Where in Australia have you visited so far?
Epang: We have visited four places - Perth, Sydney, Canberra and Brisbane. During our visits we were able to meet other Indigenous people and were able to discuss about our culture and how we can continue to maintain it for future generations. We also talked about Indigenous empowerment in our community.
What are your observations of Australia?
Orosco: We saw how people take care of the environment - the ways in which they take care of the forest and trees are really good. It is also very clean in Australia. But, we also noticed that many people here waste food, they throw away food that is still good, unlike in our community where we value and economise the use of our food.
Can your observations of Australia help you when you return to your country?
Tubag: We will bring to our people the encouraging ways Australians protect the environment. We will also tell our people to continue on with what we are doing for the environment, like reforestation to prevent flood.
We also noticed that people in Australia are very considerate. We were able to witness an incident in a bus station when a distressed man had overweight luggage. He was so distressed that he threw some contents of his bag onto the ticket counter and, to our surprise, the attendant at the ticket counter just picked up the clothes and still allowed the man in.
Does LAKAS have a particular program that deals with the environment?
Tubag: What we are doing is reforesting and making sure that we don't abuse the forest. We use a different method of kaingin [slash and burn] that does not destroy other vegetation.
You met with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Youth Working Party, how did your discussions go?
Tubag: They shared with us their problems such as drug and alcohol abuse. They also mentioned the high incidence of suicide among youths. Their relationship with the police force is also a problem because there are many Aborigines in prison. These particular problems they experience are not present in our community. We created law that will discipline our Indigenous youths - like there will be some punishment if you use food money to buy alcohol.
In your own experience as Indigenous peoples, what were the problems you encountered as far as the presence of military bases was concerned?
Orosco: When the American bases were in our land, they fenced our forest and they put up signs saying, "No Trespassing". Our elders, who could neither read nor write, just ignored the signs and continued on with their hunting. When the American soldiers sighted them they became instant targets. The Americans who killed our people were not tried in our country because they are citizens of another country. They were just sent home and walked away free from their crimes.
What are the problems facing the Ayta youths in Zambales?
Epang: Our major problem is about our traditional land. Even us youths, think about traditional land ownership above other problems. We know that the struggle for our land is our responsibility as youth, we are the ones who will continue the struggle.
We can be thankful about the eruption of Pinatubo for one reason - it drove the American bases out from our land. However, we are sad to hear that the Americans will return to the country through the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). The bases will not be returning to Zambales, but to South Cotabato. We believe that the government changed the name to VFA in order to hide the real situation from the Filipino people.
Another issue we are starting to be aware of are the women's issues. We are now more sensitive about the situation of our mothers and sympathetic of their role at home. We also have young women who went away to be employed by lowlanders as domestic helpers and many of these women were exploited - maltreated or not paid enough money, some were even paid in old clothing. Their decision to work for the lowlanders sometimes makes it difficult for us to organise with them.
How do you address the problems that you are facing?
Orosco, Tubag and Epang: We have learned to hold a dialogue with other people who are leading different sectors of the Government. We are united in sending our message to the Government. We also hold rallies and attend hearings - for example, we went to Baguio when the Cordillerans had a hearing about their Indigenous peoples' ancestral lands. We also have a problem over the law called the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA). It was promised to us during the elections, possibly to gain votes. But recently, the Government decided to scrap this Act because it will sabotage the businesses of rich people, some of whom are in the Congress and Senate. They would like to continue mining on our land and in our forests.
How can you compare yourselves to the elders of your community?
Tubag: Our elders see us as no different from them because we truly value the knowledge they impart to us. What we can contrast with them is our access to education. In the past, they saw education as a tool for exploitation and that was the main reason why they didn't want to send their children to school. That point of view also changed when they were exposed to the literacy program.
Do you follow a particular literacy program in your community?
Epang: Our literacy program is based on the method of Paulo Freire. This method was used in our community especially by our parents who had never experienced attending mainstream education. This method works because they not only learned to read and write and count, but they also learned how they could use this acquired knowledge in real life. However, we do not believe in 'dictating' knowledge of literacy, the facilitators make it a point to bring out the knowledge from the learners.
You are all studying in a mainstream secondary school. How do you compare the mainstream school to your community's literacy program?
Orosco: In the school where we attend, our teachers only 'bank' knowledge into the students. They are the only ones who will tell you what is right and wrong. But just like in banking, they will 'withdraw' through examination what they have 'banked'.
How are the Ayta students treated in your school by the teachers and peers?
Tubag: They show their respect to the Ayta children in our school. The Ayta students in Botolan High School are highly regarded because of our achievement in school and in our community. They also admire us for our behaviour and discipline.
Have there been any cases of your own people taking part in the exploitation of your community?
Tubag: We did have an experience when an Ayta recruited our own people to work as farmhands. We discovered later that he was only paying 50 pesos per person - half the agreed 100 pesos wage. This is also the same person who deceived the whole community by selling honey made from sugar cane. We documented his wrongdoings and confronted him about them. We told him to leave the community and he accepted our community's decision.
How do the elders in your community see the changes within the Ayta youth?
Orosco, Tubag and Epang: They see our generation as the ones who can help them to prevent exploitation of our community. We also make them aware of how much they were a part of the shaping of our generation. To show our gratitude to our parents and elders, we let them know how united we are in helping each other. We also help our elders by organising groups in our community - something that they can be proud of. The elders also see how the community values education and how parents become inspired to see us be educated.
LAKAS is very organised. How do you share your knowledge with other Indigenous peoples in the Philippines?
Tubag, Orosco & Epang: We can help other Indigenous peoples by holding seminars. We sometimes visit them in their communities. So far, four groups have visited with us: the T'bolis, B'laans, Subanons and Bouganvillians. We held seminars on different topics such as leadership, self-discovery and literacy program, especially the method of Paulo Freire. Most especially we help them by showing our solidarity with their struggles, for example in signing petition papers. They understand that we cannot help in monetary terms, but the knowledge we impart to them will be more valuable than money and will be appreciated by their future generations.