The Anthropologist as Advocate

The study of human cultures and societies is especially relevant today as a tool for understanding the contemporary world. Far from the world sought to be understood by the founding fathers of Anthropology, the world now presents new challenges as well as opportunities for the development of the discipline. This is a world encountering a different class of ideologies, tensions, and dialogues, all set in a growing multiculturalism and globalism, yet at the same time marked by pockets of fundamentalist worldviews, and militant protectionism of the local life.

Anthropology, at the risk of over-simplification, is about making sense of other people’s worlds (Geertz assertion that it is the “understanding of others’ understanding”), translating peoples’ experiences, how their societies work and why they believe what they believe in (or not), and what makes them tick as humans in a given cultural landscape. The work of the Anthropologist requires a tremendous amount of holism to understand this contemporary world, juggling insights from economics, political science, world systems, health, gender, identity, environment, et cetera, that affects human lives in the macro and the micro levels. His holism – the ability to make sense of the world as a whole – allows him to dig for that something infinitely profound in our common humanity.

The traditional domain of the Anthropologist has been the small community, often in what has been coined as “indigenous peoples,” or “indigenous communities” while his/her ethnography and participant observation enable him/her to understand the “understanding of the other”. Here, in the local community – talking to the locals and participating in the day to day life in the community – problems are presented to the anthropologist either by members of the community or through the data she had gathered. Often these issues are connected to social injustice, access to resources, assertion of self-determination or the more compound structural violence that permeate the lives of the people in these communities. As they begin to unfold, the anthropologist is caught in a moral dilemma. Should she maintain the cold objectivity of “observation” or take on the more active engagement of “participation”? Peter Kellet in an article in Durham Anthropology Journal (2009) asked: “Is the role of the anthropologist to try to change the world or to ‘merely’ understand it? Can (and should) anthropologists act as advocates for the rights of people they study, or does this compromise their objectivity?”

With the important insights and decisive data gathered from the community, Anthropology should have indeed changed the world for the better. The findings of Nancy Scheper-Hughes (1993), for instance, of the relentless and chronic hunger in the Nordestino people of Brazil impacted policy decisions in Brazil but many more studies conducted by anthropologists should have contributed more to social transformations and the pursuit of social justice. Derek Hall’s (2011) study, for example, of the dynamics of institutional land grabbings in Southeast Asia or the studies describing the present plights and foreseen effects of climate change in many communities (Crate and Nuttall, 2009), could have been at the forefront of debates in world summits, national congress or the media, yet these subjects are almost invisible in the public sphere outside the university. This is unfortunate, since a wide range of important social issues are being raised by anthropologists in original and authoritative ways. Anthropologists should have been at the forefront of public debates about multiculturalism and nationalism, climate change effects on populations, the abundance of food yet the pervasiveness of hunger, the relationship of poverty and economic globalization, human rights issues and questions of collective and individual identification, for instance, in the Bangsamoro or the Filipino. Why indeed is there a seemingly “professional reluctance to share this knowledge with a wider readership”? (Eriksen, 2006: ix)

Many debates have been centered on these fundamental questions in the discipline (Hastrup and Elsass, 1990; Kellet 2009; Huculiak 2000), and the answers may basically be divided into streams of either epistemological or moral arguments.

Hastrup and Elsass argue that the ethnographic method is itself “advocacy” in the sense that it already involves a “speaking for” or a way of “presenting” the people being studied (302). The anthropologists Hastrup and Elsass came to this understanding when they were requested by some Arhuacos of Northern Colombia to help promote a ‘development’ project to increase their autonomy within Colombian society. Their limited traditional land was under threat from encroaching peasant farmers and the proposed irrigation project was meant to increase yields. Elsass and Hastrup believed that the Arhuacos’ proposal was valid, but on reflection they decided that they would not act as advocates. Their reasons: that they were not needed, that some of the educated Arhuacos could do what was required; they were concerned about their relationship with the Bureau of Indigenous Affairs; they also questioned why they should privilege the Indians over the peasants; and lastly, they felt their participation would be patronizing and an extension of the romantic notions attached to the European vision of the Indian as the ultimate ‘other’ (culled from Kellet, 2009: 27). These are valid reasons, of course. The problem of “whose voice” to represent haunts the anthropologist who advocates.

Nancy Scheper-Hughes, on the other hand, argues for an engaged witnessing in anthropological studies – a radical approach which is politically committed and morally engaged (Kellet 2009: 25). In her point of view, anthropology must be accountable, committed, engaged, responsible, empathetic and compassionate, in which a change is required that would turn the anthropologist from “spectator” to “witness”, and explains that being neutral is not option. In her words, we cannot flee from “local engagements, local commitments, and local accountability” but must use ethnography as “a tool for critical reflection and for human liberation” (Scheper-Hughes, 1995: 417, 418). This argument on the side of what is moral rest on account of the anthropologist being an expert witness being able to interpret the life of the subject for those outside, so as to bridge any cultural barriers in understanding, as well as to actively work for that community being studied.

These two streams of arguments may both be pitted against the other, possibly a duel between the cerebral and emotive, without any clear winner or loser. While the debate on whether the anthropologist would remain objective – an observant – or engaged witness – a participant – the issues they have disentangled and analyzed continue to affect real lives, mostly of the poor, suffering and marginalized. For a field of study which prides itself on studying the world “from below”, seeing the world “from the native’s point of view”, giving voice to “muted” groups and so on, it is unfortunate that many would still prefer to hide behind the relative safety and height of scientific objectivity, yet all the while aware of the distressing and pervasive injustice of the situation below. Of course, we find many anthropologists whose work and life are fuelled by a burning moral and political engagement. Many anthropologists do important and admirable social action work with their students, with nongovernment organizations and some in government agencies; some write important texts about violence, the State, economic exploitation or culture and human rights – but few step forward in order to intervene in the unpredictable and risky public sphere (Eriksen, 2006: 16).

Anthropology ought to make a difference outside the universities. The call of the common good, the preferential option for the poor, oppressed and marginalized, does not end in the four corners of the university. While it is true that universities are the nurseries of future leaders, the teacher of anthropology must never rest with the noble task of teaching these future leaders – the ‘mere’ transferral of knowledge” – but rather implant the necessity of praxis: action and reflection of the students upon their world in order to transform it (Freire, 1970: 79). The “setting forth” of students as well as the teacher of anthropology is particularly relevant in the contemporary world. Eriksen (2006: x) writes that young students who come to anthropology “are motivated by a desire to make the world a slightly better place”. Re-phrasing Freire, he adds that the task of “anthropology teachers is to make certain their students do not forget these initial sources of motivation – that the onslaught of dry theory and abstract models does not detract from the big issues concerning human life in all its diversity, which fuel the passion necessary to keep the flame burning”.

The possibilities for social action and engaged anthropology in Mindanao are countless. Given the tumultuous history of this region, the Mindanawon anthropologist must make a stand, be an advocate committed to the ethics of care, valuing the “other” not because he or she is a research subject, but because the other is valuable per se. Huculiak (2000: 18) in her article concludes that “it is difficult to decipher on whose account and on what basis to advocate, however anthropologists should nevertheless avoid the assumption that removing advocacy from their field is a reasonable alternative […] a multi-sided approach to advocacy is perhaps the best present mode of action.” Although it argues for advocacy, her conclusion is actually inconclusive.

I would instead propose that advocacy in anthropology be oriented toward justice in what Kolvenbach asserted as “a concrete, radical but proportionate response to an unjustly suffering world” (2007). In this manner, reflection and action on the social reality is paramount, and utilization of the research communities for such ends as a degree or a promotion, avoided. In the formulation of research or study, it is necessary to ask “for whom?” and “for what?” This engaged anthropology that is oriented toward justice, is necessarily carried out from “the perspective of the poor for the sake of bettering their lives, for it is in their suffering that the inhumanity of unjust structures become clearly manifest” (Alvarez, 2014: 28). Here we avoid the inconclusiveness of Huculiak and instead embrace the anthropologist’ active role as agents of social change – accountable, committed, engaged, responsible, and compassionate toward the ‘other’.

Indeed, this orientation of research and the endless pursuit of truth, will lead to inconvenient truths which the advocate-anthropologist will have to face. Engaged anthropology would require courage necessary to protect the common good and the dignity of all human persons – the anthropos of Anthropology.


Alvarez, Patxi (ed). 2014. “The Promotion of Justice in the Universities of the Society.” Special Document of Promotio Iustitiae, no. 116.

Eriksen, Thomas Hylland. 2006. “Engaging Anthropology: The Case for a Public Presence.” Oxford, New York: Berg.

Freire, Paulo. 1970. “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” New York: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Hastrup, Kirsten. and Peter Elsass. 1990. “Anthropological Advocacy” A Contradiction in Terms?” in Current Anthropology vol. 31, no. 3, 301-311.

Huculiak, Lindsey. 2000. “Anthropology and Advocacy: Off of the Fence and into the Foray” in The University of Western Ontario Journal of Anthropology, vol. 8, no. 1, 11-19.

Kellet, Peter. 2009. “Advocacy in Anthropology: Active engagement or passive scholarship?” in Durham Anthropology Journal, vol. 16, no. 1, 22-31.

Kolvenbach, Peter-Hans. 2007. “The Service of the Faith and the Promotion of Justice, Reminiscing the Past and Looking at the Future” in Promotio Iustitiae no. 96, 9-18.

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. 1995. “The Primacy of the Ethical: Propositions for a Militant Anthropology” in Current Anthropologist, vol. 36, no. 3, 409-440.

A Critical Perspective to National and Local Policies on Climate Change and Health Resource Access: The Case of South Cotabato


It is now an accepted fact that the aggregated impacts of human population size and economic activity on various biophysical systems of the world has drastically contributed to widespread environmental changes. The most alarming and extensive of these environmental changes is anthropogenic climate change, with the hydrological and atmospheric systems of the planet exceeding their regenerative and repair capacities. It is apparent that the rapid economic expansionism of the 20th and 21st century created an unprecedented overload of Earth’s ecological systems that scientists have now concluded that “it is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century” (IPCC, Working Group II 5th Assessment Report, 2014).

One impact of climate change is on a population’s health. Higher temperatures trigger the surge of diseases such as dengue, malaria, cholera and typhoid. Changing climate also brings in new health consequences “such as heat-related mortality in Europe, changes in infectious disease vectors in some areas, and allergenic pollen in Northern Hemisphere, high and mid-latitudes” (IPCC Synthesis Report, 2007). Increasingly frequent and intense disasters displace thousands of people in many communities and increases their vulnerability to health risks in evacuation centers. This unfamiliar situation of humankind overloading Earth’s carrying capacity presents a challenge to researchers in the field of Medical Anthropology: given the plausible future scenarios of climatic changes, how can one best estimate its consequences for human health at the same time approximate the adaptive capacities of individuals and communities? How to do these with utmost consideration to the intimate interplay of human systems (political, social and cultural)?

Understanding disease risks brought by a changing environment requires studying a larger contextual framework that will include social, economic, cultural and political structures (Martens and McMichael, 2002: 27). The recognition that there are complex underlying environmental, social, cultural and political systems which, when perturbed or changed, may alter the pattern of health outcomes, has been one of the contributions of Critical Medical Anthropology (CMA) in the field of Public Health Studies.  CMA also recognizes that the fundamental problem of social inequality (e.g. unequal access to health services) expounds the impact of disease risks in vulnerable communities (Baer, et al., 2003: 3).

On the other hand, the prospect that climate change and other environmental changes will affect health poses radical challenges not only to researchers but also to policymakers. Given the uncertainty of the magnitude and extent of climate change impacts, policymakers most often adjust to working with incomplete information and with making “uncertainty based” policy decisions. Often, policymakers work with a “wait-and-see attitude,” falling for the false assumption that scientists can provide final and precise truths with regard to climate change. All the while, civil society organizations and the academe have been raising the concept of Precautionary Principle in order to minimize the chance of low probability but potentially devastating outcomes (Martens and McMichael, 2002: 27).

This paper approaches the climate change and health interplay by employing the critical medical anthropology perspective in the reading of different Philippine national and local legislations on climate change. It will try to dissect these policies to answer the questions: What effect does the global capitalist system have on how these policies were written? How do these policies define and describe how health resources be allocated and accessed? A progressive contextualization will also be utillized starting with the macro-level global economic context and then working towards the micro-level  local context of South Cotabato’s policies on climate change and its impact on health resource allocation.

As an exercise in Critical Medical Anthropology, the bias is towards biomedicine as the medical health system referred to.

The Critical Theoretical Framework in Medical Anthropology

Critical theory springs from the neo-Marxist philosophy of the Frankfurt School, which was developed in Germany in the 1930s. It maintains that ideology is the principal obstacle to human liberation. Modern critical theory has been influenced by György Lukács and Antonio Gramsci, as well as the second generation Frankfurt School scholars, notably Jürgen Habermas. Contemporary critical theory studies the social “base and superstructure” concept formulated by Karl Marx. The critical approach in medical anthropology uses the critical theoretical framework with focus on the political economy of health and health care. Political economy, from an anthropological perspective, includes the study of producing and exchanging goods, and the influence of government policy and capitalism on all aspects of life. When applied to studying health and health care, the political economy of health may include ways in which health services are differentially allocated based on wealth, and ways in which policy impacts health and delivery of health services. Political economy of health is a central component of critical medical anthropology, and a critical approach to medical anthropology seeks to uncover hidden causes of poor health as they relate to capitalism and neoliberal economics while examining health structures on a macro and micro level. In other words, critical theory in medical anthropology seeks to find the social origin of disease (Baer, et al., 2003: 53)

Critical medical anthropology (CMA) has been strongly shaped by the medical anthropologist Merrill Singer. Singer promotes using CMA as an approach to researching health because of its applied focus, noting that medical anthropologists must critically question how situations for their research participants can be improve (Singer, 1989). CMA is therefore a theoretical lens to inspire action and engagement in what Singer terms “system-challenging praxis”;  that is, actions undertaken in order to challenge larger structures with the goal of producing a meaningful social change. Engaging in system-challenging praxis involves “unmasking the origins of social inequity, and exposing the relationship between social inequity and living and working conditions (Singer, 1989). Work from this perspective understands societies as involving class conflict and sees the state apparatus and medical-health systems as mediating this conflict in favour of the ruling class in capitalist societies. The historical developments and political -economic conditions are viewed as primary, with value orientations and beliefs flowing from these fundamental conditions (Singer, 1989).

CMA is a critique and answer to the prior theoretical framework of interpretive medical anthropology where there there is an “obfuscation of restricted microlevel focus” (Singer, 1989). In Interpretive Medical Anthropology where there is focus on “the ritual and symbolic realm in culture, [while] the political and economic issues which affect the health and health behavior of populations [are] not widely considered.” CMA critiques the interpretive framework as reducing medical anthropology to an examination of the cultural determinants of illness, curing, and resistance to biomedicine with little consideration of “the importance of the social formations in which ‘cultural factors’ occur”. CMA further critiques the prior theoretical frameworks as giving no attention to institutional actors with major parts in the health field internationally, such as manufacturers of medical commodities, government health and development agencies, international lending institutions, professional medical associations, and private health foundations (Singer, 1989).

Nancy Scheper-Hughes is also an important figure in critical medical anthropology, arguing that “CMA combines the intersections of personal, social, and political bodies” (Singer, 1989). Scheper-Hughes notes the shortcomings in the work of some social anthropologists and argues that social anthropology fails to explore the meaning of the body beyond a symbol upon which social meaning is inscribed. Similarly, Scheper-Hughes claims that some theorists ignore individual perspectives about illness, highlighting Michel Foucault’s work on biopower -  the inseparability of the body from the will of the political apparatus (the State). Scheper-Hughes argues that Foucault describes the body in a way that is “devoid of subjectivity,” or lacking in a description that encompasses individual perspectives (Singer, 1989). CMA, however, fills the voids left by earlier social anthropologists and cultural theorists by understanding that the body is the “terrain where social truths are forged and social contradictions played out, as well as the locus of personal resistance, activity, and struggle”. In other words, CMA understands that the body and the patient are impacted by larger, unseen social forces but that individuals also have a stake in their bodies, and are not simply agents to these larger social forces. Critical medical anthropology therefore “blends an understanding of how structural forces are acted upon the body with an acknowledgement of individual agency” (Singer, 1989).

Critical Medical Anthropology (CMA) takes a very different approach to looking at questions regarding health. CMA believes that there exists a hegemonic relationship (as per Gramsci’s use where a dominant practice results in a predictable and controllable social consciousness) between the ideology of the health care system and that of the dominant ideological and social patterns. More simply put, a political economy approach. CMA views disease as a social as well as a biological construct (Baer et. al., 1997:35-36). Critical Medical Anthropologists examines issues such as who have the power over certain social institutions, how and in what form is this power delegated, and how this power is expressed (Baer et. al. 1997:33-35). In effect, Critical Medical Anthropologists try to deconstruct the medical science and expose the fact that all science is influenced by cultural and historical conditions, much like the social constructionist approach.

Merrill Singer also delineated some of the concerns within CMA: Examination of the social origins of disease and ill health in light of the world economic system; Analysis of health policy, health resource allocation and the role of the State in Third World Nations; Re-thinking of the contemporary understanding of medical pluralism; Development of a critique of biomedical ideology, practice, and structure; Attending to the role of struggle in health and health care; Re-examination of the microlevel of the individual, including illness behavior and illness experience within the context of macro level structures, processes and relations; and Investigation of health and health programs in socialist-oriented countries (Singer, 1989).

A Brief Survey of National and Local Policies on Climate Change

This section outlines the historical development of Philippine policies on climate change culled from the study conducted by the Tebtebba Foundation (Magata, Helen, et. al. 2010: 224-225).  This brief survey aims to describe the significant milestones of the Philippine government in responding to climate change through various participations in global agreements and conventions and by pushing for local policies and programs.

Inter-agency Committee on Climate Change (1991)

This committee was created to coordinate various climate change related activities, propose climate change policies and prepare the Philippine positions to the the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and other issues relative to climate change.

Signing of the UNFCCC (1992)

The signing of the Republic of the Philippines to the UNFCCC committed the country to the UNFCCC provisions on non-Annex 1 (developing countries) parties. This led to a Greenhouse Gases inventory in 1994 that became the basis of the country’s initial national communication on Climate Change to the UNFCCC in 1999.

Clean Air Act (1999)

This Act outlines the government’s measures to reduce air pollution and incorporate environmental protection into its development plans. This led the government to partner with different organizations such as Partnerships for Clean Air and Clean Air Initiative for Asian Cities Center to do information and education campaign and workshops on air quality management and sustainable transport.

Signing of the Kyoto Protocol (2003)

This Protocol sets binding targets for 37 industrialized countries and the European community for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. These amount to an average of 5 percent against 1990 levels over the 5-year period between 2008-2012. This led to the setting up of a Designated National Authority for Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). As of 2005, waste management projects, renewable energy and afforestation and reforestation were on the CDM pipeline for the Philippines.

Biofuels Act (2006)

This Act seeks to reduce dependence on imported fuels with due regard to the protection of public health, the environment, and natural ecosystems consistent with the country’s sustainable growth that would expand opportunities for livelihood by mandating the use of biofuels. This led to oil companies submitting themselves to the mandatory use of biofuels in the Philippines.

Renewable Energy Act (2008)

This Act seeks to promote the development of renewable energy resources and its commercialization. It aims to achieve this by providing incentives to institutions that invest in the sector. A National Renewable Energy Board has been created to accelerate the setting up of mechanisms and incentives critical to the implementation of the law.

Climate Change Act (2009)

This Act created a Climate Change Commission that would formulate and implement plans for the country to better prepare for and respond to natural disasters and it also aims to attract foreign financing for adaptation and risk reduction projects.

Philippine Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act (2010)

This law mandated a nationwide disaster-risk reduction and management policy that goes down to the barangay level. The law also created the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRMC), an agency tasked with crafting and implementing disaster-risk reduction policies.These policies are implemented by local disaster-risk reduction and management councils with the NDRMC coordinating relief, recovery, and reconstruction operations.

People’s Survival Fund (Republic Act no. 10174 of 2012)

A People’s Survival Fund was legislated to be used in support of adaptation activities of local governments and communities such as: adaptation activities in the areas of water resources management, land management, agriculture and fisheries, health, infrastructure development, natural ecosystems; improvement of the monitoring of vector-borne diseased triggered  by climate change, and in this context improving disease control and prevention; forecasting and early warning systems; supporting institutional development for local governments, in partnership with local communities and civil society groups for preventive measures, planning, preparedness and management of impacts relating to climate change, including contingency planning, in particular, for droughts and floods in areas prone to extreme climate events.

The various Philippine policies and programs responding to climate change have been heralded by different environmentalists and civil society organizations as serious efforts towards a clean and green environment, and mitigation of climate change impacts. The Renewable Energy Law, for example, has caused quite a stir among environmental activists. Even Greenpeace has praised the government for its passage (Magata, Helen, et. al. 2010: 232). Yet despite the passage of these laws, critics argue that they do nor really acknowledge the main roots of the crisis which is unsustainable and destructive global economy and production. The Philippine government has also yet to call for deep and drastic cuts of greenhouse gas emissions from developed counties and impose greater tariffs or stricter requirements, including only clean or climate proof foreign business investment in the country.

Another noteworthy apprehension in these laws is the lack of an explicit health-related provision on funding health resources that would address the perceived rise in climate change- related diseases. Although the RA 10174 provided for “improvement of the monitoring of vector-borne diseased triggered  by climate change, and in this context improving disease control and prevention [italics provided],” it is noticeable that it only deals with monitoring of diseases and precludes any actions to the improvement of access. 

Major National Legislations  on Access to Health Resource

Mandatory Universal Accessible, Cheaper, and Quality Medicines Act (2008)

With regard to access to health resources, a law was also signed in 2008 to provide cheaper but quality medicines to Filipinos. Sen. Loren Legarda, senate committee chair on climate change, describes the health-climate connection in a privilege speech:

“In 1998, when the Philippines experienced the El Niño phenomenon, almost 40,000 dengue cases, 1,200 cholera cases and nearly 1,000 typhoid fever cases, were recoded nationwide. These sicknesses make our population more vulnerable, especially those who cannot afford health care, much less health insurance. We must strengthen our people’s health to make them resilient against diseases that the change in climate may bring. It is for this reason that I advocate the passage of the Mandatory Universal Accessible, Cheaper, and Quality Medicines Act, as well as a bill providing for the nutrition workers in every barangay.

These laws shall ensure that proper healthcare and accessible, cheaper and quality medicines and knowledgable nutrition workers will on hand to help our citizens, especially the poor, avoid diseases heightened by warmer temperatures. (Sen. Loren Legarda, “State of the Climate,” Privilege Speech given on August 10, 2010.)”

The law was signed in 2008 and it amended Republic Act No. 6675 or the Generics Act of 1988, Republic Act No. 8293 or the Intellectual Property Code, and Republic Act No. 5921 or the Pharmacy Law. The law allows the parallel importation of patented medicines from other countries where they are more affordable. It also bars the grant of new patents based only on newly-discovered uses of an ingredient of an existing drug. Generics firms will be allowed to test, produce, and register their versions of patented drugs. The law also empowered the President to “impose price ceilings on various drugs upon the recommendation of the Health Secretary” of the Department of Health (DOH). Drug outlets will be required to carry a variety of medicine brands, which include those sourced through parallel importation – giving consumers more choices. The Law also creates a congressional oversight committee, such as the Quality Affordable Medicines Oversight Committee, to monitor the implementation of the “Cheaper and Quality Medicines Act.”

National Health Insurance Act of 2013 (RA 7875 as amended by RA 9241 and 10606)

The National Health Insurance Program (NHIP) created under Republic Act 7875 implemented by the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PHIC or Philhealth) is the mandatory social health insurance program in the country. The purpose is for every Filipino to have social health insurance coverage and access to quality health care facilities.

The Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth) and Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) formalized their partnership to provide and secure health care for the poor as they signed a Joint Order on November 6, 2012. The Joint Order will benefit more than five million poor household-beneficiaries of the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps) to uplift their quality of life by not only providing financial assistance but also by extending the needed health care benefits should sicknesses come up among beneficiary families. Entitlements also apply to primary care benefits such as consultations, regular blood pressure monitoring, and promotive health education on breastfeeding and counselling on lifestyle modification and smoking cessation. Medicines for diseases like asthma and acute gastroenteritis with no or mild dehydration, upper respiratory tract infection/pneumonia and urinary tract infection are also provided for by accredited healthcare providers.

In South Cotabato, for instance, around 11,000 poor families have been enrolled by the provincial government under the sponsored health insurance program of Philhealth. Under the program, the province allocated P 1,800 each for the premium contribution of the enrolled indigent families. Philhealth has also implemented the expanded health insurance coverage scheme for their members in South Cotabato (, 12 March 2014).

South Cotabato’s Environment Code (Provincial Ordinance no. 4 s. 2010)

The Environment Code of South Cotabato mandates a local network that will promote and sustain relevant, efficient strategies and modern technologies for the protection of the environment and natural resources, as well as ensure ecologically sound and sustainable development in the province. It also establishes policies and mechanisms for the protection, preservation and management of the province’s natural resources, as well as ensuring the strict enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, policies and issuances. It provides provisions for the management and protection of forests and watershed systems in the jurisdiction of South Cotabato; management of air quality, water quality and noise pollution; and provides a framework and management plan for local climate change action. While the most popular provision in South Cotabato’s Environment Code is the ban on open-pit mining in the province, it actually covers an extensive repertoire of environmental conservation and protection which considers principles of “intergenerational responsibility,”  “carrying capacity of an ecosystem,” “precautionary principle,” and “conservation ethic” among others.

What then are the drivers for these national and local legislations? How does the development of national and local laws connect with the patterns of global discussions on climate change? And how does the global economy affect the creation of such laws? To answer such questions, we go back to the general presupposition of Critical Medical Anthropology, that “there exists a hegemonic relationship between the ideology of the health care system and that of the dominant ideological and social patterns” (Baer et. al., 1997:35-36).

Economizing Climate, Impacting Public Health

Capitalism’s inherent tendency to expand serves to escalate commodity production, which necessitates the burning of fossil fuels to power the machinery of production. As this process unfolded historically, it served to disturbed the natural carbon sinks and generate an accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide, resulted to drastic changes in the Earth’s climates which, in turn, forecasted impacts on health. The connection between capitalism, climate change and health has been observed by the IPCC in its 2007 report stating that “until mid century climate change will act mainly by exacerbating health problems that already exist.”

In the Philippines, capitalism with a strong neoliberal attitude first came in “the form of the structural adjustment program imposed by the World Bank in the early 1980’s, in the latter’s effort to strengthen the economy’s capacity to service its massive external debt” (Bello, 2009). Walden Bello in a paper presented to the National Conference of the Philippine Sociological Society said that the neoliberal perspective triumphed by default in the early 1980s due to the ascendancy of several high-powered activist intellectuals and technocrats close to the Aquino administration who had been greatly influenced by the Reagan and Thatcher free-market experiments in the United States and Britain. These included economist Bernie Villegas and Cory Aquino’s secretary of finance Jesus Estanislao. Bello also cited the emergent neoliberalism of the University of the Philippines School of Economics, which had drafted the extremely influential anti-Marcos White Paper on the Philippine economy in 1985. This rise of neoliberalism in the country was also complemented by four developments internationally: the collapse of centralized socialism in Eastern Europe, which seemed to deliver the coup d’grace to the socialist alternative; the crisis of the Swedish social democratic model; the seeming success of the Reagan and Thatcher Revolutions in revitalizing the American and British economies; and the rise of the East Asian newly industrializing countries. All four had an impact on the thinking of the middle class and the elites, which are, incidentally, called the “chattering classes” because of their central discursive role in legitimizing social and political perspectives. (Bello, 2009)

This neoliberal capitalist ideology is reflected in the National Economic Development Authority’s Development Plan for 2011-2016, with its seeming addiction to expansionism and growth: “ investment must continually rise for the economy to grow and absorb labor into productive jobs. Being a bet on the future, investment requires a stable and predictable market environment. Macroeconomic stability, supported by sound monetary and fiscal policy, a strong financial system, and healthy external sector, is thus essential to maintaining positive consumer and business expectations about the future” (NEDA,  2014: 6). With this growth fixation on the economy, it is no wonder that policies on climate change fail to “acknowledge the main roots of the crisis which is unsustainable and destructive global economy and production” (Magata, Helen, et. al. 2010: 232). The Philippine government’s disregard for deep and drastic cuts of greenhouse gas emissions from developed counties and calls for the imposition of greater tariffs or stricter requirements, including only clean or climate proof foreign business investment in the country, is palpable with the seduction of foreign investors to put up more coal-fired power plants and mining ventures in the country.

The global economy is also under this same neoliberal capitalist ideology especially with the growing globalization of the world economy and increased integration of regional economies such as the Association of Southeast and East Asian Nations (ASEAN)-Integration which will be on full blast in 2015 especially with its free trade regime that aims to lower tariffs and minimize government intervention in trade.

This is dramatically confounding because while there were several summits (UN Climate Change Conference, yearly since 1995) on the climate change and how best to address the crisis, the paramount economic ideology of neoliberalism and free trade, is a disconnect to these summits’ general call to decarbonize the economy. Growth, as perpetuated by neoliberalism, means vastly more energy (Pielke, 2010: 62), which would exacerbate climate (and correlatively – health) insecurities.

This economy-environment tradeoff is reflected in the degree of bias against adaptation rather than on mitigation, in most of the Philippine policies on climate change. The Disaster Risk Reduction Management Act and Climate Change Act “has no legally binding targets on greenhouse gas emissions and it has no targets on renewables” (Smith, 2012). For decades, the options available to deal with climate change have been clear: we can act to mitigate the future impacts of climate change by addressing the factors that cause changes in climate; and we can adapt to changes in climate by addressing the factors that influence societal and environmental vulnerabilities to the effects of the climate. Mitigation policies focus on either controlling the emissions of greenhouse gases or capturing and sequestering those emissions. Adaptation policies focus on taking steps to make social or environmental systems more resilient to the effect of climate. Effective climate policy will necessarily require a combination of mitigation and adaptation policies. However, climate policy such as the Climate Change Act of 2009 reflects this bias against adaptation. The People’s Survival Fund also ensures adaptation by focusing on funding mechanisms yet “fails to integrate adaptation with mitigation strategies, such as transitioning to renewable energy systems” (, 5 April 2014).

Although the health impacts of climate change have been seen as a “foreseeable future,” there is some disagreement about the magnitude of those effects, when they will occur and what the right course of action is.  Decisions and policies on public health has to work on a level of uncertainty in terms of what the main threats to health are, in the short, medium and long term.

Underpinning those disagreements in health effects is the acceptance of the fundamental structure of capitalism, with the differences being around whether climate change requires more immediate public policy and health professional intervention or whether capitalism will address the health issues though economic development. The debates run on whether more progress on economic growth and development will answer the health threats. The IPCC itself in its report also states that “rapid economic development will reduce health impacts on the poorest and least healthy groups, with further falls in mortality rates.”  Alongside poverty alleviation and disaster preparedness, the most effective adaptation measures are:   “basic public health measures such as the provision of clean water, sanitation and essential healthcare.” This has clear emphasis on economic development and poverty alleviation which accepts the basic tenets of growth capitalism and stressing the neoliberal attitude of the market able to fix social woes.  The position taken by some conservatives is that humanity needs more capitalist economic and technological development even if that results in a warmer world.  Some points out that we are living longer and healthier lives than ever before thanks to economic development and growth. Therefore, inductively, we need more growth, and that humanity should strive to achieve more in terms of economic development.

Hans Baer, on the other hand, stresses that indeed, the root cause of the climate crisis is capitalism, a global economic system that “systematically exploits human beings and the natural environment”. He concludes that we need “a vision of an alternative world system, one based on two cardinal principles – namely social equity and justice and environmental sustainability.” He adds that environmental destruction is inherent to capitalism because it thrives only on “profit-making” and “continued economic expansion”. Unable to jump off its “treadmill of production and consumption”, the system must continue to generate ever higher levels of waste and consumption, even though this threatens life on the planet in the long run. (Baer, 2012)

South Cotabato’s Environment Code, while it actively promotes for environmental protection and conservation, is still a product of this overarching neoliberal hegemony – which sees the environment as a resource, that is, for eventual exploitation. Provisions such “Forest Resource Management Framework,” “Resource Profiling,” “Genetic Resource Base,” and “Ecological Tourism” among others, suggest a framework that accommodates the overall “development” plan of the government which is inherently defined by a neoliberal ideology. South Cotabato is of course part of NEDA’s Development Framework for Mindanao 2010-2020, which banners the objective of “harnessing the full potential of Mindanao’s rich resources” (p 8). South Cotabato’s Agro-Industrial Zone, with its DOLE centerpiece in Tupi, is an intense drive towards resource-based industrialization which can only be characterized as neoliberal in practice and principle. Addressing the impacts of heavy industrialization and influx of foreign corporations in South Cotabato, the Environment Code sets up mechanisms for monitoring, cooperation between agencies, and penal provisions for violation of the code. Yet, the problem exists when in the same code, utilization and exploitation are coupled with protection and conservation. This may be because of the same schizophrenia which affects the very department that exploits and then protects the environment, that is, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, which by its very name regards the environment as a resource. The website of the Provincial Government of South Cotabato itself, in its “General Information” button has a “Mineral Resources” item, enticing prospectors: “South Cotabato is rich in mineral resources especially in the mountainous areas of the municipality of Tampakan where Gold and Copper deposits are found. The municipality of T’boli is also a source of gold particularly in Brgy. Kematu” (, October 30, 2014). The Code’s claim to environmental protection and conservation is placed under doubt.

Climate Change action in South Cotabato’s Environment Code is partnered with Disaster Risk Reduction with no explicit provision connecting health and climate. While it indeed adopts explicit measures with regard to protection and management of natural resources, its public health access provision is limited to that of sanitation, specifying that the “Provincial Government shall adopt appropriate measures to assist city/municipal governments improve environmental sanitation by expanding the use of sanitary toilets for waste disposal. Such assistance shall include direct investments in public health education and strict enforcement of the Building and Sanitation Code” (Article III, Section 36). This may be because of the single-subject rule in law which stipulates that legislation may deal with only one main issue, yet the emerging concern for the interplay between health and environmental changes must not be downplayed. As it turns out, local ordinances on health resource access are mere implementations of national policies (i.e. Mandatory Universal Accessible, Cheaper, and Quality Medicines Act), without the necessary connections to the drastic surges in diseases caused by anthropogenic environmental changes which could have been accommodated in the provincial code.

South Cotabato’s health profile is characterized by acute respiratory infections leading the cause of morbidity for all ages in the province. It reaches a total of 490 cases while cancer in all forms remain second, with a total of 314 cases. Other diseases, such as diarrhea, influenza, acute bronchitis and broncholitis, hypertensive and glomerular & renal diseases were also included in the top ten leading causes of morbidity. Lifeystyle related diseases, such as cardiovascular diseases, cancer in all forms and diabetes remain as the leading cause of death. Dengue and malaria cases likewise drastically increased. (Provincial Investment Plan for Health, 2010: 14)

In answer to the health needs of South Cotabato, the Provincial Investment Plan for Health (2010) of South Cotabato includes upgrading of facilities, improvement of primary health care service network, expansion of the drug revolving fund, and inclusion of user fees for health services in the local tax revenue code, among others. Implementation of the Plan costs about P 324 million over the five years. More than half was spent for service delivery, while more than 20 percent of the financing component was comprised of Philhealth premium contributions. More than 70 percent are for maintenance and operating expenses. The province was also a recipient of a grant from the European Commission for implementation of the plan.

Although South Cotabato’s Health Plan is being strengthened to provide basic health service, how much of these local health policies are integrated with the climate change framework? How adequate are these measures in addressing the foreseen effects of climate change to health? For instance, it’s been forecasted that climate change will enhance the spread of some diseases. These disease-causing agents or pathogens, can be transmitted through food, water, and animals such as bats, birds, mice, and insects. Climate change could affect all of these transmitters. Aside from the more known impacts of heat waves, extreme weather events, and reduced air quality, some climate change-related diseases are as follows (US Environmental Protection Agency,

Food-borne Diseases

  • Higher air temperatures can increase cases of salmonella and other bacteria-related food poisoning because bacteria grow more rapidly in warm environments. These diseases can cause gastrointestinal distress and, in severe cases, death.
  • Flooding and heavy rainfall can cause overflows from sewage treatment plants into fresh water sources. Overflows could contaminate certain food crops with pathogen-containing feces.

Water-borne Diseases

  • Heavy rainfall or flooding can increase water-borne parasites such as Cryptosporidium and Giardia that are sometimes found in drinking water. These parasites can cause gastrointestinal distress and in severe cases, death.
  • Heavy rainfall events cause stormwater runoff that may contaminate water bodies used for recreation (such as lakes and beaches) with other bacteria. The most common illness contracted from contamination at beaches is gastroenteritis, an inflammation of the stomach and the intestines that can cause symptoms such as vomiting, headaches, and fever. Other minor illnesses include ear, eye, nose, and throat infections.

Animal-borne Diseases

  • Mosquitoes favor warm, wet climates and can spread diseases such as West Nile virus, Dengue and Malaria.
  • The geographic range of ticks that carry Lyme disease is limited by temperature. As air temperatures rise, the range of these ticks is likely to continue to expand northward. Typical symptoms of Lyme disease include fever, headache, fatigue, and a characteristic skin rash.

Few people are aware of the impact climate change may have on health even though the effects are serious and widespread. Disease, injury and death can result from climate-induced natural disasters, heat-related illness, pest- and waterborne diseases, air and water pollution and damage to crops and drinking water sources. Children, the poor, the elderly, and those with a weak or impaired immune system are especially vulnerable to climate change-related diseases. Public policy in the national and local levels have a spiralling impact on an individual’s and community’s health as structural (in this case, State) forces are acted upon the body.

As Critical Medical Anthropology asserts, the body is impacted by larger, unseen social forces. In this case, the neoliberal regime in the global economy impacts decision making in the national level, as in the bias towards adaptation rather than mitigation, then spiralling down to local decision making, as in South Cotabato’s resource framing of its Environment Code. This snowball effect has tremendous impact on the individual who might already be feeling the brunt of climate change-induced diseases.

This exercise in Critical Medical Anthropology proves that national policymakers exert powerful forces that influence how local or regional policies are also crafted, as well as greater global forces that exert their force on these national policymakers. The individual, right in the center of these powerful forces, becomes the locus of discourse, activity, and struggle.

Yet individuals have a stake in their own bodies, and are not simply agents to these larger social forces. Active participation in government processes may be one way of asserting agency in an unjust system, but a serious level of behavioral change is also sought in adjusting to today’s world where the neoliberal attitude of acquisition is pervasive but resources are limited, and where resource exploitation can lead to further human exploitation, affecting not only the current generation but also future generations.

References: 12 March 2014. “11000 poor families in South Cotabato enrolled with Philhealth in 2013.” Accessed in, retrieved on October 29, 2014.

Baer, Hans A., Merrill Singer, and Ida Susser. 2003. “Theoretical Perspectives in Medical Anthropology”. In Medical Anthropology & the World System, 31-54. Wesport Connecticut, and London: Praeger.

Baer, Hans A. 2012. “Global Capitalism and Climate Change: the Need for an Alternative World System.” California: Altamira Press

Bello, Walden. 2009. “Neoliberalism as hegemonic ideology in the Philippines: rise, apogee, and crisis.” Paper delivered at the plenary session of the 2009 National Conference of the Philippine Sociological Society held at the PSSC Building, October 16, 2009. Accessed in, retrieved on October 29, 2014.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 2014. “Summary for policymakers.” In Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, Part A: Global and Sectoral Aspects. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Field, C.B., V.R. Barros, D.J. Dokken, K.J. Mach, M.D. Mastrandrea, T.E. Bilir, M. Chatterjee, K.L. Ebi, Y.O. Estrada, R.C. Genova, B. Girma, E.S. Kissel, A.N. Levy, S. MacCracken, P.R. Mastrandrea, and L.L. White (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, pp. 1-32.

_____. 2007b. “Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report.” Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. [Core Writing Team, Pachauri, R.K and Reisinger, A. (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, 104 pp.

GMA Network. 5 April 2014. “Groups call on government to implement People’s Survival Fund.” Accessed in, retrieved on October 29, 2014.

Legard, Loren. 2010. “The State of the Climate,” In Climate Change Message of our Times: Excerpts from Senator Loren Legarda’s Speeches, 55-61, A Joint Project of the Senate Committee on Climate Change, Senate Committee on Cultural Committees and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (2011). Malabon City, Philippines: Libro ni Loren Foundation, Inc.

Magata, Helen, et. al. 2010. “The Possibility of REDD+ in the Philippines: What does this mean to Indigenous Peoples?” In Indigenous Peoples, Forests & REDD Plus: State of Forests, Policy Environment & Ways Forward, 192-263, Tebtebba Foundation. Baguio City, Philippines: Valley Printing Specialist.

Martens, Pim and Anthony J. McMichael. 2002. “Global environmental changes: anticipating and assessing risks to health.” In Environmental Change, Climate and Health: Issues and research methods, 1-17, Martens, Pim and Anthony J. McMichael (eds). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Merrill Singer. 1989. “The Coming of Age of Critical Medical Anthropology.” In Soc. Sci. Med. Volume 28, No. 11, pp. 1193-1203.

National Economic Development Authority. 2010. “Mindanao Strategic Development Framework 2010-2020.” Pasig City: Regional Development Office of NEDA.

National Economic Development Authority. 2014. “Philippine Development Plan 2011-2016 Midterm Update.” Pasig City: Regional Development Office of NEDA.

Pielke, Roger Jr. 2010. “The Climate Fix: What scientists and politicians won’t tell you about global warming.” New York: Basic Books.

Province of South Cotabato. 2010. “Provincial Investment Plan for Health.”

Smith, Tierney. 4 May 2012. “Is the Philippines’ climate law the best in the world?” Accessed in, retrieved on October 29, 2014.

Fatalism in a Hostile Geography? The Case of Albay in the Pacific Jinx

A Memory

I remember very clearly, as if it was just yesterday, the howling wind outside, and a more terrifying sound that echoed inside the cavities of our house in Naga, Camarines Sur that 30th of November 2006. They were long howls, whistling as the 250 kph gusts meet trees, buildings and wreckage, the howling interspersed with low moans like an asthmatic child. My bedroom walls were vibrating violently, water was streaming down from one of the junctions of wall and ceiling, our roof painfully creaking from this unseen heaviness. Looking out the window, our street was now a surging river. My grandmother’s transistor radio was blasting the Resuene Vibrante being aired by Bombo Radyo. The hymn to Our Lady of Peñafrancia, I remember, was like a balm to our terrors, the familiar melody and the images it invokes were like light piercing through the darkness of our anxieties. All the while, my grandmother was muttering in-between Hail Mary’s: “May herak an Dios.”

Typhoon Reming lashed down at the Bikol provinces with an unimaginable rage. The light of the following day only guaranteed what was already imagined and feared by the people. The severity of damage was immediately compared by old-timers to Trix, Sisang, Rex, Rosing and others in the nomenclature of monsters.  My mother remarked that Sisang in 1987 was stronger, when all the electric posts in the region were felled down as if they were mere toothpicks.

Daylight finally saw the devastation in our neighborhood, but we were more or less ‘spared’. Daylight also brought with it – slowly at first, then gaining momentum as the hours passed – the terrible news of death that had smitten Albay.


In November 30, 2006, Typhoon Reming claimed 1,478[1] lives in the province of Albay alone. Earlier debris from lahar flows of Mayon Volcano have been transported by Reming’s wind and rain, burying some of the villages of Guinobatan, Daraga, Camalig and Legaspi City in mudslides. It was the most destructive typhoon to hit the Philippines in 2006 severely affecting coastal areas and farming municipalities located around the periphery of Mt. Mayon.

Albay seats in a hostile geography (environment) in what is described in the moniker Pacific Jinx , the conjunction of the Pacific Ring of Fire and the Typhoon Belt of the Northwestern Pacific Basin. Typhoon Reming made landfalls in Catanduanes and Albay, reaching maximum wind speeds of 265 kph. It was the second strongest typhoon to hit the region, second only to Seniang in 1970 with winds up to 275 kph. Compared to the other provinces such as Catanduanes and Camarines Sur, Albay suffered the brunt of the extent of damages on lives, communities, services and infrastructures. In Albay alone, 98.6% of barangays were affected, a total of 613,348 families or about 3,122,000 persons.

The Bikolanos are no strangers to natural disasters with Southern Bikol having a hit rate of 19% and Northern Bicol with 16% of the total tropical cyclones that have crossed the Philippines from 1948 to present.[2] The region is also home to two active volcanoes, Mayon and Bulusan, and six other dormant/extinct volcanoes: Isarog, Masaraga, Malinao, Pocdol (Bacon-Manito Volcanic Complex), Asog (Iriga) and Labo. The Bicol Volcanic Arc Chain is the physical manifestation of the highly-active tectonic area below making the region a hotspot for tectonic earthquakes[3] as well.

Given these circumstances, very often, fatalistic attitudes pervade among the people. “Bahala na ang Dios satuya”[4] and “May herak an Dios”[5] are often the attitudes toward disasters – that events like typhoons and eruptions are fated to happen and that human beings cannot therefore change their destinies. How passive, indeed are the Albayanos in the face of this hostile geography? How is this attitude expressed?

As used in this paper, fatalism refers to “an attitude of resignation in the face of some future event or events which are thought to be inevitable”. Fatalism has been shown to play a significant role in determining a vast range of individual behaviors including natural disaster preparedness. For fatalism I intended people‘s propensity to believe that their destinies are ruled by an unseen power, Fate, rather than by their will.

This paper explores some of the narratives that may shed light to this attitude and how these attitudes are situated in the challenging geography and topography of Albay. The paper also explores some of the initiatives of the Province of Albay in disaster risk reduction.

Locating Albay 

Albay is a province in the Bikol region in southeastern Luzon island about 550 kilometers from Manila. It has a land area of 2,554.06 square kilometers, politically subdivided into 15 municipalities, three cities and 720 barangays. At present, it has three congressional districts. The province had a population of 1,233,432 as of May 1, 2010 reflecting an average population density of 482.9 persons per square kilometer. The population of the province grew at the rate of 1.23 percent from  2000 to 2010.[6]

In the income classification of the Department of Finance, Albay is considered a 1st Class Province with an average annual income of P 450 Million and above.[7] The province’s economy is basically agricultural with coconut, hemp, rice, vegetables, sugarcane and pineapple as the major products. Vast grazing lands are also available for pasturing cattle, carabao, horses, goats and sheep. Its forests are sources of timber, rattan, pili nuts and other minor forest products.

Albay is situated between the provinces of Camarines Sur on the north and Sorsogon on the south, bounded on the east by the Pacific Ocean, on the northeast by the Lagonoy Gulf, and on the west and southwest by the Burias Pass. North of the province’ s mainland are the islands of Rapu-Rapu, Batan, Cagraray and San Miguel, all falling under its jurisdiction.[8]. Two-fifths of the entire land area of Albay is characterized by plains and flat lands.[9] The greater portion of these flatlands is in the north-western quadrant. The entire province is surrounded by mountain ranges. The western portion is characterized by low and rolling mountain ranges of less than 600 m in height. The eastern side of the province is where comparatively high and volcanic mountain ranges lie, including Mts. Mayon, Malinao and Masaraga.[10]

In the Provincial Development and Physical Framework Plan (PDPF, 2011-2016), the province is described to be “located in the eastern seaboard of the country and subjected to the pressures and consequent effects of the Pacific Jinx. It is referred to as such because of its geographic location, that of being situated along the Western Pacific Basin which is a generator of climatic conditions such as typhoons, monsoon rains, and thunderstorms, among others. These cause the province to experience more pronounced distribution of precipitation and no pronounced dry season all-year round. Because of its geographic location, volcanism, physiographic and hydro-geologic nature, the province becomes vulnerable to disasters and to the effects of climate change as well.[11]

Poor People in a Hostile Geography

Poor socio-economic conditions and a geography prone to disasters make Albay an immediate candidate for disasters. This section explores some of the geo-physical conditions of the Bikol peninsula, especially the province of Albay, the hazards experienced in the province as well as the socio-economic conditions of the population.

Bicol region is volcanic in origin and part of the Pacific Ring of Fire. Known as the Bicol Volcanic Arc or Chain, the volcanoes are the results of the Philippine Sea Plate subducting under the Philippine Mobile Belt, along the Philippine Trench[12]. Volcanism is evident by the number of hot springs, crater lakes, and volcanoes that dot the region starting from Mount Labo in Camarines Norte to the Gate Mountains in Matnog, Sorsogon. Mayon Volcano[13] is the most prominent of the volcanoes in the region, famous for its almost perfect conical shape and for being the most active in the Philippines. Its eruptions have repeatedly inflicted disasters on the region, but during lulls in activity, it is a particularly beautiful mountain. The southernmost tip of the peninsula is dominated by Bulusan Volcano[14], the other active volcano in the region. Tiwi in Albay and the Bacon-Manito[15] area between Sorsogon and Albay are the sites of two major geothermal fields that contribute substantially to the Luzon Power Grid.

Mayon Volcano, a strato-volcano, has a height of 2,462 meters and has a base circumference of 62.8 km[16]. Mayon has erupted 49 times since the first documented activity in 1616. Thus, its symmetric cone was actually formed through alternate pyroclastic and lava flows. The upper slopes of Mayon are steep, reaching up to 35-45º. Pyroclastic flows characteristically occur during each major episode. Lahars occur during approximately one-third of Mayon’s eruptions, when humid, near-surface air is entrained by eruption updrafts, generating heavy rains on the volcano slopes. The resulting runoff mobilises hot ash fall and pyroclastic flow debris into lahars that flow down gullies which existed prior to the eruption, and scour out new channels.

Agnes Espinas in her paper for the Human Development Network classified the hazards experienced in Albay in two categories: geologic and hydro-meterologic hazards.The following types of hazards in Albay are provided by Espinas[17]:

Geologic Hazards

1) Earthquake

Albay experiences quakes generated by the trenches and active faults (tectonic

earthquakes) as well as by the active volcanoes (volcanic earthquakes), closest of which is the Mayon volcano situated almost at the heart of the province. An estimate of 42,500 households or 5.3 % of the total population of the province is considered at risk from earthquakes. (PDPF, 2011-216:17) Similarly at risk are the properties and structures exposed to the hazards whenever the quakes occur.

2) Volcanic Hazards

During eruptions of Mayon Volcano, a total of 86 barangays within the three cities and  six municipalities are considered at risk from (a) pyroclastic flow; (b) ash fall; (c) volcanic  avalanche; (d) lava flow; (e) mud flow; and (f) lava fountaining; among others. Most affected  are the barangays located within the six-kilometer radius permanent danger zone (PDZ) and the eight-kilometer radius extended danger zones. A total of 1675 families are categorically at risk within the 6-kilometers PDZ of the volcano (as of September 2010). (PDPFP, 2011-216: 17)

Hydrometeorologic Hazards

1)Typhoons/Tropical Cyclones

Albay, which lies on the eastern seaboard and is one of the areas first reached by landfalling tropical cyclones, experiences an average visit of 20 tropical cyclones each year with an average of two major destructive typhoons per year. In November 2006, it was hardest-hit by  typhoon Reming which was one of the most deadly and destructive tropical cyclones in the  record of history of the country. The typhoon brought 466 millimetres of rainfall, the highest in 40 years. ( That rainfall caused debris and volcanic materials from the slopes of Mayon Volcano to rush down as mudflows that buried the communities lying at the footslopes of the volcano. Aside from Reming, three other major typhoons hit the province in 2006 and also the succeeding year. These typhoons caused flashfloods and landslides in the affected areas. Figure 3 below depicts the risks to the province brought about by the occurrence of typhoon with those in dark blue showing the very high risk areas. High risk areas are determined by three factors which are: (1) high rainfall increase; (2) highly populated areas/high density; and (3) high poverty incidence.

2) Flood, Lahar and Mudflow

An estimated 12,190 hectares of the province are continually suffering from flood  hazards during rainy season. There are several built-up areas throughout Albay that are annually  constrained by flood, most especially the coastal communities. Generally, 396 out of the total 720 barangays of the province are experiencing flood hazards during heavy rains.

Mudflow is one of the most destructive effects of typhoon in areas near an active volcano  and in areas prone to landslide. During the Super Typhoon Reming destructions were caused in part by rampaging mudflows and lahar flows from the channels of Mayon Volcano. Three cities and five municipalities nestled around the volcano are constantly threatened by mudfows and lahar. The magnitude of devastation caused by Reming resulted to mass permanent relocation into safer grounds of about 10,076 families.(PDPFP, 2011-216: 15) An entire barangay was relocated to another barangay within the municipality to ensure the safety of the residents.

3) Tsunami and Storm Surge

Having a long coastline of 354 kilometers makes the province vulnerable to tsunami and storm surge. Tsunami is a seismic sea wave which is caused by undersea earthquake. Storm surge, on the other hand, is generated by typhoon. It is a temporary rise of the sea level at the coast, above that of predicted tide. It is caused by strong winds and low atmospheric pressure associated with the passage of a typhoon and may last from a few hours to a few days. It destroys seawalls and smash the houses made of light materials that are located along the coasts. As of September 2010, the estimated total population affected by Tsunami and storm surge is approximately 24,700 families located in 149 barangays. (PDPFP, 2011-216:18-19)

4) Landslide and Soil Erosion

About 73% of the province‟s total land area is vulnerable to landslide and soil erosion  owing to its mountainous terrain. Strong earthquake and heavy rainfall cause landslide in areas with steep slopes and clayey soils. Soil erosion is rampant in less vegetated areas exposed to strong winds and as also caused by water runoff during high precipitation. As recorded by APSEMO, a total of about 11,000 to 12,000 families located within the high risk area are threatened by landslide in 127 barangays of the province. (PDPFP, 2011-216:10)

The risks posed by a hazardous topography and geography are further aggravated by the socio-economic conditions of the people[18] – a rice-based agricultural economy and the high level of poverty incidence in the province.

Recent poverty data of the National Statistical Coordination Board (NSCB) for 2013 showed Albay as being the only province in Bicol region which registered a steady increase in poverty incidence since 2006. It was also one of the only two provinces which registered an increase in poverty for the period 2009 to 2012 from 33.9 to 36.1%, the other one being the province of Catanduanes. Albay was also one of the only two Bicol provinces which exceeded the regional poverty incidence pegged at 34.1%. Albay had 36.1% and the other province was Masbate with 44.2%. Though Masbate registered a decrease in poverty statistics it remained on the top spot, followed by Albay.[19] NSCB reported that the magnitude of poverty incidence in Albay rose by 36.2%[20] in 2012 even though the Bicol region’s economy grew by 7.1%, faster than the NCR.

Albay is basically an agricultural province. The agricultural zone of Albay accounts for 158,311.63 hectares or 62% of the total land area with coconut, rice and corn as the major agricultural crops[21]. Natural disasters adversely impact on the agricultural economy of Albay. Tropical cyclones that beat on the province on a regular basis damage crops, especially during the harvesting season of rice (October-December) which coincides with some of the strongest typhoons of the year. In the case of Typhoon Reming, damages to agriculture amounted to a staggering P 545,194,897[22] considering that a net return of income for palay in the Bicol Region is P 14,993 per hectare[23]. Agriculture employs 40.7%[24] of the total regional employment roughly translating to 852,000 farmers, fisherfolk and their families adversely impacted by natural disasters in the region.

These socio-economic conditions in the region place Albay, not only in the middle of the Pacific Jinx of natural disasters but also greatly magnifies their vulnerability and limits their resilience and adaptive capacities. Natural disasters spiral into human catastrophes when they entrench the poverty that already exists and pull more people down into poverty as their assets vanish, together with their means to generate an income[25]. The risk of impoverishment is linked to lack of access to the markets, capital, assets and insurance mechanisms that can help people to cope and to rebuild. This combination of exposure to natural disasters vulnerability and limited access to social safety nets, to land and to work is a serious risk factor, as is living in a remote rural area.

The transformation of hazards into disasters is far from ‘natural’. It reflects structural

inequalities that are rooted in the complex political economy of disaster risk and  development. A community’s disaster risk varies across time and space and is driven heavily by interacting economic, socio-cultural and demographic factors. Poverty is one of the strongest determinants of disaster risk, as well as shaping the capacity to recover and reconstruct. The poorest people in a  community are often affected disproportionately by disaster events, particularly in the long-term. However, poverty is by no means synonymous with vulnerability. Indeed, vulnerability is shaped by wider social, institutional and political factors that govern entitlements and capabilities.

Recent initiatives by the Province of Albay address these issues and insist that fatalistic attitudes have no place in the province.

Reducing Risk in Albay

Segundo Romero in an Oxfam report remarked that “prior to 1989, Albay’s disaster risk management strategy was mainly after-the-fact-disaster response”[26] which was more akin to the supposed fatalistic attitude often accused to people in disaster-prone areas like Albay. The approach of the provincial government, the key government agencies, and the partner institutions like non-government organisations, was generally responsive and reactive to calamities and that preparedness is sought within the shorter period rather than a long term endeavour. Primarily, the activities are focused on the safety of the affected families and the provision of relief assistance during the calamity[27].

With the recurrence of more devastating typhoons and the more frequent eruption of Mayon Volcano, which used to occur once in every ten year period but later beam more frequent in intervals of three or five years, the provincial government was prompted to initiate better measures to cope with calamities. In 1989, with the support from the Italian government, the adoption of community-based disaster preparedness methodologies and responsive activities to ultimately reduce the adverse effects of natural disasters was undertaken. Among the programs introduced, were as follows[28]:

  1. Institutional set-up and disaster management education;
  2. Establishment of a disaster operations centre, installation of radio communication equipment, provision of rescue and relief facilities and the construction of embankments and evacuation facilities in 11 barangay; and
  3. Launching of income generation projects for prospective volunteers to encourage their participation in disaster management strategies.

The Sangguniang Panlalawigan in 1994 supported the institutionalisation of a disaster management office through the issuance of a resolution for the creation of a Disaster Risk Management Office (DRMO) called the Albay Public Safety and Emergency Management Office (APSEMO). The shift now from disaster response to disaster risk reduction is now possible. This shift in paradigm is now captured in Albay’s Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction Management (DRRM) with the goals of safe development defined as disaster proofing; integrating climate change programs specifically adaptation and DRRM to achieve greater economic viability; acknowledging the potent effects of geologic, anthropogenic and climatic hazards which limit the attainment of millenium development goals and the human development index[29].

Several ordinances and resolutions were also passed by the Sangguniang Panlalawigan to support these initiatives:

  1. SP Resolution 2007-04 – proclaims climate change adaptation as provincial policy and that all behavior, projects, programs, grants of licenses and permits should be consistent with adaptation.
  2. SP Appropriation Ordinance 2007-01 – supplemental budget identifies A2C2 program as a budgetary item and with corresponding funding for activities.
  3. SP Ordinance to strengthen Sec. 48 Item 3 Chapter 6 of RA 9003 – Solid Waste Management Law; Banning “open burning” and provides local mechanism for enforcement, as well as training of barangay tanods to record in barangay logbook any violations.
  4. SP Ordinance 2007-51 – updating and reviewing of Comprehensive Land Use Plan (CLUP) for disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation. Reorganizatioin of Provincial Land Use Committee under Provincial Executive Order 2007-07.
  5. Albay Declaration on Climate Change Adaptation – prioritise climate change adaptation in local and national policies; promote “climate-proofing” development; advocate the creation of oversight bodies in the government; mainstreaming of climate change through the local and regional partnerships for sustainable development; Research and Development; promote environmentally sustainable practices. (Resolutions have been passed to the Philippine Congress to adopt the declaration as a framework for mainstreaming climate change in the country.

A Center for Initiatives and Research on Climate Adaptation (CIRCA) has also been created. This is a joint venture of the the Provincial Government of Albay together with the Environmental Management Bureau, World Agroforestry Center, and Bicol University.

Espinas underscored that institutional reformation and creation to undertake the tasks under the DRRM framework contributed to developing a more responsive governance and system within the province. The preceding discussion shows a very proactive approach by the government in reducing risk but these altogether is on the realm of the state, acting on the safety and welfare of the people. What happens in the private though offers a glimpse on the supposed fatalism of these people in an unsafe environment.

Several Expressions

Our understanding of behavior suggests that all ideas arise from man’s experience with his surroundings. A people exposed to a throng of natural hazards must have expressed these realities of environment in their culture, including folk narratives and beliefs, as Wilhelm Dilthey suggested that “experience urges toward expression or communication with others”[30]. The process of using this train of methodology must be done with caution since “the relationship is clearly dialogic and dialectical, for experience structures expressions, in that we understand other people and their expressions on the basis of our own experience and understanding. But expressions also structure experience, in that dominant narratives of a historical era, important rituals and festivals, and classic works of art define and illuminate inner experience.”[31]

My goal is not to make an in-depth analysis of these cultural expressions but instead make a survey of these expressions which may help in understanding how passive and fatalistic the Bikolanos of Albay in the events of natural disasters. We may treat the epic-fragment Ibalong as one of these Dilthean expressions.

Ibalong[32], the sixty stanzas that remain of a full-length folk epic, was presumably jotted down in its complete Bikol narrative by Fray Bernardino de Melendreras (1815-1867), a Franciscan missionary in Guinobatan, Albay. Ibalong gives a grave picture of a deluge, almost with a historical tone that is absent in the other stanzas. In the sixty stanzas, seven were devoted to a single “deluge” which wreaked havoc to the ancient Bikol land. This singular moment changed courses of rivers, submerged lands, transformed a volcano to a lake, in a cataclysmic event that swept as far north as Labo in Camarines Norte to Bato in the boundaries of Camarines Sur and Albay. Whirlwinds, volcanic eruptions and storm surges are here described, with references to specific locations in mainland Bikol.


Hubo entonces un diluvio

Promovido por el Onos,

Que el aspecto de esta tierra

Por completo trastorno.

Asin ta dinatngan masulog na baha,

Onos ginikanan, si kusog dakula,

Si orog kagayon, tiwasay na daga

Iba nang paghilngon naliwat kawasa.

Then came a deluge on the land

Caused by the Onos force of old

So that the features of this earth

Were completely changed to behold.


Reventaron los volcanes

Hantic, Colasi, Isarog,

Y al mismo tiempo sentiose

Un espantoso temblor.

Su bukid na Hantik, Kulasi, Isarog

Gabos nangagtuga, nagputok nin kusog,

Asin kasabay pa si dakulang linog

Sa bilog na rona gabos na natanyog.

Volcanoes Hantik, Isarog,

Culasi also burst so quick

And was felt simultaneously

The whole ground quake convulsively.


Fue tanta sacudida,

Que el mar en seco dejo

El istmo de Pasacao

Del modo que se ve hoy.

Sa kusog nin linog kuminadal-kadal,

Dagat suminuko may dagang naglataw

Na iyo na ngunyan satong matata-naw

Bilang kauswagan duman sa Pasacao.

So mighty was the jolting sway

To its bottom the sea gave way

Effecting isthmus in the fray

At Pasacao as seen today.


Separo del continente

La isleta de Malbogon

Donde moran las sibilas

Llamadas Hilan, Lariong.

Igwang nakasiblag daga na kaputol

Asin pinag-apod na purong Malbogong,

duwang aswang iyong nag-erok na lolong

Na pinagngaranan Hilang asin Laryong.

A torn part of the mainland formed

The islet known as Malbogong

Inhabited by witches strong

The so-called Hilang and Laryong.


El caudaloso Inarihan

Su curso el Este torcio,

Pues, antes del cataclismo,

Desaguaba por Ponon.

     Nagbaha nin orog salog Inarihan

Bulos pasulnopan sala nang dalagan,

Kaya kan dai pa ini minasupngay

Si gabos na tubig Ponong dinadatngan.

The waters flow of Inarihan

Its course due East ran up all wrong,

So that before this cataclysm

Flowed to Ponong, where set the sun.


En Bato se hundio un gran monte

Y en su sitio aparecio

El lago, hoy alimenta

Con su pesca a Ibalon.

May dakulang bulod sa Bato nagtundag,

Sa kinamugtakan danaw luminuwas

Na pinaghalean manga sirang layas

Naging kabuhayan kan Ibalong nanggad.

In Bato a big mountain sank

That generated water tank

A lake came up which now supplies

Fish consumption by Ibalong folks.


Del golfo de Calabagñan

Desaparecio Dagatnon,

De donde eran los Dumagat

Que habitaron en Cotmon.

Manga nag-erok dagang Kalabangan

Na manga Dagatnong napara nin basang,

Si manga Dumagat nagsalihid duman

Na hale sa Kotmong enot na erokan.

From the gulf of Calabangan

Where all Dagatnong has-been wiped out

From which had come the Dumagat

Who had inhabited Cotmong.

This cataclysm which transformed the physical features of Bikol begs to ask: is this in mythic time or is the event rooted in a real catastrophic past? Certainly, all the places mentioned in the stanzas refer to real place-names, ethhnonyms still used in the present time. If we accept as authentic the Ibalong fragment, this attests to how the environment plays an important part in Bikolano cosmology and how it underscores the hostility of the region’s location. Earlier in the epic, the hero Handiong cleared the forests of hundreds of monsters and brought civilization (writing, pottery, boat-making) to the land, but from the 45th to the 51st stanza, the heroes themselves were strikingly silent and absent. Nature was supreme once again, an episode when nature showed it cannot be tamed like the monster-siblings of the snake-woman Oryol.

One of the mentioned powers in this epic-fragment is Onos, “an old force” of nature. Modern, standard, central Bikol language uses the word “Onos” to refer to a storm, whirlwind or tornado[33]. Onos has never figured in other narratives of the Bikolanos except in this epic-fragment. Yet this deluge-bringing force was attributed to be the cause of the earthquakes, eruptions and storm surges that transformed the face of ancient Bikol. In Legaspi, Albay, the Yawa river is so named because it is thought of as a sleeping monster. “Yawa” means monster or demon and gives reference to how it swells during lahar flows of Mayon, then becomes a gentle river during dry seasons. Onos and the Yawa then gives us this Bikolano notion of a dormant “old force” sleeping in nature. Yet what caused it to awaken? The epic gives us the impression that it occurred without warning, in the literary sense, the stanzas in Ibalong were like a slash in the fabric of the story. Or were the exploits of Handiong preceding the deluge stanzas, of taming wild nature and killing “monsters” the reason for the awakening of Onos? We can only turn to speculation at this point. Yet the more popular belief among the Bikolanos is the belief that sin or human transgression is the main cause of disasters.

The word “dawat” for instance, refers to a sudden thunderstorm which causes flashfloods.The Dawat, according to older Bikolanos, is caused by incest and that God brings the dawat to punish the sinners/offenders. Dawat is most probably a pre-Spanish word, documented by Marcos de Lisboa in his 1754 dictionary, 182 years after the colonisation of Bikol, but still very much used today to refer to very strong and sudden rains. Disasters in the context of the dawat are directly sent by God, giving us the impression that man is intimately (metaphysically in this case) linked to weather perturbations, in which transgressions of a religious law, breaking of taboo, or committing sin, upsets the natural order, or perhaps a divine order.

This sin-disaster connection is most evident in the beliefs surrounding the traslacion procession of Our Lady of Peñafrancia. Every 2nd Friday of September, the image of Our Lady of Peñafrancia, lovingly called by the Bikolanos as “Ina”, is transferred from the Basilica Minore to the Metropolitan Cathedral of Naga City, by procession carried by thousands of men. It is the common belief by Catholic Bikolanos that a slow procession, or if the image is damaged in that procession, perhaps a torn “manto” or cloak, missing crown or aureole, would mean a bad year of typhoons ahead. This connection of the image to weather, most especially rain, is especially evident whenever it rains during the processions (both traslacion and the 9th day of the novena fluvial procession). People the processions, devotees most especially, would welcome the light rain saying it is a “blessing” from Ina.

On the morning of August 15, 1981, the miraculous image was stolen from her shrine. The entire region was shocked by the news and people could not believe that such a sacrilegious act could happen. A little over a year later, however, the region rejoiced over the finding of the image. On September 8, 1982, at the height of Typhoon Ruping in Bikol, it was transported from Manila to Naga in a caravan, and some said the rain over Naga miraculously stopped when a mass was finally said in the Metropolitan Cathedral. Such connection of faith to natural disasters forms part of the Bikolano psyche. The “dawat” and the transgression-disaster connection in the Peñafrancia devotion illustrates negative actions being “punished”, but prayers against natural disasters form the other side of this illustration, positive actions through supplications and oblations are rewarded.

The “Oratio Imperata” is a set of Roman Catholic invocative prayers which the local ordinary or prelate of the church may publicly pray when a grave need or calamity occurs. In imminent dangers, like an approaching typhoon in Bikol, an Oratio Imperata is prayed by the community, often with an “Awrora” or dawn procession of the image of Peñafrancia or our Lady of Salvation in most areas of Albay. In most towns, the image of the Divino Rostro (the face of Jesus) is also processed because of the belief that it once spared Bikol from the “cholera morbo” of 1882. Below is an example of an “Oratio Imperata ad Repellendam Tempestates atque Calamitates” approved by the Diocese of Legaspi:

Amang makakamhan, iniitaas mi ang samong mga puso

sa pagpapasalamat huli kan mga nangangalasan kan Saimong linalang,

huli kan Saimong pangataman sa pagtao Mo

kan samong mga pangangaipo digdi sa daga,

asin huli kan Saimong kadunongan na nag-aantabay

kan lakaw kan bilog na kinaban.

Inaako mi na nagkasala kami Saimo asin sa kapalibutan.

Dai mi nasabotan asin naotob an Saimong kabotan na atamanon an kinaban.

An kapalibutan nagsasakit huli kan samong mga salang gibo,

Asin ngonyan namamatean mi na

An pagdusang-balik kan samong pag-abuso asin kapabayaan.

Padagos an labi-labing pag-init kan kinaban.

Huli kaini naglalawig an tig-initan; nagdadakul asin nagkukusog an mga bagyo, uran, baha, pagtuga kan bulkan, asin iba pang mga natural na calamidad.

Dai kaming mabibirikan kundi Ika, mamomoton na Ama.

Sa saimo kami minahagad nin kapatawaran kan samong mga kasalan.

Ilikay mo kami, an samong mga namomotan, asin mga pagrogaring

Sa peligro nin mga calamidad, natural man o kagibohan nin tawo.

Antabayan Mo kaming magtalubo na magin mga responsableng Paraataman kan saimong linalang.

Asin mga matinabang na parasurog kan kapwang nangangaipo.

Huli ki Kristo, samong Kagurangnan.


V- Nuestra Señora de Salvacion

R- Ipamibi mo kami.

Almighty Father, we raise our hearts to You in gratitude

for the wonders of creation of which we are part,

for Your providence that sustains us in our needs, and

for Your wisdom that guides the course of the universe.

We acknowledge our sins against You and the rest of creation.

We have not been good stewards of Nature.

We have confused Your command to subdue the earth.

The environment is made to suffer our wrongdoing,

and now we reap the harvest of our abuse and indifference.

Global warming is upon us. Typhoons, floods, volcanic eruption,

and other natural calamities occur in increasing number and intensity.

We turn to You, our loving Father, and beg forgiveness for our sins.

We ask that we, our loved ones and our hard-earned possessions

be spared from the threat of calamities, natural and man-made.

We beseech You to inspire us all to grow into

responsible stewards of Your creation,

and generous neighbors to those in need.

Through Christ, our Lord.


V- Our Mother of Salvation.

R- Pray for us.

The Oratio Imperata is not a permanent religious recitation, but rather only for used for a short period of time of need. The prayers are often recited post-communion or after the conclusion or final benediction of the Holy Mass. The Oratio Imperata, becomes then a reverse of the sin-disaster association, where a sin is punished by a storm. It is effectively, storming heaven with prayers.

Other stories abound in Albay and Camarines Sur. The wedding of “animistic” belief and Catholicism is evident in the story of the Calpi tree which became the wood for the images of Our Lady of Salvation (now in Joroan, Tiwi, Albay), Our Lady of Solitude (in Buhi, Camarines Sur) and St. Anthony of Padua (Nabua, Camarines Sur)[34]. The story goes that on a certain day while Mariano Dacuba, a tenant of Don Silverio Arcilla, was clearing the land, he chopped off a big Calpi tree[35]. But there was something about it: already severed from the base for many hours it maintained its life and freshness. Suddenly it occurred to him to bring it personally to Buhi. He informed Don Silverio about it and the latter consulted with the Friar Pastor. In Buhi this time lived a sculptor by the name Bagacumba. He had him summoned for the possibility of carving an image from the wood. Indeed three images were produced: Our Lady of Salvation, Our Lady of Solitude and St. Anthony of Padua. But the story does not end there. In the town of Buhi, surrounding the lake of Buhi, it was said by the townspeople that the sculptor Bagacumba threw some of the unused woods from the Calpe tree, and is said to float  in a specific part of the lake to warn people of impending calamities like typhoons. Some of the old people of Buhi are still able to point at this exact location in the lake.

Stories such as this point to supernatural connections with the natural. The Calpe tree, for instance is thought to be miraculous, even when it was still a tree, but human hands transformed the tree to statues that became symbols, windows to the divine, sharing the access to this tree’s power. And yet the leftover wood still retained its “nature”  and hence its connection to the natural (i.e. warning people of typhoons). Man is not passive in this cosmology, not just a recipient of punishments or rewards, but an active actor in nature, and the supernatural. Access to supernature is acquired, that is as a gift (the Calpe tree), as a purchase (palaspas), or through the performance of appropriate acts (Oratio Imperata).

A dormant force, Onos, lies sleeping, but men learned to quell it with supplications, obligatory prayers, even talismans (in the form of the “palaspas”). It is never fully mastered yet there is the understanding that a certain connection between men and the realm of storm gods, the wielders of the powers of weather and earth, is present and available. Even Bikolano children pray to the Sto. Niño during earthquakes, praying that the child Jesus would hold the globe firmly in his hand – evidence of this connection and hence, communication.

These beliefs, others would say superstitions, may perhaps be forms of adaptation to forces that people barely understand by making sense of these mysterious physical forces in the language and images they recognize.


Although the precise meaning of the word fatalism changes across cultures and religions, it can be linked with people‘s propensity to believe that their destinies are ruled by an unseen power – Fate – rather than by their will. Hence, fatalism can undermine the confidence in the link between effort and disaster preparedness.

The concept of fatalism has been central to the development of religious and philosophical thought. Of course, this is not surprising because the question of whether or not our destinies are under our control is at the root of our thoughts and has shaped our cultural evolution.

In this sense, we may doubt the supposed fatalistic attitude of the people of Albay. It is easy to assume that a people in poor socio-economic conditions exposed to severe hazards in a hostile environment have a tendency for fatalism, a “bahala na” attitude in terms of disaster preparedness. Over the years, local government initiatives have shown a more proactive stance in mitigation and adaptation. Yet, this is in the realm of the state. What happens in the household or in the individual is still very much moored in belief (or perhaps faith) that is oftentimes confused with fatalistic attitudes.

The narratives presented show that “communing”, meaning a direct link, to this “Onos” force or perhaps to the “owners” of these natural forces is possible, and even to mediate or negotiate with these force/s. It is directly linked in faith – the supposed power, and not the powerless-ness of fatalism, to avert disasters. 

One may confuse this faith to being passive, waiting for the typhoon to strike them down, all the time praying for salvation. We should not forget the people of Cagsawa who run to the church during the 1814 eruption of Mayon, believing they would be spared in the sacred space of the church. Developing resilience and resistance requires knowledge of disasters and risks. It must be clear that in any effort for risk reduction and disaster preparedness in Albay, there must be the understanding that efforts will not start at zero, at some fatalistic population. Innate in the culture of the people is the will to live, to survive, to preserve oneself against calamities – and this is exactly the capital for local initiatives. The Albayanos want to live, even in this most perilous of places.

The Bikolanos’ faith, if we may call it that, has no room for fatalism. Only when faith in a higher being recedes does fatalism take over. This is not the case in the Albayanos of Bikol. In essence, faith causes us to press in, seek, and overcome – fatalism causes us to give up. Faith inspires hope while fatalism offers only fear.


Albay Province Website,, retrieved on January 27, 2014.

Andal, Eric et. al., “Characterization of the Pleistocene Volcanic Chain of the Bicol Arc, Philippines:      Implications for Geohazard Assessment” in TAO, Vol. 16, No. 4, 865-883, October 2005.

Bankoff, Greg. Cultures of Disaster: Society and Natural Hazard in the Philippines, London: RoutledgeCurzon (2003).

Bicol Mail, Albay registers poorest economic performance in, retrieved on January 27,2014.

Bicol Today, Bicol poverty remains high despite growth of regional economy in, retrieved on January 28, 2014.

Bruner, Edward. “Introduction” in Anthropology of Experience, Victor Turner and Edward Bruner (eds), Chicago: University of Illinois Press (1986).

Bureau of Agricultural Statistics, Regional Profile: Bicol in, retrieved on January 28, 2014.

Department of Finance, DEPARTMENT ORDER No. 23-08 July 29, 2008.

Department of Science and Technology – Region V, Albay Profile in, retrieved on January 27, 2014.

Espinas, Agnes. “Geography and Public Planning: Albay and Disaster Risk Management” in Human Development Network Discussion Paper Series, PHDR Issue 2012/2013 No. 4.

Jones, Lindsey et. al., The geography of poverty, disasters and climate extremes in 2030, UK: Overseas Development Institute (2013).

Mintz, Malcolm W. and Britanico, Jose. Bikol-English Dictionary, Quezon City: New Day Publishers (1985).

National Economic Development Authority Bicol, Bicol Rehabilitation in retrieved on January 25, 2014.

National Statistical Coordination Board, “Philippine Standard Geographic Codes, Province of Albay” in, retrieved on January 25, 2014.

National Statistical Coordination Board, “The Province of Albay” Overview of the Region. Makati City, Philippines: 2014.

Padua, Michael. Typhoon Climatology in, retrieved on January 27, 2014.

Provincial Government of Albay, Disaster Risk Reduction Management Plan, (2009), 13.

Rolando P. Orense Orense, Rolando P. and Ikeda, Makoto. “Damage Caused by Typhoon-Induced Lahar Flows From Mayon Volcano, Philippines” in Soils and Foundations by the Japanese Geotechnical Society, Vol. 47. No. 6, 1123-1132, December 2007.

Romero, Segundo. A Permanent Disaster Risk Management Office: Visible, Measurable Impact over the Years. Albay Provincial Government in Building Resilient Communities: Good Practices in Disaster Risk Management, Oxfam Great Britain (2008).

Turner, Victor. “Dewey, Dilthey and Drama: an Essay in the Anthropology of Experience” in Anthropology of Experience, Victor Turner and Edward Bruner (eds), Chicago: University of Illinois Press (1986).

[1] National Economic Development Authority Bicol, Bicol Rehabilitation in retrieved on January 25, 2014.

[2] David Michael V. Padua, Typhoon Climatology in, retrieved on January 27, 2014.

[3] Greg Bankoff, Cultures of Disaster: Society and Natural Hazard in the Philippines, London: RoutledgeCurzon (2003), 37.

[4] “God will take care of us.”

[5] “God will show mercy.”

[6] National Statistical Coordination Board, “Philippine Standard Geographic Codes, Province of Albay” in, retrieved on January 25, 2014.

[7] Department of Finance, DEPARTMENT ORDER No. 23-08 July 29, 2008.

[8] National Statistical Coordination Board, “The Province of Albay” Overview of the Region. Makati City, Philippines: 2014.

[9] Rolando P. Orense and Makoto Ikeda, “Damage Caused by Typhoon-Induced Lahar Flows From Mayon Volcano, Philippines” in Soils and Foundations by the Japanese Geotechnical Society, Vol. 47. No. 6, 1123-1132, December 2007.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Agnes Espinas, “Geography and Public Planning: Albay and Disaster Risk Management” in Human Development Network Discussion Paper Series, PHDR Issue 2012/2013 No. 4.

[12] Eric S. Andal, et. al., “Characterization of the Pleistocene Volcanic Chain of the Bicol Arc,

Philippines: Implications for Geohazard Assessment” in TAO, Vol. 16, No. 4, 865-883, October 2005.

[13] Global Volcanism Program, Mayon in, retrieved January 27, 2014.

[14] Ibid., Bulusan in, retrieved January 27, 2014.

[15] Ibid., Pocdol Mountains in, retrieved on January 27, 2014.

[16] Albay Province Website,, retrieved on January 27, 2014.

[17] Agnes Espinas, 4-7.

[18] Bicol Mail, Albay registers poorest economic performance in, retrieved on January 27,2014.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Bicol Today, Bicol poverty remains high despite growth of regional economy in, retrieved on January 28, 2014.

[21] Department of Science and Technology – Region V, Albay Profile in, retrieved on January 27, 2014.

[22] Espinas, 21.

[23] Bureau of Agricultural Statistics, Regional Profile: Bicol in, retrieved on January 28, 2014.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Lindsey Jones, et. al., The geography of poverty, disasters and climate extremes in 2030, UK: Overseas Development Institute (2013), viii.

[26] Segundo Romero, A Permanent Disaster Risk Management Office: Visible, Measurable Impact over the Years. Albay Provincial Government in Building Resilient Communities: Good Practices in Disaster Risk Management, Oxfam Great Britain (2008), 6.

[27] Espinas, 9.

[28] Romero.

[29] Provincial Government of Albay, Disaster Risk Reduction Management Plan, (2009), 13.

[30] Victor Turner, “Dewey, Dilthey and Drama: an Essay in the Anthropology of Experience” in Anthropology of Experience, Victor Turner and Edward Bruner (eds), Chicago: University of Illinois Press (1986), 33.

[31] Edward Bruner, “Introduction” in Anthropology of Experience, Victor Turner and Edward Bruner (eds), Chicago: University of Illinois Press (1986), 6.

[32] Put afterwards into Spanish by Melendreras in Ibal, a 400-page manuscript in verse on the ancient custom of the Indios of Albay, its sixty-stanza portion was later included in a treatise on the Bicol Region by Castaño in 1895 as un pequeño fragmento inedito en verso. But because no credit was given to Melendreras by Castaño in the work, students of the Ibalong have since presumed that it was recorded and translated by Castaño himself.

[33] Malcolm W. Mintz and Jose Britanico, Bikol-English Dictionary, Quezon City: New Day Publishers (1985).

[34] Nabua, Buhi (in Camarines Sur) and Tiwi (in Albay) are adjacent municipalities.

[35] A kind of a citrus.

In the Waters of Sulu

We boarded MV Trisha Kerstin 2 departing from Zamboanga to Bongao, yesterday at 4 in the afternoon. We were told that we set sail at 7 in the evening, but due to a ‘steering problem’ we departed Zamboanga at 3 in the morning. Not a very good experience for a first-timer. But surprisingly, passengers never complained, as if it was to be expected – When in Rome… Well, in Zamboanga, expect the unexpected and remember to keep a cool head.

I woke up this morning to a stunning view of Basilan and other islands, the gentle sun peeking from the low hills. From our vantage point, it looks like only one island, but the stacked-up hues of blue betrays the illusion. One man pointed to an area and said it was Malamawi. Oh, the names of these islands smell of adventures and ancient tales! 

Breakfast was spartan. A cafeteria sells hot water and cup noodles. We bought our noodles and bread in Zamboanga, so we only had to buy hot water for 50 pesos. I noticed the ship’s plan posted in the cafeteria and realized it’s a Japanese cargo ship, intended to transport vehicles. MV Trisha, of course, was modified: another floor here, bunkers there, and cots everywhere on the 2nd and 3rd floors, the first reserved for cargoes. 

It is a Babel here. Languages I’ve heard are Tausug, Sama, Bisaya, Tagalog. I have yet to find a Bikolano so we can add our language to that list. Include also chicken, goat and dog talks. To pass the time, I noticed that people resort to smoking, talking with strangers, staring at one point in the horizon, sleeping, watching a movie, and more sleeping. It’s easy to strike a conversation. Choose a random stranger, ask something, and maybe out of boredom or sheer friendliness, the other would gladly open a conversation with you. The hard accented Tagalog is hard to understand at first, but I survived. I find it dangerous to talk about certain topics though. A stranger asking your views on politics, the Zamboanga Siege, or your opinions on Nur Misuari, is best to be avoided. 

Entering the waters of Sulu, one cannot miss the number of boats fishing for sardines, tamban. Our last count puts them to 44. Large nets trawl schools of sardines and I can’t help but wonder how fishing in this area is being regulated. Over-fishing is a possibility. 

MV Trisha passed right in front of ‘Lupah Sug’, Jolo, Sulu. Although quite far, I noticed it is a sprawling community. A large mosque with 4 minarets cannot be missed by the eyes. Several mountains, extinct volcanoes perhaps, tower the island. My companion, a Sama from Laminusa, pointed at Bud Daho, site of a terrible massacre of an entire community in 1906. Surrounding the main island are several other smaller islets with dazzlingly white beaches. Some inhabited, some not. In one islet, a community enjoys the white beach right at their front doors. On closer inspection, the architectural design of their houses are uniquely theirs, supported by stilts with their roofs like 2 trapezoids on top of one another. To the right and left of this community, long stretches of white sand beaches tempt an eager soul passing by in his old, heavily-converted Japanese ship. 

Before reaching the waters of Tawi-Tawi, our friend pointed at 3 island to the left side of ship. He said that in between the islands of Tara and Siasi is Tara Strait, where legends say a snake and a Sarinaga (dragon) fought. One island was cut into two because of that fight, and until now signs of that battle can still be seen in the area. I can only dream of collecting stories such as this to share with the children. Tell them of our heritage, our treasures of identities. 

We have just entered the waters of Tawi-Tawi, but we still have 5 more hours before reaching Bongao. On our right, another string of islets seating on turquoise water beckons – here on the edges of our country, beauty needs no announcements, she is a revelation.

5:40 pm, October 15 aboard MV Trisha Kerstin 2

Notes on Peace: In Ciudad de Sambuwangan

The rugged coastline came into view as we approached the airport of Zamboanga City, Sambuwangan to the ancient Sama people. This was only my second time to visit this city. The first time was a quick stopover as we transitted for Tawi-Tawi. But this second visit, only days after the ‘Zamboanga Siege’ and with the city still trying to salvage itself from the trauma of those days, brings out various emotions in me. 

Down below us, as we neared land, houses on stilts grew larger, ships lining the coast calls eager young men and women to a better life perhaps in Sabah, while flooded houses also grew more vivid – reminding the plane’s passengers of yet another recent calamity that hit the city.

I searched within me, if I’ve come prepared. Have I read enough materials on this siege? How much do I know of the ethnic diversity in the area, to better understand the situation? How sensitive am I to woundedness? Will anyone be ever really prepared to face such monsters as trauma and grief?

I joined a group from the Ateneo de Davao’s Al Qalam Institute of Islamic Identities and Dialogue to map out the network of collaborators in the Sulu Zone which includes Zamboanga City, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi. The institute’s aim is to train people from these communities to be peace advocates among their people. I feel really blessed that I am part of this project, even if only in the beginning stages, because this area sorely needs such intervention. I am of the belief that peace in this area is possible, but people from the community must first understand the different circumstances, contexts and present conditions prevailing in the Sulu Zone and beyond it. Peace works, as I understand it must not take on an attitude of imposition, a top-down business that relies heavily on imperial Manila, driven by it’s own notions and prejudices. Instead peace works must take on a participatory approach that depends on a community’s aspirations, narratives, and worldviews. The community itself must aspire and work for it. It may take years, with our generation not seeing its fruition, but at least we rest in the assurance that we haved sowed the seeds of lasting and inclusive peace.

Our group has come to the city of Zamboanga when its wounds have barely healed. Bienvenidos a Ciudad de Zamboanga! declares a poster in its airport, but a heavy sigh is perceptible, as audible as a wall riddled by bullet holes. Scars of the tragedies are palpable: several houses have hung the Philippine flag to show support to the Government Forces, several Sama Dilaut families stranded with their boats parked in one boulevard because their houses are no more, stories of the siege and floods fill hotel lobbies, thousands still in evacuation centers around the city, a mandatory 10:00 pm to 5:00 am curfew, and of course, one will not miss the army men in the city who have become as ubiquitous as dust in a library. It is almost like martial law is in effect. But never have I been more emotional when we finally set foot in barangay Sta. Barbara, ‘ground zero’ of the Zamboanga Siege. 

The morning of October 13, we were invited by Fr. Bert Alejo, SJ to attend what I understood only as just a repainting of a mosque damaged during the siege. I was partly surprised when we were blocked by a group of military, asking us of our purpose in Sta. Barbara. It turned out that the whole area, including Rio Hondo and Sta. Catalina have been cordoned off, quarantined. We had to call Fr Bert while he in turn let the secretary of Zamboanga Mayor Beng Climaco talk to the officer for us to finally enter the area. 

The silence was the first to hit me. It was eerily pregnant in the mid-morning sun. Conversations were hushed and only greetings of welcome from friends punctuate the silence. The mosque, as it turned out, was riddled by bullet holes, its minaret, where two female snipers of the MNLF were positioned, turned into a coarse sieve. ‘Riddled, ‘ I surmised was such an apt word after all. Instead of just ‘being perforated,’ the minaret was a real riddle, an enigmatic piece of that mosque, a riddle of what transpired on September, piercing the sky, perhaps even asking the heavens for answers.

As we gathered together on the rooftop of the Sta. Barbara Mosque sharing that same indifferent morning heat, I felt the unmistakable collective aspiration to rebuild, not just infrastructures but most importantly, relations. Speeches were made, allusions to light conquering darkness were referred to, calls to unity were pronounced, God was called to bear witness and give guidance. Are these not the same pronouncements and prayers of the other group, of the ‘enemy’? I had to make sense of the senseless-ness, if I can. If anyone can.

Several groups joined in the symbolic act of repainting the mosque’s minaret. And as a symbol, several interpretations may be presented: reconciliation of Muslims and Christians, mending the gaps between the two religions, or the conquering of a bitter chapter in the city’s history. A fitting symbol indeed, if we also consider the fact that the mosque was named after a Christian saint.

Perhaps we can also reflect on the name Barbara, from the Greek Barbados and Arabic Al-Barbar referring to foreigners or ‘barbarians’. Who is the real foreigner in Sambuwangan/Zamboanga when Sama, Sama Dilaut, Tausug, Chavacano, Bisaya and other groups call it home? Perhaps the damaged minaret calls us to reflect on how we exclude or marginalize the other, and how this othering has caused so many wounds among our people.

I want to end my reflections on that day with an experience in Fort Pilar.

I went in line to touch the cross near the altar at the Shrine of Our Lady of Pilar. I observed several devotees in the line pointing to a bullet hole in a cement vase. A mother with her child was in front of me and the mother explained to the child that it was a bullet hole from the fighting in September. The child stared at it for several seconds, and I can only begin to imagine the images that passed by his wondering eyes. How many people, on their way to touch the sacred image, saw that same bullet hole and what it represents, and prayed, really prayed for peace?

Teaching Peace, Developing Tolerance, Instilling Sensitivity

I grew up in an extremely pious Catholic city. Every year, thousands of devotees gather in Naga City to show their love to Our Lady of Peñafrancia, bringing with them a multitude of thanksgivings and prayer-requests to Ina. The festivity during the nine-day novena itself has become a cultural icon, the celebrations referring to the city while the city prides in being the steward of this devotion – Pueblo amante de Maria. But looking in retrospect, with me now immersed for two and a half years in the cultures and struggles of Mindanao, I found myself asking questions on religious tolerance and sensitivity, of challenging my worldview as a Taga-Naga Catholic and to reflect on the level of tolerance given to non-Catholics in and around Naga. How, for instance, are we portraying our pagan past in performances like street dancings during the Peñafrancia festival? How much space is provided for the narratology of non-believers in the public discourses? How are we excluding non-Catholics when we institutionalize such religious events? I believe such questions must be addressed in pedagogy.

Developing a curriculum and reforming methods of instruction with a particular sensitivity to diversity in cultures and religions in the Philippine context is an imperative in promoting peace and in pursuing a society marked with respect and acceptance of the ‘otherness’ of the other.

We are in a point in our educational history when great leaps and bounds are being done not only in the adding of two years in Basic Education but also of reforms being done in curriculum and classroom instruction. This is also an opportune time to integrate subject matters or topics relating to peace, and in amending certain topics that have been deemed passé, obsolete or culturally insensitive. Methods of instruction in the classroom must also be changed to cater to more and more plural ethnicities, backgrounds and religions of the students.

For instance, in teaching Grades 6 and 7, a crucial time for transforming attitudes and biases of students, greater emphasis on multiculturalism can be done. This includes, among other things, the use of literary samples from the different ethnolinguistic groups of the Philippines in teaching Values Education or in other suitable subjects. In English subjects, literature tends to lean in favor of English writers and Western categories of literature when in fact, there is a treasure chest full of literary gems from the Indigenous Communities which may be carefully translated to English without losing its soul, and not packaged in a Western literary category, but as it is. In this way, students may be able to appreciate the diversity of cultures, and also, of worldviews in the Philippines. 

Religious intolerance may be corrected by choosing carefully the topics, examples and methods of instruction. Students must be given the freedom to express their beliefs in projects, or written compositions, without feeling betrayed by the prejudices in the textbooks or the way the teacher delivered the lesson. This point begs an example. The ‘Moro-Moro’, (which in fact was a type of theater in several Luzon areas) for instance, as a type of Philippine theater play may not be omitted on textbooks but instead used as a jump-off point for students’ personal reflection on their attitudes towards Muslims – a movement towards conscientization that can be strengthened in higher year levels. 

It must also be clear, in the development of curriculum, to refrain from generalizing that the wars in Mindanao have been caused by the gaps in the relationship of Muslims and Christians when in fact, several studies have already concluded that the hardening of ethnic and religious identities were the consequences, and not the causes of conflicts in Mindanao. Students must be given input on the political and socio-economic conditions of Mindanao to better understand how conflicts are triggered and identities mustered in wars. This can be iterated in the Social Science subject and emphasized on Values Education.

How do we teach the ‘Mindanao Problem’ to students outside Mindanao who have never been directly impacted by the many challenges in Mindanao? By putting Mindanao right at their doorstep. I, for one, am a product of an educational upbringing where Mindanao seems to be so far off from my own community. By bringing into the fore how this ‘Problem’ directly and indirectly impacts on the students’ own community, a better interest might be attained. By giving emphasis on Mindanao’s indispensable contribution to statehood and nationhood, ranging from contributions on cultural diversity to economy and contributions to the nation’s collective symbols and narratives, Mindanao becomes a bedfellow to the student who lives in a mountain community in Camarines Sur. 

Instilling sensitivity of the other requires that we move out of the tribalistic frame of mind that is often characteristic of many groups here in Mindanao. This pervading tribalistic attitude is marked by insensitivity to non-members of the ‘tribe’ or group and shuts any sense of the pursuit of the common good, and takes personal and tribal affronts to wars and violence against this ‘other’. It fences in the ‘tribe’ away from the nation and away from the global world, taking into consideration the good of the tribe or even in some instances, only the private, individual good. This lack of the sense of the common good, of this ‘my tribe’ attitude needs to addressed as one of the primary causes of conflicts in Mindanao. A Sama Banguingui youth, for example, can identify his or her role in a globalized world, or identify his or her contribution to nation building. This must be addressed not only in education but also in agencies working for the development of Mindanao like the Mindanao Development Authority. Public interests, the summation of interests of those individuals comprising Mindanao is imperative in any development plans, of which education holds a key role. By addressing the dearth of the sense of the common good in education and development plans, we can imagine a movement from the tribal good and on to a good that serves the nation (or even nation/s in the context of Mindanao) and the global world, which ultimately, serves the community.

A change in attitude is required of every citizen, most particularly the young, if ever this is to be achieved. Here the emphasis is on education, the right kind of education, with its core deeply rooted in forming culturally-, peace-, and environment-sensitive citizens not just of the immediate community but also of the nation and the global world who sees him/herself in the web of human relations. This is an education that is not cold-hearted but is committed to the ethics of care, valuing the other not because he or she is a victim of injustice, but because the other is valuable per se.

On Anthropologists and Ethnic Conflicts

The traditional domain of the Anthropologist has been the small community, often in what has been coined as “indigenous peoples,” while his ethnography and holism in analyzing phenomena are his tools-of-the-trade that enable him to understand the “understanding of the other”. At present, there has been an increased interest in the social sciences in the study of conflicts and violence both in small communities (i.e. skirmishes among tribes) and larger states, nations or sub-cultures (e.g. Shia vs. Sunni in the Middle East). This has led to the mainstreaming of conflict studies in Anthropology especially because of how anthropologists, equipped with the holism of the discipline, are able to look at the many facets of the conflict from its emergence to a, hopefully, successful conciliation between the opposing sides. The study of conflict and violence has been greatly influenced by the wars of the 20th century that saw in its wake great atrocities to humanity ranging from genocide to unconscionable aggression against the weak. This evolution of the discipline in synch with the great movement of History(ies), has led to the invaluable contribution of anthropology to the understanding of conflict between differing cultural groups.

Rye Barcott in his article for Survival: Global Politics and Strategy entitled Marine Experiences and Anthropological Reflections gives an insightful peek at a US Marine’s experience in ethnic conflicts and a reflexive take in trying to understand the conflicts in Bosnia, Kenya and Iraq with an anthropological lens. Barcott is an advocate of Participatory Development which seeks to engage local populations in development projects, which he explicated in It Happened on the Way to War, and is very clearly advocated in the Survival article: “Those small and great acts become part of the discourse that fosters tolerance and reconciliation” and “Provided it remains rooted in the community, it will continue for generations to come”.[1]

Barcott, talking about ethnic conflicts and the role of the anthropologist in such events, invoked at the beginning of his article the statement of the American Anthropological Association adopted in June 1999 which among other things, “opposes suppression of diversity by powerful states of factions and denounces claims by such entities of superior cultural values, which may lead to ethnic cleansing (the attempt to create an ethnically homogenous land by removing people with distinct cultural identities.”[2] He further explained the role of the anthropologist in ethnic conflicts:

Anthropologists’ close contact with cultures and groups can lead them to identify flash points of emerging strife. They can contribute to diplomacy, especially at the local and community levels, where their fieldwork places them to work closely with relevant factions. They can contribute to healing processes, such as truth and reconciliation projects…

An addition here, perhaps is how the holism of anthropology helps in framing the conflict by recognizing the different kinds of ethnic settings, putting into consideration different factors: demographic patterns and ethnic geography; pre-colonial and colonial legacies; the histories, fears, and goals of ethnic groups in the country; economic factors and trends; and regional and international influences. In this sense then, the anthropologist is placed at a very important position in preventing, modulating and resolving ethnic conflicts.

Barcott, in Survival, recollected his experiences in Bosnia, Kenya and Iraq as a Marine officer and contemplated at the root causes of ethnic conflicts in these areas. He concluded that, “More often than not, political and economic factors – not primarily religious difference – are deeply involved in instigating ethnic conflict. Yet once ethnic conflict begins, collective identities often are manipulated in ways that intensify and prolong the violence.” This, he added, is where the anthropologist can help in early intervention when the strife is just emerging, and “help prevent conflict by identifying incipient ethnic tensions.” The anthropologist is also in the position to advise political and military leaders “and help then devise and monitor reconciliation efforts.”

In Bosnia, for example, during the civil war that purged regions of certain ethnic groups, Barcott asserted that “protracted ethnic violence makes ethnic identities more rigid and intolerant, and why efforts to reconcile and reintegrate ethnic groups often fail.” This hardening of ethnic identities was in fact a consequence and not a cause of conflict, which goes back to how Barcott described collective identities as malleable, “especially under the pressure of trauma and tragedy.”

This malleability of identities may also be attributed to how, indeed, culture is malleable: “Culture is not static. It is not immutable. It can be transformed and made compatible with other cultures, although doing so might take many years.”[3] This is also how anthropologists can contribute in the on-going processes to solve, or primarily, to understand ethnic conflicts. Transformation in culture is natural and dynamic, which may be seamless or characterized by social upheavals. Identifying creases in these cultural transformations, where potential conflicts may emerge, is another role of the anthropologist.

What is, on the outside, religious violence, in fact must be analyzed in the lenses of culture. Talking about his experience in the US counter-insurgency operations in Iraq, Barcott said that, “we needed better understanding of local sub-cultures, tribal politics and history, not to mention a better understanding of the shifting Iraqi perspectives on the war.” He added, and here we can compare this to the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ Oplan Bayanihan operations in Mindanao: “a counter-insurgency is a battle for the support of the local population. If one does not have an adequate grasp of who the local population is and what motivates it, the counter-insurgency is fundamentally flawed.” Again, we are led back by Barcott to his paradigm of participatory development, which leads to joint decision making about what should be achieved and how. While outsiders (Armed Forces) are equal partners in the development effort, the primary stakeholders are primus inter pares, i.e., they are equal partners with a significant say in decisions concerning their lives. Dialogue, facilitated by people who are understand the communities, identifies and analyzes critical issues, and an exchange of knowledge and experiences leads to solutions.

Another familiar picture that Barcott provided are the Kenyan ethnic clashes of 1997 and early 2000.  The 1997 clashes happened in Likoni, Kenya, where police station and outpost were destroyed, along with countless market stalls and offices. Many non-local Kenyans were either killed or maimed, as the raiders targeted LuoLuhya, Kamba and Kikuyu communities. Barcott also described the explosive violence following the December 2007 elections where violent clashes between different ethnic groups happened in Kibera. Yet again, Barcott shared that the hardening of ethnic identities was only a consequence of socio-economic factors: “The protests over rent hikes took on an ethnic character, as many of the landlords self-identified as Nubians while those who were renting and rioting were mostly Luos.” This leads us to the earlier assertion that cultural identity, poverty, secessionist politics, and ethnic violence interrelate, and the anthropologist, in the helm of community fieldwork and informed by the “native viewpoint”, plays a crucial role.

I referred to the Kenyan conflicts as “familiar” because I was reminded of the recent events in Mindanao. The clash between the government forces and the Moro National Liberation Front in Zamboanga City (September 2013), which is characteristically secessionist in the outside, is actually rooted in not only cultural grounds but also socio-economic conditions. The lack of economic opportunities, especially for specific ethnic groups in the area, may be seen as inflaming the horizontal and vertical conflicts. Horizontal conflicts in that instance may be the conflicts between different sub-cultures, Tausug vs. Sama, or Muslim vs. Christian, while vertical conflict is between the MNLF vs. the Government of the Philippines – all interrelating synergistically, compounded many times by this lack of economic opportunities and concentrating in a volatile area in Zamboanga City.

Addressing ethnic conflicts does not have a universal template as each situation and community calls for its unique approach, but how little we know of the culture – behaviors, world views, etc. – deeply impacts on the processes of intervention and reconciliation which may help save lives and the integrity of communities.

[1] Rye Barcott. (2008) Marine Experiences and Anthropological Reflections in Anthropology in Conflict: An Exchange, Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, 50: 3, 138.

[2] Ibid, 128.

[3] Ibid, 131.

Examining the Vision of Mindanao 2020

The Mindanao 2020 Peace and Development Framework Plan is, in itself, a remarkable attempt at collaboration and clear-sightedness. The document is built on the idea that the situation in Mindanao must be changed and that the problem must be addressed at its roots. But in every development framework, one must ask several questions: 1) Development from what state to what ‘improved’ state? 2) Development for whom? 3) What is the context and definition of development in this framework plan? 4) How do we realize the vision of the development framework plan?

The Mindanao 2020 document provides the context and the present conditions in Mindanao, specifically on the “Where We are Now” section, enumerating several historical key moments, economic points and social conditions. The document asserts, as part of its context that at the heart of the “Mindanao Problem” lies injustice. It specifies that “historical injustices lie at the root of the conflict in Mindanao: from colonization, annexation of the Moro homeland to the Philippine state; a series of government policies that led to the minoritization of the Moro and indigenous inhabitants; and on to newer and various forms of injustice whether real or perceived, coupled with the politics of exclusion and years of neglect have exacerbated these divides that add volatility to the struggle for ancestral domain and self-determination” (p. 19). Truthful, at the least, but overly simplistic, I might add. This is too simplistic that it might lead to a tunnel vision, instead of the 20/20 vision and promise. It might indeed be true that injustice lies at the bottom of the Mindanao Problem, but this too is multi-faceted and must, in my opinion, not be the sole root of this “problem”.

In my 2 years of stay in Mindanao, I have always sensed a pervading tribalism in the many groups calling Mindanao their home. This tribal attitude shuts any sense of common good and takes personal and tribal affronts to wars and violence against the “other”. It fences in the “tribe” away from the nation and away from a global world, taking only into consideration the good of the “tribe” or even in some cases, only the private, individual good. This lack of the common good in the discourse on development works must be one of the problems of Mindanao that needs to be addressed. Public interests, the summation of interests of those individuals comprising Mindanao, is imperative in any development plans – one of such public interests that need to be addressed is the dearth of historical and social justice. Yet with common good, we are also confronted with the tension between the ontological and the practical, the common good as something to be attained at as a convenient construct, without a foundation in reality, or something possible and attainable in which the micro and macro economy should serve. I believe that this can be addressed if we put this issue of the common good in our classrooms, meeting halls and councils.

With common good, we can imagine a movement from the tribal good and on to a good that serves the nation and the global world, and then vice versa. A change in attitude is required if ever this is to be attained, and the promises of development be achieved. Here the emphasis is on education, the right kind of education, I might add, with its core deeply rooted in forming citizens not just of the immediate community but also of the nation and the global world. This is an education that is not cold-hearted but is committed to the ethics of “care”, valuing the other not because he or she is a victim of injustice, but because the other is valuable per se. This caring society, if made as an intrinsic part of any development plan, “would attend to the health of the social relations between its members, rather than promote the nearly boundless pursuit of individual self-interests.”[1]

The development framework of the document is also rooted in very strong neoliberal attitudes, in which it is assumed that the market will take care of the social ills of Mindanao. For instance,opening up Mindanao to extractive industries will only give birth to more conflicts. Streamlining business processes and minimizing transaction costs will not ensure the equitable distribution of wealth. Working on that development phantasm we call “developed world”, where we model every developments to the USA, European countries, or Japan, might not work hand in hand with environmental conservation and IP rights. This challenge also needs to be re-examined.

Overall, Mindanao 2020 is a hopeful package; the vision and promise are written in broad strokes, yet pessimism has a way of creeping in to the shadows of our vision once we go out of boardrooms and out into the villages.

[1] Virginia Held, “The Ethics of Care: Personal, Political, and Global”, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.