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Cooperation with Aetas – Resistance, nature conservation, and fair trade

August 29, 2014 ·  By Moritz Weinbeer

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Nearly everywhere in the world indigenous people are already extinct or severely threatened by  other peoples. Likewise, the native people of the Filipino archipelago, the Aeta, have been reduced  over the past centuries to only a few thousand remaining individuals, mainly living in the  mountainous regions of Luzon, the largest island of the Philippines. During the Spanish occupation  between the mid-sixteenth and the beginning of the 20th century, Aeta were mostly threatened by  land grabbing and resettling into reservations. Upcoming mining, increasing deforestation, illegal  lumbering, as well as fire clearing of vast lands lead to a steady decline in the Aeta population. The few  remaining ancestral home areas were particularly prone to natural catastrophes such as earthquakes,  land slides, and the destruction due to volcanic eruptions. This forced the Aetas to relocate their  living places over and over again.

So far, the indigenous people of the Philippines had no right to officially guaranteed protection of their  land titles and lifestyle. This changed in 1997, when the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA) was  passed. As in this process the Filipino government awarded the Aetas an area of 48 km, they gained a  large political victory. The area includes the mangrove swamps of Subic bay, a protected rain forest  national park, as well as the the regions around the Pinatubo volcano, the Holy Mountain of the Aetas.  However, although in the IPRA it is regulated that these ancestral domains shall be given back to the  Aetas, in order to actually claim and be handed over the land titles of these estates, they still have to  take legal action.

On the way from San Antonio to Iba, South of Cabangan, we payed the Maporac Aeta community a  visit. There, some 300 families live together, each consisting of an average of six persons. At first  glance, their life seemed to us nearly paradisiac: Children live an appropriate childhood (Fig.2),

private and communal space is balanced, spacious agricultural fields with mixed crops are in the vicinity of the village (Fig.3). Admittedly, the Aetas make their income mainly by agricultural products, which they sell at generally very low prices to middlemen vendors for the public markets. Accordingly, their income is low – normally far below a dollar per day – and they call only few belongings and nearly no financial savings their own; most houses are mere bamboo huts (Fig.1). Thus, their capital is nature itself. Consequently, although it leads to further deforestation, charcoal production is another source of some small income. This contrasts with high daily expenses, such as the transportation for a schoolchild, which totals yet about thirty cents. Thus, most families are incapable to afford even a basic education for their children.

On the other side, education plays a very important role for these people, at the latest when they have to fight e.g. for their land rights against a mining company that is about to grab parts of their territory, as the soil is rich in nickel and other minerals. Here come into play the many non-governmental organizations such as Preda, which support the Aetas in their struggle for land titles and in defending them against intruders. Thus, in a two decades lasting legal process, the Maporac and Preda fought for the land rights of these Aetas. To quote the founder of Preda, the Irish priest Father Shay: “Although I am working here in Olongapo city, my heart is always beating for the wonderful Aeta people living in the lovely countryside”.

Indeed, the place of the community is very beautiful. The village is surrounded by a nearby river originating in and flowing down from the scenic hills circling the Pinatubo mountainous massif. Some slopes of these hills are used by the Aetas as their agricultural grounds. Hiking up the hills, one has a stunning overview of the pretty valleys (Fig.4), eventually leading to the South Chinese Sea, of which one can catch a glimpse at the very horizon.

In order to support the reforestation and share our friendship, we planted trees in a joint action with the Aetas (Fig.5 and Fig.6), including agricultural trees such as coconut and mango, or other useful trees like mahogany and the national ‘Narra’ tree. By reforesting the grasslands as well as preserving large forest areas deeper within their territory, the Maporac contribute their part to nature protection and thus the preservation of many wildlife species. The conservation of large forested areas even ensures a constant flow of clean water of the nearby river to irrigate the paddy fields (Fig.4) of the neighboring farmers’ village, Cabangan, and prevents sudden floods.

Due to deforestation of the hillsides over decades (Fig.4), the soil of the Aetas’ agricultural fields has become highly depleted. Chemical fertilizers only selectively enrich the soil and in the long term lead to further deterioration of agricultural grounds and, in addition, they are too expensive for people who can barely make their livelihood. Therefore, the Maporac Aetas returned to old cultivation modes and now are even in transition to certified organic farming! They fertilize their fields with cow and water buffalo dung, some even have built up a compost. This leads to a long-term improvement of the soil quality.

How about the practice of other traditional habits, rites and orally inherited wisdom? At first, the Maporac, represented by their chief, Sir Salvador “Ka Badong” Dimain (Fig.7), use a broad knowledge of medicinal herbs, which are even about to be investigated scientifically. Also, besides the belief in a Great Creator, they manage their lives determined by diverse good and evil spirits. This mindset influences yet some of their decision making processes, including the medicine man receiving messages from the spiritual world, which have to be respected. Furthermore, they still know how to produce their traditional basketry and music instruments, although it is not regularly practiced anymore.

More and more the “normal” Filipino lifestyle takes part of the Maporac Aetas’ lives. This might have several reasons, the main probably being the public education of their children. In part it might possibly also be a side effect of frequent contact due to trading support as well as helping them in defending their human rights and thus also territorial issues. It might be the challenge of the indigenous people themselves to preserve their identity while living close to other societies. However, according to my opinion it should be the responsibility of the others to enable peoples like the Maporac Aetas to lead a life in dignity based on their traditional needs and values. One way to contribute to this task is a fair trade relationship. Besides supporting the Maporac Aetas in the defense against land grabbers, in selected education fellowships, as well as in the conversion to organic farming, Preda is building up such a long term fair trade contact.

During harvest time, mangoes generally rot in huge quantities as they cannot be processed quickly enough by the Aetas. Furthermore, the regular market price is too low to pay off the burdensome way to the next town. However, within their settlement as well as in the neighboring agricultural fields, the Maporac Aeta own hundreds of mango trees (Fig.8), each of which can yield over a ton of mangoes per year. When notified in time, Preda will buy a reasonable amount of mangoes from the different Aeta communities at a price that at least triples the regular market price. Moreover, they pick the mangoes directly in the village, so Aetas save the long way to town. Mangoes are then shipped to and processed at Profood Corporation, a Filipino company located on Cebu island. Subsequently, different mango products, among them dried fruit and puree, are sent to certain European countries to be sold at fair trade shops, where customers are willing to pay a higher – a fair – price. The higher earning is converted into projects such as children rescuing and rehabilitating as described e.g. in my last article.

A quick foresight: Besides trading with the well-known Carabao mango, which realizes highest market prices, Preda is developing a market for the Pico mango, which is of minor market value. As the Pico pulp is remarkably sweeter than that of Carabao mangoes, Picos can be dried without the addition of sugar. Imported into the European Union there is no import tax to be paid on sugar, as is for the dried Carabao mango with sugar additive. Thus, the earning is again even higher. Aetas traditionally own more Pico mango trees than Carabaos. Furthermore, Preda is about to develop a fair trade market for Guava products, which could result in similar prosperity for local farmers such as we saw them in the Maporac community.

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