KASAMA Vol. 13 No. 3 / July-August-September 1999 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

A tribal community's struggle for cultural and political survival:
Three young Aboriginal Filipino students tell the background story behind the Mount Pinatubo eruption in 1991

by Deborah Ruiz Wall

'Two of our elders, a man and a woman, ran into the erupting volcano. Our mother is sick. This life offering is in solidarity with our spiritual mother.'

This was just one of the fascinating stories told by three young visiting indigenous people from the Ayta tribe in the Philippines. They were the survivors of the recent Mount Pinatubo eruption in Central Luzon Philippines that submerged many villages and towns with mud, lava and ashes in 1991. Their province, Sambales, is about 150 km north of Manila.

Their community survived for generations living on the slopes of Mount Pinatubo. As a result of the destruction of their place, they have evacuated 55 km away from their homeland and are now recreating a replica of the forest home they have lost.

Three indigenous youth leaders, age ranging from 15-18, Tubag Jugatan, Orosco Cabalic and Epang Domulot are visiting Australia to meet Aboriginal people here and to thank Australians, especially the Uniting Church, for their support before, during and after the Mount Pinatubo devastation.

They met indigenous people and other Australians in Perth, Brisbane and Sydney. They performed their traditional dance and shared their stories with Aboriginal Australian students at Cleveland High School in Sydney during the school's cultural event recently.

The Aytas' tribal community of just over 200 families averaging 7 to 12 children had become very organised ever since the literacy program was started by Church workers in 1982. It turned out to be a very good program and whole villages were targeted, enabling their elders to overcome illiteracy and broaden their understanding of economic exploitation and unwanted incursion into their territory.

The program was patterned after the Paulo Freire method first tested in Recife, Brazil where literacy is taught, not in a cultural vacuum, but in the context of people's communal life experience so that it became a tool that inspired people to change their lives for the better and take charge of their own destiny. The Aytas formed cooperatives in twelve villages - a byproduct of the Paulo Freire literacy program. Two of their elders personally met the late Paulo Freire himself in Brazil.

The elders then taught younger members of their community how to read. Although their culture is constantly under threat, they make an effort to strengthen their bond with each other and preserve their culture.

The growing strength of their community did not escape the authorities and they were harassed by the military and accused of being a front of the military arm of the Communist Party, the New People's Army. The government during Marcos' martial law era branded their leaders as 'subversives' and tried to discourage the literacy program activity. The Aytas believe that the intent was to keep their people in ignorance "so they could exploit us more". Despite this harassment, they were not discouraged.

The Philippine National Oil Company sought to move into their territory and commenced drilling for geothermal exploration into the side of the Mountain, a volcano that had been dormant for 600 years. Their community refused the company entry but other indigenous tribes on the Pampanga side of the mountain allowed drilling to take place. It is the Aytas' belief that certain chemicals were poured down into these huge holes in the ground, pushing the magma up and resulting in the explosive eruption of Mount Pinatubo. The damage to the US facilities convinced the Americans that it was time for them to pack up their bags and go. At that time, the ninety-nine-year old lease of the US Bases in the country was about to be re-negotiated with the Philippine government.

At the time of the volcanic activity, their community organised their own evacuation. Everyone survived except for the two voluntary life offering, a practice in keeping with their faith. They attributed their survival to having 'listened' to the warning they received - the peak of the mountain's top seemed to crunch up and all the animals from the wilderness and deep forest came out of the bush and went down. It was the Aytas who alerted the volcanologists of the impending eruption of the volcano.

Each year on the 2nd of April, they celebrate the anniversary of their survival in Mount Pinatubo and the young leaders say they hope that one day they can return to their own homeland, if not they themselves, their children's children. Their hilly land, home to them, was flattened and buried by volcanic debris.

Today the community is organised under the banner of Lubos na Alyansa ng mga Katutubong Ayta ng Sambales or LAKAS (Negrito People's Alliance of Zambales). They have a Council equally represented in decision making from age groups 5-9, 10-14, 15-19, men and women divisions, 20-64; and elders from 65 and above.

Their quiet assertiveness was demonstrated by a child who made a comment that embarrassed an elite group accompanying agencies giving relief goods to calamity victims. They were asked to dance before being provided the goods in such a way that undermined their dignity. The child said they were not "chickens to be thrown food at", implying that the community was not interested in being used as a source of amusement in exchange for receiving relief goods. No one picked up the coins and instead the people gathered the harvest produced by their cooperative and distributed it to their people as well as shared it with others.

Today this group of young people run literacy and leadership workshops and seminars for other indigenous tribes in the Philippines such as the B'laan people of Cotabato. They also made a contribution to the running of literacy programs in Bougainville in Papua New Guinea as they believe that people in other countries also share the same struggle that they experience.

What concerns them is the preservation of ecological balance in their area, the recognition of their political and human rights and the right to have control over their own lives and resources. They want self determination and sovereignty. Under President Joseph Estrada, they fear that the Act to protect indigenous rights to their land, which has not yet been implemented, will be repealed to wind back legal reform that has been hard won.

They are concerned about the overture to invite the US Bases back in the Philippines by establishing new facilities in South Cotabato under the Visiting Forces Agreement. They know of the drugs and prostitution business that mushroomed at the time of the US bases stay in the Philippines.

At the Botolan Community High School where these three indigenous student leaders go, they are among the thirty indigenous people now receiving education out of the total 1,436 students. This impetus no doubt was a byproduct of the original literacy program started in 1982 by Church workers.

They have not adopted Christianity but have gained respect for people of faith. They believe that we simply have different names for the same God. They hold ecumenical gathering and service with people from other religions to honour the Creator especially during the Mount Pinatubo anniversary and thanksgiving celebration each year. They value the support provided by the Uniting Church in Australia that enables them to continue their work not only within their own community but also with any other groups who could be empowered from receiving their type of leadership training.

They have come, the youth leaders say, rather than their elders because it is acknowledged that they will one day take full responsibility for their people's future. They have come to learn during their travel in Australia, establish links with indigenous and non-indigenous Australians and share with us their experience of how they managed to preserve, against some odds, the richness of their culture.

About the Author: Deborah Ruiz Wall is convenor of the Filipino Women's Working Party, a SPAN member and a regular contributor to Kasama.