The social food chain from top to bottom on Sibuyan Island

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January 15th 2009
Published: February 21st 2009
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"Sibuyan island," said Fredrick, a young journalist making a documentary about mining in the Philippines, "is a microcosm of the Philippines as a whole, and all the problems facing it." We were waiting for the boat to Romblon, having spent two weeks on Sibuyan, and what he said summed up our own feelings exactly.

On arrival in Sibuyan we headed for the town of Cajidiocan where we met up with a man who every one referred to as Manung Demet, or Big Brother Demet. Around sixty years old but still in extremely good shape, he was an unpaid volunteer for PANLIPI, a Filipino NGO fighting for the rights of indigenous people. Hoping that Lizz, who is writing articles for the BBC Russian website about our trips, would be able to draw some attention to his cause, he agreed to help us visit some communities of the island's indigenous mountain dwellers, the Sibuyan Mangyan Tagabukid (SMT).

"It's been a long struggle," he told us, "not only with the lowlanders, many of whom refuse to acknowledge the existence of indigenous people in Sibuyan, but also with the Mangyan themselves. Many of them didn't want to admit to being indigenous people because of the stigma attached to it here - the lowlanders claim that they, or their ancestors, used to steal pigs for a living. But I've been working at it for many years and their pride in their own culture is beginning to revive.

"I've not only been fighting a battle on this island; in fact that is the smallest part of what I've been doing. I've also been fighting to get their territory, what we call the Ancestral Domain, recognised by the government. Legally in the Philippines, the land of indigenous people is owned by them only and no one else can enter without their permission. But you know, in this country a few pay offs to a few corrupt mayors and the law stands for nothing..."

We visited the SMT community of Kabuylanan, a hard four-hour slog into the mountains. The whole village gathered together to welcome us and the Chieftain strode forward upon our arrival and, with a big cheeky grin on his face, shook our hands.

"You see, everyone's wearing clothes," Demet said, pointing at the grubby, torn shorts and oversized shirts which made some of the kids look like little Arab children, "because they're ashamed to wear their loincloths in front of you. When you're not here some of them wear it though, even the Chieftain."

The Chieftain threw back his head and laughed, possibly understanding from Demet's hand gestures around the word "loincloth" what he was talking about.

The people looked poor but the area was clearly far more developed than the jungle of South Palawan where we had been before Christmas. Most of the houses had corrugated iron roofs and there was a church in the centre of the community.

"The thing about Sibuyan," Demet told us, "is that it's a tiny island. The outside world has come to the mountains quicker than in other parts of the country because no community is more than a few hours walk from the nearest roads. Anyway, this is only the centre of Kabuylanan. There are outlying houses in the mountains for several hours in all directions, and they're all built the traditional way."

"What sort of projects have you been running to help these people?" I asked.

"I teach them how to grow new, more complicated crops which they can sell in the lowlands. I even managed to get the Chieftain here sent to Africa to observe their agricultural practices," he said to our surprise.

"You know what he said at the meeting after he came back and was asked what he'd learned there? He said 'They have trees in Africa, and elephants and giraffes and the people are big, black and have big lips!'" Demet was shaking his head and laughing.

"But the biggest problem here is that everyone has to walk several kilometres from here to get water to drink, wash in or irrigate their fields. If we could just get hold of some hoses and lead it from the source to the fields, it would save them many hours work every day.

"You know there are 38 Germans living on this island? The first one, his name's Hans, came here aged 64 with his wife. Met a Filipina girl, married her and sent his wife home crying. Only Filipinos and Filipinas are allowed to buy land in this country but once Hans was married he was able to buy up a lot of it in his wife's name, advertise it back in Germany and sell it off at double the price. One day I asked him and 8 other Germans if they would be willing to contribute 10,000 pesos each for hoses for Kabuylanan - that's all it would have cost to link everyone's fields to the water source and save all that work. All the Germans agreed but said that first they would have to ask around back in Germany to raise the money. Anyway, that was nine years ago and I'm still waiting for the money."

The next day we walked to the SMT community of Palagintingan. The walk began from the lowland town of Lumbang whose trees were covered with signs such as "No to mining!" and "Save our natural resources!"

"There's mining here on the island?" I asked Demet.

"Unfortunately yes. I mean, I'm not against mining as such, but I'm against the way it's done here in the Philippines. All the mining companies are foreign, because Filipino companies don't have the technology yet. So money gets paid into the hands of the politicians but all the resources are sucked out of the country without benefiting the people. It's completely illegal, because the mines are always in the mountains in the territory of indigenous people which is protected by law. It's basically stealing. And what's more it drives animals away so it's harder for them to hunt and it poisons rivers, making people ill and killing them.

"Last year in one town the mayor lead an anti-mining demonstration. He was shot in the face and killed by security guards from the mining company." Demet glanced at Lizz, remembering she was BBC, and hurriedly continued: "But I believe what they say - the security guard was in his jeep, the mayor jumped up and tried to grab him, accidentally pushing the trigger of a gun that was in the guard's jacket pocket at the time."

On arrival in Palagintingan the Chieftain, a toothless old man with an enormous heart and an infected cut on his achilles tendon that was preventing him from working, invited us into his house for lunch. He spoke reasonable English and lived in a bigger-than-average concrete house. The area, was, as Demet told us, the most developed of the SMT communities. Somehow during the lunch the conversation drifted back to the German community we had talked about the day before.

"But how," I asked, bringing up a point that had only recently occurred to me, "can the Germans buy land from Hans if only Filipinos are allowed to buy law?"

"They have to marry a Filipina girl, Sir," replied the Chieftain. "Hans advertises them as well, I don't like it, sometimes he degrades Filipina girls by taking a photo of them then taking their clothes off in the photo. And none of the girls are from Sibuyan either - they're all from elsewhere in the Philippines. It's as bad as the mining - our land and resources are being taken away from us bit by bit."

So this guy Hans was a pimp / property dealer. I imagined a sixty year old guy sitting back at home and receiving an advert for a cheap property (cheap when compared to prices in Europe) on a tropical island with an attached photo of a naked Filipina girl who would be his bride if he bought the property. The man was a genius, albeit a stingy one of questionable morals. We decided to go and meet him as soon as we were back in the lowlands.

"It's happening all over the country. Look at Boracay," said Demet. Boracay is the Philippines largest and most commercialised resort, the only part of the country to receive any number of tourists at all. With a stunning white sand beach, hideous over-development and plenty of sleaze, hundreds of thousands of tourists flock there every year, many returning home with an engagement to a young Filipina bride. "It's the ancestral domain of the Ati negritos. But because of the beach, foreignors started coming and paying Ati women to pretend to be their brides for a few years so that they could buy up land. Now look at it - no one who goes to Boracay has heard of or seen the Ati."

When we left the house of the Chieftain he took out a tiny, traditional two-string guitar and played a tune, tears in his eyes, singing a song he made made up on the spot entitled "From Russia with Love" for Lizz, then "From England with Love" for me.

"Here in the uplands we are uncivilised, but in the lowlands they are civilised, sir," said Chieftain Amon of Hagimit village, almost a full day's walk through the mountains from Palagintingan. Until hearing that he had been one of the few members of the SMT people to attend secondary school, I had been unable to discern in him any characteristics that made him worthy of chieftainship other than kindness. Small, shy and with eyes so squinty that to start with I thought he must have lost them in some terrible accident, at first glance he appeared to have few qualities usually present in leaders.

I was struck by this comment, which served to add to his air of dejection, and for a moment stared at him speechless, unsure how to respond.

"But here you live in peace and you are free," I said at last. "In the lowlands there is fighting, drinking, drugs - are those things civilised?" But we were talking in English and I do not think he understood, instead just laughing and shaking his head without looking at me.

The previous night we had stayed with the family of our porter about thirty minutes walk from the main site of Hagimit, the two of us, him, his wife and six of his twelve children sleeping squashed up next to each other in his one-room bamboo hut. These people had been about as different in character from Chieftain Amon as it was possible to be. Despite their total lack of English and my basic Tagalog we had managed to communicate fairly well on a simple level and had shared a number of jokes.

The porter, Nardo, was not averse to shouting loudly, often with a serious expression on his face, before suddenly bursting into hysterical laughter. This had the effect of at first making me feel worried that I had somehow offended him then that I had done something funny or somehow missed the punch line of his joke. His wife was quieter but just as friendly and cheerful, and both of them did their best to make us feel at home, providing us with what food they could, that is to say cassava and taro leaves.

"Are you sure you want to sleep here?" Chieftain Amon had asked us on arrival at Nardo's house, thinking that as Westerners we would surely be accustomed to much better than this and would decide, on seeing the house, to turn back and sleep somewhere else, perhaps the primary school in Hagimit.

"No, this is fine," I had replied, adding for Nardo's sake that it looked very nice.

Nardo and his family seemed in no way embarrassed by their living conditions, and in fact the only person who did was Chieftain Amon, who was also the only person to have any education.

"Would you like to live in the lowlands or is it better here?" I asked Amon in the morning after our stay at Nardo's house as we stood outside the school at Hagimit drinking coffee and preparing for the long walk ahead of us.

This time it was Nardo who butted in: "Here is better!" he said with conviction. "We can't mix with the lowlanders, our ways of life are too different. Besides, lowlanders only cause problems."

"What problems?"

Chieftain Amon answered, "They come up here, sometimes they make people drink, sometimes they try to get us to cut down trees in the rainforest to sell as timber. Sometimes when we go down to the lowlands to sell our stuff in the market they invite us into their house, feed us and then ask us for a favour in return, like cutting down some trees and giving the wood to them. Our people find it very hard to refuse this, after accepting their hospitality. The lowlanders are very cunning."

Back in the lowlands we took a ride across the tiny town of Cajidiocan to eat lunch at Hans the German's restaurant.

An overweight, grey-haired, bearded man in his late seventies, when we arrived he was sat drinking with a man half his age just before midday.

"No, they won't let Daddy drive a car because Daddy's a worthless drunk," the younger German was saying to a young kid sat on his lap.

We sat at a table, ordered and ate. Eventually the younger German left and Hans came to talk with us. Possibly due to his character, or maybe his age, he was one of those people who talked at you without stopping, heard none of your questions and listened to none of your answers. At some point we managed to fit into the conversation the fact that we were traveling the Philippines for 7 months because we were interested in the culture.

"They have no culture!" Hans exclaimed in a raised voice. "Filipino culture does not exist! It was destroyed by the Spanish and the Americans! It's very nice here and all that, but there's certainly no culture!"

"I guess you're using the European definition of culture - literature, art, architecture, that sort of thing?" I asked.

"I just mean culture doesn't exist here. The country was Hispanicised then Americanised. The old culture has been destroyed."

"Actually we've visited some indigenous groups that still have a very strong culture, and in fact I think the Philippines is very rich in cultural minorities. In particular I think their spiritual culture is much much stronger than ours - even the most educated businessmen and politicians believe in God, spirits and things like psychic surgery!"

Hans appeared not to hear any of it. "They work, and as long as they have enough money to eat, drink rum and sing karaoke, they're happy," he said. "That's all there is to their culture."

"But maybe karaoke is just their culture's way of updating itself, staying alive in the modern world," I said, "the old tribal need for a sing sing being fulfilled by a microphone and jukebox. And in what other country can you say that almost every man outside the big cities, and many inside them, gets together with his friends to sing karaoke every night after work? It's quite an amazing cultural phenomenon and certainly better than sitting in front of the TV!"

"And it's not only rum these days," Hans said. "There's never been much crime here in the way of robbery or theft - it's all much more underground than that in general - but the first robbery happened a few months ago actually - some school kid who needed money to fund his Shabu addiction."

Shabu... I remembered a cconversation on New Year's morning in Manila, at around 7am after a night of drinking, dancing and singing with some local guys in the street outside my hotel. They had told me about Shabu, a hyper-addictive drug that was impossible to stop taking once you had started and by the sounds of it sucked the life out of you quicker than anything available in the West.

"Jesus, they have Shabu here on Sibuyan?" I asked.

"Yes, it arrived about five or six years ago. Everyone knows who the dealers are - local politicians, friends of the Mayor. They sell it outside school playgrounds. The thing is, it's such a recent thing that no one really understands how bad it is and there's no education against it."

For the umpteenth time since my arrival on the island I was in shock. If you passed by here and did not really talk to anyone, I was sure you would have the impression of it being a wonderfully tranquil, relaxing place, quite quaint in its own way, whereas in reality there was sordid corruption lurking not far below the surface, threatening not just the indigenous people but every inhabitant of Sibuyan.

The lowlanders were taking advantage of the indigenous people, but were in turn being taken advantage of by the local government. And at the top of the pyramid were the real vampires, the ex-pats and foreign mining companies sucking the island dry of its land and resources and giving nothing in return other than the opportunity to earn rock-bottom wages as a labourer on their land or in their mine.

"Yep, Sibuyan's certainly an interesting place," I said to Fredrick, waiting for the boat to Romblon. "Lot's of issues going on here. Taught us a lot about the Philippines in general. Aren't you worried about reporting all this stuff?"

The Philippines is number one in the world for the number of journalists murdered every year, none of the killers ever being caught. The husband of the President is even quoted as having said, "The reason that no journalists have been killed in Negros is because journalists in Negros are responsible journalists."

"Well, if I get killed, at least I tried," Fredrick said. "The problem with Filipinos is that they sit back and let this stuff happen to them. If no one tries, then nothing will ever change."

Click here for my website offering advice on independent travel to Sibuyan island .

Additional photos below
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22nd February 2009

Breaks my heart...........
I'm from here, and I am shocked too. And it is the kind of shock mixed in with feelings of helplessness. If the tentacles of crime and corruption have reached the remotest islands in our country, abetted by local politicians who are motivated by power and greed, we are truly in trouble. Drugs (shabu) in Sibuyan? These people have no conscience. I put as much, if not more blame to those who corrupt and take advantage. Poverty corrupts, more so if there are vampires lurking around. Sob........( i emailed ur blog to as many Filipinos)
22nd February 2009

Breaks my heart...........
I am from here, and I'm in shock too. And helpless. If the tentacles of crime and corruption have reached the remotest islands here, we're in big trouble. Poverty corrupts, but I put more blame on those who corrupt and take advantage of our poverty and seeming helplessness. Those vampires should be put behind bars, yet it comes as no surprise that not too many are willing to come forward and point the accusing finger. Your blog breaks my heart, Ed, but it is the sad truth and I know you wrote it with as much compassion towards our land and people.
22nd February 2009

Reply to Liliram
Yes, it really is a very sad situation. But I wouldn't say it's poverty that corrupts people, I'd say it's power. The poorest people I've met in the Philippines are the best and most honest, whereas many of those with power are the most corrupt. It's the fact that much of the population lives in poverty and has no time or doesn't know how to complain that allows them to get away with being corrupt. The Philippines is indeed unfortunate in this respect but very fortunate in others. Filipinos have managed to retain a deeply spiritual side to their culture which has been almost completely lost in the West, as well as having the ability to laugh and joke even when circumstances are so bad that they would drive most Westerners to suicide
14th January 2010

You did it
You got past the surface beauty into the darker reality of the place from the sounds of it. Reading of your experience echos much of my own experience there yet I am still planning on the move. Will you go back? I very much would like you to email me if you would since public forums are well, public.
14th January 2010

I'd email you if you left me your email address!
19th February 2010

18th February 2011

taga romblon ako mga ramilo ang nanay ko
taga romblon ako
6th March 2013

I knew this blog was posted years ago but just saw it today. What you\'re saying is right. Sibuyan is a microcosm of the Philippines itself. Too bad, there were some people who can not only corrupt the land but the people itself. My grandparents and parents grew here and as a young kid, I have traveled trips for vacation here. I\'ve seen how they had wised up from people like these and I believe even the inhabitants of the island are coping well. I saw how my folks fought for their very lives. The freedom to live of their own accord which is basic for all human beings. I know that Hans or his friends will not be the last but I know my people will just shake them off and will always rise up from these kinds of corruptors - be it local or not. God bless Sibuyan Island!
29th April 2013

Difference of Mindoro mangyans and Sinuyan manggyans
My mom is from Mindoro and my dad is from Sibuyan. Me and my whole family in my mother's side used to have a reunion every year in the mountains and I can tell you that manggyans in Mindoro were untouched and left alone while the mangyans in Sibuyan were constantly going with the change of influence from lowlands. They may still have their own culture which obviously was rich one but the change was apparent. I used past tense since i am based in USA now and seldom go home. Still,thank you for the thought and interest in the island where I was born and raised :)
18th July 2015

hi, thanks for writing this one. I was raised in this island too but not in Cajidiocan. When I was in Sibuyan during my elementary days, I heard a lot about that German named Hans. I salute you for writing what he did to this people in this island, I have mixed feeling about him, yes he promotes the place but earns a lot there! And from what he did if ever that is really true about taking pictures and stripping them is absolutely against the Law or against women rights. I hope this blog of yours is read by everyone who came from Sibuyan. I live in the civilized part of the island and it pains me that he sees people there as easy go lucky people. No not at all, many of Sibuyanons study in the city and well known universities. I do not like the way he talked to you either, he certainly do not respect the people and the culture. I just take vacation in Sibuyan because I already live here in the city since 2008. I appreciate how concerned you are in our place, and everything you say about the politicians and leaders were true. We cannot promote tourism easily because of transportation issues, we actually have an airport but is not build yet. That is in Landingan which is in Barangay Azagra, San fernando, Romb. They said funds were given long time ago to build this but I don not know where it goes. There are lots of undiscovered tourist spots in Sibuyan. Thank you so much for writing this, this writing really enlightened me.
24th May 2017

very informative info about sibuyan island
this is a well-written blog. as you write in a truthful way so that your readers can see the positive and negative side of the situation of these indigenous people. because of this blog, it gives me the motivation to meet up with Manung Demet and wanting to become their advocate (the SMTs) and be a voice in protecting their rights.

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