippines

The main destinations of this year’s YEP expedition were 2 Aeta villages (also known as sitio in the Philippines), one of which is in remote Alunan, Tarlac and the other closer to township is Maporac, Zambales. Other than these sites, side trips were made to Mt Pinatubo and the slums in Baseco, Manila.

The wide spectrum of experiences can be measured in several ways. One way could be by the number of places we put up for the night (tent, home-stay with the villagers in both Alunan and Maporac, a dormitory and a hostel). Another was by the number of people got to know. Yet another could be the different modes of transportation taken (airplane, coach, jeepney, van, four-by-four and bullock cart). And there was walking, lots and lots of walking especially between the villages in Tarlac because that is the most common way to get from one village to another in the hilly ranges of the highlands.

Tarlac 25 - Sitio Sitler

Zambales 2 - Journey to Marporac from Alunan

Tarlac 28 - Sitio Sitler Tarlac 86 - Sitio Alunan - Sweet Potato Farming

Tarlac 120 - Sitio Malabatay Tarlac 121 - Sitio Malabatay

Mostly nomadic and agrarian, the Aeta lived off the fertile land before the eruption of Mt Pinatubo in 1991. Until the eruption, they could get by in isolated areas without much contact with others in the lower regions.

However, the massive eruption changed everything because firstly, it wiped out half of the Aeta population we were told and secondly, the eruption has altered the landscape for a long time to come by making it no longer as arable as before.

ecogreen explains:

Aside from causing climate change by cooling temperatures around the world, volcano eruptions also cause havoc on the immediate vicinity where they are located. In 1991, Mt. Pinatubo erupted in the Philippines. Days before the massive explosion, water around Zambales, Tarlac and Pampanga was undrinkable due to sulfur contamination. Ash obscured sunlight which damaged crops and killed farm animals.

Years after the explosion, lahar or mudflow composed of pyroclastic material and water during the rainy season, caused the displacement of thousands of residents.  Agriculture and farming was also at a standstill due to damage sustained by the eruption. What was once fertile and arable land became ash covered and deemed infertile destroying the livelihood of thousands of farmers around the region.

As such, the Aeta had to seek refuge in the lower regions. This inadvertently meant more intermingling with non-Aeta and an irreversible undoing of their quality of life. Although it has been 23 years since the eruption, the Aeta especially the olders ones who survived the eruption speak fondly of their former prosperity with prelapsarian wistfulness. Sitio Sitler for example, a small village in the highlands, had to relocate three times before they managed to settle where they are now.

For a first hand appreciation of the geographical and geological understanding the aftermath of Mt Pintatubo’s eruption, we made a trip to a crater that is now a tourist attraction. To understand how remote it is, this is how one would get there from Manila: a four-hour coach ride from Manila to the town of Santa Juliana, a transfer to a one-hour ride in a four-wheel drive from Santa Juliana to the start of the walking trek, and than a two and a half hour trek towards the crater. That trek to the crater is a mostly flat two-hour walk amongst rocky outcrop in the valley with no shelter and then another twenty to thirty-minute gradual ascend. We started our journey at 4am to reach the crater at 11am.

Mt Pintatubo is not extinct, but dormant. Hot springs in the surrounding area are still bubbling.

Mount Pinatubo 4 Mount Pinatubo 2

Mount Pinatubo 8 Mount Pinatubo 9

Mount Pinatubo 11

Mount Pinatubo 18 Mount Pinatubo 20

The Aeta in the lower regions are more racially diverse and modernised than those in the highlands because of the higher exposure to non-Aeta people, being connected to the power grid and being located closer to townships. Maporac, Zambales describes the former and Alunan, Tarlac the latter. This is not to say that one’s lifestyle is better than the other, it is just different with its own host of pros and cons.

The homestay experience in the villagers’ houses constructed mostly of bamboo was actually quite comfortable. The homes are neatly partitioned with the bedrooms (elevated platforms), kitchen and dining/living areas not unlike the kampongs of Singapore. The houses in Alunan, Tarlac are smaller, but more closely clustered around a civic area while the houses in Maporac, Zambales are more spread out, have a larger compound and sometimes their own outpost toilet and water-pump. 4 days were spent in Alunan and 7 days in Maporac. Maporac was where our core project site was; we helped to catalog their under-used community library and set up a new herbal garden.

Sitler, Tarlac (one-night stay enroute Alunan)

Tarlac 7 - Sitio Sitler Tarlac 5 - Sitio Sitler

Tarlac 15 - Sitio Sitler Tarlac 13 - Sitio Sitler

Tarlac 16 - Sitio Sitler Tarlac 12 - Sitio Sitler

Tarlac 11 - Sitio Sitler

Alunan, Tarlac (three-night homestay)

Tarlac 40 - Sitio Alunan

Tarlac 42 - Sitio Alunan Tarlac 39 - Sitio Alunan

Tarlac 78 - Sitio Alunan Tarlac 84 - Sitio Alunan

Maporac, Zambales (three-night homestay and four more nights at a dormitory located onsite)

Zambales 14 - Sitio Maporac Zambales 12 - Sitio Maporac

Zambales 16 - Sitio Maporac Zambales 18 - Sitio Maporac

Zambales 28 - Sitio Maporac

Being off the power gird, out of range of mobile reception and having limited water supply, the people at Alunan get on by being extremely ingenious and frugal. As city slickers, we did not know the first thing about surviving in such a setting. The Aeta however, showed us that the environment was not hostile, but a rich resource. They showed us how to make fire with bamboo, steam rice in bamboo and of course cook bamboo shoots.

Tarlac 49 - Sitio Alunan - Starting a Fire Tarlac 50 - Sitio Alunan - Starting a Fire

Tarlac 52 - Sitio Alunan - Starting a Fire Tarlac 54 - Sitio Alunan - Bamboo Rice

Tarlac 55 - Sitio Alunan - Bamboo Rice Tarlac 56 - Sitio Alunan - Bamboo Rice

Tarlac 57 - Sitio Alunan - Bamboo Rice

Tarlac 63 - Sitio Alunan - Food Preparation

With more amenities, the folks at Maporac had other resources but are still very in touch with making do with their natural environment. Almost the entire herbal garden was constructed from scratch within four days with bamboo obtained in the vicinity.

Zambales 85 - Maporac Community Garden

Zambales 93 - Maporac Community Garden Zambales 95 - Maporac Community Garden Zambales 94 - Maporac Community Garden

Zambales 102 - Maporac Community Garden Zambales 104 - Maporac Community Garden Zambales 108 - Maporac Community Garden

Zambales 117 - Maporac Community Garden Zambales 120 - Maporac Community Garden

Zambales 122 - Maporac Community Garden

Zambales 128 - Maporac Community Garden

Zambales 131 - Maporac Community Garden

Although the Aeta’s ancestral claim to the general domain is recognised by the government, there are areas that have been bought by developers and privatised for mining purposes such as parts of a river. Because it was the dryer midyear season when we were there in June, the water levels were low. However, the situation has been made worse as the water source is being diverted due to damming, mining and other developments. In fact, the underground wells of Maporac were depleted at certain times of the day during our visit.

Public awareness by activists has been raised to guard the Aeta against encroaching developers as can be seen from this publication in Tagalog.

Zambales 65 - Maporac Library Zambales 66 - Maporac Library

However, in the more remote rural villages such as in Tarlac where the Aeta are illiterate or might not even speak Tagalog, they are more susceptible to deception and exploitation. Arguable, they can lead sustainable lives with subsistence farming, but they are not spared the inflation of the wider economy when the cost of purchasing a buffalo has risen multiple-fold while the value of their cash crops continue to be depressed. In spite of the odds, the Aeta who spoke with us continue to be resilient and hopeful for their future. Humbling indeed.

Tarlac 10 - Sitio Sitler


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