K’mohung and Seselong: Cultural Adaptation of the T’boli S’bu to the Fish Kill Phenomenon in Lake Sebu, South Cotabato

It is worthwhile to note, even in a partial ethnography, that in the highland lake complex of Lake Sebu, South Cotabato,  Southern Philippines, the T’boli people integrated into their culture a special system of adaptation to the fish kill phenomenon that naturally occurs in the lake. “Naturally”, of course, is taken in the etic point of view, denoting information culled out from external and varying reports of “rising temperature”[1] and “oxygen depletion”[2] in the lake that kills fish and other freshwater organisms like shrimps.  “Naturally” also emphasizes on the fact that the fish kills in Lake Sebu are not recent phenomena and, until recently, human-induced, brought externally by the proliferation of tilapia aquaculture, but a culturally-embedded, and so antiquated, phenomenon evidenced by the presence of the word for this “annual”[3] occurrence in their vocabulary: K’mohung.

This paper is an attempt to explore the cultural adaptations of the T’boli people surrounding Lake Sebu to k’mohung using the anthropological lens of Cultural Ecology.  It seeks to describe the k’mohung as explained to me in a focus group discussion (FGD) conducted on March 30, 2013 in Brgy. Klubi, Lake Sebu, South Cotabato, and focusing on local understanding of the phenomenon and activities connected to k’mohung. This brief paper on Cultural Ecology uses the approaches of Julian Steward in studying the interaction between culture and environment. These approaches are: “(1) an explanation of culture in terms of the environment where it existed, rather than just a geographic association with economy; (2) the relationship between culture and environment as a process (not just a correlation); (3) a consideration of small-scale environment, rather than culture-area-sized regions; and (4) the connection of ecology and multi-linear cultural evolution.” [4] (Sutton and Anderson, 2010)

I first chanced upon the word k’mohung (other literature spells it as ‘kamahong’) from a conversation with Dr. Leah Vidal, chairperson of the Anthropology Department of the Ateneo de Davao University. She was discussing about the climate change studies of the Ateneo Institute of Anthropology in collaboration with the other institutes of the university when she mentioned about the presence of the word k’mohung among the T’boli surrounding Lake Sebu. This indicated, among other things, that the occurrence of the fish kills has been deeply embedded in the lives of the T’boli that they have to conceive a signifier, a word for the signified, that is, the fish kills.  This greatly interested me because before that conversation I thought the fish kills were a recent “disaster” to the fishermen and fish pen owners of Lake Sebu. My recent FGD in Lake Sebu verified my assumptions that even before tilapia aquaculture in the lake, fish kills are regular occurrences and that they can even predict when it would happen.

Hydrogeology of Lake Sebu

Before going to a discussion on the k’mohung, a short introduction to the geography of the area. Lake Sebu (6° 10.45’ N and 124° 43.95’ E) lies about 700 m above sea level and is located in the mountainous Municipality of Lake Sebu, South Cotabato (Socio-economic profile 1995). The Lake Sebu Watershed Forest Reserve is a protected landscape under Proclamation no. 65 signed on August 4 1966, covering a total of 9,900 hectares. Lake Sebu (S’bu is the T’boli word for lake) is a natural lake in the municipality of Lake Sebu, South Cotabato and within the Allah Valley Watershed Landscape region.[5] The lake itself and the rivers that drain from it is part of the Allah Valley Watershed which covers South Cotabato and Sultan Kudarat. The Allah Valley Watershed is the southernmost tributary of the Pulangi River that drains in Illana Bay in Cotabato City.[6]

The total delineated area of the Allah Valley Watershed is 252,034 has. that extends to the Province of Maguindanao. Surface waters that are drained along the Allah and Banga rivers subsequently find their way into the Liguasan marsh, the second largest in the country. The Allah Valley Watershed is a major sub-watershed unit of the Cotabato-Agusan river basin in Mindanao. It covers the jurisdictions of the Province of South Cotabato (Municipalities of Lake Sebu, T’boli, Surallah, and Sto. Nino, Banga, Norala) and the Province of Sultan Kudarat (City of Tacurong and Municipalities of Isulan, Esperanza, Lambayong and Bagumbayan).[7]

More than 700,000 people depend on the land and water resources of the Allah Valley Watershed. The river valley and mid-stream section of the watershed support agricultural production for rice, corn, banana, pineapple and oil palm. The National Irrigation Administration (NIA) is tapping about 1.5 billion cubic meters surface water to supply the water requirements of 27,000 hectares of irrigated rice fields. Although the forest land cover of the Allah Valley Watershed is decreasing, the peak of the Daguma mountain range on the western side of the watershed still contains fragments of primary forest that is a vital component of any watershed. This constitutes part of the remaining closed canopy tropical forest in Southern Mindanao. As per DENR-12 reports, about 97 floral species and 59 faunal species including the famous Philippine Eagle and tarsier are found in the mountain ranges. The Allah Valley Watershed has also rich mineral deposits such as gold, copper, and silver. It includes the three lakes and seven falls of Lake Sebu and Lake Holon (Maughan) of T’boli.[8]

The 3 lakes of Sebu, Seloton and Lahit are fed by underground springs in the mountain ranges of Daguma and surrounding mountains that made up mostly of porous sedimentary rocks that store and catch rainwater. Water from the lakes then cascades down the 7 waterfalls namely: Hikong Alu (passage), Hikong Bente (immeasurable), Hikong B’lebel (zigzag), Hikong Lowig (booth), Hikong K’fo-i (wild flower), Hikong Ukok (short), and Hikong Tonok (soil). The water then travels down the Allah River that combines with the Banga River finally joining the bigger Pulangi river and Liguasan Marsh to drain in Illana Bay.

The current use of the lake is fishing and recreation (such as boating). It is also identified as a prime habitat and spawning ground areas for various species of fish. There are no manufacturing plants around the lake but it is the receiver of all fertilizers and pesticide run-offs from the different plantations around Lake Sebu. The presence of uncontrolled installation of fish pens, application of feeds and communities dwelling along the lake, generally affect the physical and chemical condition of the lake.

The first tilapia introduced in the lake was Mozambique tilapia Oreochromis mossambicus brought by Mr. Cesar Freyra in 1956[9]. A few years after its introduction, the tilapia grew in number. In 1972, a fish pen project was initiated by Dr. Jose Velasquez from Manila. Many Ilonggo immigrants followed him. Almost in the same year, farming of tilapia in fish cages was introduced by Mr. Freyra. Nile tilapia O. niloticus, a better species, was introduced in the mid 70’s. (Beniga 2001)

The Nile tilapia was cultured for 4 months without supplemental feeding and harvested when they reached 300-500 g each. The tilapia industry grew fast and is considered today as the backbone of the economy and the major propeller of Lake Sebu’s development. The industry contributes more than 50% of the annual municipal income and employs 10% of its total labor force (Beniga quoting Loco 1994).

The local government of the municipality of Lake Sebu has adopted several measures to protect and conserve its water resources. Reforestation is implemented as part of watershed management. Municipal ordinance No. 01, S. 1994 sets guidelines for the establishment of fish cages in the lake. This ordinance requires a 20-m wide passageway along the lake shore for any type of water vehicle. Construction of cages in this area is prohibited. Beyond the 20-m passageway, a 100-m wide belt offshore is allowed for fish cages. Lastly, 10 m is apportioned for the construction of secondary fence. A 2-m wide passageway is required between farms. The remaining central part of the lake is a free fishing zone. (Beniga 2001)

The Seven Waterfalls have been developed as an eco-tourism attraction by the Province of South Cotabato. Resorts, ziplines and other tourist attractions are now a common sight in the so-called “Baguio of the Southern Philippines”.

 

K’mohung and Seselong

The latest massive fish kill on the first week of August, 2012, downed 8,000 kilograms[10] of tilapia in a single week. This was considered a “disaster” to the local fish pen owners, the Local Government Units, Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, even media reports paint a grim event in the fishery industry of the municipality, a view solely founded on its economic value. But local T’boli I interviewed see it otherwise. One narrative suggests that it is a curse. In this story, a T’boli cursed the Ilonggo fishermen, saying that the T’boli are the guardians of the Lake and that their fishes will die, unless they give the fish to the T’boli. Indeed, according to an informant, whenever there is a fish kill, the fish pond owners will give the dead fish to the T’boli or sell them at a much lower price.

Another perspective views it as a gift from Fun S’bu, owner/spirit of the lake. My informant described a time before the Ilonggo settlers put up their fish pens and when the lake was still covered by water lilies and lotus plants. She shared that whenever there is a k’mohung ,people would see fish and shrimps floating in the surface, but not quite dead, “as if they were dizzy”. They can easily “pick these fish and shrimps with their bare hands,” she said. Indeed, outside Western, Modern Science, one will view this as a gift from the lake, almost congruent to the biblical “manna from heaven”. Imagine, after a hard day’s work of fishing, farming and hunting, one sees fish almost beckoning to be picked up. This idea of a gift clearly opposes that notion of a “disaster” and in fact, it only became widely-known as a “disaster” when the Ilonggos came and put up their fishery industry in the lake. The disaster-gift dichotomy clearly delineates not only economic valuations of the lake, but also belief or supernatural categorizations of the natural world.

The story of the T’boli cursing the owners of the fishponds may not be on the level of mythology but surely forms part of the compendium on narratives regarding Lake Sebu. It is the absolute pronouncement that the T’boli are the guardians and protectors of the lake. It shows that to them, the lake is not merely a source of economy but also a part of their political and cultural identity. It is inherited from their ancestors and it is their responsibility to take care of and to maintain; should they not take care of the lake their ancestors may get angry and bad luck may come. It is more than a pronouncement of collective ownership; it is also a declaration of stewardship.

The FGD in Brgy. Klubi described the k’mohung in this way: after a leme-et, a type of weather defined by occasional strong rains and wind coming from the north, and then suddenly clearing (my informant likened the leme-et to an impending typhoon), T’boli in the uplands would then gather their rootcrops and other produce from their gardens to prepare for a seselong, a system of barter trading between the upland-living T’boli and the lake-side dwelling T’boli. During the leme-et, people surrounding the lake would also prepare for the seselong  by observing the lake for the telltale signs of the k’mohung. My informants shared that there are no celebrations or rituals conducted during the seselong, something that I didn’t foresee especially in the case of an event that may be deemed supernatural or an event that gathers people from the upland and lakeside. The seselong becomes an opportunity for the lakeside dwellers to trade their gathered fish in exchange for the rootcrops of the upland T’boli.

This pattern in the activities and interaction of the upland and lakeside T’boli, provided by the seselong, may be viewed as a distribution of resources and exchanges of protein and carbohydrates-rich food between the two groups of T’boli. This intertwining of the natural world and the cultural aspect of the T’boli seselong may be viewed as one of the solutions to what I assume is an imbalance in the protein and carbohydrate diet of the two groups. In the old days when the T’boli were still exclusively hunters and gatherers, this system of exchange provides an easy source of protein for the upland T’boli whose main protein source are the animals that they hunt in the forest, in exchange for their carbohydrates-rich rootcrops. In turn, the lakeside T’boli whose diet consists mainly of protein from the fish caught in the lake, exchange their fish for the upland T’boli’s rootcrops.

Traditional rootcrops[11] of the T’boli include: biking (wild root plant which is much like sweet potato), bok (wild yam), kleb (taro), klut (wild root plant that is extremely poisonous but can be eaten if prepared right), legasing (peanuts), lembong (wild tuber plant), likón (wild, edible tuber plant), tlahid (a kind of taro), ubi (sweet potato), ubi koyu (cassava, manioc). Freshwater fish and other organisms found in Lake Sebu include[12]: alù (mudfish), betulù (a kind of small round fish), blanak (a kind of large, reddish, scaly fish that appears at the time of harvesting the early rich), blinow (tiny fish), bonol (a kind of fish , brown, white-bellied, scaly, very tasty but spoils easily), ilaw (a kind of white-speckled fish with pointed nose and mouth), kéténg (any of various edible, bivalve mollusks as clams and oysters and their shells), kili (eel), kléngé (crab), kulóng (large shrimp), óngô (kind of fresh water fish that is small and somewhat round, resembling the mudfish but is about the size of one’s index finger) and tikung (small shrimp). 

These rootcrops and fish listed in the dictionary of Awed et. al., may well be the products exchanged during a seselong. In the absence of any ethnographic data dating to when seselong was still practiced before agriculture and aquaculture were introduced in Lake Sebu, one can only deduced to what products were actually exchanged based on available linguistic information as compiled by Awed et. al. The dictionary (the only extensive dictionary of the T’boli language) itself proves to be problematic in studying the language of Lake Sebu T’boli, for it does not include the k’mohung and seselong. This may be explained by the fact that the dictionary was compiled by missionaries residing in the municipality of T’boli, and hence miles from the T’boli groups experiencing the k’mohung. In this light then, we can cautiously surmise that the seselong is exclusive to the T’boli surrounding the lake.

I have described seselong functioning as a cultural device for the exchange of food all within the event of a k’mohung, and this corresponds to Steward’s recognition that the ecology of humans have both distinct biological and cultural aspects. Societies could adapt, as demonstrated by how the T’boli S’bu adapted to the k’mohung and the protein-carbohydrate disparity between upland and lakeside groups,  in any number of possible directions, rather than being subject to environmental determinism. In fact, the seselong may also viewed under the lenses of the rational choice theory in which people decide how to achieve their goals on the basis of their “deliberate, individual consideration of all available information”[13] such that this cultural practice of exchange was adopted because it seemed, at one time, the most rational thing to do under the existing circumstance of the k’mohung.

Steward suggested that “all adaptations are short lived and are constantly adjusting to changing environments.”[14] This is indeed the case of the seselong in Lake Sebu and although the k’mohung persists in the natural environment of the T’boli S’bu, the practice now belongs only to the dark corners of memory. With the changes in the uses of Lake Sebu, the cultural practice of seselong may have been transmuted to other forms and expressions.

Here the story of the man cursing the fish pen owners becomes a lucid expression of the indigenous people’s call for the reclamation of old ways and still older gods.


[1] Williamor Magbanua and Jeoffrey Maitem, “Massive fishkill in Lake Sebu leads to decline in fish sales”, Philippine Daily Inquirer, July 31, 2011.

[2] Allen V. Estabillo, “Fish kill hits Lake Sebu anew; officials push for regulations”, Mindanews, August 9, 2012.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Mark Q. Sutton and E. N. Anderson, “Introduction to Cultural Ecology”, (Altamira Press: UK), p. 22.

[6] Allah Valley Landscape Development Alliance, “Watershed Resources Management in the Allah Valley Landscape”, Koronadal City, Issue Poster no. 2 series of 2007.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Zosipat M. Beniga, “The Status of Tilapia Aquaculture in Lake Sebu, South Cotabato” in CB Santiago, ML Cuvin-Aralar and ZU Basiao (Eds.), Conservation and Ecological Management of Philippine Lakes in Relation to Fisheries and Aquaculture, pp. 95-98.

[10] Estabillo, Ibid.

[11] Silin A. Awed, Lillian B. Underwood and Vivian M. Van Wynen, “T’boli-English Dictionary”, (Summer Institute of Linguistics: Manila, 2004) p. 618.

[12] Ibid., p. 627.

[13] Sutton, p. 25.

[14] Ibid., p. 22.

One thought on “K’mohung and Seselong: Cultural Adaptation of the T’boli S’bu to the Fish Kill Phenomenon in Lake Sebu, South Cotabato

  1. Pingback: “To be” in Klubi | Being Here, Now.

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