View from Below, Part 1

by Kiko Matsing

Jane with Aeta Children Si Jane at Bruce

I first met Jane and Bruce at a friend’s barbecue a few blocks from my apartment. It was November, but still so warm here in Florida, that I took my bike on the bus going downtown. Jean was on her way back from the grocery store with a bag of coal and invited me to dinner. I almost did not come, if not for her apartment being on the bike path home. There, I quickly became friends with Jane and Bruce. They were not like most Filipino students I had met here; it is not only that they’re closer to my age that I gravitated towards them, but we also share the same off-center (or left-of-center) perspectives. They have a deep seated hunger to change the world, and their company awakened in me a slumbering political activist.

Jane worked for the Holy Spirit Aeta Mission in the Philippines before getting a Ford Foundation scholarship to complete a masters in socio-anthropology in the US. This Catholic NGO helps organize the community of Aetas in Capas, Tarlac, to contest the encroachment of loggers, herders, and the military into their ancestral land. Jane is a veteran community organizer. Before working with the Aetas, she worked with the likes of Dinky Soliman before the latter got lured into the quagmire of the Arroyo government. She and Bruce met while doing NGO work, and got married just before moving here to the US. Bruce came to the Philippines as a Peace Corps volunteer. He was not new to the country, having lived as a child in US bases around Southeast Asia. When he came back after college, he stayed for good, living with the Mangyans of Mindoro for 17 years. He is fluent in their tongue, and can read a bit of their ancient script they still carve on sections of bamboo. His is a more formal Tagalog than mine, wishing me buoyantly to be “matagumpay” in my upcoming oral presentation, in place of the trite “good luck na lang sa iyo”.

I had not thought much about the Aetas until I met Jane. They always occupied the margins of society and the imagination, like the gypsies of Europe, wandering the streets in rags, lugging their infants on their hips, panhandling at traffic stops–everywhere but invisible. The Aetas briefly took center stage when in 1991 the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo drove them to seek refuge in the lowlands. Their situation in the refugee camps underscored the vast difference of their world from ours.

In the government-run centers, the Aeta soon suffered from malnutrition and diseases that they rarely encountered before–measles, chicken pox and dysentery. Scores died, village elders say.

“The Aetas feel ill at ease in the lowlands, where life does not relate to their culture,” said Rufimo Tima, an anthropologist who has studied the tribe for 30 years. (San Francisco Chronicle, 11 Nov 2001)

A major disparity is their relation to the land. Like for those nomadic tribes of Central Asia, it is an intimate relationship on which their subsistence and survival hinges. It is, however, also not one of property ownership.

“They are very attached to their home,” said Tima. “The fact they are going back is a sign of their resistance to assimilation by mainstream society.” …The Aeta have traditionally placed no monetary value on land since they have always moved from site to site. (San Francisco Chronicle, 11 Nov 2001)

I am amazed at the stubborn determination of the Aetas to live on their own terms. They are not naive nor quaint folk, but a hardy people who have resisted waves of colonization for thousands of years. Will they survive tourists and deforestation? Or, even “development” out of our very own good intentions?