Philip­pines’ Aeta peo­ple say they are ‘beg­gars’ and ‘aliens’ in their own land

The China Post - - LIFE - BY CE­CIL MORELLA

Philip­pine bush man Ed­ward Ser­rano struck two rocks to­gether and wrapped the faint spark in wood shav­ings, build­ing a fire in much the same way Stone Age man must have done 2 mil­lion years ago.

The short, Afro-ed jun­gle sur­vival in­struc­tor is an Aeta, from one of the most unique eth­no­lin­guis­tic peo­ples of the Philip­pines, who are also the ar­chi­pel­ago’s first known in­hab­i­tants.

But af­ter hunt­ing and gath­er­ing for most of the past 40,000 years, their bushcraft is nearly for­got­ten, many of their lan­guages are all but ex­tinct, and their way of life is swiftly dy­ing out.

Rapid ur­ban­iza­tion has turned tiny Aeta for­est set­tle­ments into vir­tual is­lands, their no­madic lifestyle shut down as the deer, warthog and jun­gle fowl they hunt for food are ex­tir­pated.

“We can no longer do many of the things that our an­ces­tors took for granted,” said Ser­rano, a highschool dropout who teaches sol­diers and po­lice how to make fire with­out matches or lighters.

He teaches them where to look for wa­ter, should they get lost in the jun­gle, and which leaves, fruits and seeds are safe to eat — skills learnt from his fa­ther.

Sa­pang Uwak, which means Crow Creek, his sun-baked vil­lage in the foothills of the Pi­natubo vol­cano about two hours’ drive from Manila, show­cases both the old way of life — and the dis­rup­tion of the new.

Lan­guid wa­ter buf­faloes pull carts filled with bananas and taro along dirt roads, parched river beds and forests that the com­mu­nity of 1,700 peo­ple claim as their an­ces­tral do­main.

But to leave their vil­lage to take their pro­duce to mar­ket or find work as farmhands or con­struc­tion work­ers, they have to pass through a gi­ant pri­vate en­ter­tain­ment park.

‘Aliens in our own land’

A 1997 law rec­og­nized the rights of some 15 mil­lion eth­nic mi­nori­ties to their an­ces­tral lands, and Sa­pang Uwak and nearby Aeta set­tle­ments have filed claims on a com­bined 17,000 hectares.

How­ever, the gov­ern­ment has yet to de­fine the bound­aries of many ar­eas, fu­el­ing fears of en­croach­ment by pri­vate de­vel­op­ers, said Ro­man King, leader of an as­so­ci­a­tion of Aeta com­mu­ni­ties.

“We were the first peo­ples of the Philip­pines, but now we are aliens in our own coun­try,” said King, a re­tired po­lice­man from the nearby set­tle­ment of Inararo.

“If we lose our lands we have nowhere else to go ... You’ll see more of us beg­ging in the streets,” he said.

Most of the Philip­pines’ es­ti­mated 7 mil­lion Ae­tas live in tiny, iso­lated com­mu­ni­ties, en­gaged in slash-and­burn farm­ing — clear­ing forests for fields — mov­ing with the sea­sons and with lim­ited con­tact with the out­side world.

Aside from Sa­pang Uwak, three other Pi­natubo Aeta com­mu­ni­ties have won ti­tles to 39,000 hectares, giv­ing the fam­i­lies steady cash from land leased to quar­ries, golf cour­ses, and tourist re­sorts.

But it is a cum­ber­some process and typ­i­cally takes years to com­plete, said Jonathan Adaci, di­rec­tor of the an­ces­tral do­mains of­fice at the Na­tional Com­mis­sion on In­dige­nous Peo­ples.

A mere 180 ti­tles have been handed out na­tion­wide, with some 5 mil­lion other claims still be­ing pro­cessed, Adaci said.

By law an­ces­tral do­mains can­not be bought nor sold, but this has not stopped out­siders from mys­te­ri­ously ob­tain­ing ti­tles.

“At times there are some power- ful peo­ple in gov­ern­ment in­volved,” he told AFP, de­clin­ing to give names.

Un­scrupu­lous peo­ple talk un­edu- cated Ae­tas into part­ing with their land in­her­i­tance for a pit­tance, said Cyn­thia Zayas, a Univer­sity of the Philip­pines an­thro­pol­o­gist.

AFP

In this photo taken June 11, Aeta chil­dren write dur­ing class at a school in Sa­pang Uwak. Teach­ers of­ten pay for pen­cils and pa­per out of their own pocket.

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