Saturday, June 17, 2006

Aeta: From ‘lubay’ to Levi’s

15 years after Mt. Pinatubo eruption

By Tonette Orejas - Inquirer

BOTOLAN, Zambales -- The world’s worst eruptions in the second half of the 20th century failed to erase the Aeta tribe from the face of the earth.

Fifteen years after Mount Pinatubo let out its biggest blasts in their ancestral abode on June 15, 1991, the Aeta population in the provinces of Zambales, Pampanga and Tarlac has almost doubled from just over 50,000 at the height of the disaster, data from the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) in Central Luzon showed.

As survivors, the Aetas stand out among Philippine aborigines as members of a tribe that bear memories and experiences of volcanic eruptions in modern times, making them a mine of lessons in coping with disasters, the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) said.

In the eyes of three Aeta elders, however, there was a dying aspect to this survival.

Traditional culture, at least the kind they had practiced in their lifetimes, was lost or had faded away in post-eruption years, according to Adoracion Badar of Zambales, Miranda King of Pampanga and Lunas Tolentino of Tarlac. Badar placed her age at 102, King at 86 and Tolentino at 70.

From G-strings to denims

To King’s grandson, Joseph, 21, the problem could be seen in the way Aeta men are garbed.

“We stopped wearing the lubay or pinang (G-string). It’s Levi’s or other denim pants. We got a lot of those used clothing when we were in evacuation centers,” Joseph, an agroforestry graduate, said while waiting for passengers for his tricycle at the Villa Maria resettlement in Porac town, Pampanga.

“The lubay is only worn now on special occasions. I feel primitive wearing it,” he said.

Badar, interviewed in her house at the Loob Bunga resettlement in Botolan town, said: “The Aeta culture is dying. I’m frightened by this.”

“It’s rare that the pag-anito (curing ritual), atang (food offering to the mountain god Apo Namalyari) and duroro (prayerful singing to the gods) are done now,” said Badar.

Her tribe in Poon Bato was drawn to Catholicism and the image of the Virgin Mary (Apo Apang) was much revered there. But Badar said her tribe held onto the practices and never lost faith in Apo Namalyari.

Badar, a daughter of Sinfrocio Dumulot, a sacristan to a Spanish friar, said she still faced the direction of the volcano, the abode of Apo Namalyari, whenever she prayed.

Pinatubo is 40 km from where she has lived in the last 14 years.

Disregard for elders

Disrespect and disregard for the elders were also prevalent, she said. In her case, she was sought out only when job seekers among Aeta needed certifications of their membership in the tribe.

Leadership was now determined not by wisdom, but by the material support that younger leaders brought to the community.

But that, Badar said, would depend on the patronage of politicians in the lowlands, impairing the self-reliance Aeta are known to exercise.

There are also more incidents of gambling, alcoholism and womanizing, Badar said.

Begging in cities

King lamented that younger Aeta do not relate to Apo Namalyari with the same deep faith and trust that their elders did. Others, he said, had stopped believing in the deity.

Tolentino said the concept of kanawan (freedom from hardship) had changed. Instead of obtaining kanawan from toiling on the land or in the forests, Aeta of working age got that by selling their labor for wages. Some would beg in urban centers.

More men resort to elopement than betrothal and the bandi (property) system in taking a woman in marriage, Tolentino said.

Elders see various reasons for these.

Dual communities

The eruptions had forced them to leave the mountain, break partial or total isolation and be more exposed to the ways of the lowlanders.

The eruptions also damaged their natural environment, where the practices and values had been rooted.

Because that same altered landscape was hostile to agriculture, the Aeta had to find other means to live.

Then, too, the construction of roads leading to the upland resettlements, where the displaced population had been concentrated, saw the entry of more religious missions there.

Most Aeta maintained dual communities. They retained their homes in resettlements so their children could attend schools there and be close to sources of free social services.

On the other hand, they carried out their economic activities during dry months in their original villages.

This situation and the distance of the farms from each other did not help in strengthening ties among the villagers, with their natural environment.


Such was the case of Andres Cabalic. In Zambales, his house was in Bihawo and his farm was in Bel-bel, villages that were six hours apart travelling on foot. His relatives on the Pampanga and Tarlac side of the volcano had the same situation.

In pre-eruption years, Cabalic said he seldom left the abode, coming down only when he had to buy farming tools. “Everything you needed was on the mountain,” he said.

The NCIP said 70 percent of Aeta in 114 settlements in 1985 lived in semi-isolation. Their exposure to lowlanders was confined to sakadora (financiers and buyers of crops) and to market-goers to whom they directly sold their crops and forest products.

In the 10 upland resettlements that the government built for 5,133 families in 1991, it was not known exactly how many had actually left for good or lived the way Cabalic did.

Among the villages that had been rebuilt on their original sites or near them were Villar in Zambales; Tarukan in Capas, Tarlac; Tolentino’s village of Sto. Niño in Bamban, Tarlac; Kamias in Porac, Pampanga; Batyawan in Floridablanca, Pampanga; Marcos, Macapagal and Manicayo in Mabalacat, Pampanga, and Sapang Bato in Angeles City.

Members of King’s clan visited Inararo, 6 km east of the volcano. They planted banana and yam on lands cleared of thick volcanic debris, returning to Villa Maria when the rains started.

Badar, King and Tolentino would want their people to keep their culture not only because this had been passed on to them by their elders, but also because these practices and values had kept them together in normal times and had maintained harmony in the communities and with nature.

Herbal cures

The curing ritual, for instance, was central to the Aeta religious life and the most elaborate with which they related with Apo Namalyari and spirits, anthropologist Hiromu Shimizu said in 1989.

It was said that this ritual erased the inhibition of the sick and those concerned for him or her because they and the healer, when in a state possessed by the good or bad spirit, were free to interact and to express their emotions.

When nature finally heals the environs of Pinatubo, Aeta midwife Jena de la Cruz said it would be best to resume the use of lunas bundok (herbal remedies).

The availability of free medicines and hospitalization took the Aeta away from indigenous cures, reducing knowledge and appreciation of local health methods and the mountain’s resources for healing.

Land and identity

Land, King said, was also important in preserving the identity of the Aeta.

“You won’t know your pinibatan (origin) if you can’t even have a land to call your own. That’s Pinatubo,” he said.

This was why King and Tolentino led their people back to Pinatubo in 1994 after almost three years of staying in Barangay Pinaltakan in Palayan City in Nueva Ecija province.

“We told the local officials there: ‘While we appreciate your hosting us, we haven’t been at peace here. We miss our place. We also don’t want to be taking lands that are not ours,’” Tolentino said.

This was also why Tolentino’s tribe fought efforts by the Clark Development Corp. to reduce the 10,000 hectares covered by a certificate of ancestral domain claim (CADC).


King had been working to get a CADC for the Aeta in Inararo.

“When lowlanders come to buy lands in the mountains and the powerful ones threaten me, I tell them, ‘Show me someone who can make mountains. When you can’t, leave now,’” he said.

Land speculations intensified in Porac when portions of it were bought for the right of way of the Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway, he said.

The CADCs had been slow in coming even as the Aeta suffered the cruel paradox of history in the 20th century. They lost much of the domain when the Americans declared these military reservations for Clark and Subic.

The NCIP had awarded the CADCs for 52,371 hectares on the lower slopes but not all of these would be in the complete control of the Aeta.

“Unless we have proof to show we own the land, we won’t be secure from the loggers, miners and buyers of real estate. I don’t want my people to be a landless tribe,” King said.

Plant or clean

Badar had her own way of establishing rights to a niche in the habitat.

“Wherever I go, I always plant trees so that my grandchildren won’t ever have to even look up at the trees of others,” she said.

Those without land or seeds to plant could land jobs as janitors or carpenters in Clark, Pampanga.

The elders said the best thing that emerged from the disaster was that young Aeta were given access to basic education.

Dr. Rufino Tima, an anthropologist who worked with the Aeta for 33 years, said the government should consider a rehabilitation program that would focus on reviving the old villages to help Aeta secure their culture there.

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