KASAMA Vol. 15 No. 3 / July-August-September 2001 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network
Pinatubo: our Ancestral Land, and to this place, we shall return
On June 15, 2001 the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Philvocs) organised a forum to mark the 10th year since the eruption of Mt Pinatubo. Ben Jugatan, Orosco Cabalic and Epang Domulot of LAKAS (Lubos na Alyansa ng mga Katutubong Ayta ng Sambales - Negrito Peoples Alliance of Zambales) were invited as speakers to share their experiences of the eruption. This essay written by EPANG DOMULOT won the first prize of 25,000 pesos in the Philvocs essay writing competition which she donated to the LAKAS scholarship fund for the benefit of all the students. The essay was translated from Tagalog by DEBORAH RUIZ WALL
Many years have passed. I am 17 years old now. I have been to many places here and overseas to talk about my experience as an aboriginal youth. I spoke of our ancestral land, livelihood, culture and political experience. I have met with B'laan, T'boli, Igorot, Dumagat1 and even Australian Aborigines. Yet I still cannot erase from my mind the pain rendered by the eruption of Mount Pinatubo.
We were happily playing under the leafy banana tree in our vegetable garden at Sitio Makinang, part of Villar, Botolan, Zambales. My father reprimanded us because we stepped on his sweet potato, ube2, patani3 and corn plants.
Our garden had a good view of Mount Pinatubo. I didn't know the exact distance for I was only seven years old. But I could clearly see the trees at the foot of the mountain and the clouds playfully circling around 'GAYANG', the huge rock seemingly planted atop Pinatubo. My grandfather said that at 'GAYANG' is where 'APO NAMALYARI', the name we give to the Almighty Creator, lives.
We suddenly stopped playing when father pointed to the dark smoke exhaling from a hole at the side of Mount Pinatubo. We also observed many birds flying away from the mountain. We felt the earth shake at once. I felt I was being swayed and at the same time, I heard a loud noise like a bulldozer in action. I fell on my bottom. I didn't know what to do while waiting for Father to grab the water buffalo from the stream.
I walked and ran crying with my older sister while going down to Sitio Yamot. Father and Mother stayed behind for a while with my other brothers, sisters and other relatives. I didn't mind the weight of the basket we call "lubon" which contained sweet potato and a few pieces of gabi.4 We found no one at all at Yamot. The stillness was like a graveyard except for a few domestic chickens wandering on the road. We rested awhile to wait for Father and Mother.
We went to Villar where we saw our other relatives who resided in other places. Villar had a town fiesta feel about it with the number of people who gathered there. We billeted ourselves there with a relative of my father for a few days. Then someone came who said, "You need to evacuate to Poonbato!" ("He is from Philvocs," an Indigenous leader said.) "There is grave danger. Mount Pinatubo is having a tantrum."
We hurried along on our descent to Poonbato. I noticed many dead fish in the Marawonot River. The water was fuzzy, smelly and tepid. The water was knee deep and I had difficulty walking, feeling exhausted from the experience of the last few days. Father built a tent at Poonbato next to the church, which served as our temporary home. Some sought refuge in the convent; others went into the church or into the new building owned by LAKAS (Negrito People's Alliance of Zambales) next to the church. We stayed there for a month. Through the help of the LAKAS cooperative, we had ample food. Within a few weeks, help came from various groups, from the government but mostly from NGOs (non-government organizations).
As we were not at all used to this lifestyle, LAKAS leaders, along with the nuns - their counterpart, searched for a place where we could build huts and have a garden. It was decided to move to Sitio Ogik. This place is near Villar and has a view of Mount Pinatubo. The place was subdivided according to the number of family members. Everyone built their huts at about the same time. I helped do the weeding within the block of land that was allocated to us. We planted sweet potato, corn and other vegetables.
We felt happier there compared to Poonbato because it seemed like we were back to our own ways, having established our own vegetable garden. To have a semblance of order, we set up a temporary office which served as the LAKAS headquarters.
After a few months, news came that the 'danger zone' had reached Ogik and we were asked to evacuate once more. We fled to Mount Tumangan. Again we built temporary shelter for the LAKAS group. My father, the nuns and other leaders hardly had any rest. Everyone was busy planning what to do should Mount Pinatubo erupt. After a week at Tumangan, we felt the earth shake continuously. I was so frightened because the shaking was accompanied by lightning and thunder. The sky turned black, there was a rain of rocks and sand. Everything turned white. We were all thrown into confusion. We had no idea which way to run to be picked up by the vehicles.
We fled to St Augustine's School at Iba. I was sad because we left behind our water buffalo and other household items. The next day, the earth shook again. The building where we were temporarily staying swayed. We were all scared and decided to flee yet again to Sta Cruz, at a school near the priest's presbytery. We had a hard time over there as there were not enough toilets. We were saddened to hear that we had to move again because the administrators of the school said classes were about to begin. The Franciscan Missionaries of Mary (FMM) nuns and LAKAS leaders tried hard to persuade the administrators to let us stay at this school but to no avail. We were again forced to move to look for another place. Apo Namalyari took pity on us and pointed us to a school at Candelaria, Zambales. This school was run by a foreign priest, a friend of the nuns and LAKAS. We were warmly welcomed.
Everyone got busy putting up tents. My mother undertook the role of healer, using 'panganganito' or indigenous traditional healing methods. My task was to care for my younger brothers and sisters. While rocking my sibling to sleep, I observed my parents and other families build their shelter. I was saddened by what happened to us, our constant moving. Some people welcomed us; others didn't. With what had transpired, we remembered our old home. We yearned to return to our own ancestral land at the foot of Mount Pinatubo, where no one forbade us from doing what we wanted, where we were free to live and plant our gardens.
After many weeks living in this school at Candelaria, we moved to Bulawen, Palauig, Zambales on the invitation of Governor Amor Deloso, then the incumbent governor. More and more families moved in there and many tents were erected so it was called "Tent City". We experienced more hardship there because of the congestion. The tents were cramped next to each other, the heat was suffocating, the toilets were scarce, and everywhere you went was full of flies. An epidemic ensued. Many died! One of the victims was my youngest sibling. Often three to four children died at the same time and were buried on the same day. This situation led our companions to decide to resettle elsewhere.
LAKAS leaders were convinced that we should find a place near Mount Pinatubo where we could physically see the mountain. Bihawo, Botolan, Zambales was such a place. From the moment I stepped into it, I felt light-hearted. The wilderness was thick with trees, home to many birds and other animals. The mountainous terrain of Bihawo reminded me instantly of the place of my childhood.
All the families were given a block of land to build their home and plant a variety of vegetables and trees. Apart from this, my father was given an additional garden plot we call gasak. I helped weed the thick grass. We turned the earth and planted rice. At the same time, we planted tree markers to indicate the boundary for each family's block of land.
I always got myself involved in weeding in between the rice seedlings so they would grow quickly. It was so hard to care for the rice, and we were thankful to Apo Namalyari to have received plentiful harvest. We made an offering. My Father and Mother made a pinipig5 and put it into 'halakang', a container for an offering made up of boho.
The second harvest wasn't as good as the first despite the fact that the method of care used was the same. The invasion of balang6 was no doubt the reason why the plantation was partly wrecked. On the other side, we continued to plant fruit trees like mangoes, cashew, langka,7 bananas and others.
While the plants were growing steadily, our knowledge was broadening in literacy, reading, numeracy, and cultural awareness through the education for liberation program conceived by Paulo Freire. We were taught how to stand on our feet and achieve self empowerment. We were able to learn how to mould and shape ourselves through practices such as leadership and administration of our community.
We did not forget our formal education. I enrolled in Grade One along with other children. This is when I started to experience the oppression of my fellow 'straight-haired'8 students who insulted us with words like "kulot salot" (kinky hair), "Itah… Itah… Itah… Maitim" (Ayta… Ayta… Ayta… Black), and if we could not answer a question, they'd say, "they don't have that in the mountains". They laughed at us when we wore the Lubay9 and Baheleng,10 our native garments.
All these insults and put-down remarks for Indigenous students I experienced until I reached High School. I was hurt but I fought back. I tried to be strong inside and often near tears, I tried to let the teacher know. I didn't expect the teacher to listen but the teacher talked to the rest of my fellow students about my concern.
I was surprised that my teacher showed concern for Indigenous students. I was encouraged to persuade my brothers and sisters and fellow Indigenous students to form a party which we called LAKAS to participate in the Student Body Organization at our school. Out of the 15 positions, six of us won the positions of Vice President, Treasurer, two Business Managers, Press Information Officer and a representative in fourth year. I was delighted along with my fellow Indigenous students to see that gradually we are being acknowledged as people endowed with rights.
We strengthened and deepened the organisation of our community and the various sectors within it: Sektor Uybon-uybon (Children's Sector), 5-9 years old; Sektor Uybon (Junior Youth Sector), 10-14 years old; Sektor Kabataan (Senior Youth Sector), 15-19 years old; Sektor Kababaihan (Women's Sector), 20 up; Sektor Kalalakihan (Men's Sector), 20 up; and Sektor Tua (Elder's Sector), 65 up. Each sector has its own role to play based on capacity.
Our organisation LAKAS recognises and acknowledges the dignity and rights of women equal to those of men. Each position of responsibility is occupied by a leader represented by each gender. Little children and the youth also play a significant role in our organisation as the foundation post for the future. As a member of the youth sector, I was given an important position. I am currently both President of the Senior Youth Sector and Secretary for the whole of LAKAS.
During our organising, we are given training in leadership, the law, rights of Indigenous peoples, gender awareness, financial administration, making organic fertilizers, how to attain self sufficiency, improve our
livelihood and farming methods at the University of the Philippines, Los Bańos and Education for Life Foundation and many others.
At the moment, I am one of many young people giving training to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous brothers and sisters. We have trained our fellow Indigenous peoples like the Dumagat, B'laan, T'boli, Kalinga, and Indigenous people from Bougainville, sister farmers in Botolan and fellow 'straight-haired' students from Botolan Community High School and others.
We are gradually waking up to our rights to our ancestral land. We have learnt to speak in public about various issues such as: Ancestral Land, The Law and Rights from the perspective of our Ancestral Land, Charter Change and many others. I am one of the spokespersons representing Indigenous youth along with those representing other sectors - farmers, fisherfolk, workers and employees. We also assist and link up with government agencies, and NGOs in other countries.
As President of the Youth Sector, I was invited, along with two boys, to visit Australia and Singapore. We saw our fellow Indigenous peoples in Australia who call themselves Aborigines. We talked to them about our culture, education, ancestral land, our experience during the eruption of Mount Pinatubo and how we picked ourselves up from this disaster, and the current situation among Indigenous peoples in the Philippines.
The eruption of Mount Pinatubo did not prove to be a real disaster, it gave us opportunities to show the 'straight-hair' that we too have the ability to empower ourselves, walk with dignity and have the skills to govern and administer our own community.
While we have reached this level of progress and education, I am myself currently in the fourth year of high school and, if I am lucky, I will finish college and return to our organisation to give service and continue to help our community progress. I shall continue to let our culture flourish and never forget the past and our desire to return to our ancestral land, Mount Pinatubo. This is our life and to this place we shall return.
- Epang Domulot
1 B'laan, T'boli, Igorot, Dumagat - four of the many Indigenous peoples of the Philippines.
2 Root crop similar to the sweet potato except for its deep purple colour.
3 Kidney beans.
4 Taro; sticky edible tuber.
5 Rice stamped flat.
8 Non-Indigenous students differentiated from the Aytas by the appearance of their hair.