Three Stories of Drought and an Analysis

Here, instead of a linear narrative, I follow the unrestrained telling of my informants, which skips back and forth in time, and blends the past and present together. These are three narratives from Mâ Ungkal, Wè Jenita, and Mâ Eko that I collected on three different occasions. Mâ Ungkal’s testimony of a childhood disaster came from an informal interview, Wè Jenita’s was an exchange over morning coffee, and Mâ Eko’s was from a free-flowing conversation over Tanduay, the local rum.

Mâ Ungkal’s Story

Mâ Ungkal was about the same age as my late grandmother. I first saw him at the but bnek (Tboli planting ritual) that I attended in March of 2015. He told 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 of memories of friends and families in the long gone past. 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 first heard his stories at the but bnek ritual in 2015. Wè Jenita Eko was my translator. She translated everything I said, passing messages between me and Mâ Ungkal.

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, 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 about 5 meters from it before finally reaching the prized fleshy part of the tubers. He said that a single plant sustained them for a month. 

I was curious about his age. I tried 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. The soldiers only stayed for 5 days, he said, since they were on their way to the mohin bong, or sea, of Kiamba.

I told Ma Ungkal that I heard him tell the story of Sélél when we were at the but bnek ritual, l asked if he can expound on this. He explained that it is the name of a star used to determine the time of t’miba (fallow burning) and rice planting. He said that when it appears in the night sky, the fak tahu (edible frogs) would also appear, announcing t’miba. Sélél was 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 wishes to ascend to longit. 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, he will be the one who will tell them when to plant. He also left the people with the buli plant (lima beans), and said 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), since he was the man who invented it. When he ascended to heaven, he brought with him this wine. The old people say that when he throws out the last dregs of wine from his sokong (container), many people on earth would get sick.

We ended our conversation with this story of Sélél. 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 pictures of Mâ Ungkal and his family, we went back to Jenita’s house in Lëmkwa. On our way to Lëmkwa, 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 we must discover. (7 February 2017)

Wè Jenita’s Story

I am writing this from memory, and as often happens with memory, the borders of recollection are sometimes shrouded with the dark shadows of doubtful remembering. When this story was told by Wè Jenita, I had not the time to record the conversation and the narrated events may not follow the chronology in which they were narrated. In a sense, this is my story of her story.

I have just arrived in Klubi. I have not unpacked my bags yet, and they sit idly on the corner of the cottage where my hosts receive their guests. I was offered a cup of coffee by Jenita, freshly ground from the family’s wooden mortar. By this time, we have told so many personal and intimate stories to each other that we were no longer in a host-guest relationship. The relationship we shared was already that of a sister-brother bond. She asked to be called Jen, the honorific given to a sister or friend.

My mind was still reeling from the scenes of drought and misery that I saw going up to Klubi: the dry and parched vista from Davao to South Cotabato, hectares of farmlands made brown and idle, farmers protesting for food. I described these scenes to Jenita and later asked how the weather has been for the past months in Klubi. Wè Jen answered that it has not rained since last year, and many of the people are already afraid that if the drought continues, more will suffer.

Wè Jen then narrated how the elders came to her one day, worried that the rain had not fallen for months. They have not been able to plant rice, they told Jenita, and the corn they managed to plant have all dried up. “The radioman said that if this continues until September, we would all die.”

Wè Jen then told me that one of the elders who approached her recalled a question that I asked during a focus group discussion I conducted with them in 2013. “Do you remember that friend of yours from Ateneo? He asked us if we have ever experienced a drought here before. That night, we said that the last time it happened, it was our grandparents who experienced the long drought. But look what is happening now. Those who are school-educated must really know that things like this would come.” Jenita assured the elders that it was purely coincidental. I have to admit that this made me a little uncomfortable and even caused me to question the process I used that night when I conducted the FGD. Perhaps I asked the wrong question, consumed by an amateurish enthusiasm in the field? Perhaps my sporadic comings-and-goings in the community gave the wrong impression amongs the elders? How can I tell them that I am also uncertain of the future even with my formal education?

Wè Jen continued to talk about her conversation with the elders. One of the elders disclosed that he had already performed the melem éhék, a ritual to call the rain, where a sharpening stone or éhék is placed in the river or stream while offerings and supplications are given to the spirits and D’wata. The symbolization, according to Wè Jen, is that a sharpening stone always feels cool and becomes wet when used. The coolness and wetness of the stone symbolize rain. But the ritual, according to the elder, did not help in their predicament. The rain did not come.

The elders were worried. “This has never happened here before. The stream that runs from Datal Sboyun has dried up in many places, but flowing in others. It is a bad sign from the fu (owner) of the stream,” said one elder.

“It has only been a year after we revived the but bnek ritual, and the li-i (taboo) of the ritual is that we should continue doing it in every planting cycle. But how can we do it this year when it hasn’t rained sufficiently for our crops? Even if the upland rice does not require water irrigation, it still needs the usual morning rain coming from the mountains,” Wè Jen said. “Nice, my sister, tried to plant rice early this month. It was just in a small plot, but the seedlings just dried up. What a waste.”

My coffee has turned cold, and it was time for us to prepare lunch. “I was greeted by Klubi with this heavy news, but let us pray for the best,” I told Wè Jen, bringing the coffee mugs to the kitchen sink. “Don’t worry, we lumads are survivors,” she answered with a smile. But my heart was still heavy, and the land still parched.  (10 April 2016)

Mâ Eko’s Story

It was a cold night, fog has rolled down from the mountains, and we were huddled in the gono bong, the longhouse constructed for the women weavers in Klubi. The men were in one corner, while opposite them sat the women.

Mâ Eko spoke:

Noong araw, nagkaroon ng bagyo dito sa Klubi, walang natirang bahay. Ang mga tao noon nagbahay-bahay nalang muna sa kweba, para makaiwas sa lakas ng hangin.

Sa aming mga Tboli, ang palatandaan noon sa lakas ng hangin ay ang mga halamang-ugat, ang mga gabi, kamote at kamoteng kahoy, dahil kahit gaano kalakas ng hangin, di dapat yan natatanggal. Yung hangin noong bagyo, tinangay at dinala ang mga halamang-ugat sa Lake Seloton; Natanggal ang mga gabi. Ilang taon ito bago mag-1957. Walong araw na ganoon kalakas ang hangin.

Pagkatapos noong bagyo, walong buwan din ang tindi ng araw. Tagtuyo. Namatay ang lahat ng tanim sa loob ng walong buwan. Noong grabe ang tag-init, lahat ng mga baboy-ramo bumaba na rin sa patag, pinapatay ng mga tao para mabuhay sila at makain ang mga ito. Yung tribo, umasa sa mga baboy-ramo noong tagtuyo. Ni walang tubig, nag-iigib lamang sa Lake Siluton para makakuha ng tubig ang mga tao. Walang mga halamang-ugat, karne lang ang kinakain at wala nang iba pa. Umiiyak ang mga tao, humihingi ng tulong sa mga diwata. (29 March 2013)

(There was a time when a typhoon hit Klubi. The houses were decimated. The people lived temporarily in the caves to get away from the strong wind.

For us Tboli, one sign that the wind is indeed strong is to look at the rootcrops, the yam, the sweet potato, and the cassava. No matter how strong the winds are, these plants stay rooted. But during that typhoon, the rootcrops were even uprooted and blown away to Lake Seloton. This happened several years before 1957. The winds lasted for eight days.

After the typhoon, there was eight months of drought. All the plants died in eight months. During that drought, all the wild boars came down from the forests to the plains, and the people hunted them for food. The tribe subsisted on the wild boars. There was no water to drink here. We would go down to Lake Seloton to get water. There were no rootcrops, just the meat from the wild boars, nothing else. People were crying, pleading the spirits.)

Stories as Climate and Social Markers

Every place has a climate story to tell. A climate event like a slow-onset drought, as experienced by the Tboli in Lake Sebu from 2015 to 2016, will certainly be expressed in the narratives of the people who experienced it. The stories of Mâ Ungkal, Wè Jen, and Mâ Eko, are such personal intimations of different drought events in Klubi expressed in different modes of telling. Although these stories tell of different narrated events, each captures the richness and nuances of the experience, and accommodates the ambiguity and complexity of the teller’s situation in the multiplicity of meanings.

While quantitative models can paint the bigger picture of climate change, and provide estimates for the likely consequences of different future climatological scenarios, they are not very good at providing information about changes at the local level. In recent years, there has been an increasing realization that indigenous communities are a valuable source of this information. Most published reports on indigenous observations of climate changes have come from Arctic and coastal regions where the cooperation between scientists and indigenous peoples are strongest. However, it is not only in these regions that indigenous peoples are observing climate changes. Forest-dependent peoples and communities in forest fringes have also been feeling the impacts of climate change, as the stories of Mâ Ungkal, Wè Jen, and Mâ Eko prove.

Indigenous and other traditional peoples are only rarely considered in academic, policy, and public discourses on climate change despite the fact that they are, and continue to be, greatly impacted by impending changes. Their livelihoods depend on natural resources that are directly affected by climate change, and they often inhabit economically and politically marginal areas in diverse, but fragile ecosystems. Symptomatic of the neglect of indigenous peoples, the recently released Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report summary on climate change impacts makes only scarce mention of indigenous peoples. Only the indigenous communities of polar regions were featured in the report summary, and even then, they were depicted merely as helpless victims of changes beyond their control. Another Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on the mitigation of climate change does not consider the role of indigenous peoples. This view of indigenous peoples as passive and helpless at best, or obstructionist and destructive at worst, is not new. Its roots go back to colonial periods, and reoccurs in contemporary discussion of development, conservation, indigenous rights, and indigenous knowledge. In addition, indigenous peoples interpret and react to climate change impacts in creative ways, drawing on traditional knowledge, as well as new technologies, to find solutions, which may help lowland and coastal communities to cope with the impending changes.

Stories about climate crises that are shared among members of the communities are revelatory narratives in the sense that these stories reveal the uncertainties, fears, and assumptions of the people telling them. These stories also reveal their vulnerability and responses to these climate crises. The stories also contain the teller’s worldview, intertextualized and interwoven with the stories that exist within the teller’s specific culture. These stories are made unique by the content, style, and structure of the telling. In my re-told stories of Mâ Ungkal, Wè Jen, and Mâ Eko, their values, beliefs and attitudes are revealed when they harken back to past droughts, consult the experience and actions of their ancestors, and share among listeners their sentiments of uncertainties, or opinions in hurdling the present crisis, as when Mâ Eko recollects a typhoon and drought that he experienced when he was a child, or when Mâ Ungkal returns to mythic time to describe the traditional methods of planting.

Values, beliefs, and attitudes are not the only things revealed in these narratives. More prominent are the observable signs of climatic changes that are described in these stories. These phenological markers can be the appearance of certain birds, the mating of certain animals, or the flowering of certain plants. With climate change, indigenous peoples observe that many of these phenological events are occurring earlier, or decoupled from the season or weather that they used to indicate. In the story, for instance, of Mâ Ungkal, the planting season starts when the buli plants begin to bear fruit. Other signs, like the appearance of frogs, the specific phase of the moon, and the position of stars in reference to the mountains, also signal the Tboli planting season. Currently, however, these markers are seldom used by the Tboli due to the markers’ incongruence to the actual, and desired season that they signal, as will be shown in the following chapter.

The drought of 2015-2016 in Southern Mindanao was brought by an intense episode of El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), an irregularly periodical variation in winds and sea surface temperatures over the tropical eastern Pacific Ocean that affects much of the tropics and subtropics, including the Philippines. In its Drought/Dry Spell Outlook for end of March 2016, 19 provinces in the Philippines experienced drought due to the ENSO, which is defined by DOST-PAGASA as 3 consecutive months of way below normal rainfall condition (> 60% reduction in average rainfall). These provinces are Palawan in Luzon, Negros Oriental and Siquijor in the Visayas, and the provinces of Zamboanga del Norte, Zamboanga del Sur, Zamboanga Sibugay, Bukidnon, Lanao del Norte, Misamis Occidental, Davao del Sur, South Cotabato, North Cotabato, Sarangani, Sultan Kudarat, Basilan, Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Sulu, and Tawi-tawi in Mindanao.

Some of the people I asked in March and April of 2016, like Jelly Escarlote and Eunice Sulan,  described the overwhelming heat as “sakit sa panit” (heat causes stinging pain to the skin) or “mamaak ang init” (the heat is biting). From the story of Wè Jenita, the collective sentiment was of anxiety, a feeling of dread from the slow yet definite onslaught of drought. There was desperation from the accounts of the elders who talked to Jenita: “the stream dried up in some places, flowing in others…” It has never happened before, at least within the lifetimes of the elders.

They were referring to a stream that has its source in the mountains of Datal Sboyun, Datal, a flatland, and Sboyun being the name of the stream that cuts across the flatland. In some tracks of the stream, water seemed to continue flowing, and is seeped back into unseen crevices in the ground before they are fed again by water underground.

To some of the elders, this has a special significance because Sboyun is considered a benevolent fu (spirit or owner) that guards the source of drinking water and irrigation for the fields near the stream. Its unusual behavior during the drought of 2015-2016, and its cultural significance to the villagers of Klubi, would have been interpreted by some as an omen of worse events in the future. At the same time, it was also a measure of the severity of the drought they were experiencing. Anthony Oliver-Smith expounded on this notion of the multiplicity of meanings people attribute to a disaster, which can “fragment into different and conflicting sets of circumstances and interpretations according to the experience and identity of those affected.”

Oliver-Smith also notes the “multidimensionality of a disaster,” which discloses in their unfolding the “linkages and interpenetrations of natural forces or agents, power structures and social arrangements, and cultural values and belief systems.” One analysis of this notion is through the failed rituals that the elders performed.

More than the collective frustration from their vulnerable position, the failed rituals may also be read as the powerlessness of these men over the situation. Communing and negotiating with the spirits to bring rain is itself power, the capacity to be able to do something (from the latin potere, to be). The hope to gain agency over their environment is directly linked in faith. Ritualized symbolic practices before, during, and after disasters are thought to be “coping mechanisms which contribute to the social capacity of a community to cope with disasters.”  Yet here in the narratives of the elders, the powerlessness in rituals was politically and socially-crippling, and those who traditionally held the power to call the rain (a trope) and to give community relief (actual) have become impotent, themselves being victims of the disaster. This tear in the social fabric introduces to us the disruptions in the traditional social structure.

With the impotence of traditional leaders, other individuals and organizations filled in the lacuna in power. In Klubi, this was taken over by the Lake Sebu Indigenous Women Weavers Association, Inc. (LASIWWAI), a non-government organization headed by Wè Jenita Eko and Ms. Jelly Escarlote. During the drought brought by the 2015-2016 El Niño, LASIWWAI became the distributor of relief, in the form of credit, food, and access to government and non-government assistance. Through LASIWWAI, aid to the drought-stricken villagers was guaranteed by their organizational partners. Aid came in the form of project grants, food packs, and technical and technological assistance that included the construction of a solar drier from the Australian Embassy and a Kindergarten building from the Assisi Foundation, food packs from Century Tuna, Inc., and solar-powered lights from a Japanese donor, among others. This aid multiplied the social and political capital of LASIWWAI and the women who established and kept the organization running. In the village dynamics, LASIWWAI had become a wielder of power, with Jenita and Jelly playing central actors in a political re-structuring in Klubi. This did not happen overnight, of course. The works of the organization were already making headlong impacts in the lives of women and men in Klubi and other barangays of Lake Sebu even before the drought. Yet the onslaught of the El Niño, as a revelatory crisis, made their position in the community more eminent.

The rise of these women leaders also revealed the gender impasse in Klubi. The Tboli are considered in ethnographies as traditionally patriarchal, marked by an institutionalized male dominance over women and children in the family, and the subordination of women in society in general. Wé Jen would always insist on this injustice, saying that Tboli women do all the work in the house and in the farm. “Men only drink and chat, leaving all the work to us women,” she argued. Men do work, of course, but during my fieldwork in Klubi, especially during the planting and harvesting of upland rice, I noticed that most of the work were indeed done by the women. All phases of rice planting and harvesting, except for the actual tilling of the land, were done by women. Women, too, were often disadvantaged when men decide to divorce from an unhappy marriage. To expedite the process, they would often accuse their wives of adultery, and the burden of proving innocence lies with the woman.

But with the growing membership and influence of women’s group like the LASIWWAI, there is a new status for women as influential economic, political, and social actors. Many of the traditional gender roles and expectations have been challenged and renegotiated in Klubi. This was evident during the drought of 2016, when male elders, the traditional decision makers, came to Wè Jenita Eko and Ms. Jelly Escarlote for their support and counsel. This act of seeking counsel from the women was in itself a challenge to the dominant patriarchal values. Their new position of power and subversion of gender roles had inevitable and personal consequences to the two women.

A gender rift within the Sulan family caused a violent altercation between Jenita and a male sibling, a half-brother with her father’s second wife. Several weeks before I visited Klubi in April 2016, the male sibling, with the full knowledge of their father, attempted to badly hurt his sister. This was later explained to me by Jenita herself, when I visited her again after a month: that his brother and father were both disadvantaged by her rise to economic and social power. This caused a growing antagonism towards her. The jealousy of the brother was progressive and cumulative. Perhaps the desperation caused by the drought was the metaphoric last straw in their tense relationship. The two have since been reconciled in early 2017. The episode between the siblings are just symptoms of the gender gap and the violence it provokes. This gap, and the resistance to close it, linger among individuals who refuse to accept, negotiate, or adapt to the evolving landscape of power between the traditional and novel forms of leadership, and the ever-shifting power relations between the sexes.

The three stories I have shared also reveal the Tboli’s vulnerability to climate perturbations. Indeed past droughts caused by the El Niño Southern Oscillation, especially in Mindanao, have been recorded. In the past century alone, El Niño events in the Pacific have occurred in the following years with varying degrees of intensity in the region: 1900-1906, 1911-1915, 1918-1920, 1924-1926, 1937-1942, 1957-1959, and 1964-1969. Compounded by historically oppressive State policies on land and access to natural resources,  the Tboli also face the hazards of an unfortunate geography with a history of extreme weather events. Because of its proximity to the equator, southern Mindanao is most vulnerable to El Niño when reversal wind occurs at 5 degrees north and 5 degrees south. Along with the exposure to the threats of El Niño, Mindanao is also home to the country’s poorest, where most of the inhabitants subsist on agriculture. The Manila Observatory, mapping the vulnerabilities of different areas in the Philippines to environmental disasters, has placed the province of South Cotabato in the top 10 provinces that are most at risk to El Niño-induced droughts.

Both Mâ Ungkal and Mâ Eko narrated stories of past drought events and how it claimed the lives of many kins and villagers. Mâ Ungkal described a drought so intense that the sun turned red as the klikam, the Tboli bed canopy. Mâ Eko narrated a time when the villagers had to fetch water from Lake Seloton, a lake that is several kilometers downhill from the rugged hills of Klubi. Both stories underscore the famine and the hunger, which forced the Tboli to look for atypical food in the deepest forests, and forage for wild animals also escaping the overwhelming heat. The experience must have been truly catastrophic for it to be memorialized in oral narratives. One might also infer that the past droughts must have been in the minds of the elders when they approached Wè Jenita.

Indeed, the vulnerability of people to disasters exists at the intersection of nature and culture, as Oliver-Smith expounded, The three stories show how inextricably linked disasters are with environmental hazards, social and economic structures, and cultural norms and values. A disaster event untangles these links providing an opening to study how these structures are often challenged and negotiated, or conserved and transformed. Oliver-Smith elucidated on how narratives, like the three stories presented above, are expressions on how risk and vulnerability are perceived, stating that this perception is “mediated through linguistic and cultural grids, accounting for great variability in assessments and understandings of disasters.” Studies about global warming among the Sakha in the Arctic, Leukerbad in Switzerland, and the Kgalagadi in Botswana are just some of the studies which employed the oral narrations of the peoples’ experiences and perceptions of the changing climate.

These narrated events describe the Tboli’s vulnerability to disasters and expose the multidimensional aspects of a disaster event. However, it also reveals the astonishing resilience of these people. Wè Jenita’s self-confidence in her remark, “we are survivors,” is also an admission of the hardships they had to endure and overcome. Knowledge on indigenous adaptation mechanisms, like foraging for the biking plant that provides the much needed carbohydrates in drought events, performing the melem éhék ritual to call for rain, or migrating to look for sources of water, all form the Tboli’s traditional understanding of their ecological heritage. As these knowledge are all currently transmitted through the oral tradition, addressing adaptation and resilience of the Tboli then lie on the oral and the aural which provides serious implications for their adaptive capacities to future weather perturbations.

In retelling the stories of Mâ Ungkal, Wè Jenita, and Mâ Eko, I am not only telling an individual’s experience of a drought, but also that of a people’s culture. Indeed, a story is a web of interconnected and intertextualized stories. We connect to these interconnected stories in the past in order to understand our current experiences. In an epistemological sense, the stories like the ones told by Mâ Ungkal, Wè Jenita, and Mâ Eko become the interpretive lens for new experiences in the future. The stories also become a means of constructing the world, making meaning for themselves and for other people, and creating funds of knowledge for future generations.

Advertisements

An Interview with Mâ Ungkal, Son of Kawit

Mâ Ungkal was about the same age as my late grandmother. I first saw him at the but bnek (Tboli planting ritual) that I attended in March of 2015. He told 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 of memories of friends and families in the long gone past. 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 first heard his stories at the but bnek ritual in 2015. Wè Jenita Eko was my translator. She translated everything I said, passing messages between me and Mâ Ungkal.

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, 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 about 5 meters from it before finally reaching the prized fleshy part of the tubers. He said that a single plant sustained them for a month.

I was curious about his age. I tried 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. The soldiers only stayed for 5 days, he said, since they were on their way to the mohin bong, or sea, of Kiamba.

I told Ma Ungkal that I heard him tell the story of Sélél when we were at the but bnek ritual, l asked if he can expound on this. He explained that it is the name of a star used to determine the time of t’miba (fallow burning) and rice planting. He said that when it appears in the night sky, the fak tahu (edible frogs) would also appear, announcing t’miba. Sélél was 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 wishes to ascend to longit. 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, he will be the one who will tell them when to plant. He also left the people with the buli plant (lima beans), and said 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), since he was the man who invented it. When he ascended to heaven, he brought with him this wine. The old people say that when he throws out the last dregs of wine from his sokong (container), many people on earth would get sick.

We ended our conversation with this story of Sélél. 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 pictures of Mâ Ungkal and his family, we went back to Jenita’s house in Lëmkwa. On our way to Lëmkwa, 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 we must discover. (7 February 2017)

img_1714

 

 

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.

Introduction

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. (http://www.microdis-eu.be/content/albay_philippines). 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.

45

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.

46

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.

47

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.

48

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.

49

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.

50

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.

51

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.

Amen.

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.

Amen.

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.

Conclusion

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.

References

Albay Province Website, http://www.albay.gov.ph, 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 http://www.bicolmail.com/2012/?p=8279, retrieved on January 27,2014.

Bicol Today, Bicol poverty remains high despite growth of regional economy in http://bicoltoday.com/2013/07/30/bicol-poverty-remains-high-despite-growth-of-regional-economy/#sthash.yE5khzvg.dpuf, 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 http://countrystat.bas.gov.ph/?cont=16&r=5, 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 http://region5.dost.gov.ph/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=11&Itemid=9, 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 http://www.neda5.net/rehab_plan/extent_damages.htm retrieved on January 25, 2014.

National Statistical Coordination Board, “Philippine Standard Geographic Codes, Province of Albay” in http://www.nscb.gov.ph/activestats/psgc/province.asp?provcode=050500000&regCode=05&regName=REGION+V+%28Bicol+Region%29, 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 http://weather.com.ph/typhoon/climatology, 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 http://www.neda5.net/rehab_plan/extent_damages.htm retrieved on January 25, 2014.

[2] David Michael V. Padua, Typhoon Climatology in http://weather.com.ph/typhoon/climatology, 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 http://www.nscb.gov.ph/activestats/psgc/province.asp?provcode=050500000&regCode=05&regName=REGION+V+%28Bicol+Region%29, 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 http://www.volcano.si.edu/volcano.cfm?vn=273030, retrieved January 27, 2014.

[14] Ibid., Bulusan in http://www.volcano.si.edu/volcano.cfm?vn=273010, retrieved January 27, 2014.

[15] Ibid., Pocdol Mountains in http://www.volcano.si.edu/volcano.cfm?vn=273020, retrieved on January 27, 2014.

[16] Albay Province Website, www.albay.gov.ph, retrieved on January 27, 2014.

[17] Agnes Espinas, 4-7.

[18] Bicol Mail, Albay registers poorest economic performance in http://www.bicolmail.com/2012/?p=8279, retrieved on January 27,2014.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Bicol Today, Bicol poverty remains high despite growth of regional economy in http://bicoltoday.com/2013/07/30/bicol-poverty-remains-high-despite-growth-of-regional-economy/#sthash.yE5khzvg.dpuf, retrieved on January 28, 2014.

[21] Department of Science and Technology – Region V, Albay Profile in http://region5.dost.gov.ph/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=11&Itemid=9, retrieved on January 27, 2014.

[22] Espinas, 21.

[23] Bureau of Agricultural Statistics, Regional Profile: Bicol in http://countrystat.bas.gov.ph/?cont=16&r=5, 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.

 

References:

 

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).