Nowhere to Run, No Place To Hide:….by michael a. bengwayan (echoing green foundation fellow)

Nowhere to Run,  Nowhere To Hide:

The Agtas, peace-loving dwellers and guardians of Sierra Madre’s forests,
are slowly and painfully being erased from the Philippine anthropological picture,
by oppression, exploitation and modernization

By MICHAEL A. BENGWAYAN,  Fellow of the New York-based Echoing Green Foundation

Palanan, Isabela, Philippines (January 8, 2002) — Salak Dima personifies
what wordsmiths call a “child of the forest”.  Since boyhood, he has
hunted, fished, gathered wild food  crops, and even farmed.  He lived in
the most remote tropical jungles of the Sierra Madre in peace with
nature’s bounty.

That was decades ago. Today, he and his small band of 23 Agta tribespeople
are on the run. Deeper into the forest which may not be around too long.
Soon, they’ll have no place to run.  And no place to hide.

Deprived, oppressed, underserved and exploited,  they went  back to the
forests fearful that if they don’t, their children may undergo their sad
and humiliating experiences. They are seeking refuge to where they have
always known freedom-into the forests.  They are running away from the
powerful  invading mainstream population  who scorn them.  From the
military and police authorities who provide them no justice and protection.
And  sometimes, from communist rebels, although when caught, they are
treated with respect and courtesy by the insurgents.

With creased wrinkles marking unknown years, Salak recounted through Milo,
my interpreter “Fifty summers ago, we were a proud race of people. Then the
Ilokanos came, Ifugaos, Itnegs bringing along logging and mining. Our lives
were never the same again.”

Salak Dima

No one can recall the trials and betrayals of the Agtas better than Salak
Dima.  A man of few but meaningful words. Chosen leader by his elders
(pisen), son of Puptuk, he is the proud grandson of Dakmis, the “centipede
gatherer”.  He talked only when spoken to. He looked through you with
shielded-ebony eyes that betrayed any expression.

In my continuing effort to document indigenous knowledge, skills and
practices (IKSP) of indigenous peoples, I trudged into the warm
rain-drenched forest of the Palanan Wilderness Area (PWA), thankful to
serendipity.  Right into the midst of Salak’s band who, for the better, are
living the way their ancestors did hundreds of years ago.

Salak brought his people back to the forests. From what we call
“civilization”, where greed, anger and cash mentality prevail. Where human
beings live in a dog-eat-dog world.  Where men speak with forked tongue
and will stab you at the back.  Where being black, short and
fickle-looking calls  for dog-like treatment.

I  met Salak one cold damp morning, on the third day of my hike at the foot
of Mount Palanan (1,212 meters). He was squatted with two of his men on a
fire lit by Milo when I crawled out of my water-soaked bag and  tent.

Outwardly, he looked menacing with his “kulibew” and “pana” slung over his
shoulders. His half-closed shirt bared scarified breast, intentional
disfigurement  made by knife cuts which I never understood  why, other than
it was a test for young men’s bravery. Standing just over four feet, he
weighed perhaps  no more than a hundred pounds dripping wet from the night’s
rain.  I soon found out, he seldom smiled.

Ermelo Arnazar, my contact in Ilagan and Milo provided me little from
whence I can imagine how Salak looked like. “A wise old man made tough
by seeing his people die”, Ermelo said as we parted in Ilagan. “You can’t
find him, He will find you once you and Milo get to the fork of Palanan
river. I sent word you are coming, he knows,” Ermelo shouted as we boarded
the jeep in Ilagan down towards Ilagan river.

What he lacked in size, he makes up with unnerving toughness. A muscle of
vast endurance, he can exist on anything or nothing. As a leader, he is
shrewdly effective in a survival which calls for no rules. I would soon
find out that beneath the stonelike attitude, he had a soft spot –
recollection of grief.

With trousers and worn-out jacket covered with red earth and soot (to
prevent wild animals from smelling him), I placed him to be within fifties,
with a goatee so stiff it can hurt a fly.  But looks can be deceiving.
Small callused hands, adept in hunting, proved endless work, some of which
was done slaving in a logging camp.

Milo introduced me to Salak then Kopas and Natuk, distant relatives who by
their looks were in their early 20s. Unlike Salak, both hankered for talk,
as I was, but it was not that easy. Yuggad was the language of the day
and the days that came so I was entirely dumb. I relied much on Milo to
tell me everything, if everything he did tell.

Salak’s questions were few, limited to who I was, why and another why to
Milo’s answers, and two or three more whys.  He measured me from head to
toe, half squinting , wondering what the “bulul” (Igorot spirit guard)
was that hung on my neck.

Other than that, I got empty looks even as I continued grinning like a fool
to make him friendly.

People of Lesser God

The Agtas, subtribe of the Negritos or Aetas, are one of the few remaining
indigenous peoples to originally inhabit Luzon. They are now being
threatened to extinction.  Scattered sparsely  in the Sierra Madre, they can
be found in Cagayan, Isabela, Aurora, Quezon, Qurino, and Apayao. But
their homes in these provinces are now in the hands of lowlanders. They
have been virtually stripped of their land, resource and life base.

Philippine historians are confounded when it comes to the Agta’s history.
One theory says they came to the Philippine shores 30,000 years ago from
Sumatra and Sunda islands. But Noval, Morales, an anthropologist says  they
may have come from the Malay Peninsula.

Many scholars of artifacts say they once lived in the lowlands only to be
pushed up to the mountains by incoming Malays and the Spaniards. Whatever
the truth is, Salak told me they once roamed as far as Gabaldon, and
Pantabangan, Nueva Ecija to San Rafael in Bulacan. “We roamed our lands, we
are not nomads, rather, we take time to visit old hunting grounds and
food-gathering areas”, he claimed, disputing common beliefs that they are
always on the move because they own nothing.

“We leave our old homes for the plants to grow once more, for the deer to
give birth and for the  “baboy”, (pig), bisukut (lizard) and “bebiyak”
(python) to grow stout. When they do, we go back for them. We are not
wanderers,” he stressed.

“But food is becoming scarce in the forests.  “Boday” (traps) are sometimes
empty, “dita” (poison)  is often wasted and “bangkolans” (pit-traps)
rarely catch fat pigs,” Salak said with no emotions.

The Agtas as well are diminishing. According to the National Cultural
Communities of the Philippines (NCCP) their number has been declining
rapidly. Their existence is threatened by problems brought by other people.
Poverty-stricken lowlanders have encroached on forests displacing the Agta.
Government negligence and public apathy are marginalizing them, bringing
them to the very edge of extinction.

Salak’s band is representative to such kind of phenomenon, Milo told me. I
was the second outsider guided by Milo to Salak after a missionary in 1998.
That year, Salak had 27 in his band.  Salak’s people now desperately live
in “regions of refuge”, the limited areas that are rugged, desolate and
remote which although provide scarce food, offers haven and security  in the
Sierra Madre belt.

Although poor by “modern” man’s standards,  Salak’s group, I was to
discover, are open handed. Food earned or gathered in a day is shared
without grudge. Distributed in portions called “bunto”, food is shared to
everybody, even to those who are absent at the settlement.

The Long  Road To Nowhere

Reaching Salak’s  home was no picnic. One has to have legs with sinewy
muscle, a strong back,  broad shoulders and lots luck. If not, a litany of
prayers  is all one can resort to. The days of hiking seemed longer each day
and the bones, near to breaking, complained. The punishing 21-hour trip from
Baguio to Bontoc to Banaue to Ilagan on a rented old Ford Fiera which
careened to steeply on curves with  doubtful brakes on bumpy pot-holed road,
was a comfort compared to the dreary hike.

Milo, much younger than I, is a member and pathfinder of the Sierra Madre
Mountaineering Society. He had been in the trails below Mount Palanan
several times. Familiar with the isolated settlements we passed, I soon
found out on the first day of walk not to keep pace with him. Doing so
all the more made him walk faster. But I did keep my part of the bargain,
never complaining nor stalling our agreed  timetable.

Taking a ride from Ilagan to Palanan municipality would take longer, he
said. So we took the hunter’s trail after alighting from the jeepney in
Sitio Waclis, following Palanan river. To somewhere I know not.

What made the travel more difficult was that it was five years ago since I
went for a long hike.  That was in Pulag, the country’s second highest
peak. In a span of seven months, I had six 8-hour hikes from Ambangeg to
Pulag, down to Lusod  near Ifugao, then up to Pulag once more and then
down to Ambangeg while doing a study for UNDP’s Global Environmental
Facility (GEF) Project.  It was followed by two months of eco-profiling
Mt. Chumanchilchil and Buasao Watershed between Abra and Mountain Province
for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).   The place was home, headquarters and
training ground of the New Peoples Army (NPA) and the Cordillera Peoples
Democratic Front (CPDF) for 10 years.  The military has since been bombed
the camp to smithereens using  Sikorsky gunships and Huey “flying coffins”.

The last time I went into a rainforest was in ’96 in Kalimantan,
Indonesia, with Anhar Kramadisastra, a classmate in Ireland. In the
Philipines, it  was in Marag Valley, Luna, Apayao in 1991. Only the
circumstances were different. There, the “thunk” of Army mortars hitting
unseen enemies were audible. Faint “thack-thack-thack” of Kalashnikov
answered distinguishable M-16s, the gun that helped US lose the Vietnam war.

At Palanan, the chirps from Jiminy crickets, nature’s troubadours, were
both noise and music.  Birds chirped and monkeys crazily howled atop
unseen treetops.  Under the forest floor, slivers of sunray barely reach you
as water and green leeches drip and fall. You walk where there are no
trails, crawl when its too slippery to walk and curse the gods when you
find no way at all. I was a fool not to review my trailblazing handbook.
You have to smoke, even if you don’t, to keep away the mosquitos and insects
and stab on leeches that lovingly cling to your neck, face, and toes. How
leeches get inside  hiking shoes is something I want to know.

In Marag, you have to be careful, for bullets evaded no one. Not even
journalists.  The fear is more of being caught mistakenly in a crossfire. In
Palanan, you dread the poisonous centipedes, the earwigs, leeches and
skinworms  that find their way through your skin if not to any hole in your
body, You sleep body and brain-dead , but mentally awake sensing for
anything that crawls on your skin.

Salak’s camp is somewhere within the 200,000 hectare sprawling Palanan
Wilderness Area (PWA).  The PWA, Milo my British-trained guide says, is
the largest protected (if protected at all) rainforest area and the most
important tract of tropical rainforest remaining in the Philippines. It
represents 10 per cent of the nation’s remaining primary forests and home to
the Agtas for 2,500 years.

It will be home if it will be around for another century. Creeping human
invasion to the Palanan wilderness was very evident during the four hour
jeepney trip from Ilagan, six hour hike along Palanan river, and six hour
climb towards Mt. Palanan.

The Agtas need more than wishful thinking to be able to remain on what
will be left of PWA. Illegal logging by small-scale speculators, rattan
harvesting and swidden farming are widespread all the way toward Mt.
Palanan. Biodiversity is endangered as well as the Agta’s  intellectual
property and rights.

I went to Palanan to document IKSP particularly on biodiversity before
biopirates grab indigenous peoples’ wealth and knowledge. Through a grant
from the Toyota Foundation, a colleague and I are seeking ways to assist
indigenous peoples document their IKSP as proof and evidence to their
ownership of  indigenous knowhow they have nurtured for hundreds of years,
along with the plants they have protected and conserved.

But I had another reason for going to Palanan.  My own blood runs deep
Igorot red from ancient headhunting warriors who bragged of the heads they
rolled only to have their heads rolled too by bolder braves. I felt
soul-binding with the Agtas was important for my identity

Inhuman Oppression

>From Mt. Palanan, we took off for  the 1,300 meter Mt. Moises, northeast
of Isabela, pushing deep into the Sierra Madre Natural Park, Milo oriented
me as he consulted his GPS.  There was little talk, especially so when
Salak mumbled the hike would last with the end of the day. Bah! I recalled
thinking. For him perhaps. Me?

The short breakfast of half- ripe “kamatis” and tuyo passed through the fire
worked no wonders on Salak. His face bore no life, stoic like a western
gunfighter on showdown under a high noon.

But a gift of  two Marlboro packs, five boxes of  “strike anywhere” matches
and a Swiss knife I hurriedly grabbed at a Copenhagen airport duty free
shop on  my way from Sweden to Denmark, changed all that.

Throughout the seven-hour hike, Salak and his two men then showed concern
when we lagged behind, picked edible leaves, berries and shared now and
then, including white worms or grubs, which I courteously declined, under
their mocking eyes. They did talk, in broken Tagalog and Yuggad. But
everything else sounded pidgin to me.

At exactly  eight at night, the fourth day, we struck Salak’s camp. It was
made-up of 8 lean-tos, collapsible, movable and easy to transport.  Dogs
howled, children came running and voices filled the air. “The stranger is
here” the talk went on, as Milo later told me.

I was too tired  to eat or talk, but to refuse food would be an insult. To
my surprise, the food carefully prepared on the ground  made me forget  I
had aching bones and hurting feet. Salted pig meat boiled with “aduas”
leaves and “litilit” vine (often used as tea to ease muscle pains
effectively).. Boiled and dried crisp “udang” (crayfish) bigger than my
thumbs and pound cassava.  At the end of the meal, I was licking my

The following day, the tribesmen talked, sometimes all  together at a time.
The women whispered among themselves. Only Salak’s hand would interrupt
them.  I brought some tobacco, matches, dried  fish (only to find out
there is a bounty of guppies and the vanishing “ludong” in their midst),
salt,  biscuits, candies and a double-edged file. A dull arrow and spear is
next to useless, I was informed earlier in Baguio. After an hour or so of
studying each other like specimens, with Milo alternately talking in
Yuggad and  Ibanag to explain my trip,  Salak would wave the rest away.
Five  people, whom I guessed to be important in the tribe, stayed behind.

They talked of  their ways and  culture in laughter. They find humor in
every aspect of their life, though rigorous it is.  “We can laugh away at
our misery and enjoy our one meal at a time  in our existence”, Salak
unsmilingly said  “Most of us live a carefree lifestyle but it enables us to
survive”, he  added.

“Our life revolves around the family and is closely associated with seasonal
changes. We are preparing to go to another old farm site, three days hike
from here. Each of us have specific duties to perform, Salak narrated.

“Despite being forest dwellers and its guardian for hundreds of years, our
primitiveness conserved peace and prosperity in these lands. We live in
harmony with nature. We would rather flee than fight. But that does not make
us cowards. We rely on our own resources as our forefathers did. We will do
so now, especially that the outside world has given us unknown cruelty, ”
he said with a sigh.

In a fatherly gesture, Salak allowed his tribemembers who were talking in
muffled voices, to narrate bitter tales of oppression, exploitation and

He would intervene first to say “In our dialect, we don’t have words for
theft, hatred, selfishness and cruelty.  In our ways, these are strange.
When the lowlanders came, we were friendly, trusting and found out too late.
We traded meat with the lowlanders. In return, they gave us liquor,
Ginebra gin,” Salak refused to continue.

Riga, a 17 year old lass who was able to study for a year continued. “When
the men are drunk, the lowlanders get all our belongings. They laugh, kick
and even urinate on the drunk men. The lowlanders call us names like  hayop,
gago and tanga. We did not understand them at first”.  “At school, I am
often called by such  names, even by my teacher and it is heart-tearing,” she said

“Sometimes they give us money, later on we find out the amount to be only
ten pesos. We are always cheated,” added 23 year old  Moknas, once detained
briefly by the military for giving food to wounded rebels. “When we refuse
to barter our goods with them, they tie us like a dog and refuse to let us
drink for a day. My father almost died two years ago when they chained him
under the sun,” Moknas added.

Salak himself worked or rather slaved in a logging camp in Casiguran,
Quezon. Ordered to be with ten-wheeler trucks pulling themselves deep
towards the forest to cut, chain and  transport logs, he was made to wrap
the chains on freshly cut logs twenty times his size and hook it up on the
truck’s rear before these are hauled atop the truck. A simple mistake and a
swing of a log have ended two of his fellow Agta’s lives, he recalled
bitterly.  They are also fed last after all lumberjacks  leave the mess hall
and receive salaries lesser than  the ordinary laborer in the logging camp.

Agta women and children bear the brunt of some of the most cruel and inhuman
acts of oppression. When in lowland towns to barter meat or vegetables
for medicine or rice, they are inundated with lewd jokes, propositioned and
sexually abused. In Salak’s tribe, five women were raped by gold
prospectors and loggers. Some were gang-raped.

“The lowlanders would let us do all sorts of things.  Then they would force
themselves on us. Other lowlanders who witness the incidents just laugh at
what they see. Some encourage our rapists,” a middle-aged Agta woman sadly

“Children are made fun of. When Agta kids ask for food from strangers, the
food is thrown on the ground. Sometimes, spat on before given to children. I
know, I was one of those treated as such,” Moknas recalls.

Under Section 26 and 27 of the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA) or RA
8371, indigenous women and youth should be protected but the law is silent
as to the ways how protection is implemented. It  does not likewise say what
penalties are for those who violate such laws.

Inferior Citizens

Sadly, while many urban women are shouting for total equality and
justice, indigenous women  not only in the Philippines but all over the
world are silently crying for some.  Unfortunately, their pleas are never
heard, and if ever heard, not much is done about it.

In last year’s United Nation’s Children Fund (UNICEF) workshop on the
“Rights of Indigenous Children” in Baguio City, indigenous women and
children  were identified as the global underclass of exploitation.

“They are exploited in a manner most insensitive of their basic human rights
and needs,” the UNICEF workshop group said. “Women and children from tribal groups
are often subjected to slavery, physical abuse and  marginalization,”  the
participants added.

The workshop sought to examine the situation of indigenous peoples’
children in the Philippines. “Other than exploited, indigenous children and
women who  are to benefit from natural resources in ancestral domains, are
left with devastated ancestral lands, ” the workshop lamented.

The 17th Episcopal Commission on Indigenous Peoples Apostolates National
Convention and Consultation held at the San Pablo Seminary in November last
year  put  the indigenous peoples’ plight more bluntly. It said “tribal
peoples are exploited in a manner so dehumanizing  that it not only
threatens their very own existence, but  more so the future of the next
generation. The exploitation, sadly,  is done right under the very eyes of
the government,  which continue to enact laws  but doesn’t  have the will to
implement these ”

The Agta peoples’ case  is an ideal example. Prof. Bion Griffin of the
University of Hawaii’s Department of Anthropology  who studied the Agtas
say exploitation of the Agtas  has something to do with the way the
mainstream population are educated.  Lack of education, understanding and
appreciation of  the various  people and their culture within the context of
Philippine society allows surrounding groups to treat Agtas without
respect and subject them  to social insubordination.  Outsiders regards
Agtas as easy marks–to be cheated as efficiently as possible, as barely
human, inferior beings and as of no real worth, Griffin pointed out.

Indeed, the Agtas, are on the bottom of the complex Philippine social
hierarchy.  They have no access to power and are the mercy of dubious
patrons, mostly landowners.

Section 21 and 23 of IPRA say equal protection covers indigenous peoples
and provides that they should not be discriminated upon. So far, the law has
yet to be concretized to favor the Agtas.

Agtas Polarized

Not only are Agtas threatened into oblivion but their biodiversity as well.
Immigrant farmers are burning large tracts of  forests in Sierra Madre
aggravating the environmental harm already started by logging.  The remaining
forests of Palanan offer food but gathering and hunting are long and
exhausting. Nonetheless, Salak’s group feels safe under the jungles’ fold.

Yet, not all Agtas prefer to seek haven in the deep jungles. Salak says
many Agtas, even as inhuman acts are done to them, still cling with
newcomers in the mountain ranges with loggers and gold prospectors and in
small villages in the lowlands.. The availability of incredible and
unobtainable luxuries like cigarette, canned goods, coffee, sugar and liquor
is too tempting. Loggers and lowland farmers also offer jobs although wages
would be just enough to eke out three meals a day, he said.

Soldiers too are sources of goods whom Agtas trade with, although  with
caution. The common fear among Agtas when in the presence of military men ,
Salak says, is they ask “Do you know  or have you seen any rebel?”.
Answering yes or no doesn’t matter as one question leads to another, he

Not a few Agtas served  a few times for the military, Salak recalled. At
the Philippine Army camp at Upi, Gamu, Isabela, Agtas have been recruited
since 1980 and employed to teach jungle survival techniques, including how
to identify edible plants and helpful medicinal plants.  Treated with
respect inside the camp, the Agtas, however, are ridiculed outside.

As to communist rebels, “Wala problema”, Salak said in poor Tagalog, adding
through  Milo, “they are dangerous and sometimes warn us not to say
anything about them. Sometimes, they ask for food, even if
we don’t have much, we cannot refuse. We have heard they shoot people for
less reason”, he added.  “They seek us when they are wounded or have nothing
to eat”, Salak wryly  said.

For the Agtas are rich in knowledge on medicinal plants and traditional
health practices. But such indigenous knowhow is equally threatened to.
Those who go to live outside the skirts of lowland communities forget what
have been taught to them through their early years.  Separation form the
forest deadens the senses and dulls the memory, Salak said.

Poor Health Adding to Agta’s  Decline

Women  are the ones most hurt by the Agta’s deprivation.  The health of the
Agta woman is deteriorating not only because of inadequate nutrient  but
also due to stressful personal interactions, loss of social status, lowered self-image and diminishing
faith in Agta culture.

Gestation, childbirth and childrearing are difficult for the Agta . In
Salak’s camp, work load are often done by women. To avail of enough protein,
the pregnant women scour the forests. There have been occasional deaths  during delivery in the camp,
Riga said, especially during the first year of the babies after birth.
Pneumonia, dysentery and digestive tract problems are common to many of the

But they remain unfazed and prefer  to stay in the jungle rather than go to
the lowlands where a midwife resides. “This is all we have, where else
should we go?” Riga asked this writer.

Salak’s people believe many of their diseases came from the lowlanders, from
poisoned rivers and  bad food. Agta’s drink water from creeks without
boiling it . They say that with the rape of the forests, all their food may
soon be gone.

Chapter 26 of Agenda 21 of the UNCED provides that governments should
recognize and  strengthen resources of indigenous peoples but in a country
like the Philippines where virgin forests are down to only less than 700,000
hectares due to logging,  Salak and his band may soon lose their forests
faster than they  expect to.

No One To Turn To

Throughout much of this century, Agtas lived stable lives as hunters,
fishers and gatherers with sporadic cultivation of crops and trading
allowing  adequate, although hardly affluent life style.

But the onslaught of modernization has changed everything. The Agtas’ very
subsistence is being undercut by forces beyond their society’s control.
They are becoming a powerless and scorned cultural minority with seemingly
no law in their favor.

Unlike other major indigenous tribes like the Bontocs, Kalingas of Luzon
and the Lumads of Mindanao who are known to fight and struggle for their
land and rights, Agtas, unfortunately, do not share the same characteristic.
Worse, no one seems to be taking the cudgels of struggle for them, even as
there is a  National Commission of Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) created  to
look into indigenous peoples welfare.

They have always evaded direct confrontation and rather than  enmesh in a
conflict, avoid it, as it is their nature to be peace-loving.

As a result, too many immigrants have gained land and food at Agta’s
expense. Too few rights, and no access to the nation’s legal machinery are creating a
disadvantaged, deprived and disheartened ethnic group.

There is no comprehensive development program  tailored for these people.
The implementation of the  Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA) was
suspended by President Estrada last year. An ad hoc committee was supposed
to be created to implement some of the laws’ provisions. But this has not
been done yet.

If  no urgent attention and plan of action is taken up for the Agtas,
it may not be long before we see the last of a vanishing race, along with a
part of the country’s  rich cultural history and civilization. Already,
linguist professor Dr. Almus U. Crock said  the Agtas dialect, Atta faire
and Alta are moribund.

The people themselves are next.

With a heavy heart and feeling of helplessness, I left Salak and his people
one early bright morning as they prepared to abandon their camp.   Once
again they were on the move. I walked away, stood for a moment and looked
back. Salak stood proud under the rising sun. He waved, I had a feeling he
was smiling.
I waved back, bothered.

Even as I’ve seen and have been in more cruel situations  as in the Harijan
camps of the Untouchables in Bombay and Pune, Maharahstra, India  and in
the Bakthapur refugee camps in Nepal,  my heart bleeds  and breaks  for the

Something must be done, I thought. And it must be done fast. But by



Life of A Tree Planter By Michael A. Bengwayan



Life of a Tree Planter
…..michael  a.  bengwayan…


I am a freelance writer, a technical consultant on carbon management but for most of the time, I am a  tree planter. I don’t have much time for anything else but on a positive note  I believe that God put me on this earth to accomplish a certain number of tasks. And right now, I am so far behind that I will never die.

The Cordillera region  has only a forest cover of 31 per cent, a bit higher than the national figure of 21 percent. The worst deforested area is Benguet which only has some 29 per cent forest cover with Buguias town the least forest cover with 27 per cent.  The Gran Cordillera is a natural wasteland of 1,800,000 plus hectares. Farming roads form endless mazes to the middle of nowhere, logged barren blocks stretch  here and there due to shifting cultivation or “kaingin”, vegetable gardening and just plain tree cutting for home/farm use as well s for mine timbering.

Tree planting is pretty near the bottom of the rung in the mega empire that is the forestry industry in the Philippines. Meaning, everybody wants to cut but very few wants to plant. Most forestry workers, like loggers, get paid a hefty living allowance per day for working in remote areas, but not tree planters. Tree planting is conveniently targeted at the precise age group that is stupid enough to actually pay camp costs of at least 200 pesos  per day just to be allowed to plant.

In my almost 20 years of planting trees,   I have met many so-called tree planters. Mostly greenhorns, new comers , new kids on the block.  Many of these  rookie tree planters are  cockeyed optimists – some  ecstatic after getting a college degree like environmental science or forestry. But the rest are a mixture breed–with different educational backgrounds and strange experiences. They think tree-planting is a  chance to save the world. Many just come for photo-ops. Others really just don’t give a damn but are there because their friends are there.

Perhaps one of the greats of literature could summarize a rookie tree planter’s experiences in paragraph, but alas, I cannot. Needless to say, they are formative.  Young, idealistic guys, looking for adventure,. They plant, sing under the trees,  party,  sleep under million star open hotel and go back to their normal routine. They regale their  friends and colleagues with stories of hardship and environmental revolution. Their pride in their  accomplishments as a young tree planters beam in their  eyes throughout the year. And despite the tone of cynicism in their prose, their are  honest, and to be fair, well-deserved manner.

Others like my best friend Dick (now in Canada) who has been planting for more than 15 years seldom talk of tree planting.  When the wind blows, his dreadlocks shift ever-so-slightly, revealing a seasoned planter’s thousand-yard stare. He’s  stout like me, but tough as a brick shit house, while setting up the bush camp. He is is one of the few individuals who actually can do what I can whether it’s camp shit house , planting alone under a storm or getting out from a ravine after seemingly lost. Even now, among all the people I trained, nothing comes close to him..perhaps two or just three.

Dick burst from the womb of undergraduate agricultural education into a harsh and bitter workforce, tried to carve out his piece of the pie, even in mining in Kalinga but was utterly indistinguishable from the sea of extension  majors looking for entry-level positions. I called him and we started our volunteer group  ITAG, we went  planting trees starting the late 1987 after EDSA, disillusioned and not wanting to wage war in the streets  with police no more,  doubling up our efforts until  the end of the last decade of the 20th century, penniless, boots with holes, jeans like sun tans faded in the unforgiving Cordillera mountains and terrain. We traveled the world under the trees.

Needless to say, after 15 years of tree planting, he knew the tree planting work intimately. He realized that the tree planting groups, mostly fly-by-night NGOs,  as well as the government’s DENR were all contracted by big evil logging companies to replant what they’ve clear cut. Heck, there wouldn’t even be tree planting if we didn’t ravage Cordillera’s  forests for the mining industry that was killing Benguet relentlessly. “They’re just working for the machine, man and for filthy rich in Imperial Manila” is what he would tell me. Dick  grew bitter. So he left.

I left likewise. But I came back. I am a morphed tree planter. I just started planting because everybody else was cutting. I have gone-but-not-forgotten years of tree planting in other countries–India, Taiwan, Nepal, Tanzania, Kenya, China, Indonesia and even in Ireland. I have run planting groups from villages instilling in me a  deep-seeded love, hate, and most of all, protectionism of tree planting. Also, after years of study and employment researching issues of sustainability, resource management, ecology, and climate change in forestry, I found himself wondering about the public perception of the vanishing Philippine forest in my generation. When i speak and read the seldom-occurring tree planting literature in the popular media, I can notice a striking disconnect between facts and perceptions of forestry and sustainability.

So I rebut.  Wood is a sustainable resource and fossil fuels are not – forests grow back and gasoline, crude oil or coal don’t, or at least not at any rate that we’re concerned with. Forestry, unlike agriculture, is one of the very few land uses that doesn’t cause deforestation, as there is a vested interest in trees growing back. Forestry workers are some of the most marginalized labourers in the country and forest-dependent communities, like most in the Cordillera,  some of the most impoverished. The country is so near to becoming a wasteland, it is no laughing matter but i do not see our President, lawmakers, technocrats and government line agencies doing something urgent. They’re sitting on their fat arses. Only a few of them actually understand totally the impact that climate change is bringing.

Solving global warming for instance cannot be done alone by reforestation but by letting people understand the importance and urgency of what we are doing.

For instance, our law tells us not to cut trees. But the law does not explain why. Worse, the law does not know why. That is why, the law can be circumvented by other flimsy reasons to allow tree cutting just to put up a business building, over the fact that trees are more important than  buildings because they produce the oxygen we  breath. Can buildings make oxygen? Can they give us oxygen to breathe? Where are our priorities? We have to educate our ignorant law-makers and law enforcers.

Meanwhile, the country will wait. For more deaths. Destruction. For wrong decisions.

Having said all that. I plant. As I said, i don’t have much time. And even if I had, it would not be enough to plant all the trees that needs to be planted.


  1. ImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageOn January 20, 2011, after writing a petition that gathered more than 50,000 signatureS, I organized and led the biggest environmental protest rally in Baguio against the killing of trees by SM. Today, SM has consented to go back to its drawing board, the case still pending in the higher court, and the cutting and earthballing of the trees has temporarily been stopped, although some have already died because of the attempt to earthball them . I was asked several times in the past if i will do it again. Why not?

How We Saved an Eroded Land in Mankayan and Made It a Forest….michael a. bengwayan

How We Saved a Land in Mankayan and Made it a Forest….in 2010, I got a letter from a school principal asking for help to save their school and nearby school compound from being eroded and washed off the face of a mountain due to mining operations.  We went to see the washed off land which has become a ravine, devoid of any flora. I called on my group ATAD for volunteers and financial support and today this is how the place looks like three years of consecutive planting missions by ATAD. Thinking how i got a tongue lashing from a politician who did not approve of our intervention and his letter of apology gives me a chance to smile now and then. This year, 2014, we will go back again to plant some  more trees.ImageLandImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageHowImageImageHoImageImageImageImageImageImage

Throwing Caution to the Wind….michael a. bengwayan

Throwing Caution to the Wind……michael a. bengwayan

i wanted to hit the ground running as planned several weeks back for 2014. everything was going well as i tried to race against time preparing the “Tulong sa Lupa, Tulong sa Kapwa: Seeds for Life Mission for Leyte come first moon of  February. what was morphing out from the plan gave me inspiration that the unspoken prayers in my weary and befuddled mind were being answered by the Almighty.

I was right. and I was wrong. Suddenly, without any warning nor sign, i found myself on my knees, excruciating in pain. what turned out to be a routine response to the call of nature  at graveyard shift left me so helpless, and down on the floor. i recalled the time i was atop a church zenith retying a broken bell rope and falling some 20 meters down. i stared at the pool of blood on the floor, on the bowl while holding tight my sickening abdomen. i tried urinating once more only to see blood and clots and feeling like my guts were going to spill out..

i sat down in a frenzy, tried to think while gathering my wits. i knew if the bleeding goes on, it will reach my kidneys and poison kingdom come. but much more worse things have happened to men who mocked the temple of the spirit. i deserved no less.

on the floor, my two kittens–yin and yang– given just a baker’s dozen days ago, stared at me mockingly. yin came near, rubbing his head on my face. i knew i had to get up. i had to reach someone at home. the soonest the better for me.

my wagon was not with me, lent it to my daughter earlier to bring Seth to see those water spurts at burnham that cost taxpayers some 50 million maddening odd bucks. i started the van, it kicked off crazily but won’t move, getting down, i saw one tire was flat. now, at 2 am in the cold morning with my family’s home some seven kilometers away, walking, i would not have much chance.

it’s hard to disturb people, especially on a cold night and i would not do it to grace. so i gambled on texting dr. phy, hoping she was awake and on duty. she told me to calm down and not to panic…that grace and sam will pick me up and bring me straight to the butchering refuge, a place decent people call hospital.

my daughter phy explained to me everything, short of any litany or sermon, but with restrained irritation of the fact that i have overworked, neglected  and abused myself. i listened taking it all in, it was no time to talk back of things we don’t understand about but assumed we know. i got it coming anyway. a senior of dr. phy came in and explained it more in a gentle way…and that the operation has to happen if i were to see the next sunrise.

my prostate and urinary bladder have been bleeding and i never gave it much thought, i thought it was just dark urine caused by what i take in. i was wrong as i have been wrong in many things i know nothing of.

so off to they brought me to that gestapo cell-looking room. even as i pray that the biopsy tests will be in my favor.