Tagbanua Tribe How Do We Preserve Tribal Cultures and Alleviate Poverty in the Fourth World

By Antonio Graceffo

An orange Philippine sun had barely risen over the horizon as the colorful jeepney, painted with Catholic slogans, pulled into the dusty bus terminal. Instantly, a mass of people crowded in, filling the vehicle to double or triple capacity, many of them holding baskets of eggs or produce they hoped to sell in the remote parts of the island. The air carried the cackling of live chickens, which some held on their laps. About twenty men climbed on to the roof and braced themselves for a long ride. Two live pigs squealed and kicked violently as they were hoisted onto the roof as unwilling passengers. I took a seat on the floor, with my legs resting on the back bumper where five more men clung like firefighters on their way to a blaze.

An hour and a half outside of town, the paved road ended and we bounced down a dusty country road for another hour and half to a police checkpoint, where my translator and I disembarked. The day was growing hot as we marched five kilometers into the jungle. Along the way, we had to cross two rivers and countless acres of large-scale rice farms owned by rich, lowland Christian Filipinos.

Eventually, the path broadened and the jungle gave way to a small village of houses with woven walls, set on bamboo stilts. The village boasted a makeshift church, a single shop made of bamboo, and a one-room school building. There was also a small community house built by the Tagbalay Tribal Foundation. It was the only building in the village which had electricity, and it was equipped with two sixty-watt lightbulbs. None of the buildings and none of the homes had running water.

The shop was obviously the village hangout, with the owner dispensing treats and necessities through a window cut in the wire mesh. People stared at me as I walked by. They seemed very unused to seeing a foreigner in this remote village. On the other side of the path was a sagging basketball goal where several young children were playing. The village residents were mostly from the Tagbanua tribe with a few families from the Batak tribe. Not a single person wore traditional clothing or was engaged in any type of traditional behavior, although the primary language in the village was clearly Tagbanua, not Filipino.

The village chief lived in the same type of house as all the others, woven walls and bamboo stilts. He was 58 years old and the father of eight children. Like everyone else, he had no electricity or running water. Inside his house, there were almost no possessions of any kind. The villagers were some of the poorest people I had encountered in southeast Asia.

“There are 76 families in the village,” said the chief. “Most families have between five and eight children.”

He told us that the school only provided education through the fifth grade. To attend sixth grade, the children would have to walk the same five kilometers back through the jungle, the way we had come in. Once they cleared the jungle, they would have to flag down a jeepney and pay for a ride to a school, another five to seven kilometers away.

“None of my children finished high school,” said the chief. “My oldest son is 26. He attended one year of high school but then quit, because he lost interest.”

From the entire village, only three children were enrolled in high school. The chief told us that most families couldn’t afford the annual school fee which was a paltry 150 pesos (about US$3). The transportation cost was probably also a factor, as was the loss of revenue to the family if a child was attending school rather than working.

“My dream is for my children to go to high school. But when they finish, I want them to stay in the village because we don’t have money to send them to the city to look for jobs.”

According to the chief, only three members of the village had gone to the city to find jobs.

The villagers earn their living through slash-and-burn rice farming. In the past, they supplemented their diet by producing charcoal to sell. They also gathered forest products such as rattan and honey, which they sold to buy vegetables and meat that they couldn’t produce themselves. Nowadays, however, there were moratoriums against gathering most forest products. Even the wood, which would have been gathered and burned to produce charcoal, is now restricted.

To replace the income and calories the Tagbanua could have earned through their ancillary businesses, Tagbalay Tribal Foundation donated several water buffalos to the village. Unfortunately, they only had a budget for three or four buffalo, so the impact on the tribe was minimal.

Basically, to summarize the situation presented by the chief, the villagers can’t make a living in their remote village, and they can’t afford to leave. Even if they could leave, where would they go? The closest city is Puerto Princesa, where even qualified university graduates have a hard time finding a job. The Tagbanua, like tribal people in many parts of Asia, find themselves living in the Fourth World. They are the disenfranchised people of a developing nation whose ethnic majority are finding it hard to earn a living.

The Tagbanua tribe is one of the oldest Philippine tribes. Some scholars maintain that either the Tagbanua, or the neighboring Batak tribe, is the original inhabitant of the Philippines. Today, most of the Tagbanua have converted to Christianity. They bury their dead. Children marry at fifteen or sixteen. Apart from their extreme poverty, they live pretty much the same as rural Filipinos. Historically, the Tagbanua was a unique tribe in that it invented its own writing system. The chief claimed he could write in Tagbanua script, but when I handed him my notebook, he laboriously wrote a single word in the Philippine alphabet. After I asked him several times about the original Tagbanua alphabet, it became clear that he had no idea what I was talking about. There is a single document and several pieces of pottery bearing the Tagbanua alphabet at the museum in Puerto Princesa. Most researchers say that the Tagbanua script, like the Tagbanua cultural traditions, is preserved in museums and books, but it are completely lost to the tribe.

Stopping by the one-room schoolhouse, I met the brave teacher who was trying his best to educate his 26 students. The school, of course, had no electric light. His only resources were some moldy old textbooks in a pile on a desk. He had third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders all in one classroom at the same time. The youngest student was seven and the oldest fifth-grader was fourteen years old. In the city, a fourteen-year-old would be in grade nine or ten.

“The biggest problem for me as a teacher is having several grades in one room,” admitted the teacher. “For the kids, some of them don’t speak Filipino very well. So, reading is extremely difficult for them. Learning English is nearly impossible.”

A bright spot in the plight of the Tagbanua is the Philippine government program for land grants under the Ancestral Domain Program. Through this program, the chief and the village residents owned the land they were living on. But they were under constant pressure from outsiders. The Puerto Princesa City government, led by Mayor Hagedorn, has instituted many programs to aid the tribal people, including coordinating with the Tagbalay Foundation and building the elementary school and sending medical aid missions. But the tribal question is not easy. At present, no one seems to have a definitive idea of how exactly to help the tribal people.

Marifi Nitor-Pablico, directress of the Tagbalay Foundation, has spent years trying to understand the tribes. She loses sleep, worrying about how to improve their quality of life.

“All of the culture is lost,” she tells me in her office in Puerto Princesa. “All we can do is go back to the documents, recorded by foreign and Filipino researchers. And there is no way to validate any of it. There is no one who can tell us if the customs or beliefs, which appear in the books, still exist.”

We both agreed that in doing tribal research it was difficult, if impossible, to get any information from the tribes themselves.

As Dr. Fernandez, a leading anthropologist and tribal expert said, “There is a cultural memory loss.”

All you can accomplish by going to the villages is taking photos and checking on the current state of health and welfare of the people. But as for history, there is probably more information about the Tagbanua in university libraries in France than you could get from visiting the tribes yourself.

“I read books which said the Tagbanua had this or that tradition, but I went there, and, none of them knew about it,” said Marifi. “It seems all of the traditions they had are nearly gone.

“A few years ago, I was doing an extensive field study on the Tagbanua. The one tradition they still had was that before they did their slash-and-burn farming, they had to ask permission from the spirits to cut the trees. They absolutely insisted on doing this ceremony. But it was the only one I witnessed. They were so vocal about it, that for me, this suggests that they don’t know about the other ceremonies or they would have talked about them.”

Total Tagbanua population in Palawan is over 10,000. There is another Tagbanua tribe in Coron Island, which is not really related and speaks a very different language. Even in Palawan there is little communication between Tagbanua communities, which may be one reason why a researcher documents a custom in one community, but we don’t find it in another. Information and ideas are not being shared between communities.

Not all Tagbanua live the same way as the village I visited. The majority of Tagbanua have moved closer to the city and live pretty much the same as the average lowland Christian Filipino. Francis, my friend who works at Tagbalay, is a Tagbanua who grew up in a village on the outskirts of town. He had access to school his whole life. He graduated high school and even attended one year of college. The Tagbanuas like Francis will participate in the growing economy of Puerto Princesa. Mayor Hagedorn has focused on increasing tourism and is planning to bring in international call centers that will create well-paying jobs for the city dwellers. They will participate in this growth and be assimilated into the greater Christian Filipino majority.

But the life of the Tagbanua living in the remote villages remains poor.

“Education is nearly impossible for them,” exclaims Marifi, who is the mother of a bright, school-aged son. “The children have to cross two rivers to go to school. In rainy season they just can’t go. Or if they do go, and the rains start, they could get stranded and not be able to return home. They also miss school during planting season and during harvest season.

“The life of the Tagbanua is still patched into the natural cycle. They only have one planting per year. Their first priority is food, so I don’t know where they put education.”

Mayor Hagedorn instituted a program to provide seeds for free, so the tribal people could plant more crops. But for some reason, the rural Tagbanuas are not taking advantage of the program. Marifi believes it is a question of willingness.

“Before we throw more money at the problem we need to first ask, what do we want to achieve, and is the tribe willing to do it?” she stated.

The culture varies from village to village. However, in many villages, perhaps the majority, if we talk about preserving the culture, there is nothing to preserve. The primary goal to me seemed to be improving the quality of life for the Tagbanua. But Marifi said, “I still want to believe that there is a culture to preserve.” Marifi would like to institute a program of culture revival, teaching the culture to the children.

“There is a government program called the School for Living Tradition. We could teach the Tagbanua whatever we can dig from research. It really isn’t a preservation, it’s a revival.”

Teaching the children to write Tagbanua language, using the Tagbanua script, might be impossible. But, according to Marifi, in some villages, children have been taught to use the Latin alphabet to write their tribal language. This seems like a step in the right direction, but the program needs to be expanded to recording the stories, traditions and history of the tribe.

Marifi was not the only person concerned about the loss of culture. Dr. Fernandez had this to say: “There is a memory loss about culture and a failure to find something to replace what they have lost. They are made to feel ashamed of what they are as Tagbanua, and made to feel they are inadequate to adopt lowland ways. That is the situation that needs to be explored. But how do we do it? We must flesh out, what did I lose? And what did I fail to gain?”

To revitalize the culture, we are really introducing a new culture, just like any other new culture, and it is coming from books written by French people.

Governments everywhere seem to introduce elementary school to the tribal villages but high school always seems to be far away. Tribal parents can’t afford or don’t want to send the children away. NGOs often come in and pay for kids to leave the village and go to school in the cities. Afterward, a large percentage of the kids don’t want to go back to live in the village. This drains the village of its youth and of its brightest members.

And even when there are schools in villages, the education they provide is questionable.

“Schools are set up in the towns first,” said Dr. Fernandez. “As you move away from the center, the education and education budget peters out. The worst teachers, the least prepared, are the ones sent out to the remote schools. The schools who need the best teachers are given the poorest teachers.”

The majority of teachers come from the Christian lowland Philippine population and are thus unprepared to deal with tribal children.

“The costs of school are prohibitive and teachers make kids ashamed of being tribal. There is supposed to be bilingual education, but the teachers come from the mainstream, lowland Christian population. If they don’t know the local language and culture, how can they teach it?

“The Americans introduced tribal education. Western Palawan State University was actually founded as an agricultural college for the Tagbanua,” explained Dr. Fernandez, who is quite obviously pro-education.

“In Brookspoint, there is a program for the children to leave the village and live with a lowland Christian family and attend school. I know a Tagbanua girl who just finished university, because of this program.”

Once again, the question of cultural preservation versus life survival comes up. Now, this Tagbanua girl is equipped to enter the modern world of career and salary work. But, in exchange, she has lost her culture as a Tagbanua.

Both Dr. Fernandez and Marifi talked about the fear which is instilled in the Tagbanua. Repeatedly, Dr. Fernandez spoke of the tribal reaction to encroachment by lowlanders. In general, they would just give up their land and push deeper into the forest. I told Marifi that in my work, I have entered remote villages before but I had never seen anyone as shy or downright terrified of a stranger as the Tagbanua in this community.

“This is one of the poorest communities,” she said, implying that extreme poverty was the source of fear. “They are afraid to leave the village. Even if they come to the city, what kind of job can they have? At best they could work as laborers.”

Tribal culture is different, and many employers complain that tribal people don’t usually make great employees.

Adding to their substantial burdens, the villagers were also plagued with health problems.

“The main illnesses are malaria and tuberculosis,” Marifi observed.

As part of Mayor Hagedorn’s programs to include the health and welfare of his constituents, he built satellite clinics in remote parts of Puerto Princesa.

“The nearest satellite clinic is seven kilometers away, but they won’t go there. I don’t know why. You come to the village, and find them just lying on the floor suffering, saying they are sick with malaria. But they don’t go to the clinics. When the sickness becomes unbearable, they go to the clinic but by then it is too late. If they come to Puerto proper to a hospital for medical assistance Tagbalay or the City Tribal Office will give them financial assistance. They can stay with us while they are getting treatment. Now the hospital has a new rule that patients can only bring one family member with them, because before, they would show up with their whole extended family.”

Leaving Marifi’s office, I mounted a tricycle taxi for the ride out to Dr. Fernandez house, a beautiful home surrounded by gardens. Along the way, I took stock of what I was seeing in my work and travels in Asia.

My family comes from Sicily, a poor island, but by virtue of luck, I was born in New York, and hold a US passport. That single fact and the much-worn blue document, overstuffed with entry and exit visas, was all that separated me from living a life like the Tagbanua, or like my Filipino friend who confided in me that he couldn’t buy shoes, or like my Cambodian friends who are afraid to speak their political opinions in public.

Why? Where does this come from? Why are the Americans and the Europeans so rich and so much of the world so poor? Why do we have absolute freedom to come and go and do as we please? Why are we so lucky when so many suffer? And what can be done?

If we take children out of the village and educate them, we are destroying the tribal culture. But as Marifi pointed out, the culture is nearly dead. So, do we work to preserve it? And, is it more important to preserve the culture rather than save the lives of the people? In some countries, tribal people are horribly marginalized by the state and lack citizenship or recourse to the law. In the case of Puerto Princesa, we had a small, local government that is willing to help, with what resources they have, but even the experts aren’t certain what form the help should take.

And through the middle of it all rode Antonio, a passenger, a tourist, thinking his elevated Westerner thoughts, while a poor man drove the taxi. Is it presumptuous of us to think that we can decide for the tribal people? Should they be able to decide for themselves? But on the other hand, they really seem to lack both understanding of their problem or any means to solve it.

What they did understand was poverty: poverty and hunger. And those were conditions none of us would ever understand.

Once again, I had that horrible feeling of not being a journalist but instead, some sick tourist, snapping photos of a human zoo of suffering.

“Poverty does exist, and poverty does persist,” said Dr. Fernandez, snapping me back to reality. “There are many manifestations, signs, or proofs of it. But an exciting way to understand it is to find out how people work out their strategies to survive amidst this poverty thing.

“The common approach to this particular problem, from the standpoint of NGOs, is to blame the government, and for the government to blame the NGOs. And that doesn’t get us anywhere.

“As for the free seeds the government is offering, there could be many reasons why people aren’t taking advantage of the program. Maybe we should start by asking ourselves what happened in the past that lead to this kind of situation. Where is the heart of the Tagbanua homeland. Where is home for them? Not only in the 1900s, 1800s, or 1700s? Archeology tells us there were permanent Tagbanua settlements in what is now Puerto Princesa because there are graveyards which had contemporary heirlooms from the Americans, as well as old heirlooms from the Chinese and brass and weaponry from the Muslims. Now, Puerto Princesa is the setting of the Tagbanua settlement, but the real Tagbanua settlement must have been outside of town proper near the penal colony, because of the river and the bay.

“The Spanish created Puerto Princesa as a place of exile for political prisoners. When the Americans came, they made it a penal colony. So, the Tagbanua moved northwest, out of this area. They may have less communication between villages now than they did then, but they never had a pan-Tagbanua. They were living in separate settlements in classic rank tribal communities. The Batak tribe remained isolated. The Tagbanua had contacts with the Muslims but mostly for trade. These contacts had no impact on the development of the Tagbanua, most likely because they were afraid. There is an old battlefield here, which is half legend, where the Tagbanua were said to have fought the Muslims. For the most part, however, the Tagbanua were afraid. And they were pacifists.”

Dr. Fernandez pointed out that the plight of the Tagbanua is not limited to a single ethnic group. “The poverty seen in the Tagbanua villages is not very different from extremely rural Filipinos who have chosen not to have contact with the outside world.

“As for the government seeds, maybe the seeds that the government distributed are alien to them, for example, vegetables. They don’t know green leafy vegetables. The Tagbanua would normally plant a mix of seeds, some that enrich and some that deplete the soil. This way they keep the nature in balance. If you attend the rice planting ceremony they have a mix of seeds; peas, beans, corn . . . They put the mix into the holes. So when the plants sprout with the coming of the rain, you have a good variety of crops. You already have a good meal on the ground. Knowing this, if they said they needed planting materials, I would try to give them ten different kinds of seeds; rice that they harvest early, rice that they harvest late, rice for rice wine, rice for ceremonies, rice for rice cakes, water-logged rice, dry rice, hillside rice . . . They may eat some varieties of squash. If you gave them cabbage, they might grow it, but they would take it to the market and sell it.

“The Tagbanua only get one planting per year. In the Philippines you could get two or three, but only with irrigation. And the Tagbanua have no irrigation.”

When we had gone to the village, we had had to cross over several huge rice fields, owned by lowland commercial concerns. They had irrigation. In fact, their rice fields separated the Tagbanua from the river.

Dr. Fernandez went on to explain where the hunger came from. “In the past, the balance was between what you grew and what you hunted, gathered, and fished. The Tagbanua also did agro farming, transplanting forest products closer to the village. They had backyard gardens as well as swidens, which would be further away. They knew where in the forest to gather food, rattan, resin, and honey. They would sell these products and buy sardines in the market. That is what tided them over for the whole, cycle except May to September. These five months they would experience hunger, but this is how they lived fifty or a hundred years ago. Today, however, it is impossible. They can’t have that long rest period before going back to the cycle. They are limited by laws against harvesting forest products. They have the government on their backs, the lowlanders on their backs, and the police and military on their backs.”

Under the Ancestral Domain legislation, even if they are given the land to live on and farm, you wouldn’t be giving them the land to harvest, forage, and engage in swidden agriculture, all three of which are restricted by law now anyway.

“If you give them a piece of paper for the land where they are now living, they wouldn’t even say thank you, because this isn’t their ancestral domain. Their ancestral domain was closer to the sea. Sea people live much better. They can still plant, but also go fishing for food.

“So, first, we ask, what is the survival strategy? And, what is the assistance strategy? The government and NGOs have to ask this and both are dependent on the corporations and donors. If a grant is given, how much of that is effectively used to provide assistance?”

It appeared that one reason for poverty is the way the tribal people traditionally made their living is gone.

“Next, we ask, what is the escape from poverty that these people would consider valuable? And, it needs to be something they could use for themselves. How would they escape? If we talk about that, then we may be able to understand. If education will help them, will they be able to use it? Or vocational training, will it help? We don’t know?”

Instead of looking at it with hard facts, we romanticize the fact that these people live in harmony with nature. First of all, if they ever did in fact live in harmony with nature, they aren’t doing so anymore. That opportunity has been taken away from them.

“The hunter gatherers have been romanticized into being the original affluent society. Affluence, here, is defined as having free time and laying about, making love instead of working. But this is very idealist. It is true that once upon a time life was not as difficult as it is today. Now, because of pressures from externalities the tribal people have been forced to damage the environment. In the past they moved occasionally to give the environment a chance to recover. The lifestyle survival strategy at that time was very diverse. They were craftsmen rather than horticulturists. Agriculture was just one of their crafts. This is true of the survival strategy of all tribal people, not just Tagbanua. Because of this flexibility, because of this high degree of hand and eye coordination, they can weave and make crafts. They have immense knowledge of plant life and knowledge of game.

“Using this knowledge, they were able to work out a survival strategy that was fairly accurate. The upland Filipinos, without irrigation may appear poor, because they don’t have good houses, but they eat better than the lowland poor, who eat a mono-crop of rice. The uplanders, without irrigation, grow a variety of foods. The poor lowlanders grow only rice and sell the surplus to diversify their diet. If they don’t grow enough rice, they fall into an endless spiral of debt. Eventually, to payoff the debt, they sell land.”

The reason they started down the slippery slope to financial ruin was because the land wasn’t producing enough to begin with. Now, they are cutting the land, and of course, cutting their future harvest. This will create more debt and lead to selling more land.

In tribal systems, land ownership goes through the woman but headed by the man. This is because when the daughter marries, she stays in her father’s house. The sons go to the family of their new wife. This way, the land stays in the father’s house.

When pressures came from immigrants from other provinces, invariably the tribal people sold their land, whether because of oercion or physical threats.

Under the Ancestral Land Rights, they must be given the land they live on, but not the foraging grounds in surrounding forest. Also, when I was in the village I didn’t see the swidden agricultural fields, which means that they must have been far away. Dr. Fernandez confirmed that in some cases people were walking five or even ten kilometers to tend their fields. So, a land grant wouldn’t necessarily include the land actually needed or actually used to earn a living.

“The law limits the hectares you can own. Ancestral land might work to the benefit of the tribe, however because then they can get a chunk of land and can sort out how to divide it.”

Save the people but lose the culture, save the culture but lose the people, do nothing, throw money at a problem that seems to have no end, the decision facing the tribes the world over and the people who are trying to help them are difficult ones.

Antonio Graceffo is an adventure author living in Asia. He writes about ethnic minorities, martial arts, and languages. He is the author of four books available on Amazon.Contact him at antonio@speakingadventure.com.

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* The Monk from Brooklyn
* Bikes, Boats, and Boxing Gloves
* The Desert of Death on Three Wheels
* Adventures in Formosa


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