Decisions, Decisions

I want to start by narrating how I came about my paper for Bro. Karl Gaspar – which has everything to do with what I’m intending to write for my thesis. So permit me to say that writing a paper for one of Mindanao’s intellectual giants, in two days, is a feat that must be recorded by my future biographer. Assuming of course that I become one of the following: a crush ng bayan – world-renowned professor in the level of Clifford Geertz or, a famous artista with 5 million followers in twitter, or a bible-thumping religious leader with a vast mountain getaway in Talomo. No puns intended, just shooting at the moon.

Doing my paper for Bro. Karl Gaspar’s class was especially challenging for me. My original proposal was to do a study on the Naga River and how it becomes a sacred river during the fluvial procession of our Lady of Penafrancia. It was really an exciting subject that picked at my interest as a Bikolano and as a devotee myself. But when Bro. Karl returned my proposal saying that I should rather connect my paper to my thesis, I was not exactly jumping up and down with joy. I was caught in a quandary because my thesis proposal was also turned down, my proposal being an investigation on the T’boli t’nalak enterprise and women empowerment. Dr. Vidal suggested that we do something in line with the Ateneo de Davao University’s environmental anthropology program.

So I was suddenly given two tasks: my thesis proposal and my paper for Bro. Karl.

I decided to stick with the T’boli people and do something in line with climate change. For my thesis, I wanted to examine how the T’boli of Lake Sebu perceives the risks of climate change. It would use ethnographic methods to diagnose how cultural values and beliefs inform the risk perceptions of the T’boli – from understanding how they respond to extreme weather events, to how they plan for an uncertain future driven by climate change. It would also investigate the myths and stories that inform them of severe weather events.

I finally had a very sketchy framework to work on. But when August came, I found myself in the middle of organizing an international meeting in Taipei and attending a Service Learning Program in Jogjakarta. It’s not a walk in the woods, these two. I have to liaise among the different presidents and rectors of the Jesuit universities and colleges in Asia Pacific, organizing a meeting in a location that I’m not familiar with and talking to people in the higher echelons of society, twice, thrice my age!

So I was still left with nothing but this ‘sketchy’ framework. I asked for a two-day extension from Bro. Karl Gaspar, invoking the spirit of ‘cura personalis’ and all the angels and saints. Thankfully, he assented to my implorations. Now, I was back to being virtually a tabula rasa. It was clear though that I wanted to work on the T’boli of Lake Sebu and that it must be connected with the framework I have in mind for my thesis – something that I can go back to when I come to thesis writing. So right there and then (as if the gods decided they would spare some mercy on me, opened up the gates of inspiration), I decided to do a survey of the ancestral domains, especially of the waters in their traditional territory and the condition of those bodies of water. I also wanted to explore the mythos of the T’boli specifically those that have something to do with water. So I came up with a ‘brief survey of people, hydrogeology and expressions of indigenous knowledge’. I called it ‘The Water of the T’boli S’bu,’ just to sound cute, for effect! I was trying to recall Megamind: “it’s all about… Presentation!”

I finally did it. But we were not expected to use any anthropological approaches for this paper yet. We were freshies in the study of anthropology and we, or at least I, haven’t got any clue as to those theories and theorists. It was fortunate though that Fr. DJ de los Reyes requires (actually, compels) us to read primary sources for our ethnography class. Now and then, we get to read anthropological approaches and methods used by these distinguished ethnographers. Reading Malinowski and Evans-Pritchard, we discovered the jewels of functionalism, with Geertz, Douglas and Turner, we digested symbolic and interpretive anthropology. But the latter books really made me take a closer look at the symbolic approach. I thought to myself that this is – should – be my approach for the thesis.

Since I started my paper for Bro. Karl with the water myths of the T’boli, it struck me as edifying when Geertz asserts that “Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture as these webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning.” This is exactly what I was looking for. This approach, of studying cultural symbols and how they can be interpreted to better understand a particular society, can best help me to understand the rituals, myths and legends of the T’boli, particularly how these inform them about climate change and the risks associated with climate change. But aside from this kind of approach, where I want to interpret the myths of the T’boli, I also wanted to use a much more inclusive theory for my whole thesis and not just a chapter on rituals and myths– that is, something that my thesis can ride on like a train perhaps or a boat that will lead me to a better understanding of T’boli behavior.

But this morning, as we were discussing Social Evolutionism in our ‘Theories’ class, and miraculously sated by the graces of our food benefactor, Ate Carol (may her tribe increase three-folds and may her food increase four-folds!), I was struck by the theory of Ecological Anthropology. I thought, this must be it, and for dramatic effect, I said it again. This must be it.

But seriously, as an anthropological approach that focuses on the complex relations between peoples and the environment, this ought really be the backbone of my thesis. This approach investigates how the environment shapes peoples’ social, economic and political life. In this theory, the history of our species is one of adaptation – an obvious offshoot of Darwin’s. If I were to study climate change and the different modes of adaptations made by the T’boli as imbedded in their mythos (and maybe their psyche), ecological anthropology will help me understand how these vulnerable indigenous groups adapted before and how we are to be able to help them to secure their future.

My paper for Bro. Karl Gaspar’s class ends with several questions that I believe would be the tarmac, the jumping-off point where my thesis should take off. I quote it here:

“This is both an introduction and a challenge to further studies on how T’boli S’bu’s cultural values and beliefs inform risk perceptions, and how this in turn guides water resource decision-making.  It challenges more questions:

1. How does climate change and global warming affect the T’boli S’bu’s lived world?

2. How do they express the changes in climate patterns?

3. How do they address these changes in climate?

4. How do they participate in national and local policies on climate change mitigation?

5. How do they perceive and receive their mythologies and stories on climate change?”

And now that I can visualize my thesis with a much clearer framework, the ecological approach presents promising answers to these questions I raised. By starting with the idea that the environment shapes us through our resiliency in hostile environments, slowly adapting, and creating a culture that manifests how we have adapted, my thesis can present adaptations made by the T’boli, supplemented and supported by the interpretations of myths, symbols and rituals. In this way, I may perhaps come about with useful recommendations for people working with indigenous peoples and other vulnerable groups.

Doing a graduate thesis is definitely not smooth sailing. We revise, and then revise again. Maybe next semester, I would have found another theory to work on – or not. Decisions will have to be done, and many prior decisions have to be undone. This whole business of ‘understanding others’ understanding’ is indeed very interesting. There are so many facets of our humanity and cultures that need to be studied on. But by studying it one must be systematic, critical and thorough – able to ask the right questions. For is it not true that ‘the right question is already half of the solution’?

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