Return of the Natives

By Saranyoo Samakrathgit

BAQUILAN, Zambales, Philippines – Swaths of land in this remote village in the Philippine north still looks like they are part of another planet, the dull gray of sand, ash, and gravel contrasting with spots of vegetation here and there. But at least Baquilan no longer seems as desolate as it probably was some 14 years ago, right after Mount Pinatubo woke up from six centuries of slumber and belched out thousands of tons of volcanic materials. Back then, hundreds of thousands of people here and in other surrounding areas were sent scampering for safety, and this was left a virtual ghost town. The calamity itself claimed at least 700 lives and forced the international airport in Manila, about a three-hour car drive from here, to close for a day because of the far-reaching ashfall.

On this hot summer day, though — if one were to ignore the surrounding moonscape — it’s as if there had been no disaster. Beside the currently dried up Bacao River, a makeshift grocery is doing brisk business selling ice-cold drinks and other refreshments to travelers. Nearby, traders are in a huddle with some farmers with heaps of fresh produce. As they negotiate, several other farmers arrive on water buffalo-drawn carts loaded with vegetables, which turn out to have been grown on the slopes of Pinatubo itself.

The farmers – and the mini grocery owner – are Aeta, an indigenous tribe that has called Pinatubo home for centuries. When Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991, however, more than 56,000 of them were forced to flee their homes, along with hundreds of thousands of lowlanders living in towns and cities near the volcano. Many of the suddenly homeless Aeta eventually found their way to resettlement sites provided by the national government as well as nongovernmental organizations. Yet as early as 1993, some Aeta began returning to Pinatubo, even if it meant having to retame land topped by tons of volcanic debris. These days, some Aeta leaders estimate that around 70 percent of those who were forced out of their Pinatubo homes because of the eruption have gone back to their former villages.

For the Aeta, Pinatubo has profound significance because they believe it is the abode of their spiritual guardian, Apo Namalyari. Pinatubo’s summit is also believed to be the gathering place of the souls of their departed. But Ben Atanacio, vice chairman of Pederasyong Aeta sa Sambales (PASS), an umbrella group consisting of the residents of the 11 Aeta barangays (villages) on the western slopes of Pinatubo, says survival was the main reason why many of his tribesmen have returned to the volcano.

“Those who had skills like carpentry found jobs as far as Manila,” says the 47-year-old Atanacio, who has also made the trek back to Pinatubo. “Those who were educated were also able to find jobs near the settlement. Those who had to go back (to Pinatubo) were those who were illiterate and even if educated did not have job prospects.”

Unsettled in the resettlement sites

Atanacio himself was hard-pressed in finding a steady job in town, having reached only elementary school and then possessing few serviceable skills. Aeta, after all, are primarily hunters and gatherers. Before the eruption, they had little access as well to the most basic services. Many of them in fact were able to enjoy these for the first time in the resettlement sites, where even education became available to the young.

The Aeta, however, have never been comfortable mingling too long with lowlanders, who tend to look down on the short, dark-skinned, and curly-haired tribe. Many of the government-sponsored sites were near lowland communities. Many Aeta were also concerned that they would slowly lose their traditions if they strayed too far from Pinatubo.

At first, recalls Atanacio, there were just a handful of young Aeta men who returned to their old villages, and only for short periods at a time. Back then, they could not yet grow rice there, and had to settle for planting corn, bananas, and vegetables – although even that was difficult to do.  The thick dried lahar or volcanic debris coating their land was still unstable and working it was much like pouring water on a pile of dust. In the valleys, there was always a danger of a wall of this material collapsing without warning. But the Aeta persevered, and today many of them have taken to doing what Atanacio and his family have done: retain their home in the resettlement site of Loob Bunga here in Baquilan even as they live most of the time up in Pinatubo. During the dry season, when the trail in Bacao River reappears, the Aeta bring down their produce to the town market. Even on good days, the trip takes five hours by cart. That, however, seems to be a just a tiny matter to the hardy Aeta.

Although they are found elsewhere in the Philippines, the Aeta in Pinatubo and the surrounding areas form the largest grouping of the tribe. The Aeta are said to be descendants of the first settlers of the Philippines who set foot here 30,000 years ago. Artifacts show that before the Spaniards began colonizing the Philippines in the 16th century, the Aeta lived in the lowlands but retreated gradually into the forests and mountainous regions, rendering them practically invisible to national and local policy makers.

Yet even now, when the Aeta are seen more, that still appears to be happening. Even well-meaning initiatives like the post-eruption resettlement sites provided the tribe do not seem well thought-out, especially the government-sponsored ones. Livelihood suited to the ways of the tribe, for instance, is often lacking, and the farmland given to the Aeta have proved just enough for producing food for their own consumption. At least the NGO-funded sites, which draw from shallower coffers, make an effort of trying to keep as close as possible to the Aeta way of life. But these, too, are plagued by limited space. Outside of the sites – NGO-backed and otherwise — jobs are scarce even for the skilled, and it takes a particularly enterprising Aeta to have the gumption to set up mini grocery like the one by the Bacao River. Hence the exodus back to Pinatubo where, says former Zambales governor Amor Deloso, the “abandoned fields are now fertile and ready for planting.” He adds, “After 14 years, Mount Pinatubo is now a goldmine.”

Atanacio also says, “At the new settlement site, if we don’t have money, we don’t have a chance to eat. But at our old village, where my parents grew and died, we have land for farming. (Even) without money, we can live.”

Newcomers in Pinatubo

But the volcano may no longer be the Aeta’s alone. The national government, for one, is keen on developing it into a tourist destination, complete with resorts and hotels. Yet it may have to deal with an increasing wary Aeta, some of whom blame exploratory diggings done by a government owned company on Pinatubo for the 1991 disaster. According to these Aeta, Apo Namalyari was angered by the diggings, and showed his wrath by having the long-dormant Pinatubo erupt. Three years ago, the Aeta themselves were irritated with the government enough to mount a protest, which featured a barricade of rocks to symbolically protect their ancestral communities.

Then there are also the communist insurgents and the Philippine military and police. With Pinatubo habitable once more, the communist New People’s Army (NPA) has again begun using the volcano’s nooks and crannies as temporary hideouts and transit points. This has attracted police and military forces to the area, and the Aeta have been caught in the crossfire. In one recent police operation, Atanacio says he was gun-whipped to force him to confess to rebel activities there.  “There is no NPA here,” he says, “although there are times when they pass by.”

The truth is the Aeta cannot do anything to stop NPA guerrillas from passing through what the tribe considers its territory. Yet even organizations helping the tribe are now being given a rather hard time by the police and military; visitors to the volcano are also advised to introduce themselves first to the local police and then the Philippine National Police unit stationed in town. NGOs in Zambales province have thus formed a coalition with two seats reserved for the military in the hope of avoiding misunderstandings and mishaps.

Despite such developments, the Aeta who are already back in Pinatubo show no signs of wanting to leave the volcano. Many of those in the resettlement sites, meanwhile, long to return there. Says Tubag Hagatan, who now lives in an Aeta settlement in Botolan town: “I want to rebuild what we had in Mt. Pinatubo. There land is plentiful and we can move freely. Here all lands are owned by somebody else.”

Lured by education

Actually, Hagatan belongs to an organization that after the eruption managed to buy a 7.5-hectare plot in Botolan, using funds raised by donors. The agrarian reform department later awarded the Lubos na Alyansa ng Katutubong Ayta ng Sambales or LAKAS, which has Hagatan’s father as one of its leaders, with adjacent farmlands totaling some 30 hectares. All these, however, have to be shared among LAKAS’s 300 families, most of which have been adding on members. This means each family member may be making do with a shrinking share of the food grown on the resettlement sites.

For many Aeta, their children’s education is the main reason why they have maintained their homes in the resettlement sites even as they have gone back to hunt and work on their farms up in Pinatubo. But that has meant families have to be apart for long stretches at a time, a practice that is fairly new and quite upsetting to the family-oriented Aeta.

Yet even Hagatan admits he is not yet ready to go back to Pinatubo because he wants to complete his college education. Already 24 years old and married, Hagatan still has a year to go before he gets his degree. But since his family has no means to send him to school, Hagatan is hoping to be granted a scholarship, perhaps by a government agency or an NGO. Barring that, he intends to apply for a job as a government forest ranger.

He doesn’t really say when he intends to return to Pinatubo. What he does say is he intends to teach his son “the lessons taught me by my parents.” He also expresses confidence that Aeta will one day be back in Pinatubo “because it is our land.”

“If not now,” he says, “certainly our grandchildren will (go back).”

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