An Interview with Mâ Ungkal, Son of Kawit

He was about the same age as my late grandmother. I first saw him at the but bnek (Tboli planting ritual) last April of 2015, he was telling us stories of how they did the ritual and the planting of upland rice in the 1960s. That day in 2015, he had a smile that was reflective and nostalgic, recalling the long gone past and perhaps memories of friends and families. Today, we met him in his house. He was squatting on his legs while expertly twining ropes. There’s still strength in his arms, I thought. We went inside his house and his daughter, who I guessed was in her early 40s, offered us coffee. Jenita explained to him that I wanted to interview him for my research. He looked at me inquisitively with his dim eyes and I recalled the exact same way my own grandmother would look at me behind her cataracts. I asked if I can interview him, and explained that I was at the but bnek ritual in 2015 where I first heard his stories. Jenita was my translator. She translated everything I said, passing messages between me and Ma Ungkal.
I was curious, I said, with the ways the Tboli planted in his childhood years and the difficulties of those days. I asked if there was a difference to how people planted then and now. He answered that a lot has changed since then. He was around 15 years old when he first started helping in the swidden farms. They cultivated mostly kleb (taro), ubi (sweet potato), and ubi koyu (cassava) but the main work was cultivating the upland rice and bananas. There were no carabaos before, he explained, and work was laborious and manual. They also planted the selâ tahu, the native corn, which would take about 2 and a half months before it can be harvested. They planted these in time with the upland rice which would take about 5 months before harvesting. This way, he said, they have food while waiting for the rice to be harvested. Before any planting can be done, they would do the t’meba or the slash and burn method of clearing plots of land. A small cottage or lowig would be built during the t’meba, where they would rest even if they are away from home. Ma Ungkal explained that the t’meba was only appropriate for the corn planted in the forestlands because rice requires the flat plains between mountains and these are normally just grasslands.
Ma Ungkal also shared that they would know the right time to plant based on the sun. When the sun is mo-ol or setting in the direction of Melê Botu (Mt. Parker), the land is prepared and plowed for planting. When the sun starts to set in the direction of Matutum, then the planting can commence. When the sun again sets in the direction of Holon, the rice may then be harvested.
Cleared land is usable for 3-4 years, where it is best fertile, he explained. Then they would let it rest for the next 5 years. But he lamented that it is no longer possible today due to the increasing difficulty in the access to free land for them. Hënëk! We just stay put in one plot of land now, he said.
I asked him if he had any experience of severe drought when he was still young. He answered yes and he estimated his age by pointing to a neighbor’s child. He was around 12 years old. He recalled to us a drought so severe that people died in Klubi. He described that the sun was “sut kdaw hulo” (the sun was red) and “ëmën klikam” (like the red design of the traditional bed canopy). When the rain stopped falling, he said that it only took 5 months before all the plants dried up and famine ravaged the land. The drought lasted for 10 months. They had to go to the forests to look for the biking (Dioscorea esculenta) a plant, a kind of rootcrop that crawls on the forest floor. Mâ Ungkal explained that one must look for the roots of the crawling biking and dig for 5 meters before finally reaching the prized fleshy part of the tubers. He said that a single plant sustained them for a month. *This is estimated to be the El Niño event of 1931.* 

I was curious about his age and was also trying to infer the year of this drought, so I asked if he ever encountered the Japanese when he was young. Yes, he said, he was already around 20 years old when the Japanese passed the mountains of Daguma in Lësok (a valley near Datal Sboyun). He even said that he was the one tasked by the Japanese soldiers to get them cows to eat. They only stayed for 5 days, he said, since they were on their way to the mohin bong (sea) of Kiamba.
I told Ma Ungkal that I heard him tell the story of Sélél when we were at the but bnek ritual and asked if he can expound on this. He explained that it is the name of a star used to determine the time of t’meba and rice planting. He said that when it appears in the night sky, the fak tahu (edible frogs) would also appear announcing t’meba. Sélél was once a man, the first farmer who was knowledgeable in the arts of agriculture. Ma Ungkal said that one day, Sélél said to his people that he no longer wants to be on this tonok (earth) and wished to ascend to longit. But before he went up to the sky, he instructed all the people in the ways of farming and told them never to worry and to look for him in the night sky from then because he will be the one who will tell them when to plant. He also left the people with the buli plant (patani or lima beans) saying that when the buli starts to bear fruits, it is also the time to plant rice. He added that Sélél was fond of drinking lëwag (traditional wine made from sugar cane) being the man who invented it. When he ascended to heaven he brought with him this wine and the old people say that when he throws out the last dregs of wine from his sokong (container), many people would get sick down here on earth.
We ended the interview with this story of Selel. But his daughter asked me if I could take a photo of Mâ Ungkal. She said that they don’t have a single picture of their father. I said, of course, it would be a great honor to do this.  After taking Mâ Ungkal’s pictures and his family, we went back to Lëmkwa, to Jenita’s house. But my mind was still wandering in distant lands, and in the long gone past. When men ascended to heaven with their wine cups full and the trees have names that I must discover.

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.

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.

Exploring “Experience and Expressions” in Climate Change Anthropology

Lake Sebu at dusk


The truth is, I have never heard of Wilhelm Dilthey until I’ve read “The Anthropology of Experience” edited by Victor Turner and Edward Bruner – and I am a Philosophy major. In his introduction to the book, Bruner presented him as a German thinker when Kantianism was the trend in Philosophy.  This is palpable in the way he critiqued the philosophy of a priori principles, meaning-complexes and absolute value norms, in his theory that assumes that all thought processes arise out of experience (erlebnis – what has been “lived through”) and derive their meaning from their relation into experience, and therefore critiquing the Kantian a priori.  For Dilthey, “reality only exists for us in the facts of consciousness given by inner experience” (as cited in Bruner, 1986: 4).

Dilthey asserted that experience is the ”foundation of the whole edifice of knowledge” going on further to say that it is “only by reference to experience that we can define what we mean by saying that anything ‘exists’” (Hodges, 1952). Bruner worked on Dilthey’s notion of experience to expound on an “Anthropology of Experience” where lived experience, “as thought and desire, as word and image, is the primary reality” (Bruner, 1986: 5).  As lived and embodied, experience becomes a critical focus of anthropology because it is a causal point for personal and community action which directly affects persons, outcomes and therefore cultures.

Reading Bruner talk about Dilthey’s notion of experience brings me back to my proposed study of climate change in the T’boli community of Klubi; a study on “experience and expressions of climate change”. Climate change, as a reality in the sense of something actually existing outside of the knowing self and in opposition to a notional idea, demands that social scientists turn their focus on how it is experienced and expressed especially in indigenous communities who are considered most vulnerable to climate perturbations. How is it represented in the language of our research partners? How is it told? What are the emerging expressions of this global phenomenon in the local communities that are the traditional partners of anthropologists? Are expressions related to climate perturbations becoming part of the dominant narratives? And as the peoples’ “articulations, formulations, and representations of their own experience” (1986: 9) how is climate change adaptation or response appropriated in those articulations?

Bruner expanded the concept of experience by including “feelings and expectations” (4), “images and impressions”, (5) as sources of experience. It comes to us not just verbally but also from the richer sphere of images and feelings, which goes beyond languages. We may say that given the ‘reality’ of climate change – of existing perturbations in the weather and unreliable traditional agricultural calendars as in the case of the T’boli – feelings, expectations, thoughts, images and impressions are also actively imprinted in the mind, which in turn are expressed, articulated in different modes.

Bruner accepted the idea that experience is “self-referential” – reality is experienced only by the person and that we can never completely know the experiences of another. Basically a study of the other, this then became the problematic in the anthropological study of experience. How can the anthropologist study another’s experience? He states:

 How, then, do we overcome the limitations of individual experience? Dilthey’s (1976: 230) answer was that we “transcend the narrow sphere of experience by interpreting expressions.” By “interpreting” Dilthey meant understanding, interpretation, and the methodology of hermeneutics; by “expressions” he meant representations, performances, objectifications, or texts. (1986: 5)

In my study of climate change experience and expressions among the T’boli S’bu, I start with the different experiences, but these can only be culled out from their own articulations of the changing weather patterns, inconsistencies with the agricultural calendar, their ‘feelings’ in the changing temperature, and the images that comes to mind given these perturbations. These expressions that include Bruner’s “representations, performances, objectifications or texts” encapsulate the experiences of the T’boli S’bu.

Questions on expressions and articulations of climate change may be asked: How are their mythologies appropriated in these perceived weather patterns? What rituals are employed to ‘fix’ these inconsistencies in the agricultural calendar vis-à-vis the weather? What are their impressions and desires in the midst of these uncertainties? What structures and episodes in their narratives of folk heroes and heroines help them in decisions related to agriculture and weather perturbations?

Bruner further clarified the relationship between experience and expressions:

 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. (1986: 6)

One example, to further understand this experience-expressions relationship, is the k’mohung and seselong connection. K’mohung is the T’boli term for the “fish kills” that regularly happen in Lake Sebu. Several perspectives on the k’mohung are evidenced in the narratives related to it.

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 pen 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 Fu 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”. 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.

Here, the experience of the k’mohung is expressed in different narratives that show polar notions between the curse-gift discourse based on different circumstances and point of views – differing but still constituting peoples’ articulations, formulations and representations of the experience. On one hand the experience is akin to sacredness, as a gift from the spirits, while the other as curse to their livelihood. Expressions are indeed “rooted in a social situation with real persons in a particular culture in a given historical era” (1986: 7).  Bruner manifested this rich array of expressions, saying “every telling is an arbitrary imposition of meaning on the flow of memory, in that we highlight some causes and discount other; that is, every telling is interpretive.” (7)

These narrative expressions of a singular ‘reality’ but of plural experiences, continue on to shape a particular cultural action – that of the seselong.

The Focus Group Discussion I conducted in Brgy. Klubi on March 30, 2013 described the k’mohung and seselong 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.

The T’boli’s experience of the  k’mohung also turns our attention to indigenous meaning-generation. By studying the different expressions of narratives and the system of seselong that springs from the experience, I can engage with Bruner’s method of starting with expressions to understand the experience because the “basic units of analysis are established by the people we study rather by the anthropologist as alien observer” (9). Anthropological understanding of climate change adaptations and responses of the T’boli S’bu may also use this approach.

Bruner’s interpretive approach of the experience-expression relations operates on two levels:

 The people we study interpret their own experiences in expressive forms, and we, in turn, through our fieldwork, interpret these expressions for a home audience of other anthropologists. Our anthropological productions are our stories about their stories; we are interpreting the people as they are interpreting themselves. (10)

Although I disagree with Bruner when he says that anthropological studies are intended for a “home audience of other anthropologists”, believing that the ultimate audience of the anthropologist are his/her community partners, I still agree in this bi-level operation of cognition where people interpret their own experience while the anthropologist interprets those expressions to gain access to the original experience. In once instance, for example, I was invited to attend a tutul (chants) performance of several master-chanters of Klubi, Lamdalag and Lamcade. Several times, community members listening to the stories would cut the singing and comment on the story’s episodes relating them to contemporary issues, such as mining in T’boli municipality or treasure hunting in Lake Holon, yet the story itself (of the hero Tudbulul) is of mythological time, a story outside time, indeed serving as “meaning-generating devices which frame the present within a hypothetical past and an anticipated future” (1986: 18). Their own interpretations of the age-old stories, relating them to contemporary problems and issues give me adequate hope that among those stories and tutul performances, I may perhaps glean the hows, and whys of the T’boli S’bu mind in the ‘reality’ of climate change and from these expressions – of performed texts and dormant meanings in folk narratives – I may catch, even for a brief moment, a T’boli S’bu ‘experience’ of climate change.




Hodges, H. A. The Philosophy of Wilhelm Dilthey. Routledge & Kegan Paul (1952).

Bruner, Edward and Turner, Victor eds. The Anthropology of Experience. Chicago: University of Illinois Press (1986).

Emotions in their Cultural Contexts: the Case of Lila Abu-Lughod’s Analysis of Bedouin Ghinnawa

 The night of the beloved’s parting

Cloudcover, no stars and no moon…

(A ghinnawa in Abu-Lughod, 1985)

Before I was introduced to the anthropological study of emotions, I have always thought of my feelings, may it be of love, annoyance, anxiety, anger, or grief, as something that exclusively resides in the realm of my person – somewhere, as the poem alludes to, hidden in the cloudcover, no stars and no moon. It is, for me, something that is personal, private and secluded from the prying eyes of the public. For one, this may be because I was raised in a family that is never totally honest and transparent with our emotions. There seems to be (at least this is how I feel it) an unspoken rule in our family to settle, cope or appropriate our own individual emotions, until of course to the point of breakdown when one simply needs to talk it out to our parents or my sisters. Secondly, added to this pervading family attitude, is my adoption of ‘western’ values and mindset that glorifies privacy of emotions and individual freedom, something that may be attributed to my exposure to American media and ‘white’ literature.

It is quite interesting then to read Lila Abu-Lughod talk about emotions and how its study is “essentialized, relativized” (Abu-Lughod and Lutz, 1990, 3) and given focus as an important ‘psychobiological process’ that reverberates in a movement from within and then occasionally (but ultimately) shared by a community – emotions that becomes social and public. Her study focuses on emotions as cultural products reproduced in individuals as an embodied experience. Abu-Lughod argues that we must ask not just what the cultural meanings of various emotions are and how emotional configurations might be related to social life, but “how emotional discourses are implicated in the play of power and the operation of a historically changing system of social hierarchy” (Abu-Lughod and Lutz, 1990).

Lila Abu-Lughod is an Egyptian-American anthropologist who did much of her fieldwork among the Bedouins in Egypt, especially in the community of the Awlad ‘Ali. She is internationally recognized for her contributions to feminist anthropology, to studies of power and resistance (inspired by Foucault) and to the politics of gender in the Middle East ( She explores these and other issues in her monograph “Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society (1986)” and in “Shifting Politics in Bedouin Love Poetry” as part of a collection in “Language and the Politics of Emotion”. She further explored the dynamics of emotions and the politics of sentiments in a feminist perspective in “Modest Women, Subversive Poems: The Politics of Love in an Egyptian Bedouin Society”.

In Modest Women, Subversive Poems and Shifting Politics, Lila Abu-Lughod describes a genre of poetry known among the Egyptian Bedouins as ghinnawa:

[… ] known in Egypt as the ghinnawa (little song) and in Libya as ‘alam or sob. Reminiscent of Japanese haiku in its brevity and condensation of language, but the American blues in emotional tone, the ghinnawa could be considered the poetry of personal life. (Abu-Lughod, 1986)

The ghinnawa, added Abu-Lughod, are “recited in the midst of ordinary conversations between intimates although they are also sung when people are alone working” (1986) and often “special weight is attached to the messages conveyed in this medium and people are moved, often to tears by the sentiments expressed.” (1985). As recited poetry, often in weddings and other gatherings, they are private expressions of emotions that come to inhabit the public sphere. One description gives us the cultural and personal significance of the ghinnawa:

It is one of the most cherished types of Bedouin poetry, and people find it very moving. One woman said, ‘Beautiful poetry makes you cry.’ The poems carry sentiments, especially about people’s personal situations and their intimate relationship about people’s personal situations and their intimate relationships to others. One of the most common themes of the ghinnawa is love. (1986)

The title of her essay “Modest Women, Subversive Poems” (1986) already captures the essence of the dynamics happening in the ghinnawa poetry and the Bedouins.  Abu-Lughod talks about how hasham, or modesty defines the Awlad ‘Ali women, an “internal state of shyness, embarrassment or shame” and in her analysis, marked by a strong feminist stance, “the denial of sexuality” (1986). Hasham defines the good woman, while gawya (willful) and ghaba (slut) describes a bad girl or woman. She mentions several cases of these traits but it is clear from her articles that a woman ought to be distant and passive, no excesses for desire or love, showing no public affection to her husband, or veiled in the sense of self-effacement mandated by the community. Yet Abu-Lughod is careful not to sweepingly target Islam for this attitude:

“Rather than looking at Islam, we need to look at Bedouin social structure, based on the priority of social relationships of consanguinity and organization in terms of patrilineal descent, to understand why expressing sexuality or romantic love might be defiant. “ (1986)

But here the interesting question was raised: why are the ghinnawa poems full of romantic, sometimes implicitly sexual, and just generally un-hasham content? One example she cites is the case of Safiyya who was divorced from the man she had been married to for almost twenty years and who “showed an aggressive nonchalance that was fairly typical of the way Bedouin women speak of their husbands, trying to appear uninterested”, an attitude that fairly speaks of hasham. Yet Abu-Lughod describes a scene between Safiyya and several other women in which Safiyya suddenly recited a poem “that everyone knew was about her husband” (1986). Here appears a different Safiyya, a woman full of loss and love:

Memories stirred of the beloved

Should I release, I’m flooded by them…

Oh eyes of mine be strong;

You cherish people, and then they’re gone…

Abu-Lughod further emphasized that “modest women regularly expressed ‘immodest’ feelings in ghinnawas”.  This seemingly polar attitude and sentiment was analyzed by Abu-Lughod in the context of the social structure of the Awlad ‘Ali Bedouins. She considers the semi-nomadic, agnatic, patriarchal and patrilineal characteristic of the Awlad ‘Ali as important causes of this disjunction between hasham attitude and the subversive nature of the ghinnawa. She explains that “love and the bonds it might establish between individuals are not just threats to the framework that orders social relations, but are also talked about as threats to the solidarity of the paternal kin group” (1990) and that “through their poetry [they declare their] experience more than what their modest actions reveal” (1986). As a group based on an agnatic political system and a cultural preference for “patrilateral parallel cousin marriage”, love and marriage are considered as threats to this system and hence subsumed in the code of the hasham under the “prior and more legitimate bond of kinship.” (1990) She explains further:

The threat marriage represents to the solidarity of the agnatic group and its challenge to the authority and control of the group’s elders is counteracted at every point by social and ideological strategies. (1986)

Abu-Lughod calls the ghinnawa as “the Bedouin discourse of defiance” (1990). Emotions stifled by hasham and the exacting social structure opens up like a dam in the freedom of poetry. We must note that the Bedouins are nomadic desert people before the Egyptian state imposed structures external to their customs and traditions and that they are proud of their noble past as politically independent, hence sentiments “that challenge the social system and the authority of the elders, are not just tolerated or not disapproved of but actually admired” (1990). The ghinnawa then are celebrated as distinctively Bedouin and that the defiance that it embodies captures the very essence of how they see (or saw) themselves as autonomous and free. She also shows how this emotional discourse in the form of the ghinnawa come to have new social meaning and a different social basis as the Bedouin political economy is being transformed. She concludes with the use of discourse as the object of analysis in the study of emotions, “inseparable from and interpenetrated with changing power relations in social life” (1990) and emotions as “something worth analyzing critically rather than universalizing”(1990).

Several insights can be gleaned from the case presented to us in the Shifting Politics and Modest Women, Subversive Poems. One is the method of analysis used by Abu-Lughod in explicating the play of the cultural and personal spheres using verbal art and another is the local application of her conclusions.

Abu-Lughod’s use of oft-considered ‘non-documents’ such as oral narratives, songs, poetry or folklore genre adds to the growing body of studies that reclaims fragmented voices in order to assert these non-documents’ force in the world. Cyril Conde’s “A Theory of Kadungung in Ibalon and Osipon”, Reynaldo Ileto’s “Pasyon and Revolution”, Herminia Coben’s “Verbal Arts in Philippine Indigenous Communities” and Rosario Cruz-Lucero’s “Ang Bayan sa Labas ng Maynila” are indeed fine specimens of this kind methodology. Conde, for example, uses the osipon genre of Bikolano literature to stitch together the lost fragments of the epic Ibalon, while Ileto uses the narratives in the Pasyon to provide a “history from below” and an alternative view of Philippine History from 1840-1910. These non-traditional sources of information rest on interpretive approaches to make (more) sense of mainstream academic areas thereby representing other contexts and forces that shape a community.  Coben writes that these performances of verbal art are “situated in a social context” and it is “precisely that social interaction that enables verbal art performance to transform, not simply reflect, social life” (2009, 1).

Abu-Lughod was aware of these social interactions when she interpreted the dynamics of ghinnawa within the social structure of the Awlad ‘Awli Bedouins. The spoken word then, may it be in the form of poetry, riddles, sawikain or osipon, forms an important part in the methods of anthropological inquiry because it exists within the cultural ideal and subsists in the psychic energies of the individual within a culture. Cognitive and Psychological Anthropology will find a treasure trove of information within these forms verbal arts waiting to be explicated and ultimately to help us, as Geertz claimed, “understand the other’s understanding”.

Several local applications of her method can be relevant to a wide variety of subject matters. One example is the folk narratives (e.g. the tutul of the T’boli) of Indigenous Peoples regarding climate change, issues they are currently facing (i.e. land acquisition, indigenous peoples rights) or even to a study of the sentiments towards politics and politicians expressed implicitly or explicitly in the Bikolano tigsik. Abu-Lughod’s conclusion that emotions also reside in the public sphere, often hidden in verbal arts, yet articulating hidden tensions in the social life of the individuals, is also applicable in the study of different cultural groups in the Philippines. In this Sama Dilaut riddle, for instances, the sentiments of the sea-gypsy comes alive:

Music from the sea, dancing ashore.

(Waves and coconut palms)



Angigal mandea.]

(Goyak maka selok)

(Coben, 2009, 356)

Here, the Sama Dilaut paints using a commonplace genre, the tension in which he is in, of being a “flotsam” as the Tausug would pejoratively refer to them, of being geopolitically marginalized, and then one can also sense the intimate “conjunction of the land sea” embedded in his worldview. All this in one riddle of the Sama Dilaut. How much more in a compendium of Philippine verbal arts?

In the ghinnawa, Abu-Lughod found a veritable source of information that opens up a community’s ideals, structure and the individual’s appropriation of her emotions within a very exacting, even stifling social structure. She showed the pragmatic force of poetry (and other verbal arts) in the anthropological understanding of emotions that is both personal but sometimes (relative to the culture) acquiring a social dimension.

Indeed, the ghinnawa speaks of love, loss, partings and joy, and  at the same time revealing a people’s soul – hiding, in a cloudcover, no stars, no moon…

Sources Cited:

Abu-Lughod, Lila and Lutz, Catherine A. Language and the Politics of Emotion (Studies in Emotion and Social Interaction). University of Cambridge: Press Syndicate (1990).

Abu-Lughod, Lila. Shifting Politics in Bedouin Love Poetry. In Language and the Politics of Emotion (Studies in Emotion and Social Interaction). University of Cambridge: Press Syndicate (1990). 24-45.

___________________. Honor and the Sentiments of Loss in a Bedouin Society. In American Ethnologist, Vol. 12, No. 2. (May, 1985). 245-261.

___________________. Modest Women, Subversive Poems: the Politics of Love in an Egyptian Bedouin Society. In Bulletin (British Society for Middle Eastern Studies), Vol. 13, No. 2. (1986). 159-168.

Coben, Herminia M. Verbal Arts in Philippine Indigenous Communities (Poetics, Society, and History). Manila: Ateneo de Manila Press (2009). Abu-Lughod, Lila (b. 1952). Retrieved on July 10, 2013.

Claude Levi-Strauss and Maurice Bloch: Conjunctions and Disjunctions in the Theories of Language, Cognition and Anthropology

In the study of myths, their language and representations, Claude Levi-Strauss occupies a most honored status as being on the forefront of multi- and trans- disciplinary approaches to its study. His encyclopedic treatment of linguistics, ethnology and even philosophy of language, and his “taste for formal logic” (Bernard and Spencer, 1992) in his structural approach provide a staggering source of information and a fundamental foundation for cognitive and psychological anthropology. Although there have been dissidents in the field of structuralism and especially Levi-Strauss’ “Structural Study of Myths”, it nevertheless opened a dam of academic interests both to anthropologists and non-anthropologists ranging from the disciplines of Literature, Philosophy, Culture Studies and Psychology.

Maurice Bloch acknowledged this great debt of academia to Levi-Strauss in his obituary to the latter:

“The fame of Claude Lévi-Strauss, who has died aged 100, extended well beyond his own subject of anthropology. He was without doubt the anthropologist best known to non-specialists. This is mainly because he is usually considered to be the founder of the intellectual movement known as structuralism, which was to have such influence, especially in the 1970s. He was one of those French intellectuals – like Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida and Paul Ricoeur – whose influence spread to many other disciplines because they were philosophers in a much broader sense of the word than the academic philosophers of the British and American tradition.” (Bloch, Claude Levi-Strauss Obituary, The Guardian)

Maurice Bloch himself is a product of this structuralist and post-structuralist ethos proposing a new approach to cognitive anthropology. He challenged the views of Levi-Strauss and Structuralism, which asserted that myths (a form of thinking) follow the same logic of language. Bloch argues “we tend to imagine thinking as a kind of silent soliloquizing wherein the building blocks are words of their definitions and the process itself involves linking propositions by logical inferences in a single lineal sequence.” (Bloch, 1998) He proposed instead, that “everyday thought is not ‘language-like’, that it does not involve linking propositions in a single sequence in the way language represents reasoning. Rather it relies on clumped networks of signification which require that they be organized in ways which are not lineal but multi-stranded…” (Bloch, 1998) Both thinkers are spurred by the idea that “Anthropology draws its originality from the unconscious nature of collective phenomena” (Levi-Strauss, 1963) – a notion that has for its core the mind-brain stuff which is also the realm of the discipline of Psychology.

This paper then seeks to uncover the conjunctions and disjunctions between Levi-Strauss and Bloch in their theories of cognitive anthropology to determine the best approach in the study of risk perception and the influence of narratives to cognition as employed in the study of climate change risk perceptions and the effects of narratives (myths and folklore) on these perceptions.

Among the anthropological theories, Structuralism is one method of analysis that is concerned first and foremost with language and the problems of languages (Ehrmann, 1970). As applied to anthropological inquiries, it developed into an “analysis of myths which are of the nature of language” (Ehrmann, 1970). Structuralism attempts to uncover these internal relationships which give different languages their form and function and which extends to the structures of the unconscious.

Edmund Leach gives us the argument for Structuralism:

“[W]hat we know about the external world we apprehend through our senses. The phenomena which we perceive have the characteristics which we attribute to them because of the way our senses operate and the way the human brain is designed to order and interpret the stimuli which are fed into it. One very important feature of this ordering process is that we cut the continua of space and time with which we are surrounded into segments so that we are predisposed to think of the environment as consisting of vast numbers of separate things belonging to named classes, and to think of the passage of time as consisting of sequences of separate events. Correspondingly, when, as men, we construct artificial things (artifacts of all kinds), or devise ceremonials, or write histories of the past, we imitate our apprehension of Nature: the products of our Culture are segmented and ordered in the same way as we suppose the products of Nature to be segmented and ordered.” (2009)

This apparent segmenting of nature by the mind, reflected by the segmentation of culture, is what structuralism attempts to understand through analyses of the products of culture i.e. kinship, narratives, religion. Levi-Strauss developed this approach in his structural study of myths and kinship.

Structuralism arose out of the concept in Linguistics that there lie “covert rules in language that users of that language know but are unable to articulate” (Briggs and Meyer, 2012). These hidden rules, somewhere in the mind of the speaker, ensures mutual intelligibility among users of that language. The absence of “grammar” or explicit set of rules in indigenous languages suggested that humans based language on models and structures in the mind – abstractions in the sense that it cannot be perceived directly by the senses. Linguistics suggests that a concept, in the realm of the mind, is given a signifier, and different signifiers are strung to form sentences with a complete thought: from words to sentences, to paragraphs, to stories. Different cultures arbitrarily assign what word suggests what concept; then we have language. But all these sprung from concepts in the mind and how that mind views the world it perceives. These interactions of the world and mind, as vividly explained by Linguistics, were used as an analogy jump-off point in Structural Anthropology.

If linguistics exhibited the presence of structures in the mind, cultures can then be studied by analyzing the language, not the grammar or rules of that language, but its various expressions which includes myths. Claude Levi-Strauss pointed this out when he said that “myth is language: to be known, myth has to be told; it is part of human speech.” (1963, p. 209) Culture, according to him is also composed of hidden rules that govern social behavior, very much like language. Structural anthropology asserts that “the underlying patterns of human thought that produce cultural categories that organize worldviews” (Briggs and Meyer, 2012) operated within culture and that its analysis will help us understand a particular society’s worldview and how they conceive the world in their mind. In Levi-Strauss’ study of kinship among the Brazilian and Papuan tribes, he used the same rules of linguistics and the breaking down of the language to its smallest units (i.e. phonemes) to analyze these structures also present in the mind. He asserted: “Linguistics teaches us precisely that structural analysis cannot be applied to words directly, but only to words previously broken down into phonemes. There are no necessary relationships at the vocabulary level. This applies to all vocabulary elements, including kinship terms” (Levi-Strauss, 1963, p. 32). In this multi-disciplinary approach between Linguistics and Anthropology, Levi-Strauss argues that linguists provides the anthropologist with etymologies which permit him to establish between certain kinship terms relationships that were not immediately apparent. The anthropologist, on the other hand, can bring to the attention of the linguist customs, prescriptions and prohibitions that help him to understand the persistence of certain features of language or the instability of terms or groups of terms (1963, p. 32).

In his structural study of myths, Claude Levi-Strauss noted that myths worldwide have similar and general themes/motifs because of the same human needs and aspirations, yet strikingly dissimilar because of the different social and environmental phenomena of a given people. This also suggests that human thought processes are the same in different cultures and these can be proven by the binary oppositions (between light and dark, man and woman etc.) present in myths worldwide, as Levi-Strauss posited. He further remarked about the universal quality of myths, “Whatever our ignorance of the language and the culture of the people where it originated, a myth is still felt as a myth by any reader anywhere in the world. Its substance does not lie in its style, its original music or its syntax, but in the story which it tells.” (Levi-Strauss, 1963)

Myths are indeed, powerful. They are, in the words of Carl Jung, collective dreams, which also open up to private meanings. They have the power to yoke communities under one mythos yet also have the transformative energy that stirs individuals. Claude Levi-Strauss noted this power yet he was also conscious of another significance of myths in the study of Anthropology and Sociology – that of the underlying social structures that those myths, he thought, contain. He explained his method in an essay The Structural Study of Myth and postulated that “If there is a meaning to be found in mythology, it cannot reside in the isolated elements which enter in to the composition of a myth, but only in the way those elements are combined” (p. 210) and that “the true constituent units of a myth are not the isolated relations but bundles of such relations, and it is only as bundles that these relations can be put to use and combined so as to produce a meaning” (p. 214).

These characteristics of myths, of the general patterns of mythic themes and specific roles of myths in different societies suggest its functional importance to cultures and how it influences thought-processes. But for the study of risk perceptions effected by narratives, I am not interested in those general patterns so obvious in world mythologies. These general patterns are more in the realm of Psychology in what Carl Jung would include in his discussions of archetypes. As a thesis, I am more interested in those combinations of mythic elements that hide in their texts, social structures (kinship, gender relations etc.), perceptions of risk, experience of severe weather disturbance embodied in their mythos, value systems, and meanings for a given people. One must extricate, not unlike an archeologist, amidst the seemingly non-important rubble of mythic language, all the while avoiding the sins of generalizations and being too subjective in our interpretations.

Maurice Bloch, in his many articles and books, encouraged the same interface between cognition (in the realm of Psychology) and social and cultural life (Anthropology) that is also helpful in the study of risk perceptions and how narratives, as one part of a culture, influences perceptions and cognition. What he has written on this subject faces two ways: “on the one hand, he criticises anthropologists for exaggerating the particularity of specific cultures; on the other hand, he criticises cognitive scientists for underestimating it.” ( He further developed Levi-Strauss’ structural approach by criticizing the lineal notion of language as used in the study of culture. He asserted that “language is an inappropriate medium for evoking the non-lineal organization of everyday cognition.” (Bloch, 1998) This assertion stems from the fundamental problem of the etic and emic point of views – in which the anthropologist has no way of fully knowing the thoughts (including deepest aspirations, and ways of knowing) of the people in a particular culture. Even through interviews and other methods usually employed by anthropologists, information is still gathered in a ‘lineal’ language in which informants give a retrospective account of their thought processes. In this sense, no true etic information may be acquired through language as it passes through the different life-world, system of organization and grammar of the anthropologist. Bloch explains this problem:

“[…] anthropologists naturally attempt to produce accounts of intellectual processes which will prove persuasive to their readers, and readers, along with the anthropologist’s informants, expect account of the thought of the people studied to match the folk theory of thought. As a result, a kind of double complicity is all to easily established between anthropologists and their readers and between anthropologists and their readers and between anthropologists and their informants – a double complicity which leads to representations of thought in logic-sentential terms.” (Bloch, 1998)

To answer this problem, Bloch suggested a new approach in which actors’ concepts of society are represented not as strings of terms and proposition but as “governed by lived-in models, that is, models based as much in experience, practice, sight, and sensation as in language.” (Bloch, 1998) He explains these approach and mental models in What Goes Without Saying, a chapter in How We Think They Think:

“The core of the approach, usually known as connectionism, is the idea that most knowledge, especially the knowledge involved in everyday practice, does not take a linear, logic-sentential form but rather is organized into highly complex and integrated networks or mental models most elements of which are connected to each other in a great variety of ways. The models form conceptual clumps which are not language-like precisely because of the simultaneous multiplicity of ways in which information is integrated in them. These mental models are, what is more, only partly linguistic; they also integrate visual imagery, other sensory cognition, the cognitive aspects of learned practices, evaluation, memories of sensations and memories of typical examples. Not only are these mental models not lineal in their internal organization but information from them can be accessed simultaneously from many different part of the model through ‘multiple parallel processing’. This is what enables people to cope with information as rapidly as they, and probably other animals, do in normal, everyday situation.” (p. 24)

Though both stemming from the problem of language in their development of theories on cognizing and thought processes, Bloch departed from Levi-Strauss’ concept of a lineal, rigid and logical interpretation of narratives, to a more holistic understanding of mental models that includes other sensory perceptions. Language for Bloch is just one of the many ways to understand a certain culture. For him, culture and social organizations in particular, may be understood through mental models. One example is his study of the Zafimaniry conceptualizations of maturation, marriage and women and men. He asks: (1) the mental model of what people are like and how they mature, (2) the mental model of the differences and similarities between women and men, (3) the mental model of what a good marriage is like. This approach departed from the solely linguistic interpretation as asserted by the Structuralists to an interpretation of thought processes that includes the interaction of “biological processes to other biological and physical processes” – into a picture of culture integrated and not just superimposed on material facts gathered by the anthropologist.

Levi-Strauss and structuralism argued that human beings naturally and unconsciously classify (binary) concepts as shown by his study of the myth of Orpheus and Native American myths, yet Bloch suggested that these concepts are formed through “vague and provisional ‘prototypes’ which anchor loosely-formed ‘families of specific instances.” (Bloch, 1991) He uses the concept of the ‘house’ to drive at his point:

“… The concept of a house is not a list of essential features (roof, door, walls, and so on) which have to be checked off before deciding whether or not the thing is a house. If that were so we would have no idea that a house which has lost its roof is still house. It is rather that we consider something as a ‘house’ by comparing it to a loosely associated group of ‘houselike’ feature, no one of which is essential, but which are linked by a general idea of what a typical house is.” (Bloch, 1991)

In this case, then, the best way to proceed with the study of risk perceptions is not to be tied up with the logical and rigid formulation of Levi-Strauss but also to employ the holistic approach of Bloch that advocates for the extrication and understanding of the people’s mental models in the writing of ethnography. Levi-Strauss’ structural study of myths may be employed in understanding the representations of units of myths that may be able to help in understanding how the researcher partners understand, cognize and perceive the risk of climate change. Bloch’s connectionism, on the other hand, is a helpful tool in connecting these units of the myth and their representations to the over-all study of climate change risks. Through the use of sensory images and concepts, representations extricated from the myths may in turn present a fuller meaning or representation and may be better communicated to the research partners.

Sources Cited:

Bernard , Alan and Spencer, Jonathan eds. Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology. New York: Routledge (1992). 504.

Bloch, Maurice (1991 June). Language, Anthropology and Cognitive Science. Man, 185, 183-198.

_________________. How We Think They Think. Colorado: Westviews Press (1998). 23

_________________. Claude Levi-Strauss Obituary. Posted in November 3, 2009. Retrieved July 26, 2013.

Briggs, Rachel and Meyer, Janelle. Structuralism., retrieved August 30, 2012.

Ehrmann, Jacques. Structuralism. New York: Anchor Books (1970). ix

Leach, Edmund quoted in Moore, Jerry. Visions of Culture: an Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists. UK: AltaMira Press (2009).  237.

Levi-Strauss, Claude. Structural Anthropology 1. New York: Penguin Books (1963). 18.

http://www.wikipedia. Maurice Bloch. Retrieved July 27, 2013.

“To be” in Klubi

_MG_3597 _MG_3579 1 6 5 4 3 2 7 8 9 10 11 13 12 19 16

[All photos were taken in Sitio Lamkua, Barangay Klubi, Lake Sebu, South Cotabato, Southern Philippines, with permissions from the elders of Klubi. Photography by Mr. Nikki Ayubo]

For more on  T’boli ethnography please visit: Blotik Ehek (Star of the Sharpening Stone) and Climate Change: When Traditional Knowledge Becomes Unreliable and also K’mohung and Seselong: Cultural Adaptation of the T’boli S’bu to the Fish Kill Phenomenon in Lake Sebu, South Cotabato. 

Blotik Éhék (Star of the Sharpening Stone) and Climate Change: When Traditional Knowledge Becomes Unreliable


 Several studies conducted by anthropologists have already substantially concluded the effects of existing, anthropogenic climate change and how it compounds indigenous peoples’ vulnerabilities adding to “existing challenges, including political and economic marginalization, land and resource encroachments, human rights violations and discrimination” (Crate 2009). These studies underline the importance of using ecological and landscape approaches to climate studies, strongly relying on the emic point of view or the local people’s knowledge of their environment, geography and ecology.

Susan Crate used this approach successfully in her study[1] on the effects of climate change to the sub-Arctic Viliu Sakha communities in northeastern Siberia, Russia and noted the transformations of “both symbolic cultures and subsistence cultures […] reframe the implications of unprecented global climate change (Crate 2009).” Sarah Strauss[2], working with the community of Leukerbad in Switzerland, described and shared Leukerbadners’ stories of retreating glaciers in the Alps and warned anthropologists and scientists that “we are all feeling the effects, both long term and short term, of a changing climate, but the solutions that will be applicable to the global problem cannot be cast from a single mold.” Indeed, as landscapes, geography and cultures diversely vary on our planet, the challenge is to also diversify solutions to climate change to consider each local community’s socioeconomic and cultural capacities, resilience and vulnerability. This challenge falls particularly to anthropologists who “seek to understand and translate, helping make the experiences of one place/time/people intelligible to those who inhabit different lifeworlds (Strauss 2009)”.

In this study, focus is given to the T’boli people whose traditional domains include the highland lake complex of Lake Sebu in South Cotabato, the Daguma mountain range, Allah River, the crater lake of Holon in Mt. Melibengoy and the coastal communities of Kiamba and Maasim in Sarangani, Southern Philippines.  Particularly, the setting is in Barangay Klubi, Lake Sebu municipality, South Cotabato with a total land area of 509 hectares, the only barangay in Lake Sebu considered “100% tribal area” [3]. Klubi is 4. 59% of the total land area of the Municipality of Lake Sebu. Particular interest was given to the area for its mountainous “hilly to steep hilly”  (Socioeconomic Profile of Lake Sebu 2010) topography and to contribute a mountainous, tropical and agricultural setting to climate studies whose noticeable main body of concern are the Arctic, coastal and glacial regions.

The T’boli are listed in ethnographies (cf Cultural Center of the Philippines Enyclopedia of Philippine Art 1994) as “a people in the mature hunting-gathering stage with horticulturalists”. While this maybe true when the ethnographic research was conducted, contemporary T’bolis have already cultivated vast hectares of agricultural land devoted to rice and corn. As a matter of fact, from the 89,138 hectares total land area of Lake Sebu, 24,404 hectares is appropriated as agricultural (Socioeconomic Profile of Lake Sebu 2010). Many of the T’bolis still use traditional methods of planting corn and upland rice, relying mostly on astronomical bodies (sun, moon and stars, specially the blotik éhék) and geographic markers (mountains) to tell the season for planting and harvesting. But with the changes in climate and weather patterns, they are also increasingly experiencing difficulties in following any agricultural calendar. Field interviews with farmers describe March and April as the traditional months for planting, when there is no rain that may otherwise bring the farmers’ woes of forager and cutter insects and also the burrowing worms which eat the newly planted stalks. Some of the farmers, experiencing these difficulties, turn to non-traditional ways of planting like the use of fertilizers and planting hybrid rice and corn, just to secure their harvest and feed their families.

This study aims to describe their present-day agricultural practices, most specifically in the planting of corn and rice, and also to describe the climate-related challenges experienced by the T’boli farmers.

For this objective, this paper uses ethnoecology for its conceptual framework. Ethnoecology, generally speaking, is the study of what local people know about their environment, how they classify that information, and how they use it – an attempt toward the understanding of local understanding about a realm of experience.

In this paper, we try to describe and understand the T’boli’s natural resource management in agriculture and how local knowledge of the terrain, weather, climate and astronomical bodies inform their agricultural practices. The interactions of traditional agricultural knowledge with the effects of climate change will be analyzed to understand how changes in the natural system will revise (or has already revised) current practices in T’boli agriculture. Methods used in this study include individual interviews, archival research and participant observation.

This paper adds to the growing number of studies on climate and indigenous peoples and seeks to understand how indigenous peoples in mountainous habitats with an agricultural-based economy, are experiencing climate perturbations and how they are responding to the risks brought by climate change. By investigating their agricultural practices, the inconsistencies of traditional knowledge with their landscape and weather, and their perception on climate change, policymakers, advocates and planners may better understand how to inform, update and apprise the T’boli S’bu on the realities of climate change.

Ethnoecology as Situated Knowledge

The seminal work which introduced ethnoscience/ethnoecology to the humanities and social sciences is Harold Conklin’s The Relation of the Hanunuo Culture to the Plant World (1954) which was to “dismantle the dominant view on shifting cultivating as a haphazard, destructive, and primitive way of making a living” (Nazarea 2006). If Clifford Geertz underlined anthropology’s work of “understanding others’ understanding”, ethnoecology rests on the imperative that anthropological inquiry must increasingly seek to understand local understanding (the so-called native point of view) about a realm of experience. This includes systematically documenting and analysing folk classification and paradigms pertaining to plants, animals, color,weather, soils, water, illness and the human body until “only the most incorrigible remain unimpressed by the logic, complexity and sophistication of local knowledge” (Nazarea 2006).

Ethnoecology springs from the cognitive approach of studying peoples’ conception of events and objects, asserting that “culture is composed of logical rules that are based on ideas that can be accessed in the mind.”[4] This focus on the interaction between the society/culture and the mind seeks to understand and explain essential components of human social behavior.  The concept of a “Native Science” is also related to the understanding of the role of the environment intertwined with the meaning/s humans place upon their lives.

Linguistics, or the study of language, is integral to ethnoecology. Understanding the language and the native people’s linguistic system is one method to understand a native people’s system of knowledge of organization. Not only is there categorization for things pertaining to nature and culture thought language, but more importantly and complex is the relationship between environment and culture. Ethnoecology looks at the intricacies of the connection between culture and its surrounding environment.

This system of understanding local people’s understanding takes into account the social and cultural embeddedness of knowledge, technologies and practices inherent to natural resource management and “recognizes the plurality of forms of knowledge, world views and the ethical values connected to them within different social and cultural groups”. We take for example the T’boli’s complex system of classifying rice according to their color, size and shape of the kernels. Halay is the generic term for unhusked rice but more specific upland varieties abound in their language: éfél (small white kernels inside a mottled black and yellow husk resembling the color of the éfél ‘bumblebee’), kedegsan (medium-sized white kernels inside a yellowish-colored husk), alì (long, medium sized white kernels inside a dark red husk) or the sendangan (large, stubby kernels inside a yellowish-colored husk covered with tiny thistles).[5]

This unique (particular to a given group) system of classifying their material and social universe in turn, according to ethnoecology, becomes a means of gaining insight not only into the nature of man but also into the nature of culture.

Traditional Domain of the T’boli S’bu

The T’boli, also known as Tboli, Tiboli and Tagabili, are indigenous peoples of Mindanao concentrated in South Cotabato where the southwest coast range and the Cotabato mountains merge to form the Tiruray highlands, in an area circumscribed by the towns of Surallah, Polomolok Maitum and Kiamba. As settlers from other Philippine islands arrived, the T’boli gradually withdrew to the mountain slopes and lived in scattered villages. Their cultural heartland lies in the highland lake complex of Sebu, Seloton, and Lahit. Lake Holon in Mt. Melibengoy (formerly Lake Maughan of Mt. Parker) in T’boli municipality, South Cotabato is also an important body of water in the T’boli traditional territory.

The T’boli are usually divided into the coastal-dwelling peoples, the T’boli Mohin of Maitum, Kiamba and Maasim, and the mountain-dwelling T’boli S’bu of the municipalities of T’boli and Lake Sebu, all in South Cotabato, Philippines.

The T’boli S’bu are mostly located in the municipality of Lake Sebu in the Province of South Cotabato. It is approximately 40 kilometers away from Koronadal, the provincial capital of South Cotabato. Lake Sebu is approximately 6 hours away from Cotabato City, the Regional center of Region XII. It is bounded on the North by the Municipality of Surallah; on the Southwest by the Municipality of Kiamba and Maitum; in the East by the Municipality of T’boli and in the West by Palimbang of the Province of Sultan Kudarat. It is located at 6”10” N Latitude and 124”44”E Longitude.

The Total area of Lake Sebu is 89,138 hectares or approximately 11.59% of the total land of South Cotabato. Its biggest barangay is Ned with 41,247 hectares or 46.3 % of the Municipality. The smallest barangay is Lahit with only 528 hectares or 0.6% of the municipality’s land area. (Socioeconomic Profile of Lake Sebu 2010)

The T’boli and Ubo Ancestral domain cover a total area of 39,852 hectares or 44.70% of Lake Sebu, including 18 barangay out of 19 Barangays, namely: Hanoon, Lower Maculan, Upper Maculan, Halilan, Denlag, Lamcade, Klubi, Lamdalag, Lamlahak, T’konel, Seloton, Poblacion, Lahit, Talisay, Bacdulong, Lamfugon, Tasiman and Luhib. The only barangay outside the domain is baranggay Ned. The largest portion of the domain, which is 20%, is within Barangay Lamfugon, Barangay Lamlahak and Tasiman equally covering 12% each, T’konel, Lamdalag and Klubi, 10% each. Upper Maculan 4%, Lower Maculaan, Hanoon and Lamcade 3% each, Luhib, Halilan and Poblacion 2% each. The barangays with the smallest land area are Seloton, Lahit, Bacdulong 1% each.

The climate of Lake Sebu belongs to the Fourth type where rainfall is evenly distributed throughout the year. Its temperature is relatively cool like that of Baguio City. The dry season usually falls during the month of March to April. Significantly, however, showers usually occur during the afternoons between the month of February and May.

Lake Sebu has a rugged terrain. It is surrounded by mountain ranges, including Daguma and Talihik along its eastern portion, Mt. Busa in the south-eastern portion with an elevation of 2,064 meters; Pitot Kalabao Peak along the central portion with an elevation of 1,6000 meters and Mt. Talili in the eastern portion with an elevation of 1,410 meters. Barangay Poblacion of Lake Sebu itself is estimated to be 700 meters above sea level.

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. 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. (Allah Valley Landscape Development Alliance 2007)

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). (Allah Valley Landscape Development Alliance 2007)

The 3 lakes of Sebu, Seloton and Lahit (all part of the Allah Valley Watershed) 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 Kefo-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.

Agricultural Practices of the T’boli in Klubi: Blotik Éhék (Star of the Sharpening Stone) and the Fu (Spirit Owners)

The study is set in Barangay Klubi, Lake Sebu. The topography of Brgy. Klubi is hilly to steep to very steep (30% – up slope range). One would easily notice that there is considerable forest loss due to conversion of forest land to agricultural purposes. Going up from Korononadal City, capital of South Cotabato, to Lake Sebu, it is plain to see that many areas have been converted to rice and corn farms. Surallah, an important trading center between Lake Sebu and Koronadal, is considered a rice granary because of its wide valleys planted with rice, corn and other products. Surallah is predominantly inhabited by settlers from the Visayan islands, mostly Ilonggo, and as a matter of fact, the T’boli of Lake Sebu have to learn the Ilonggo language for them to be able to communicate with the settlers (most of them merchants) and for them to study in schools (most teachers are Ilonggo-speaking).

Going up Barangay Klubi from the Poblacion of Lake Sebu, commuters will have to hire a habal-habal motorcycle for P50 and go up a steep dirt road. This makes it also hard for the farmers who have to transport their produce from their farms up and down the mountains and explains why they opt to plant corn and rice instead of vegetables, as vegetables will not be able to stay fresh in this arduous trek down the mountain-farms.

Houses in Klubi are set in a compound of 1 family, usually numbering more than 5 houses but not exceeding 10 in a compound. The Sulan Family’s compound (research partner) has 7 houses not including their grinding center, the LASIWWAI office and the gono bong (long house), currently used as a Designers’ House for the women weavers.

The following are the neighbors in the Sulan Compound:

  1. Sitio Malun
  2. Sharon Gumatao
  3. Rio Sulan
  4. Rey Sulan
  5. Jenita Eko
  6. Eko Sulan
  7. Stephen Bihan
  8. Semlon Landayong
  9. Rodrigo Lamdayong
  10. Waning Lugong
  11. Ugon Nalon
  12. Dima Abid
  13. Lendi Tinggal

All of the neighboring families are involved in farming, directly planting and harvesting or helping in the marketing of produce.

Another noticeable feature of Klubi is the abundant water flowing in creeks and springs. A few meters of digging a hole would already tap in the aquifer as in the case of the planned septic tank for the Day Care center that they had to abandon due to the restrictions of the elders. Some families’ compound has a fishpond fed by this underground aquifer or a spring. At this point, it is worthwhile to note how the T’bolis of Klubi believe in the fun (owner or spirit). Several fu are said to reside and own certain natural resources like water (‘el), abaca (kdungon), rice (halay), forests (dlag koyu), wild animals (Taha Kilang – or in some chants , Tud Bulul and Taha Kilang are the same), Lake Sebu (S’bu), mountains (bulul) and others. My host family’s fishpond is believed to be inhabited by one of these spirits. The patriarch Eko Sulan used to give offerings near the fishpond to appease this spirit due to the belief that it claims human victims, in some accident or another.

The farm of the Sulan family was divided equally (even among women) among the sisters and brothers. This farm is located in Sitio Datal Sbuyon, Barangay Klubi mostly hilly to steep. Datal Sbuyon is a 45-minute hike from Sitio Lamkua, Barangay Klubi. Facing south of the farm is the mountain of Te Tofuk, and facing east is Meli Botu. They get water for their farms from the spring Sboyun, named after the spirit/owner (fu) of the water that comes from the aquifers of Te Tofuk. It is believed, by the people interviewed, that this fu is fickle and is regularly appeased with demsu or offering. ‘Fickle’ because there are times when the springs become dry and the farmers have to look for another source of water, and also because of the belief that disrespecting fu sboyun will also cause illness to the farmers.

The soil within the forest areas is classified as undifferentiated mountain soil, which has no agricultural importance at present. Along the flat lands, the soil classification belongs to silty loam and sandy, which range from very good land to moderately good land for cultivation.[6]  Soil in the rice and corn farm is dry while the abaca farms are moist, dark humus shaded by tall trees. The T’boli also believe that the soil is owned by fu tonok (lit. owner of the earth). This general belief in the fu may point to the local people’s cognition that resources are not theirs to exploit but as something borrowed from the ‘owners’ hence the rituals of asking for permission to use those resources.

Land ownership is considered communal. The watershed, forests, river systems, farm and pasture lands are considered communal properties and therefore their use and conservation are the responsibility of the whole community. Lake Sebu is an ancestral domain with a Certificate of Ancestral Domain Claims (CADC) Nos. 003 and 004 facilitated through the Lake Sebu Ancestral Domain Claim Association (LASADCA). The 2 CADCS (CADC 003 for the Ubo tribes and CADC 004 for the T’boli tribes) have a total land area of 19,377 and 20,475 hectares respectively (Logong 2000). In the case of the Sulan family, their farms are in the ancestral domain claim and no title from the government has been issued to them. According to an interview, the farm lands were acquired through the uncle of the patriarch Eko Sulan. His own father was a hunter and had no hand for farming. It was Eko Sulan who first cultivated the land and then passed it on to his daughters and sons. Jelly Escarlote, a farmer who manages a farm in Datal Sboyun and Lamkadi talked about land ownership in an interview:

Yung sa amin, sa tatay ko mismo tapos namana niya na rin sa lolo namin… Ang pag-aari ng lupa ay depende sa sipag mo. Kung gaano ang sipag niya, yun na rin ang lupa na mapa-sakanya. At sa ngayon, dahil hindi pa ito napatituluhan, kasi ancestral domain, mabagal siguro ang pag-ano ng NCIP.  Kahit yung assessment nila, parang on the table pa lang. (6 May 2013, 2:33pm)

T’meba or slash-and-burn is done to clear forests in preparation for planting. This is usually done during the beginning of March. Before, they used to clear small patches of forests to plant rootcrops and transfer to other locations for the next planting cycle, but in contemporary time, they no longer practice this due mainly to decreasing availability of land and increasing number of families who owns land. Land ownership is through clearing and planting. If a person clears a forest and plants it, then that land would be his or hers. During the time of Eko Sulan’s father, they would move on to another land after harvesting and let the soil rest. T’meba is done in another area where they would plant again. But this time, they are using the same plot of land and never let it rest for the entire year. Eko Sulan said that because of this they have lesser and lesser harvest each year.

Farmers are both men and women, and starting from a very young age, children are exposed to the farm life. Traditionally, farming is the exclusive domain of the men, but in contemporary time, women are now helping and even owning their farms as in the case of Jelly Escarlote and Jenita Eko. In the case of Jenita Eko, she is the 2nd child from the 1st wife of Eko Sulan. According to her, because of her father’s frustrations of not having a son, she was brought up like one by her father and so was exposed to hunting, farming and other men’s activities, most interesting is her involvement in conflict mediation. Her father and is one of the mediators in the tribe or tau mugut kokum.  Bo-i Diwa (a celebrated tau mugut kokum) is the aunt of her mother.

Jelly Escarlote is a farmer and member of Lake Sebu Indigenous Women Weavers Association, Inc. (LASIWWAI). She is also a pastor of the Alliance Church in Klubi. In an interview, she was introduced to farming through her father who would bring her to their farm in Lamkadi and taught her through hands-on experience.

Bata pa ako, sumama na ako sa papa ko lalo na sa pagtatanim ng palay. Mga ano siguro ako, Grade 4, nagoobserve na ako kung paano magtanim ng palay at paano rin magtrabaho sa palayan. (6 May 2013)

The T’boli S’bu were described in ethnographies as hunting-gathering societies, with swidden farms, and not until recently did they plant rice, corn and other agricultural products. Several interviews suggest that the great grandfathers of the current generation (i.e. Jenita Eko and Eunice Sulan’s) are still exclusively planting rootcrops and hunting for their food. The generation of Eko Sulan may be the first farmers of rice and corn in the area.

Planting may be considered organic, although there are already instances when they have to use insecticides. Jelly reasoned that when adjacent farms use insecticides, pests would transfer to their own farm giving them no choice but to also use insecticides. As much as possible, Jelly shared, they never use synthetic insecticides. Traditional organic means of killing insects include placing fak binuten (frog with warts, i.e. Hawaiian frog) in the farms to eat the insects, and wong (spiders) are also left to make their webs in the farm to eat insects.

Another method is to create boundaries of bamboo forests in between corn/rice and the abaca farms. The bamboos serve as natural screens for flying insects that might bring diseases from the corn to the abaca or vice versa. Madre de cacao (Gliricidia sepium) bark is also used as insecticide by soaking it for 3 days then mixing with chili pepper (capsicum frutescens) and detergent powder. This is then sprayed to the corns to kill the worms that eat the corn stalks. In an interview with Eko Sulan, he said that there were no rat infestations before because they used to eat the field mice by setting different traps in the farm. He shared that when migrants increasingly brought in their different varieties of corn and rice, the diseases and pests have also increased

Melem éhék is a ritual done to call for rain. A sharpening stone is placed in the river and is said to call for rain within a few days. The symbolization, according to Jelly Escarlote, is that a sharpening stone always feels cool and it becomes wet when being used. The coolness and the wetness symbolize rain. The person making this ritual must bathe several times every day until the rain comes. Jelly shared that when she went to a place in CARAGA, Mindanao, there was also a similar ritual done by the family who housed them. A sharpening stone was placed in the river and then placed at the edge of the roof.

Several plants are planted in the gardens of the Sulan compound. This include: taro, garlic, malabar spinach (alugbati, Basella alba), Chinese cabbage (Brassica rapa), cabbage (Brassica oleracea), cassava, eggplant, okra and sweet potato. While crops planted in the Datal Sboyun farm are: corn (sweet corn variety, Zea mays), upland rice (different varieties) and abaca.

The following are varieties of upland rice cultivated by the T’boli (Awed, et al 2004):

halay – unhusked rice, generic

halay awot – (a Visayan variety) short, round, white kernels, matures early

halay blabud – brown, semi-round, large kernels

halay blibóy – white, elongated kernels

halay blinow – smallest, white kernels

halay blogo – large kernels, nice for making puffed rice

halay fut – striped skinned, white kernels and heavy

halay hegna/hlóng – a variety of very fast growth

halay hulô gunù – red skinned, white kernels

halay kambing – brown skinned, whiskered, white kernels

halay kbahù – red skinned, small, white kernels

halay kmagi – red skinned, elongated, white kernels

halay kmamang – white skin and kernels, heads are scattered instead of in clusters

halay nadal – yellow skinned, white kernels

halay nongul – any kind of rice that is not glutinous

halay óngô – very small, white kernels

halay sendangan – large, yellow skinned with fuzz, brown kernels, very good for soup

halay sgandal – striped skinned, long, white kernels

halay swani – yellow, small, elongated skinned, white kernels

halay teng – large, elongated, black skinned, white kernels

halay tugom – very small, short, brown skinned, white kernels

hulut asam – black and white striped skin, red kernels, very small, glutinous

hulut balut – striped skinned, red kernels, glutinous kernels

hulut dlong – brown, large variety, red, glutinous

hulut koti – dark skinned, black, glutinous kernels

hulut wak – glutinous, dark purple skin and kernels

Animals domesticated by the T’boli in Klubi: dogs, cats, carabaos, cows, chickens, horses, ducks, goats and turkeys.

The following are the harvesting and planting implements of the T’boli in Klubi:

Alab/galab ­– sickle

Asay – hatchet

Badung – bolo with a curved, wide blade

Bakbak – hammer

Bangkung – work bolo

Beyung – long-handled axe

Blis – sharpened piece of bamboo used for harvesting corn

Dadu – plow

Dulis – scraper or knife used to scrape the burned hair off a pig or deer hide

Dwél – prybar

Egel – sharpened stick used for making holes in the ground when planting corn

Ehek – dibble stick, a pointed stick used to dig holes for planting rice

Ehek tefak – dibble-stick with a noise maker on the top so that it makes a clapping sound as the holes are made

Éhék –  sharpening stone

Fala – shovel

Fat dangaw – four-handspan long bolo used in bartering at weddings.

Fiku – pickaxe

Gbut – long work bolo, but accidentally broken off, with about one-fourth left at the base

Get – handsaw

Hokol – short wide-bladed bolo

Hotuk – hatchet or axe of the T’boli before World War II

Kadas – harrow used in field work

Kbahù – small all-purpose knife used by men

Kdang – type of work bolo

Kleng huhed – fancy knife (bolo/kris)

Klo – weeding tool

Klut – saw-toothed piece of rounded metal used for scraping and grating coconut out of the shell

Kongò – large bolo having a curved end

Lebaha – razor blade

Legadaw – sickle

Legadì – file

Lendasan – anvil

Lenggaman – rice harvesting knife

Limbas – iron file used to sharpen metal

Lumak – scabbard

Okol – digging stick

Sanggut – hoe with a pointed blade

Sokul – hoe

Sudeng – kris, a dagger with a serpentine blade used for trading between chiefs and worn by the bridegroom at weddings

Suk – bolo, generic

Tabas – bolo with a long curved blade

Tahù – blade of an abaca stripper

Tefek – largest work bolo

Teksì – tool (knife) used to strip abaca from the plant

Tiba – bolo used for cutting tall grass

Tók – bolo with a long blade

Tumba – large, thin, wide sharp bolo

The T’boli in Klubi uses the the phases of the moon, positions of stars and directions of sunrise, sunset, mooonrise and moonset to guide them in planting and harvesting.

Awed, et al described the phases of the moon in relation to rice planting:

This is specifically for the months of March sélél  and April, tdanan hotuk, the months for rice planting.

nengel ohu – it’s in the ground, can’t be seen. New Moon.

uluk lanab – it appears just above the ocean as large as a wild pig’s tusk. New Moon.

sebwól tikung – it is one handspanc above the ocean, red in appearance.

lulón klembew – it appears over the tops of the mountains.

nù lem léhéken – it appears halfways between earth and sky. Crescent. (Poor harvest if planted at this phase.)

slafin – it appears at the highest point of the sky. First Quarter. (Excellent harvest if planted at this phase, when the moon and blotik ehek ‘star for planting’ are in direct line, one above the other).

deng semfóyón – it has just passed the sky’s highest point.

stileng – it is halfway down the sky (by daylight reckoning), beginning to be large. Gibbous. (Poor harvest if planted at this phase, because the moon and the blotik ehek have passed each other).

mangu ­– becoming larger. (Not good to plant at this phase).

saif – Usually the best time for planting. Last Quarter.

tngel – Full moon.

kbit – still very large.

sotu knifuhen – ‘first night with a (time of) darkness’ before moon comes up.

lewu knifuhen – ‘second night with a (time of) darkness’ before moon comes up.

tlu knifuhen – ‘third night with a (time of) darkness’ before moon comes up.

limu knifuhen – ‘fifth night with a (time of) darkness’ before moon comes up, known as kifu lóbô ‘night of the wild things’ as animals, snakes. (Good harvest only if the owners themselves do the planting).

nem knifuhen – ‘sixth night with a (time of) darkness’ before moon comes up, known as kifu likò ‘night of being afraid’ (because the darkness is so intense). [According to Jenita Eko, it is the ‘night of being afraid’ because the T’boli believe that many bad things happen during this night, most especially ‘robbery resulting to homicide’ committed by the Ubo tribe.

hitu knifuhen – ‘seventh night with a (time of) darkness’ before moon comes up, known as tanay ketfesen or tfes udì. (Good harvest if planted at this phase).

wolu knifuhen – ‘eight night with a (time of) darkness’ before moon comes up, known as tfes sumy or tfes bong. (Good harvest is planted at this phase).

syóm knifuhen – ‘ninth night with a (time of) darkness’ before moon comes up, known as yewen bong; half of the moon is seen. Third/Last Quarter.

sfolò knifuhen tenth night with a (time of) darkness’ before moon comes up, known as yewen udì; only a small part of moon is seen. Crescent.

sudù kdaw – Moon is no longer seen it sets the same time the sun comes up. New Moon.

limu butengen mbut bulón glimun ­ – ‘five nights until the fifth month starts (i.e. May 1, the last chance to plant rice).

sélél – month of March

stileng – month of July

tdanan hotuk bulón – the dry season, usually from the last week of February through March, after the field has been cleared while waiting for it to be dry enough to be burned (lit. time of resting).

In an interview with Eko Sulan, he shared that they should only plant banana when it’s a full moon and when the moon rises from the east. Rice and corn are planted during the full moons of March and April. Eko Sulan explained that when the moon rises from the ‘sea’ (this was explained as a metaphor for sea of mountains surrounding Klubi) or geographic west, accompanied by the star blotik éhék while it rises, is the proper time to plant rice and corn because the earth will be dry (hence no worms) and maya birds will not eat the corn and rice.

The star blotik éhék literally means the ‘star of the sharpening stone’. It is a celestial marker for T’boli agriculture not unlike the star Sirius in ancient Egyptian agriculture that marks the annual flooding of the Nile River. Éhék is the stone used to sharpen knives, tok or sudeng and other implements. Whetstones or water stones are hard rocks, and according to Eko Sulan, are also very hard to find. This star’s name, marking the agricultural planting season, may also be interpreted as preparing the farming tools for the coming planting season. When this star rises together with the moon, as if riding on the moon’s back, then that month is the lunar month for March-April.

Lake Sebu Municipality is a Type IV climate according to the standards and categories of the the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) which is characterized by “a more or less evenly distributed rainfall througout the year.” Climate data for a representative city, General Santos City[7], show that the lowest recorded precipitation in a year is during the months of March and April, 1.6 and 1.9 inches respectively. Annual average precipitation is 42.2 inches, with June having the highest average precipitation at 4.8 inches. This scientific data validates the practice of planting during the dry season to avert pests that multiply during the rainy season.

Another detail here: Eko Sulan added that the blotik éhék must not be flickering so much because this will also mean a bad harvest. Stellar scintillation is caused by “small-scale fluctuations in air density related to temperature gradients”[8]. This marker shared by Eko Sulan is part of the compendium of traditional knowledge on agriculture that, seen through the lenses of western, modern science, considers atmospheric conditions that are essential to a good harvest.

One of the striking observations during the interviews and fieldwork in Klubi was the increasing unreliability of these astronomical markers in the agricultural practices of the T’boli. Jelly Escarlote put it succinctly:

Noon, sinasabi nila, oh buwan ng Marso, buwan ng Abril, kahit hindi mo tingnan ang araw, kahit hindi mo tingnan kung saan siya magsikat o ano, basta yan na buwan, mabilang ng mga matatanda, yan ang buwan na maganda ang harvest, maganda ang lahat ng mga produkto, pero sa ngayon dahil sa pagbabago ng panahon, mahirapan na kami. Kasi hindi mo na ma-ano, hindi mo na mabibilang sa kalendaryo na ito pagmag-tanim ako ngayon, bilangin ko lang hanggang, isa, dalawa hanggang pitong araw, hindi pa yan tutubo ang mga damo, pero sa ngayon kahit ilang araw lang maya-maya uulan nanaman. So malaking epekto, nahihirapan kaming mag-timing sa pagtatanim ngayon. Kung minsan, ano na lang, sinusunod pa rin namin ang mga buwan na sinasabi ng mga matatanda na ganito, maganda ang pagtanim, pero ang problema, may deperensya talaga sa produkto tapos, sa tayo ng mga halaman. Kagaya nito (points to the corn field),  ito sinunod namin ang buwan ng pagtatanim ng mais dito, pero tingnan mo, kinain ng mga uod. Kaya kita mo doon sa baba, hindi nalinisan ng mabuti, kasi kung maulan doon lalabas yung uuod. Ulan tapos mainit nanaman, biglang uulan, biglang iinit. Yun lalabas yung mga uod. (6 May 2013, 2:33pm)

Erratic weather systems have been blamed by the informants for the confusions in the planting calendar. Although the stars, moon, sun and mountains are still there to tell them when to plant, the weather tells a different story. When the elders tell them that it is the right time to plant, as it is the dry season, it suddenly rains and brings with it pests that eats the newly planted corn stalks. In a Focus Group Discussion conducted on 30 March 2013 in Klubi, several of the elders answered that they will not change their planting calendar believing that the seasons will go back to normal. They shared the story of the long drought experience by the generation of Eko Sulan’s grandfather when there was no rain for months and all their crops failed. They said that eventually the rains came and the seasons ‘normalized’. This attitude may not be shared by all the farmers in Klubi, many of whom are no longer following the traditional methods of planting, but the elders are still thinking along these lines of ‘it will get better soon’.

One sees in these events the dilemma of following the old, static cultural system (illustrated here as the traditional knowledge in agriculture) in the face of a very dynamic natural system, but certainly any researcher must take into consideration the capabilities of a society to adapt and undertake “actions necessary to maintain the capacity to deal with future change or perturbations to a social-ecological system without undergoing significant changes in function, structural identity, or feedbacks of that system while maintaining the option to develop” (Nelson, Adger, and Brown 2007). Indeed, ethnographies of many different indigenous groups reveal their resilience in the face of adversities, human or environmental. But here, one is reminded of the synergy of a resilient ecosystem reinforcing the resilience of the social system (and vice versa). Indigenous place-based resilience requires understanding the traditions and sustained relationships with the land. Relationships are embedded in the land. This becomes tied to the personal identity, spiritual development of people, and their overall relationships with others. Can maintenance of community relationships be part of indigenous resilience? How can this be realized when place-based traditions are already being compromised by climatic perturbations? How can this relationship to the land be guaranteed when most are already leaving the mountains for the cities? Can the T’boli of Klubi be resilient to anthropogenic climate change, compounded by other “existing challenges, including political and economic marginalization, land and resource encroachments, human rights violations and discrimination?

The now unreliable blotik éhék may have a stark future as just another star against the millions twinkling in the night sky of the month of sélél. No one knows for sure, if the blotik riding the moon of a cloudless night, will still call the T’boli to prepare the okol, fiku or the tok, the sharpening stone eager in a dark corner.


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

Awed S., Underwood L., and Van Wynen V. 2004. T’boli-English Dictionary. Manila: Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Crate, S. Gone the Bull of Winter? Contemplating Climate Change’s Cultural Implications in Northeastern Siberia, Russia, In Anthropology and Climate Change, eds. Crate, S., and Nuttal, M. California: Left Coast Press.  2009.

Logong D. L. 2000. Experiences and Challenges of the Indigenour People in Co-managing Forest Resources: The Lake Sebu Ancestral Domain Community Association, In Decentralization and Devolution of Forest Management in Asia and the Pacific, eds. Enters, T., Durst, P. B., and M. Victor. RECOFTC Report N. 18 and RAP Publication 2000/1. Bangkok, Thailand.

Nazarea, V. The Environment in Anthropology: A Reader in Ecology, Culture and Sustainable Living, eds. Haenn, N. and Wilk, R. New York: New York University Press. 2005.

Nelson, D. R., W. N. Adger, and K. Brown. 2007. Adaptation to environmental change: Contributions of a resilience framework. Annual Review of Environment and Resources 32 (11): 113.

Office of the Municipal Planning and Development Coordinator of Lake Sebu, South Cotabato. Lake Sebu Socioeconomic Profile 2010.

Simova, B., Robertson, T., and Beasley, D. 2012. Cognitive Anthropology,, retrieved August 30, 2012.

Strauss, S. Global Models, Local Risks: Responding to Climate Change in the Swiss Alps, In Anthropology and Climate Change, eds. Crate, S., and Nuttal, M. California: Left Coast Press.  2009.

Weatherbase. General Santos, Philippines., retrieved on 27 May 2013.

Wikipedia. Lake Sebu., retrieved August 24, 2012.

Wikipedia. Scintillation., retrieved on 27 May 2013.

[1] See Gone the Bull of Winter? Contemplating Climate Change’s Cultural Implications in Northeastern Siberia, Russia.

[2] See Global Models, Local Risks: Responding to Climate Change in the Swiss Alps.

[3] Interview with Municipal Planning and Development Coordinator dated May 2, 2013.

[4] Bobby Simova, Tara Robertson and Duke Beasley, Cognitive Anthropology,, retrieved August 30, 2012.

[5] Silin Awed et. al, “T’boli-English Dictionary” as validated by Jelly Escarlote in an interview dated May 5, 2013.

[6] Ibid.

[7] -Santos-Philippines, retrieved on 27 May 2013.

[8] Scintillation., retrieved on 27 May 2013.

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.

In Kutawato, Unveiling the Iranun Tarsila

I had the unexpected good fortune to join a team doing a Focus Group Discussion on “Understanding the Iranun Tarsila as a Tool in Conflict Resolution in Mindanao”. This was organized by the Al Qalam Institute for Islamic Identities and Dialogue in Southeast Asia (Ateneo de Davao University) in Cotabato City last Sunday, 20 January 2013. Unexpected because I never thought that it would be both a provocative meeting and a once-in-a-lifetime chance to be around the descendants of the proud Sultanates in Mindanao, who shared their life stories, their ancestors’ struggles and the technicalities of genealogical recording. It was also my first time to visit Cotabato City and there were a lot of prejudices that I brought with me like an invisible extra satchel over my shoulders. But already upon entering the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) I contentedly ticked away my biases and found communities thriving, proud of their heritage and trying to pick themselves up after bloody years of conflict.

For the first timer, one still feels a palpable air of unease and an apprehension on what the new Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro might bring to their communities and their lives, yet there is also a pervading hope that life will be normal, time to go back to their farms and time to fight the age-old battle of taming the unpredictable moods of the Pulangi River. I felt that Cotabato is a city with deep wounds that go as deep as the history of our country and even deeper – going back to pre-Hispanic Mindanao, the Sri Vijayan and Majapahit empires in Indonesia. Its scars can be seen running deep in worried eyes, in forehead furrows, the scurry and hurry of getting home after dark, the military (or otherwise) checkpoints that dot the city, or in a stranger’s friendly advice to the tourist to go home after 3 in the afternoon.

Our group stayed at the Hotel Rio in Magallanes Street, where the FGD also took place. My first shock was that the name of the street was a Spanish conquistador right in the city center of Moroland, in the center of colonial resistance in Mindanao. Or maybe I read it differently. It may perhaps stand as an unwitting trophy in the sense that Magellan was fallen, supposedly, by a Moro-Tausug in the name of Lapu-Lapu/Maas Iliji/Maas Pulun as the Tausugs in Basilan and Sulu would proudly tell you. But more scholarly works are needed to prove this, even if it exists only in oral narratives, intellectual propriety insists that it must not be assumed fictitious. Indeed the street’s name was a fitting welcome to my first Cotabato experience!

The FGD team was composed of Prof. Yusuf Morales (as moderator), Michelle David (documenter), Nikki Ayubo (photographer), myself as documenter and headed by Al Qalam’s director, Datu Mussolini Lidasan. It was attended by Mohammad Lidasan, Amerul Umbra Nasser Lidasan, Bajunaid Saban, Abbas Addulkair and Datu Alamada.

The FGD aimed at probing the links, bloodlines and interconnectedness of the people through the use of the tarsila and further focused on the tarsila as a tool in conflict resolution. The following were the general questions that the FGD tried to answer:

  1. Who are the people knowledgeable in the Iranun Tarsila? What are their characteristics, traits and other qualifications?
  2. Aside from the mentioned uses of tarsila, what are its purposes and significance in the people today?
  3. How does tarsila help in resolving conflict?
  4. What are the indigenous modes of conflict resolution? How are they applied in the community?
  5. How significant is the tarsila in the lives of the Iranun people?

The study focused on the Iranun people whose traditional domain are the coastal towns of Datu Blah Sinsuat, Sultan Mastura, Sultan Kudarat, Parang, Matanog (municipalities under the province of Maguindanao), and the towns of Malabang, Balabagan, Sultan Gumander (municipalities under Lanao del Sur). These coastal-living people are generally called Iragaten. The Idalemen, on the other hand, or the upland people traditionally reside in the present towns of Buldon and Barira (parts of Maguindanao), Pigcawayan, Alamada, Banisilan (parts of Cotabato), and Wao, Bumbaran, and Butig (parts of Lanao del Sur).

The Iranun gained infamy because of their maritime raiding and assaults on villages and coastal dwellers as explicated by James Warren in his book “Iranun and Balangingi: Globalization, Maritime Raiding and the Birth of Ethnicity”. Warren described the Iranun as having “a fearsome reputation in an era of extensive world commerce and economic growth between the West and China” and that the name Lanun “struck fear into the hearts and minds of riverine and coastal populations across Southeast Asia two centuries ago.”

One of the participants asserted that the Iranun were the ancestors of the Maguindanao and other Islamized groups in Mindanao and that their tarsila proves that the royal houses of the Maguindanao is a direct line of the Iranun sultans and chieftains. He claimed that the primogenitors of both the Islamized ethnolinguistic groups and the non-Islamized Manobo, Tiruray, etc. named Mamalu and Tabunaway were in fact Iranun. There are still contentions on the Mamalu and Tabunaway story as there are discrepancies in the oral narratives of different groups. Some claim that Shariff Kabunsuan married Tabunaway, while others claim that Mamalu and Tabunaway were Manobo brothers before Tabunaway was Islamized, and other variants. What is important is the assertion of the pre-Islamic roots of these groups and their interconnected histories. In fact, the tarsila of the Iranun points to the house of Maharaja Tabunaway as the earliest line of the sultans of Maguindanao, while the Dulangan Manobo, in particular, traces their descent to Mamalu.

The tarsila is a genealogical record/narration of the Iranun. Other Islamized groups have their own tarsilas but the FGD focused on the Iranun tarsila. Amerul Nasser Lidasan shared that it has two kinds: the Tisa and the Sitta. The Tisa is the genealogical record of the nine shariffs, descendants of the Prophet Muhammad through his daughter Fatima, who came out of Meccah in Saudi Arabia to spread Islam and its tenets. The Tisa tarsila points all the way up to the Prophet Muhammed and his ascendants all the way to Adam. The Sitta tarsila on the other hand recounts the ancestors and descendants of Shariff Kabunsuan who himself is a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammed. The Sitta Tarsila is the basis of all genealogical lines of the Sultanates of Maguindanao and Sulu. An alternative name to the tarsila is silsilah which is Arabic for ‘chain’ or ‘link’.

The Iranun uses the tarsila not only as a simple record of ascendants, descendants and kinship, but also as a tool to identify the line of the sultans and to take records of his bloodline. In Iranun society there is a council of elders called the ‘Pat – a Polaos’ or the ‘Four Pillars’ who uses the tarsila to trace candidates for the Sultan of Maguindanao and enthrone in a special ceremony, the rightful Sultan that they deem fits into the 4 attributes of a Sultan, namely:

  • antawan (wealth)
  • nunawan (lineage)
  • bangsawan (bloodline)
  • rupawan (charisma)
  • and in the case of a tie, ilmawan (intelligence).

Aside from identifying the Sultan’s bloodline, the tarsila is also the story of the Iranun people – of how the Datuship of Manila and Tondo were once connected to their own political and genealogical system. The Sultanates of Brunei, Makassar and Sulawesi can also find common ancestors in the Maguindanao houses most probably from intermarriages resulting from strategic alliances.

The FGD also proved that the tarsila is a tool used by the Iranun in conflict resolution. In cases of rido or clan wars, for example, they resort to the tarsila in finding a common kin who will serve as the mediator for the feuding families. They will then recite the tarsila in a religious ritual that involves the chanting (dhikr/dikil) of Quranic verses.

The following may be a rough guide to how conflicts are resolved:

  • A conflict arises
  • Elders investigate the conflict
  • Identification of the reason for the conflict
  • Families get a mediator, usually an elder datu who is a common kin
  • The Mediator then resolves the conflict.

The tarsila is also used in funerals and weddings to establish lineage. Often in funerals, an elder will recite the tarsila of the deceased to reconnect him/her to the ancient lines of heroes, sultans, and the Prophet Muhammed himself. The participants shared that the tarsila can be considered as a sacred document that contains the names of the deceased and that prayers are said before opening a tarsila, also as respect to the lineage of the Prophet. In weddings, the tarsila of the bride and the groom are recited from the bride all the way to the common ancestors and down to the groom’s ancestors to form a link, symbolic of a singular family that binds the ties of the wedded couple.

More than a genealogical record, the tarsila, as shared by the participants, is also a map of the extent of Islamic influence in the world from Saudi Arabia, to Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines, proving the linkages of different peoples and the unity of the human race through a religion that teaches surrender to one God, and compassion to mankind, among others.

In the middle of the FGD, we were showed a tarsila and some documents signed by the Pat-a Polaos validating the enthronement of a Sultan. The tarsila was written in a long parchment paper with the different houses signified by different colors. The tarsila included the royal lines of the Kingdoms of Manila, Tondo, and Brunei, and the early Sultanates of the Maharaja Tabunaway, Silungan, Buayan and Maguindanao – all following a direct line from the Prophet Muhammed. I was surprised to find out that succeeding sultans were not necessarily the sons of the previous sultan. They told us that the Pat-a Polaos consults the tarsila and looks for possible candidates in all the branches of the other houses. They then look for the 5 attributes of a sultan from each candidate. This was, they said, to ensure that despotism does not happen and that power is not contained in a single family. Technically they are still one big family with a common ancestor, but the distance from this common ancestor makes each family a single house. There are several technical notes in choosing the sultan and I deem that it must be elucidated on a separate paper to give it its due detail.

It is both sad and disappointing, as the participants shared, that the tarsilas of the Iranuns are now a rarity because of the past “revolutions” in Mindanao. The elders were either killed or too pre-occupied with surviving the Moro wars that the tarsila were either forgotten, lost, or failed to be transmitted to the next generation. The original tarsilas were committed to writing in barks of wood or animal skin and later on to scrolls of paper that were easily damaged. The participants also shared that the tarsila keepers of ancient time were given certain privileges, one of them is residence in the torogan or the Sultan’s house, implying the importance of the records keeper. They jealously kept the tarsila in secrecy, fearing forgery from people who desired to claim the sultanate or to con their way to the royal houses.

At the end of the FGD, someone told me that the Luzon and Visayan people lost something when they gained their Spanish surnames. While listening to those people who could recount their ancestors up to Adam himself, I felt like something was indeed missing, and that the oldest ancestor I could name was only my great-great grandmother on my mother’s side.

How wonderful it would be if we could only pick up the pieces of our lost histories, draw the lines of my mother and my father, connected to your great grandfather, discover a common ancestor, and see them grow in a giant World Tree rooted in a consciousness of brotherly and sisterly love for one and all.

Our trip to the ancient city of Kutawato, bastion of pirates, slave raiders, missionaries and warriors, was an invitation to a deeper understanding of Muslims in Mindanao, the pervading conflict in the area and a reflexive journey towards a people’s identity and my own.

Unveiling the tarsila, we discover that we are all cousins dancing under the watchful eye of God.

[This article is not the official document of the Focus Group Discussion conducted by the Al Qalam Institute. Result of the FGD will be made public after completion of the research.]