Published: March 4th 2009February 18th 2009
We sat at a table at the front of the dining hall with Father Mark and two other Filipino priests sat with us while the other four tables were filled with young men between eighteen and twenty four who were training to join the clergy. The room reverberated the raucous sounds of twenty four shouting voices interspersed with high-pitched laughs and bellows of excited banter.
One of the priests on our table turned around and shouted at one of the more boisterous trainees, "Hey, Antonio, how's your boyfriend?"
Screams of laughter peeled from all around. "I don't have a boyfriend, Father," answered the boy, suddenly serious-faced but throwing an embarrassed laugh into his sentence as if to show he knew it was just a joke. Seeing as the jibe and the response had both been made in English for our benefit, I could not resist joining in.
"I believe him," I said to the trainee. This time the loudest, most high-pitched shriek came from the priest who had made the joke. I immediately felt awful and could not look the victim in the eye for the rest of the meal.
After our arrival at the Seminary and
explanation that we wanted to visit some remote Mangyan communities, Father Mark had immediately invited us to stay for free in one of their rooms and eat three meals a day with them. Having completed his priestly education he was highly trained in ethics, philosophy, Latin and French amongst other subjects. His deep understanding of linguistics meant that he was one of the first people I had met able to analyse and accurately explain certain aspects of Tagalog that had hitherto been puzzling me. When talking to him, however, I sometimes had the impression that his joyous smile and gurgling laugh did not penetrate below his exterior and were there to make other people feel good rather than as indicators of his own emotions. He was sometimes unusually silent and I could never work out whether this was due to internal reflection or sadness at the fact that he had eaten himself into Brobdingnagian proportions.
After Grace was said by one of the trainees at the end of the meal we took our plates to the sink.
"Do you smoke?" one of the priests asked me.
"Yes, unfortunately I do," I replied hesitantly, unsure how this would
be viewed here.
"I mean marijuana of course!" the priest exclaimed.
"Well no, I don't actually. do you?"
"Not any more, but I used to, just for fun. I drink alcohol though - absolutely anything! Do you smoke cannabis?" This last question was asked of one of the trainees.
"No father, I don't," came the timid response.
Not long after a rowdy, energetic game of basketball was played on the court just outside the dining hall. We had been at the Seminary for three days and had not once seen a serious or unhappy face. I mentioned this to Father Mark as we sat watching the game.
"Yes," he replied, "our policy is not to suppress the trainees. We let them have fun, mess around, play hard, and as a result they study very hard too." I could not help thinking that if the same attitude was adopted in England, religion might be a whole lot more popular.
After the game was lost and won the trainee priests piled into a private jeepney and hurtled off towards the beach for a swim and a sunbathe before their afternoon lessons.
"How long do
you think you'll be staying with us?" Father Mark asked.
"Well, a week if it's OK. The people from the Mangyan Mission have told us there's a meeting in the Buhid territory next week and we can go with them if we want."
"Excellent!" he replied, "no problem at all!"
Dinner that night was shrouded in silence. Not a single voice was heard. Father Mark just nodded at us when we sat down at his table. I was terrified - we had seen nothing like it since our arrival. What had happened? Had someone died? Had we done something to offend everyone? Perhaps we had overstayed our welcome?
After five minutes or so one of the other priests on our table looked up at us and whispered, "From now until tomorrow evening the trainees have twenty four hours' of reflective silence." I was so relieved that I only narrowly managed to stop myself from laughing out loud.
That evening, when the trainees had retreated to their rooms, we worked up the courage to ask some of the priests about the New People's Army Communist rebels who hid out in Mindoro's interior. Of everyone we had asked, these were the first people unafraid to talk about them.
"They used to be Communist ideologues but they've lost all that now. The movement became so infiltrated by government ages that during the 1980s thousands were killed in internal purges, seriously diminishing its numbers. Then we had this guy here, Colonel Jovito Palparan. Everyone calls him The Butcher of Mindoro now. His policy was just to kill anyone who he even remotely suspected of being NPA or NPA sympathisers. Now there's not many of them left, so they're just recruiting common criminals and local people who have no idea about their ideology. Some people just join because they have nothing better to do, or just want to carry a gun. Sometimes they force people to act as spies for them. You could be with NPA at any time and not know it! You could even be sitting next to one right now!"
We laughed nervously. "And how do they make money?"
"Mainly by extortion of big businesses. They call it revolutionary tax. We used to have a ranch in the mountains and one day someone turned up and told us we had to pay them to cows per month - two cows! It's a lot of money. So we just sold the whole ranch; if you're in business but not making money for yourself, what's the point?"
"But if they're not ideologists and they're not actively doing anything against the government, what are they doing up there still? I mean, life in the mountains is quite hard."
"Many of them are scared to come down. Some of them have come down then been assassinated afterwards. The military here can be vicious as well."
The time came for us to go to the mountains again and we bundled into a jeepney with a man called Ceso, the Mangyan Mission coordinator for the Buhid tribal area who had invited us to come with him to the monthly meeting of the tribe's leaders.
On arrival in the Buhid village of Batu Ilit the Chief took us into his house, sat us down and told us that none of us could go to the meeting. "There are many NPA in the area, and they are strengthening. They have new leaders, and are becoming more active." Even Ceso was told he could not go to the meeting.
"Has this ever happened to you before?" I asked.
"No, I've never been unable to go before. I've met the NPA plenty of times and never had any trouble with them. It's strange."
"The NPA is a big problem for us here," said the Chief sadly. He seemed like a kind, intelligent man, and made an effort to talk to us using the few words of English he knew mixed with Tagalog. "They come and take our animals as tax, and we can't afford it. But all of our youth want to join them, because they want to carry a gun."
The people here were skinny and gave the impression of having been stretched to their limits. Houses were small, clothes were dirty and livestock were few. Despite the crushing poverty of the place that was being compounded by the NPA's "revolutionary tax" of their animals, the Chief boiled some water and brought out a small packet of coffee to offer around. I accepted it with guilt, not wanting to reject his offer but feeling bad at taking something from him that had cost money.
We discussed other possibilities for visiting Mangyan groups. Both the Chief and Ceso suggested that we should take a jeepney tomorrow morning to the village of Batu Singit from where we could access a very remote Buhid area and possibly, if allowed, even head on to the near-Stone Age Bangon tribe.
"You have to be careful with the Bangon," Ceso said. "They can kill you just by thinking about it and steal your soul. They're very scared of outsiders though, so you must not go there without sending a Buhid ahead first to get their permission. Ten years ago I went there without asking them, they all ran away from me and some even threw themselves off cliffs."
The next morning we arrived at Batu Singit to find the military outpost there armed to the teeth and on Red Alert.
"Two days ago the NPA came down here and raided the village," the Commander told us. "It was a reprisal, because some of the Mangyans here had helped us look for the rebels. The NPA wanted to take those people with them. They came down and stole lots of stuff but the children of the people who had helped us clung to their parents screaming and in the end the rebels didn't take them."
"That's another one of the main problems," Ceso told us, "the military force the Mangyans to help them then the NPA take revenge on the Mangyans. And what do you think happens when the NPA forces the Mangyans to help them? The military take revenge. A few years ago they came to a village and massacred a whole load of people. Sometimes the NPA force the Mangyans to carry their guns and ammo during a running gun battle, because they're strong enough to. And what do you think the military does if it catches a Mangyan running with a gun?"
Caught between a rock and a hard place, losing their animals and youth to the rebels, I wondered how much longer these communities could survive.
We gave up in Southern Mindoro and headed north to Sablayan, a non-descript town halfway up the island's west coast. The foothills around here were the domain of the Alangan tribe and further, two days walk into the mountains, the Mangyan Mission had told us, lived the Batangan tribe. Like the Bangon, some of their communities lived in total isolation and never came down to the lowlands. They had only ever been visited once before by an English missionary five years previously. "But," Ceso had told us, "there are two Alangan men called C***** and H****** who the Batangan trust. Their ancestors made a pact with the ancestors of the Batangan and they're like their representative among the Alangan. C****** and H****** are the only people who have access to the Batangan. If you talk to them, maybe they can help you."
So the Mangyan Mission had written us a letter of recommendation to Sister Patricia, an elderly Spanish missionary who divided her time between Sablayan and one of the Alangan's villages. Quiet and soft-spoken, she invited us to stay at her house in the village where we could try to negotiate with C******.
After a weekend spent on the postcard-perfect tropical islands of Pandan and Apo we set out on Monday in Sister Patricia's personal jeepney. Her face cast in a serious but nonchalant expression, as if managing such an enormous vehicle on such dreadful roads was nothing to her, gargantuan sunglasses covering the entire top half of her head, her small body hunched over the wheel, she cut quite a comic picture as we jolted and jumped down the road.
"Do you have any NPA here?" we asked the Sister Patricia, over a coffee in her house in the Alangan village of S******.
"I've never heard of any problems with them," she replied. "Have there ever been NPA here?" she asked K*******, a Mangyan girl who helped her out and taught in the local school as part of a scholarship program that would guarantee her an otherwise unattainable university education.
"Ten years ago they came to the village," she recalled in her gentle yet somehow efficient-sounding voice. "We had never seen them before and we've never seen them since. They invited six of us, three boys and three girls, to go with them and join their movement."
"They have women NPA?" I asked, surprised.
"Yes, they call them Amazonas. Anyway, the six of us agreed to go and we spent three days up there with them. But in the end we had to come back because we weren't strong enough to hold their guns!" At this she laughed as though the whole thing had been a fairly insignificant event in her life and had not had the least effect on her.
How easy it had been for the NPA to recruit a kind, happy girl like K******. It was as if she simply had not thought about the consequences of her actions. For her people, violence was a very new concept; in their language, she had told us, there was no way of expressing the idea of hurting someone physically. Perhaps it was such a new concept that even the most gentle-hearted Alangan could be led astray because they just did not understand anything about guns, rebels or even killing.
The child of C*****, the man who might help us contact the Batangan, wasn ill. He had been to visit the Batangan to ask their advice and they had told him not to let anyone come near the child. We met him in another house, a skinny middle-aged man who never looked us in the eye, not, we felt, because he was untrustworthy, but out of respect and a desire not to be too forward. He told us, giving the impression of thinking deeply in between almost every word, that he could not come with us because of his child. We would have to see H******, who was away until the next day.
H****** was similar to C****** both in looks and manner, although his smile when it appeared was slightly broader.
"What is your purpose with the Batangan?" he asked.
"We're interested in their culture, how they work, their clothes, their houses everything. We heard some of them still wear loincloths made of tree bark and smoke their traditional pipes."
"Yes, its true," he replied. "They all smoke pipes, all the time. It's always in their hand or their mouth even when they're walking. Even children of about three or four years." He thought deeply for a few moments. "You know, you cannot just go directly to them. First I will have to go and ask them permission. If they agree, there's a ritual they have to perform before you can enter their territory. You will have to buy a pig for them to sacrifice and look into its guts. Then, if all is OK, you will be allowed to enter."
"That sounds great. When can we start making arrangements?"
"This week there's a government inspector coming to make sure no one here is cutting trees for charcoal. Someone got caught with a jeepney full of it the other day. We have to spend a few days preparing for the inspection and I have to harvest my corn too. If you come back in two weeks' time it should be OK."
So we left his house on the agreement that we would keep in touch with Sister Patricia by phone and return in the first week of March. Outside his house, almost too bizarre to be a coincidence, I saw my first Batangan. He drifted past us, pipe in mouth, clad only in a loincloth, head not turning towards us even a fraction of an inch as we stooped out of the low doorway to H******'s house. "What's he doing here?" I whispered to K******.
"I don't know," she replied, "sometimes one or two come down here to barter goods."
"I think H****** was a bit worried about what we wanted to do up there," I told Sister Patricia. "Maybe he thought we were looking for gold or prospecting for a mining company."
"He was probably worried that you're working for the mine on that mountain," she said, pointing out of her window at a peak buried in the clouds.
"What mine is that?" I asked.
"It's operated by a Norweigian firm, Crew Mining, but it's using a Filipino sub-company owned by the President's husband. The four main rivers in Mindoro all begin there, so the mine threatens to pollute them. One of the rivers has already turned black. People who live near that one are getting sick and dying because they have no choice but to drink its water and use it to irrigate their fields."
"It's awful, especially as it's legally the Mangyans' land."
"Yes, but the mining company has paid off all the local government, even given money to several Mangyan chiefs to support them."
"This ought to be published in Norway," I said, "people need to know about it."
"One of our priests went to Norway last year to talk to the mining company. They claimed that they didn't know there were any indigenous people living in Mindoro."
"Rubbish," I blurted angrily, "any resource whatsoever, even Wikipedia or the Lonely Planet can tell you that there are 100,000 Mangyans living here in the interior!"
She nodded sadly. "They say its just exploratory mining, but it's been going on for twenty years now and people who have seen or worked at the mine know that it's more than exploratory."
"Some of my friends worked there as labourers," K****** said. "Apparently they've found something there in the ground that they can make bombs from, something they haven't found anywhere else in the world."
We left Mindoro unsure whether we would be back and unsure of the Mangyans' future. The modern world was encroaching fast on this kind-hearted, peaceful and shy people and there were too few people around to ease the transition and help them stand up for their rights. It seemed that their survival as a people could only be ensured by some vast and unlikely event like an international outcry or a 180 degree turnabout in government policy towards mining. And if the mining was somehow stopped, what about the military and the NPA? Somehow the NPA would have to be got rid of, or allowed back into the lowlands without fear of death so that the next generation of Mangyan youth would not desert their villages for the sake of carrying a gun. I felt afraid for them but I also felt hope - they were more proud of their culture than any other tribal people we had met in the Philippines, and that, hopefully, would keep them going against the odds longer than most.
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