Paradoxes in the Natural Wealth of Lake Sebu


This is part of a broader study on “Climate Change Experience, Expressions, and Responses in a Tboli Community.” It is based on the understanding that indigenous peoples worldwide have been experiencing the impacts of climate change, such as extreme weather changes, longer droughts, and increasing rainfall, which cause floods and landslides. More especially to indigenous peoples, climate change is not something that comes in isolation. Climate change magnifies already existing problems of “poverty, de-territoriality, marginalization and non-inclusion in national, and international policy-making processes and discourses.”[1]

The study examines how the Tboli of South Cotabato,  perceive and respond to the impacts of climate change, analyzing local sources of knowledge such as oral narratives. But more than a mere description of this experience, the study also explores how oral narratives of the Tboli are expressions of their experience of the impacts of climate change, and how, in turn, these narratives are forming and informing their responses to climate change. By investigating how oral narratives contribute to how meaning is generated and attached to experiences, and consequently to risk information and perception, the study sought to contribute to a better understanding on how to inform, update, and apprise indigenous peoples on the realities of climate change.

The narratives I have presented here were analyzed through a poststructuralist lens. Poststructuralism is a reaction to structuralism, and works against seeing language as a stable, closed system.  It is a shift from seeing the written literature and oral narratives as closed entities equipped with definite meanings, to seeing these narratives as “irreducibly plural, an endless play of signifiers which can never be finally nailed down to a single center, essence, or meaning.”  In the poststructuralist approach to textual analysis, the reader replaces the author as the primary subject of inquiry. Without a central fixation on the author, the investigator is free to examine other sources for meaning (e.g., readers, cultural norms, other literature, etc).

I owe a lot to the storytellers and translator that I met in Lake Sebu. Some of the storytellers here are the following: Dodong Ulaw, Nayo Lungan, Nida Anggol, Jenita Eko, Ma Ungkal, and Eko Sulan.

I invite you now to join me on a journey to Lake Sebu, where spirits roam the forests and visit the Tboli in their sleep to bless them with their gifts of weaving, healing, and the magic of storytelling.


Mâ Dodong Ulaw sat in a rattan stool adjusting his ulew, the plaid-styled headpiece worn by men. Jenita Eko explained to Mâ Dodong that I would be recording him while he chants, and told him not to mind the camera that I brought. He consented to the use of camera and a voice recorder, even quipping that he could be famous someday because of the video recording. Eunice, or Nice as I call her, the sister of Jenita, was also there. He was nervous, Mâ Dodong said. Everyone encouraged him, and after a few more coaxes, sung the opening vocables and the introduction to the story of Tudbulul, the cultural hero of the Tboli.

Eee yo ki e de kun

The thundering sun was still hidden,

its dawn light skimmed the surface of the stone crystal.

Duyung was threatening to eat it

trying to bite the sun’s shadow,

trying to swallow the sun’s shadow.

Duyung failed to reach the top of the mountain

when it tried to swallow the sun’s shadow.

It failed to raise its hand to reach the sun.

Woo … 

The thundering sun turned,

sounding like the cock of a gun,

like the pealing of the meginding,

like the clinking of the senkaling,

the shaking of the klung,

the sound of the swift chorus of the veering and weaving

of eight swarms of bees.           

            It was early in the morning and the sun was barely out of the peaks of Klubi. Had I known then what Mâ Dodong’s tutul was about, the day’s sunrise would have projected a new meaning – a celestial adventure, a symphony of sound that only a master chanter can describe. Yet it is also a glimpse of how Mâ Dodong Ulaw sees (and hears) the world through the lyrics and themes of ancient songs. The mountains and waters of the traditional domain of the Tboli resonate and shine in the songs of chanters like Mâ Dodong Ulaw.

To describe Lake Sebu is to describe a revelation. It is easier to describe in the language of poetry than in prose. Chanters and artists like Mâ Dodong reveal this beauty in their songs and crafts.

Going up from the hot and dusty roads of Koronadal and Surallah in South Cotabato, the municipality of Lake Sebu is first revealed as a stretch of cool, shaded road, a balm from the humidity of the lowlands. One opens the window of the public van to experience this revelation, to breathe in the fresh air from the rice fields and a waft from forested patches. Suddenly, Lake Lahit appears from one of the bends, placid and quaint, surrounded by low hills dotted with huts and small tracts of corn. Water hyacinths bloom in their dark pink hues. A gentle breeze disturbs the quiet of the lake. The Surallah-Lake Sebu public van picks up speed as it prepares to ascend another bend. On the left side of the road, a grove of giant bamboos shelters a gathering of men and women, some in their traditional attire, some in denim and shirt, discussing animatedly among themselves. The van turns another bend, and finally, you see the grand reveal, the great lake of S’bu itself.

Compared to Lake Lahit, Lake Sebu is less unassuming. The much wider Lake Sebu is checkered by fish pens. All around it are plebeian resorts and small stores selling anything from live tilapia to antique gongs. A solitary man can be seen quietly plying the lake with his owong, squatting stoically on the far end of the slim dugout canoe, paddling perhaps to his tilapia fish pen. When the moment of revelation is particularly auspicious, the mountain fog descends to the lakeside poblacion and covers the town in thick mists of cloud-stuff, and the old people would say the tulus have descended, for the spirits walk freely in the fog. In this place, it can be said, even the sun rumbles like thunder.

In this out-of-the-way frontier, the modern meets the ancient, tradition wrestles with the novel, and the esoteric grapples with the empirical. In the middle of this tension is Lake Sebu’s unique environment, its geography and resources, its climate, flora and fauna. In this part I will discuss the state of the physical and biological environment in the municipality of Lake Sebu as it shapes the lives and stories of the Tboli in Barangay Klubi.


Issues in the Governance of Natural Resources in Lake Sebu

Land is central to the struggle of indigenous peoples worldwide. Now, this struggle is compounded by risks from climate change. Since many of the territories of indigenous peoples are fragile, and many indigenous communities are highly dependent on natural resources and the integrity of the ecosystems they inhabit, land use policies of the State greatly affect individuals and communities.[2] In Lake Sebu town, where 63.14 percent[3] of the population are indigenous Tboli,  Ubo, and Manobo, majority of whom depend on the forests for their economic activities, encroaching land policies in the guise of development further disadvantage them.

Governance and management of these natural resources, rooted in the colonial history of the country and tied to post-colonial policies, is a major issue in indigenous territories in the Philippines.[4] In pre-colonial “Philippines,” land and resources are considered common resources.[5] Their use and conservation, therefore, are the responsibility of the whole community. Traditional land ownership, for example, is through clearing or t’miba, and planting. If a person clears a forest and plants on it, that person has rights on that plot for the duration of the land’s optimum fertility, which usually lasts 3-4 years upon clearing.

The story of mass migration to Mindanao of peoples from the islands of Luzon and the Visayas finds roots in the story of Western colonialism in the country. In my attempt to discuss issues in governance of resources in Lake Sebu, it is necessary to also tell the story of State-sponsored migration to Mindanao island, altering forever the natural and social landscape of this land.

Lake Sebu itself has been largely unperturbed by the colonial rulers of the Philippines, the Spaniards and the Americans. Although the entire island of Mindanao has been included in the Philippine Commission Act No. 2259 of 1913, or the Cadastral Act, which “institutionalized systematic land surveys and  facilitated the inventory of titled lands vis à vis the lands that can be alienated for government purposes,”[6] Lake Sebu remained impenetrable. On the same year of the Cadastral Act, the Philippine Commission Act Nos. 2254 and 2280, also known as the Agricultural Colonies Acts, invited Christian settlers to Pikit (the first to be carved out of the Cotabato town of the late Spanish period), Glan (known today as Sarangani), and Pagalungan (at that time a part of the old Muslim district of Midsayap, which is in turn part of the general region of Dulawan and Pikit). The arrival and success of Cebuano migrants in Glan, at the southernmost Buayan-oriented areas, presaged the arrival of Ilocano migrants into the neighboring Kiamba in 1918, and into Malungon in the 1930s and onwards. Kiamba was populated by the Tboli who lived in proximity with Maguindanao coastal communities that were also spread out along Malungon’s seaward areas, among the scattered homelands of the Blaan people.[7]

These American Colonial Acts would commence the series of State policies that would ultimately culminate in the Land Resettlement Acts of Manuel Quezon, a massive program to resettle the restive and landless farmers of Central Luzon to Mindanao. The Commonwealth Act No. 441, or the Act Creating the National Land Settlement Administration (NLSA), was passed in June 3, 1939.[8] General Paulino Santos was named head of the incipient National Land Settlement Administration (NLSA). The new body was organized based on recommendations of a three-man committee tasked to study the Quezon presidency priority of land resettlement in Mindanao for Luzon and Visayas. The NLSA was to supersede the work of the Inter-island Migration Division of the Bureau of Labor, which, from 1918 to 1939, resettled 30,000 to 35,000 individuals from Luzon and the Visayas, into Mindanao. General Paulino Santos led the first group of 200 migrants from Luzon and the Visayas to the Lagao area of Allah Valley to form six settler communities in what were, in previous centuries, the contiguous homelands of the Muslim Maguindanao, and the animist Blaan, Teduray, and Bagobo peoples.

Today, much of the control of natural resources and environmental wealth in Lake Sebu lies with the national and local government, with IP communities having little actual control. The Philippine Constitution provides that the State has full control and supervision of natural resources, that it can explore, develop, and utilize all lands of the public domain, waters, minerals, coal, petroleum and other mineral oils, all forces of potential energy, fisheries, forests or timber, wildlife, flora and fauna, and other natural resources except agricultural land.[9] This State-imposed form of resource governance to a people who have, for centuries, been governing their lands, may only be described in the Marxist terms of “capitalist exploitation and internal colonialism,”[10] where the Tboli have been forced to comply with foreign laws concerning their ancestral land. Settler capitalism changed the landscape of resource governance in Lake Sebu.

With the settlers from Luzon and Visayas came also the logging and mining operations. Armed with logging and mining permits issued by the national government, local and foreign corporations cleared hectares of forests for timber and minerals. The height of the logging exploitation happened during the years of the Marcos administration. In 1979, logging concessions in Mindanao has been said to cover five million hectares, nearly half the land area of the island, and were mainly in the territories of the IPs and the Moros.[11] Timber exports to Japan and the USA[12] were to a large extent sourced from Mindanao. The mountains of South Cotabato were not spared from this Marcos logging spree. Timber License Agreements were granted to Marcos cronies, retired generals, and veterans, to secure their continued loyalty to the Marcos administration.[13] During the Martial Law years, the rate of forest destruction in the Philippines was about 300,000 hectares annually.[14]  In the ancestral territories of the Tboli people alone, the forests and mountains in T’boli town and Barangay Ned in Lake Sebu were the first to fall. Now, these places host monocrop plantations by multinational companies like Sumifru, Dole, San Miguel, and Consuji that continue at present to be contentious undertakings of the national and local governments.

Another issue that complicates the governance of resources in Lake Sebu is the presence of multiple legal systems that puts a tension between national, local, barangay laws, and customary laws that govern resources. The Tboli communities in Lake Sebu have a long history of customary laws and traditional governance mechanisms (adat), as well as a western (common law) legal system established during the colonial period in the Philippines and imposed upon the Tboli during the internal colonization of migrant settlers to Mindanao. A large part of the municipality of Lake Sebu is now covered by a Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title (CADT) no. R12-LAK-0110-155,[15] supposedly granting the Tboli a level of autonomy to govern their own ancestral domain. The recognition from the State of their “indigenous-ness” gives them authority emanating from the State. But to what extent does it empower Tboli communities to govern the natural resources within their ancestral domain?

The Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (Republic Act no. 8371 or IPRA) is the national legislation that recognizes and promotes Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Section 57 of chapter 8 of the IPRA states that: “The ICCs/IPs shall have priority rights in the harvesting, extraction, development or exploitation of any natural resources within the ancestral domain. A non-member of ICCs/IPs concerned may be allowed to take part in the development and utilization of the natural resources for a period of not exceeding twenty-five (25) years: provided, that a formal and written agreement is entered into with the ICCs/IPs concerned or that the community, pursuant to its own decision making process, has agreed to allow such operation: provided, finally, that the NCIP may exercise visitorial powers and take appropriate action to safeguard the rights of ICCs/IPs under the same contract”. This provision has been seen as a reinforcement of the Constitution’s Regalian Doctrine, the constitutional mandate that “all lands of the public domain belong to the State.”[16] But instead of protecting the rights of the IPs to their ancestral domains, Section 57 actually strengthens the argument that all natural resources found in ancestral domains belong to the State. In this sense, the IPRA does not give true autonomy and power to indigenous peoples to govern resources within their ancestral domains. The State, through legal instruments such as the Mining Act of 1995 and the Revised Forestry Code, and institutions, such as the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP), govern like the metaphoric Leviathan over lives and resources, perhaps even like the monster Duyung in the story of Mâ Dodong devouring the sun in its sky-journey.


The Resource Curse of S’bu or the Lake of Paradoxes

The natural resources of Lake Sebu are a source of great bounty, as well as a profound cause for many of the challenges facing the Tboli today. To better understand this picture of great wealth in the lake environ of Lake Sebu let me share a story told to me by Yê Nida Anggol[17] where she reminisces the past bounty in the lake before the arrival of settlers and their new economic regime in the town of Lake Sebu.

I was first introduced to Yê Nida Anggol back in 2013 when I was documenting the processes involved in the weaving of tnalak. She had a kind face, and a gentle and generous smile. She spoke to me in a Tboli that has its own cadence and rhythm, every word perfectly enunciated. She was a chanter and tnalak weaver, an artist through and through. I met Yê Nida again in Klubi on February 8, 2017. She was in her traditional fandi, a plaid skirt, and Tboli beads of red and black around her neck. She wore her usual and warm smile.

I told Yê Nida that I was curious about how the lake was like during her childhood years. Jenita translated this question, and so she was looking at Jenita when she answered this. She was talking in rapid Tboli, and I noticed a certain nostalgia in the way she smiled at the recollection of years gone by. She described the lake as andô gonon gësëng matahem, which roughly translates to “an unobstructed vista”, the eyes can only see lake, mountains, and the sky. She said there were no concrete buildings around the lake before, and no water lilies that now choke the waterways. There was only the plant lagat, an aquatic plant that blossoms upward from the depths of the lake. There was an abundance of snails and shells which she described as smooth, shiny and semi-transparent, unlike the shells they get from the lake now. The lake itself was crystal-clear, that one can see right through the waters to its bottom. She lamented that with the introduction of tilapia, the pangasius, and the “Korean fish,” the lake, its fishes, snails, and shells, have never been the same as before. She observed that the introduced fishes have already killed-off the bonol and the hait, their staple when she was younger. She recalled that when she was a young girl living on the lakeside, they could just ride one of the owong boats and catch some fish for their meals, or walk along the shallower parts to pick some shells which they would cook.

Yê Nida said that there were no boundaries in the lake before, everyone can just come in and fish, or collect shells. No one owns the lake, the land, or the forests, she added. Here she explained that the family of our friend, Jelly Escarlote, was the very first migrant settlers to Lake Sebu. They were considered as Tboli, and not as outsiders. Yê Nida said that everything started out with friendship, and the first families who migrated were very good friends with the Tboli who were living near the lake. But she added that it became complicated when those families started bringing in their other families from Luzon and the Visayas, especially from the Ilocos and Negros provinces.

The “resource curse” paradox is already perceptible in the nostalgic narration of Yê Nida, recalling the lake of her youth, its great bounty and its eventual deterioration. It is a picture of what was, and of what was lost in the march of time. It was the same bounty of the lake, which attracted the settlers to venture into the mountains, a long hike (there was no concrete road before) from the established migrant settlements of Marbel (now Koronadal City) and Surallah.

The paradox of environmental wealth attracting insecurity to the indigenous inhabitants of a locale is also featured in the different versions of the creation stories of the lake. One version was told by Nayo Lungan[18], one of the elders in the community of Klubi, during an FGD in the gonô bong of Klubi. The story begins with a drought in mythic time:

There was no water, no lake then. The people before would only get their water from three sources: amo teweng (early morning dew, as large as a bamboo container), lumet (a tree which stores water), and the mto sekel (rattan).

The first person was Boi Henwu. She lived in Tebewow (which is now the so-called “three fingers” in Lake Sebu.) She was living with two companions, Ukan and K’ban. The Tboli were said to come from K’ban, that’s why they are sometimes troublesome. Both Ukan and K’ban are bong busaw (lit. big witches). Ukan follows the evil Sidek We, and he also helps in the delivery of children, but only the male babies. Ukan even kills the mother after delivery of the child.

Boi Henwu likes to take a bath, but only in the upper part of the gono (house), since her feet never touches the ground. She had a house-help, and this helper would fetch the water that she uses for her bath. One day, he was not able to catch the early morning dew, and Boi Henwu was so enraged she beat the house-help from toe to head.

Boi Henwu said, “Why is there no water?” And he answered, “Even the rattan has no water.”

When the house-help fell asleep, he dreamed of a spirit giving him instructions saying, “I pity you. This is what you should do. Look for the white frog in the middle of S’bu, it is hidden by a takul leaf. Raise the leaf and you will find the frog.”

The house-help always had with him several containers, even if there was really no water then. He went to the place as instructed by the spirit, and found the takul leaf. He lifted it and found a white frog. He raised the frog, and water emerged from the ground. After filling his containers with water, he placed the frog to where it was before. The water stopped flowing.

For many days, it was his secret. He would go to the frog, lift it, and fill his containers. His house companions became suspicious and interrogated him why he always had water in his containers. They were also wondering why he looked washed and cleaner than before.

He eventually told Boi Henwu about the source of the water after eight days.

When Boi Henwu found the water, she took a bath that lasted from early morning to late afternoon. When she was done, she forgot to place the frog back on its place.

Other people eventually found out about the source of the water. Without the frog in its proper place, the water flowed and flowed, flooding the village of S’bu, until it became the lake that it is now.


Going around Lake Sebu and asking people stories about the lake, I discovered many versions and ways of telling the story of the lake. During my first visit in 2013, I couldn’t help but ask around for some of these stories. Over lunch and overlooking the lake in one of the local restaurants in the poblacion, I asked my host Jenita Eko to tell me the story of S’bu. She narrated the version that was told to her by Boi Diwa Ofong, her grandmother. I remember there was a light rain that time, disturbing the surface of the lake. Jenita shared that before the lake, a long spell of drought ravaged a village that was once located in the same spot as the lake. The only available water was found in the droplets of water left on the leaves after the morning mist. The people collected these droplets in bamboo containers but it was still not enough. One day, a mystery baffled everyone. One of the village women was always seen by the other women as freshly bathed and with wet hair, as if she took a bath in a spring. One day, the villagers decided to follow her to her secret bathing place. To their disbelief, a small spring was indeed bubbling from a small crack in the earth. Angry that the woman tricked them and kept the source of water to herself,  the villagers mobbed the woman. A white frog was startled by the mob, and started to jump from one place to another. From where it jumped, water came gushing forth until the whole place was flooded. Everyone perished from this flood, and a lake was formed. It was said that the lake was named S’bu after the woman who discovered the spring.

In one of the afternoons of September 2014, accompanied by other researchers from Ateneo de Davao University,[19] Datu Benito Blonto, that time the Municipal Tribal Chieftain of Lake Sebu, shared his version of the Boi Henwu story which was quite similar to Jenita. His version, however, had more details on Boi Henwu’s ascension. In this story, a drought also ravaged the land. After the ordeal with the village people, Boi Henwu was saved by Lemugut Mangay by commanding a huge, black python to serve as a ladder for Boi Henwu. This was Datu Benito’s version of the ascension. He even pointed to the exact spot in the main island of Lake Sebu (the one locals call the “Crocodile Island”) where Boi Henwu was said to have ascended to heaven. Datu Benito also relayed that Kludan, Boi Henwu’s house-help, was so heartbroken about Boi Henwu’s leaving that he dove in the newly-created lake and ruled the kingdom under the lake. The dead villagers were his first subjects. In effect, Kludan became the lord of the Tboli underworld.

Though there are as many versions of the creation of the lake as there are storytellers, a central theme permeates the many versions: that something beautiful can blossom from a tragedy, like a revelation, like the lake of Sebu and its environ.

One thing that struck me in the narratives is the reaction of the people towards S’bu-Boi Henwu, and the house-help who hid the source of water. They perceived it only as a selfish act, deceitful and cunning. As the narrative’s crisis moment, it points to a social value that resources are collective, and  must be shared. According to these versions, S’bu-Boi Henwu should have shared the source of the water. It is a human reaction that the villagers became indignant and furious at how the spring was kept hidden to them. The secrecy was unjust and selfish. In many societies, especially in times of crises, the self should be secondary to the community. One must consider that a Tboli village is not just a community of strangers, but of closely-knit kins. To the villagers, what the woman did was betray her family. The irony here, though, is that their own anger caused their very own destruction. I wonder if  the villagers showed an ounce of restraint and waited for the woman to tell them about the spring, could the destruction of the village have been averted? Was the woman or the frog preparing the villagers for the final ablution?

The life-death attribute of water, so vividly positioned in the opposite ends of the story shows the value given by the Tboli to water—the longing for water at the beginning, and the terrifying flood that took S’bu-Boi Henwu’s and the villagers’ life at the end of the story marks these extremes. At once beneficent and destructive, water is construed as life giver and also life-taker. Kludan diving to the navel of the water to become the god of the underworld, suggests this connection of water to death. Nowhere has this binary opposition of “blessing versus curse,” “life versus death” been featured so strongly than in the narratives about the k’mohung, or fish-kills in the lake, a regular event in the lake of Sebu.

One day during my fieldwork in 2014, as I was buying tilapia fish in one of the stores in the Poblacion, I asked the man selling if there had been any fish-kills recently, trying to stoke a conversation with him. He answered, pointing to one of the inlets in the lake that a relatively small k’mohung happened there just recently. He then shared a story that the fish-kill is a curse. He said that a Tboli man cursed the Ilonggo fishermen, saying that the Tboli are the guardians of the lake, and that their fishes will die, unless they give the fish to the Tboli. Indeed, according to him, whenever there is a fish-kill, the fish pen owners will give the dead fish to the Tboli, or sell them at a much lower price.

Another narrative views the fish-kill as a gift from Fu S’bu, the owner or spirit of the lake. Datu Benito described a time before the Ilonggo settlers put up their fish pens and when the lake was still covered with water lilies and lotus plants. He shared that whenever there is a k’mohung, people would see fish and shrimps floating in the surface. They were not quite dead, they only seemed “as if they were dizzy”. They can easily “pick these fish and shrimps with their bare hands,” he said. Indeed, outside Western and modern science, one will view this as a gift from the lake, almost parallel to the biblical “manna from heaven.” This idea of a gift clearly opposes the notion of a “disaster.” In fact, it only became widely-known as a “disaster” when the Ilonggo settlers came and established 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 points of view—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. 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 barangay Klubi on March 30, 2013 described the k’mohung and seselong in this manner: after a lëme-et, a Tboli term for a type of weather defined by occasional strong rains and wind coming from the north, and a sudden clearing (my informant likened the lëme-et to an impending typhoon), the Tboli 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 Tboli and the lakeside-dwelling Tboli. During the lëme-et, people surrounding the lake would also prepare for the seselong by observing the lake for the telltale signs of the k’mohung. The seselong was an opportunity for the lakeside dwellers to trade their gathered fish in exchange for the rootcrops of the upland Tboli.

This pattern in the activities and interactions of the upland and lakeside Tboli, 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 Tboli. More profoundly, however, it can be seen as an adaptation to a sometimes hostile environment. The seselong is a concrete social action caused by  a disruption in natural systems. Here, the Tboli ancestors who perished in the mythic flood that created the lake, is telling us something: the community is still paramount, and only through cooperation between communities can crises be overcome. The story of Boi Henwu-S’bu serves as a marker for how the natural and social worlds interact. These narratives are embedded with people’s fears, aspirations, and worldviews, and they expose the people’s vulnerability and resilience in spite of the dangers that lurk within and without their communities.


Of the Sun’s Journey and Monsters on Her Path

Here is perhaps the right place where the story of Mâ Dodong reappears in my narrative, back to that morning in Klubi, listening to the opening of the Tudbulul epic. The impact of environmental degradation, injustice in resource allocation and governance, and encroachment of settler capitalism to the Tboli’s ancestral domains, heighten the vulnerability of the Tboli, and place them in a situation of insecurity. This precarious life of the Tboli find a parallelism in the dangerous sojourn of the sun in the story of Mâ Dodong.

The thundering sun was still hidden,

its dawn light skimmed the surface of the stone crystals.

Duyung was threatening to eat it

trying to bite the sun’s shadow,

trying to swallow the sun’s shadow.

Duyung failed to reach the top of the mountain

when it tried to swallow the sun’s shadow.

It failed to raise its hand to reach the sun.


The thundering sun turned,

sounding like the cock of a gun,

like the peal of the meginding,

like the clinking of the senkaling,

the shaking of the klung,

the sound of the swift chorus of the veering and weaving

of eight swarms of bees.


The sun glided on the iron boulder

while the sea threatened to eat it

but managed only to bite half.


The thundering sun began to set,

like soft bells on a horse’s reins.

Right on time, in the sun’s journey,

it crossed the limestone mountain

sounding like the cock of a gun.

The sun tricked Megisan which was about to eat its lower part

but only the sun’s shadow was swallowed,

only its thick outer coat was swallowed.


The sun trudged on

and skimmed on the limestones.

It descended in G’bang Lunay

toward Mëgëwan.

Be safe in that crossroad!


In Mâ Dodong’s version of the Tudbulul epic-cycle, the opening narrative speaks of an endless danger for the sun as it crosses the mountains, sky and seas. In this mythic landscape, the sun’s journey becomes itself a trope for the Tboli who are voiceless, displaced from their land and from history, marginalized in national narratives and policies. The journey is arduous and full of dangers, full of monsters trying to bite or swallow the sun. Yet the daily pilgrimage has to be done. So does the  lives of the Tboli also have to trudge on as will be shown in the succeeding chapters, even in the face of many uncertainties. It is an image of never-ending toil, but also of an unceasing fortitude to face these dangers.

In Mâ Dodong’s story, movement is a strong theme. The sun thunders—it peals, clinks, buzzes in its journey that is poetically described as an ascent to crystal mountains and descent through limestone peaks. The sun of Mâ Dodong shares the toil and fate of the Tboli people who have, for centuries, been moving from mountain to mountain in search of arable land for their rotational farms, often facing the dangers of the feral forests. These are the forests that the Tboli eventually came to respect and name. Forests that the ancestors first cleared and planted with their crops are still known. Stories are still shared about places or trees in the forests, and villages are still named for the original trees that mark boundaries or special sites. The monsters in stories have been domesticated, unable even to bite the sun in its persistent flight in the sky. Yet another monster, more terrible even than Duyung and Megisan, hides in the story of Mâ Dodong—a gun, an artifact from the settlers, concealed in the opening of the ancient Tudbulul.

How does a gun suddenly appear in an ancient epic? The word used by Mâ Dodong was “munsil.” My translator was also surprised to hear the word in the midst of the specialized Tboli language used in the entirety of his chant. Her exact translation of “dëng keng nasad te munsilwas “pagkasa ng baril” (like the cocking of a gun), describing the turning of the sun in the midday sky, a strange description, but an evocative one. The gun, too, is a trope. Just as it nonchalantly intruded the mythic landscape of the chant, it, too, is a potent symbol of the encroachment of settler capitalism and its values, artifacts, and narratives to Tboli-land. It is the symbol of how mountains were flattened, ancient trees felled, and new laws protecting the colonizers were imposed. The sun turned, “sounding like the cock of a gun.” It is not the soft pealing or clinking of bells, but a weapon about to be fired. At that moment in mythic time, people and resources have become hostages to an unjust and violent regime.

[1] Crate and Nuttal, 12.

[2] Victoria Tauli-Corpuz and Eleanor P. Dictaan-Bang-oa, Indigenous Women, Climate Change & Forests (Baguio City, Philippines: Valley Printing Specialist, 2011), introduction: xiv.

[3] Municipality of  Lake Sebu, 23.

[4] Ben S. Malayang III, Merrilyn Wasson and Simon Tay, “Political and Institutional Transformations,” in Critical States: Environmental challenges to development in monsoon Southeast Asia eds. Louis Lebel, Anond Snidvongs, Chen-Tung Arthur Chen, Rajesh Daniel, (Selangor Malaysia: Strategic Information and Research Development Centre, 2009), 25.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Many Muslims and other Mindanao communities with pre-colonial social systems (i.e., today’s ‘indigenous people’) remained unaware of this dictum.

[7] Marian Pastor Roces, Events pertinent to the violent politics of identity in 20th Century Mindanao: an annotated timeline (unpublished document), 28.

[8] The intent of Commonwealth Act No. 441 was: “(a) To facilitate the acquisition, settlement and cultivation of lands whether acquired from the Government or from private parties; (b) To afford opportunity to own farms to tenant farmers and small farmers from congested areas, and to trainees who have completed the prescribed military training; (c) To encourage migration to sparsely populated regions, and facilitate the amalgamation of the people in different sections of the Philippines; (d) To develop new money crops to take the place of the present export crops which may suffer from the loss of preferences which they enjoy in the American market.” The NLSA was given a capital stock of PHP20-million. It would immediately open up “virgin lands” mostly in Mindanao to agriculture by migrant farmers.

[9] 1987 Philippine Constitution, Article XII, Section 2.

[10] Duhaylungsod and Hyndman, 15.

[11] Shaira Panela, “Greener on the other side: Deforestation in the wake of Martial Law,” published 21 September 2012, accessed in on 30 January 2017.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Logong, Ibid.

[16] 1987 Philippine Constitution, ibid.

[17] Yê Nida Anggol is a member of the Lake Sebu Indigenous Women Weavers Association, Inc. She is a gifted tnalak weaver and chanter. She is in her early 60s.

[18] Nayo Lungan is the Barangay Tribal Chieftain of Klubi. With the absence of birth certificates among the older Tboli in Klubi, I can only estimate that he is in his late 60s.

[19] In 13 September 2014, a consultative meeting was held in Barangay Poblacion, Lake Sebu, for the Tboli Sbù Senior High School project, a joint initiative of the Ateneo de Davao University and the Department of Education. I was part of the group who initiated the project.


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

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

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

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

Hydrogeology of Lake Sebu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


K’mohung and Seselong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[3] Ibid.

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

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

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

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

[10] Estabillo, Ibid.

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

[12] Ibid., p. 627.

[13] Sutton, p. 25.

[14] Ibid., p. 22.