Re-Indigenising

the Land

Words and photography by Celine Murillo

Cover of Issue #13

This article is part of Issue #13

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Harnessing the guiding light of their traditions and beliefs, the Indigenous Manobo youth of Bukidnon, in the Philippines, are leading the way in preserving their land and culture.

“Of the mountains” - that’s what Bukidnon means, and here in Santo Domingo, this couldn’t be any more true. In this landlocked village, the mountains are everywhere. The peaks soar and dive into a rugged and undulating rim. In most parts, the mountains are green and grand, lush and vibrant with ancient, misty forests. In others, the land is a patchwork - the browns and yellows of agricultural fields. Santo Domingo is found in Quezon - a municipality on the southern fringes of the province of Bukidnon in northern Mindanao. Getting here from the province’s capital of Malaybalay requires crossing streams and plying through narrow unpaved roads.

Robert Mansalo-on Cahapon, 28, was born and raised in this village. A member of the Manobo community, one of the seven Indigenous groups that reside in Bukidnon, he knows the summits and the valleys as if they were beloved siblings. The land is not just his home, it is his kin. He is of the mountains.

After finishing school, Robert left Santo Domingo and worked for environmental organisations in different regions. “I kept going to other places, implementing these development programmes,” says Robert in Tagalog. “I thought, ‘Why can’t I do it in our community?’”

So, a few years later he returned, bearing the kindling of a dream that would later ignite and become the Salumayag Youth Collective for Forests.

ROBERT MANSALO-ON CAHAPON AND YOUTH VOLUNTEER RANEL MANGGATAWAN IN THE MOUNTAINOUS LANDSCAPE OF SANTO DOMINGO.
What I want is to return to peak health. This will happen if we go back to the ways of our elders, how they lived in the community and were respectful of the environment.
Ranel Manggatawan

PORTRAIT OF RANEL MANGGATAWAN - A VOLUNTEER FOR THE SALUMAYAG YOUTH COLLECTIVE FOR FORESTS.

PORTRAIT OF UMUD, ROBERT’S AUNT, WHO BELONGS TO THE FEW REMAINING HOUSEHOLDS THAT STILL PRACTICE TRADITIONAL MANOBO FARMING. HERE, SHE HOLDS A WOVEN BASKET MADE OF RATTAN AND CLIMBING BAMBOO - USED FOR STORING LIVE CATCH FROM THE RIVER.

A GUIDING LIGHT

The salumayag tree (known as the almaciga to most of the Philippines) where the group got its name from, is common in the forests here. It is a large tree, growing up to 65 meters tall and three meters wide, with a tapered crown and whorled branches. Before electricity and kerosene, the Manobo used the tree’s resin as fuel. The same resin was also made into incense as part of their folk remedies. Magumanuy, a Manobo deity who guards the “high forests”, is also believed to reside in a salumayag tree. “We chose Salumayag as our name because we want to serve as a guiding light to our community,” says Robert, as he explains the origin of the group he co-founded.

The group is Indigenous and youth-led. Robert and several dedicated volunteers are on a mission to celebrate and reintroduce their traditional ways, showing great respect for the living world and the importance of community. One of the group’s core initiatives is to illuminate the way back to traditional farming.

Most local farmers have abandoned farming for their own and the community’s sustenance to meet the persistent demand for commercial crops such as corn. As a result, a good chunk of the lands in the village has been cleared and given over for agricultural use.

Commercial farming, which is mostly monoculture, is in stark contrast with traditional methods that favour diversified systems. In panuig, one of the two cycles of Manobo farming that goes from January to May, the farmers sow grains such as olivun or adlai - a staple food crop of the Manobo - and azucena, a local cultivar of upland rice. When October rolls in, so does the cycle of pangulilang when the farmers plant root crops such as cassava and sweet potato. According to Robert, these crops are planted during this time because it is when typhoons usually occur and root crops are resilient to these weather conditions. Taking place up to the end of the year, pangulilang is meant to supplement the farmers’ harvests from the first cycle of panuig - which can last for up to two years - so that they’ll have some to spare for the community. In between these two cycles are “periods of rest” in which farmers go into the forests and the rivers to hunt, forage and fish.

RANEL DEMONSTRATES A TRADITIONAL IMPLEMENT CALLED GALINGAN TO BATU WHICH TRANSLATES AS “STONE MILL”. HERE, HE MILLS ADLAI, A STAPLE FOOD CROP OF THE MANOBO.

THE ADLAI IS THEN POUNDED TO FURTHER SEPARATE THE GRAIN FROM THE CHAFF.

THE GRAINS ARE THEN WINNOWED USING A WOVEN CIRCULAR BASKET.

For Robert, the widespread use of herbicides in commercial farming is a threat to his people’s way of life and survival. It might remove weeds, he says, but it also “kills” the soil, stripping it of nutrients and other beneficial microorganisms. The run-off eventually finds its way into the village’s water sources, the rivers and streams, putting the community’s health at risk. “We are so proud to say that soil - that water - is life,” says Robert. “How could we say this when life in the soil and in the water is destroyed?”

Robert’s aunt Umud belongs to one of the few remaining households still practicing traditional farming. “They never ran out of food,” he says, recalling his time living with her. “I really loved that experience. In my mind, that’s the only thing we need. We only need food, so why are we still suffering?”

Meanwhile, 28-year-old Salumayag community youth volunteer Ranel Manggatawan sees commercial farming leading to a crisis for his community. His main and biggest concern is the fact that this way of life has rendered his people food-insecure.

“Why do we need to plant commercial crops when we do not need them? Money will not last. This shouldn’t be how our minds work, that everything we plant should be sold,” says Ranel in the Manobo language.

The extensive farming schedule also saddens him, as it not only threatens his people’s culture but also abuses their bodies and endangers their health. Farmers work the fields throughout the year growing commercial crops, with neither time for rest nor to grow food for themselves. “Now, everything we eat, we buy,” he laments. “Our health suffers because of it. I joined Salumayag because I know that our way of living before is the most beautiful example of a simple and sustainable way of life.

“Today, we are abused but we do not progress,” he adds. “What I want is to return to peak health. This will happen if we go back to the ways of our elders, how they lived in the community and were respectful of the environment.”

AN AERIAL VIEW OF RANEL MANGGATAWAN’S LAND. HERE, HE INCORPORATES THE MANOBO’S TRADITIONAL AGROECOLOGY, GROWING A DIVERSE HOST OF FOOD CROPS ALONG WITH NATIVE TREES.

SALUMAYAG REGULARLY HOLDS LIBULUNG - A GATHERING FOR DIALOGUES. IN ONE SUCH SESSION, THEY FACILITATE A “COMMUNITY MAPPING” WHERE THE FARMERS CREATE A HAND-DRAWN MAP OF THEIR VILLAGE.

IN THIS OUTDOOR SPACE, SALUMAYAG DISPLAYS PHOTOS AS A WAY TO OPEN AND SHARE CONVERSATIONS ON NATURE AND CULTURE AND SUPPORT SCHOOL CHILDREN WITH THEIR ASSIGNMENTS.

INDIGENISING THE LAND

Ranel has implemented traditional agroecology on his land, growing a range of crops together with native trees. Compared to other farms in the village, his plot is much lusher and more productive. But despite this proof of concept, he and Robert admit that convincing local farmers to go back to the traditional ways is no small feat. Casual howdo- you-dos help the group gauge the farmers’ interest and attitude, but it is in libulung - a gathering for dialogue that Salumayag regularly holds - where the real conversations happen.

In one such session with local farmers, the group facilitated a “community mapping” activity. Using a couple of sheets of Manila paper and felt pens, farmers created a hand-drawn map of Santo Domingo. They drew their farms, the rivers, the mountains - their communities - from memory. From this, Salumayag asked them to share their observations of the landscape and the challenges that they face. These discussions then evolved into solutions - ones that came from the farmers themselves. These ranged from establishing native tree perimeter fences and rehabilitating water sources to switching to biopesticides.

“It is important that it comes from them [the farmers], that they identify the challenges, the problems, and lead the creation of solutions, because they are the ones in the fields,” says Robert. “We cannot go around dictating what they should do. We are here to assist and help them. We have to let them decide and commit for themselves.”

With the local farmers’ participation and commitment, Salumayag was able to get financial support from other organisations to establish a native tree nursery. The seedlings produced here are used in various rehabilitation projects for farm boundaries, riverbanks and water sources.

With this bottom-up approach, Salumayag underscores the need to support grassroots initiatives, which are led by Indigenous people. “There have been many programmes that came here. People here felt that they were sidelined, that they were not really a part of it,” says Robert. “What we desire is for others to see that Indigenous people are capable of creating and leading programmes that are based on and suited to their culture, to their way of life.”

Indeed, Salumayag’s initiatives are anchored in culture. In addition to campaigning for the return of traditional farming, the group also involves the youth in remembering and nurturing the best of Manobo culture. Using the power of storytelling and immersive experiences, the group regularly takes children into the forest, letting them see and witness first-hand what is happening to their surroundings, helping them to understand what the natural world means to them as Manobo people.

AFTER THE WATERFALL STORYTELLING SESSION, THE GROUP SHARE A LUNCH OF ROOT CROPS AND FORAGED FOOD.

THE SALUMAYAG TREE IS CULTURALLY AND ECONOMICALLY SIGNIFICANT TO THE MANOBO.

THE YOUTH OF SALUMAYAG ARE NOT ALONE IN THEIR EFFORTS. MANY ADULTS IN THE COMMUNITY SUPPORT THEIR INITIATIVES. ONE OF THEM IS 40-YEAR-OLD ROMY MAILANGYAG WHO SERVES AS THE GROUP’S MAIN GUIDE AND CHAPERONE IN THEIR FOREST “LEARNING WALKS”. THE KIDS FONDLY CALL HIM “ANGKOL” - A VARIATION OF UNCLE.

What we desire is for others to see that Indigenous people are capable of creating and leading programmes that are based on and suited to their culture, to their way of life.
Robert Mansalo-on

CULTURAL ILLUMINATION

In one of their more recent activities, Robert and Ranel guided a group of children on a forest walk. Assisted by volunteers, including Ranel’s 19-yearold nephew Eugene, and 40-year-old Romy Mailangyag who the kids fondly call Angkol (a variation of uncle), the group weaved its way through farms and trees all the way to a sampaw - a waterfall. Moving with ease across boulders and steep ravines, the group gathered beneath the waterfall where they changed into their traditional clothing. Then, as they stood beneath the cascade, Ranel began to tell stories.

Over the sound of the falling water, his voice rang through the air as he pointed to plants growing around the curving rock-face. He talked about the “herbals” used by their elders to treat ailments. Waterfalls, he added, are sacred to the Manobo, and only the chosen - the herbalists - can come and pick the plants and bring them back to the community.

Afterwards, Robert stepped in to talk about waterfalls as a place of healing for their people. He shared that his uncle, a Datu (chieftain), recalls being brought to a sampaw by his mother so he could rest and recover from sickness.

Angkol Romy also said a few words. Reiterating the sacredness of the waterfall, he reminded the children to always conduct themselves with respect for such places in order to avoid untoward incidents. They listened intently, the gushing jet of water spraying mist behind them. They were radiant in the solemn light of the forest.

Soon after, they trekked higher upstream into a natural pool where they bathed and had lunch together. The meal consisted of root crops and foraged plants, laid out on a banana leaf.

“Our mission is ambitious, we know,” admits Robert. “We are going at it bit by bit. We are aware that the kids will not automatically understand and retain what we offer them. That’s why we review it during our learning sessions. We ask them, ‘How did you feel?’, ‘What did you learn?’, ‘What do you want to do next time?’”

These youth sessions are part of Salumayag’s learning walks, and tuun sa payag, which translates to “learn or study in a hut”. The latter is held regularly every Sunday and aims to empower young people to care for the forest, land, water and biodiversity through nature-based education.

Robert, Ranel and the rest of Salumayag firmly believe in the youth’s role in preserving not only their way of life but the mountains and the forests that they love. The focus is on communal efforts, not individuals. This is why theirs is a “youth collective”.

“Me, I have my own initiative, just for myself,” says Ranel. “But now that I’ve joined Salumayag, what I want is not just me alone. What I want is to be with my peers in our community. And not just here in our community, whoever is interested in our programmes in other communities, I’m ready to help to the best of my abilities.”

From the regenerative nature of Manobo traditional farming and the deep respect for the forest, to the concept of himunuw - which means “worry about others” and involves caring for new community members and helping to set them up for the first three months - Salumayag presents a solid foundation for living in harmony with the land and our fellow people. In a world blighted by isolationist and extractive tendencies, the Manobo youth of Salumayag are a shining example of how collective action and nature-based solutions can nurture our environments and our culture. Their wisdom, practices, leadership and sense of community all lead to self-sufficiency, if not richness, engendered by a relationship of reciprocity with the planet - the very thing that could save us from self-destruction.

IN ONE OF SALUMAYAG “LEARNING WALKS”, THE GROUP WENT TO A SAMPAW - A WATERFALL - WHERE THEY CHANGED INTO TRADITIONAL CLOTHING AND LISTENED TO STORIES.

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Words and photography by

Celine Murillo

Celine Murillo is a Filipino storyteller who combines words and visual imagery to tell stories of wildlife, wild places, and the intertwining of na… Learn more

This article is part of Issue #13

Cover of  Issue #13
Rebirth Roots Rights

Themes in this issue include a call for love and care; radical kinship through reconnection with nature, community, and cultural practices, humanit…

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