The life of tribal people outside of Puerto Princesa City is more difficult than inside the city, where Mayor Hagedorn”s tribal initiatives can help them.
In 2005, Reyster Langit, the son of a famous Philippine broadcaster set out with his team to document how malaria was ravaging the Palawan tribe and the Tau’t Bato people, who live at the southern tip of Palawan island. Shortly afterwards, Langit and his team came down with cerebral malaria. They were sent to a hospital in the US, where they all died.
For people living in the remote regions of the island, far from the somewhat urban center of Puerto Princesa, malaria is just a part of life. For tribal people, who live in extremely hard-to-reach communities up on the mountainside, malaria is a matter of life and death. On a recent mission to explore the life of the tribal people, we discovered that malaria was just one of many issues facing these tribes. The Batak and Tagbanua, tribes who live inside of the Puerto Princesa city limits, are protected by Tagbalay Foundation, the City Tribal office, and Mayor Hagedorn”s tribal aid projects which include medical assistance, education, free seeds for farming, and a push to establish land deeds for the tribal people under the Ancestral Domain legislation. But the tribes outside of the city limits are more or less on their own, with little or no aid coming in.
The Palawan tribe are one of the oldest tribes in the Philippine islands. Anthropologists believe that Sabah, Malaysia and Palawan may have been connected by a land-bridge at some time in history. The theory is that the Palawan tribe walked across the bridge and became the first settlers of the Philippines. In ancient times, the Palawan tribe lived in caves. They developed their own written language, which they used to adorn pottery. It is also supposed that they wrote on banana leaves with a sharp stick, but obviously none of these banana leaves has survived to the present. Today, the writing system seems to have been completely lost by the tribal people themselves. It has been preserved in the museum in Puerto Princesa and in books in Europe.
Historically, the Palawan people had contact with Muslim traders and pirates who worked the waterways around Palawan. It is from trade with the Muslims that they acquired their first metal implements. As they never invented a system of metallurgy, all of their tools and weapons were made of wood and stone. Over the years, many of the Palawan became “civilized.” This is an English word they have adopted to mean that they have moved out of the high mountain caves and now live in isolated villages at lower altitude. Those who remain in the caves are referred to as Tau’t Bato, which means the “people of the stone.” The two groups; Palawan and Tau”t Bato are simply shades of the same tribe. They speak the same language and historically had the same culture and beliefs. The culture of the lower-dwelling Palawan has changed through contact, and in some cases, marriage with Catholics and Muslims.
The jumping off point for a visit to the Palawan tribe and Tau’t Bato people is at the end of a jarring seven hour bus ride from Puerto Princesa city. My colleagues, from Tagbalay Tribal Foundation, and I set out on foot into the jungle. The first five kilometers were quite easy walking. The trail was well marked, and we didn’t need a guide. Along the way, we met a guide from the Palawan tribe, on the way down to town, with two chickens under his arms. When we asked, “Are you Tau’t Bato?” he answered, “I used to be, but now I am civilized.”
Even in their language, they use the English word civilized. The cave dwelling Tau’t Bato follow an animist religion steeped in spirit beliefs. All of the lowland Palawan that we met claimed to be Christian. I wondered if the missionaries told them that part of being civilized was converting.
We asked the guide why he was carrying two chickens. He explained that earlier, he had bought some gallon jugs in town, and already put them in his hut. Now he was walking back down the mountain to pay for them. Apparently, the tribal people used a barter system. This made sense, since there didn’t seem to be a lot of opportunity for cash business. Rather than living in a classical village setting, we found Palawan tribal people living in individual houses with their immediate families. The houses were quite far from one another. None of them had access to the river or any source of water.
The children were all suffering from skin diseases and distended bellies. With little or no water to drink, it is no wonder none could be spared for washing.
The chairman of the local government had told us that the Palawan tribe didn’t want land titles granted under the Ancestral Domain Legislation. This is a law which would give the right of land ownership to the tribe, as a group, forever. “They don”t want it,” said the Chairman, “Because then they couldn”t sell their land because it would belong to the community.”
Obviously, the government”s prohibition against allowing the tribal people to sell their land was put in place to protect the tribe from being fleeced by lowlanders.
“But they don’t own the land now,” I pointed out. “So, how can they sell it?”
“They do sell i,.” said Marifi. “And lowlanders can still push them off of it. Currently their land is considered a timberland.” The timber concerns can buy the land from the tribal people at a low price, then cut down the trees and sell them.
“If they accept the Ancestral Domain Land Grant,” said Marifi, “The land would be in tact forever, and the people could never be forced off by the lowlanders. If they don”t accept it, there is a chance they will sell off all the land and have no place left to live. ”
If the land were granted under Ancestral Domain, then logging would be strictly prohibited. Technically, logging is prohibited everywhere in Palawan. But the ban on logging is strictly enforced in Puerto Princesa. Mayor Hagedorn has taken a strong stance on environmental crimes. In addition to imposing fines and jail sentences on loggers, he also created alternative jobs for them as forest wardens and garbage collectors. Now, the loggers still have an income, and the Puerto Princesa still has trees. But in south Palawan, there is no such protection.
Further up the trail, we stopped to talk to a Palawan family, sitting on the porch of their small hut. Marifi bought pineapples from the family. The price was a measly 10 Pesos. She bought bananas from another family and the price was also ten Pesos. It was strange that everything was ten Pesos. Marifi suggested, “Maybe they don’t really know how to count. Or maybe they know that a ten Peso coin has value, but they don”t understand the other money.” When Marifi paid for the pineapples she couldn”t get a straight answer if it was ten pesos each or ten pesos for the whole bunch. She paid them ten each.
Literature we had read told us that during the dry season, the Tau”t Bato lived in huts, near their small swiden fields. The books said the Tau”t Bato only lived in caves during the rainy season. But, Tau’t Bato we met along the way told us a different story. Although they did relocate during the year, they simply moved from one set of caves to another.
In the old days, they would have supplemented their diet by gathering forest products. Once a month, they would have journeyed to the coastal area to trade with the Muslims for salt, seaweed, lime, and products they couldn”t make themselves. They would also have done some fishing. Today, the Palawan have no access to the sea and very little room to forage.
Two kilometers further on, we arrived at our first destination, a Palawan market site called Balin Balin. Complicating the other problems faced by the tribe, there seemed to be a complete lack of knowledge and interest on the part of the lowlanders. When we asked how far to Balin Balin, lowlanders gave us answers ranging from 8 to 18 kilometers, when in fact it turned out to be only five. We had also been told that there was a market everyday. There is only a market on Wednesday. The misinformation simply proved that lowlanders had never had contact with the tribe.
Amid the market stalls, devoid of people, we found a sixteen-year-old Palawan boy, named Ramlan. Having absolutely nothing else to do, he sat on the porch of his hut all day, staring into nothingness. Even our arrival didn’t awaken him from his catatonic state. Marifi, an expert at talking to tribal people, eventually got Ramlan to open up. The boy seemed horribly depressed, as he told us his story. He quit school during the second grade and can read only a little bit. He admitted that he would like to finish school, but it won’t be easy. There is a school in the village, but there is no teacher. There is another school, several kilometers away, which he could walk to, but Ramlan feels he is too old to sit in a classroom with small children.
While Marifi tried to convince Ramlan to return to school, we heard another young voice come from inside of the hut. This voice belonged to Ramlan”s 19 year old cousin, Alvin, who was so shy and sad, that he refused to come out, only speaking to us through the space between the bamboo walls of his house.
Apparently, Alvin had been given a scholarship by a missionary group. They had taken him to Puerto Princesa, where he graduated high school. Afterwards, he entered Palawan State University and completed one year towards a degree in social work. At that point, the missionaries hit him with an ultimatum. If he wanted to continue his education, he had to agree to become a missionary. They wanted to take him away from Palawan, and send him to Bagio to study religion and mission work. When Alvin refused, he was sent back to the mountain. “There were about ten of us from the tribe in the same situation.” Said Alvin. “I think all of us chose to come back here.” Ramlan told Marifi, “I really hoped to graduate college and then go work abroad so I could send money back, to help my tribe.” Now Alvin, like his cousin Ramlan, just sits all day, with nothing to do.
Occasionally he helps with farm work, but it is obvious that after five years of education in town, he no longer fits in the tribal environment. His spoken Filipino language is perfect, like a lowland native-speaker, and he also speaks English. The house he shares with his mother has no electricity, and the only water in the village comes from a communal pump. The water smelled so badly, that I didn’t want to wash with it, waiting instead, to bath when we returned to town. The tribal people drink this water.
Marifi is a staunch supporter of education for tribal people. “Scholarships need to include not only tuition fees but also room and board and school supplies. Most of all, I think the curriculum needs to be culturally sensitive.”
In my opinion, aid should be given for free, no strings attached. If a church group wants to help children and educate them, then they should do so, expecting nothing in return, not even conversion.”
Right now, all of the government educational programs for tribal people are the same as those for the Christian lowland majority. Consequently, much of the lesson plan is outside the realm of what is relevant for or interesting to tribal children. “Additional modules should be created which focus on tribal history, language, and culture, much of which is being lost.” Said Marifi.
The Palawan tribe for example actually has their own writing system, which is the oldest alphabet in the Philippines, but nearly 100% of the tribe cannot read it or write it. Most aren’t even unaware of this fact. The ones who come down and become civilized often convert to Christianity and lose their tribal belief system. Eventually all of the customs and culture disappear. This could be remedied by educating them in tribal culture and religion at school.
“You cannot force tribal children to understand the same things as the other children. There must be teaching of cultural or indigenous knowledge practices. When tribal children go to school in the lowland, they don’t know any of the things from the regular education program, because it was not intended for them.”
Hiring Alvin and Ramlan as guides, we began the second leg of the journey, up to the domain of the Tau’t Bato. From the market, we walked down a steep valley. We crossed over the river and immediately, the terrain lead straight up. It was the most difficult climb I had done in years, and it just went on and went on, up and up. Alvin and Ramlan didn’t even seem to notice the climb or the heat. Marifi was the first to fall back, opting to wait for us at the river. Eventually we passed a large bamboo hut with a tremendous porch. I would later be told that this is the overnight point for trekkers who wish to visit the Tau’t Bato. Outside the big house was a small house high up on stilts, which locals referred to as a farm house. These smaller houses are built next to swiden fields, and locals only stay in them when they need to plant or harvest.
If you wish to visit the Tau’t Bato, the optimal way to make the trek is to set out early in the morning, rest at the markets, as we had done, then climb to the overnight point and stop. That would be a relatively hard day of trekking, but probably only about eight kilometers of distance. The next morning, you could wake up early and continue up to the caves, only three or four kilometers further up. Safety is very important here because you are far from the nearest help. Make sure to bring plenty of clean, bottled water. It would be risky to drink the water in the river. When I was down to two bottles of water, I paid a tribal woman to boil the river water and refill my empty bottles with it. Still, I put these bottles at the bottom of my pack, vowing not to risk drinking them unless I was nearly dead. At best, boiling can kill bacteria. But boiling will do nothing for chemicals or other impurities in the water. Fortunately, I made it home on my remaining two bottles of water, and didn”t have to test the boiled water.
Malaria is your other major health risk in this location, so it is best to travel at a time when there are fewer mosquitoes. There are less mosquitoes during the dry season than the rainy season. The mosquitoes are more of a problem at night, than during the day. In the day time, you need to apply mosquito repellent frequently and generously. At night, you must sleep under mosquito netting. As the risk of contagion was explained to me, the mosquitoes carry malaria because they have recently fed on an infected animal or person. So, the trick is to stay away from infected animals and persons. In theory this decreases the risk of mosquitoes carrying the disease. Many, if not all, of the tribal people are living with malaria. So, sleeping near the tribal people is dangerous. It is best to plan your trip in such a way that you can leave the tribal area before dark. If you get stranded on the mountain, don’t sleep inside the village. Walk as far from the tribal area as possible and make camp.
Another kilometer up the mountain we found the massive stones which marked the entrance to the tribal domain, Signapan. On the other side was the domain of the sacred spirits.
A local government worker told us proudly that when he goes up the mountain, he spends time with the tribe. “We eat and sleep together. I understand them.” He said, suggesting no one else did. “I don’t believe in the spirits.” He told us, proudly. To understand the Palawan tribe, however, you must understand the spirits, or at least know of the Palawan”s reverence for them.
The wife of the government worker, on the other hand, understood. She told us, “When Reyster Langit, went up to the Tau’t Bato, they said he died of malaria. But I think it was something else. He was very noisy and laughing, disrespectfully to the spirits. He even moved his bowels in the sacred river basin.”
She believed, as did many locals, that the man died of some type of curse brought on because he offended the spirits. A guide, who had been working in the mountains for years, told us. “You have to ask permission to take pictures of the Tau’t Bato. You must ask where, when, and what. For example, the background, if a tree contains a spirit you can’t photograph it. Also the time of year or day may not be appropriate to take photos. That team of journalists didn’t ask permission, and they died.”
It was rainy season. Looking at my watch, I knew that we had run out of time if we were going to get back before dark. I was tempted to pass the stone gate and enter the domain of the spirits. But instead, I turned around, and we headed back down the mountain. The spirit domain will have to wait for a longer expedition, which we will launch during April, the driest month of the year.