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Almaciga Cone Collecting Expedition, Cleopatra’s Needle Critical Habitat

Shortly after volunteering my services as a photographer to the Centre for Sustainability in Palawan in 2016 I had my first exciting assignment: to document the Almaciga cone collecting expedition from the Batak village Sitio Kalakwasan for one of its flagship projects; the Saving the Almaciga Tree Project, which is linked to its other flagship project which successfully established Cleopatra’s Needle, the ancestral homeland of the Bataks, as a critical habitat. I joined project officer Solomon Calago with Bataks: Lito, Orabel, Jembay, Rio, Noly, Ricky, Samuel, Charly, Jolito Jr, Jaymart and Mundo, with special thanks to our host Antonio.





The Almaciga tree is the primary non-timber forest product of the forest of Cleopatra’s Needle; its high-value resin represents approximately 80% of the income of the Indigenous Peoples (IPs) who have lived in this area since time immemorial. This ancient coniferous tree used to dominate the forests of northern Palawan; over-harvesting, together with illegal activities, now threaten its existence. The indigenous communities in the area together with the Centre for Sustainability aim to ensure the future survival of the Almaciga tree, and thus the livelihood and existence of the indigenous people, through research, reforestation, education & training, and enforcement.

Before I could begin working with the Bataks in the now declared Cleopatra’s Needle Critical Habitat I introduced myself at a community meeting, and was approved to participate in this project. They are understandably somewhat suspicious of the intentions of any foreigners that enter their idyllic village in the forest, and justifiably so when so many visitors just take photos without their consent, and return nothing to their community apart from maybe undesirable food that can give them the wrong perception about their own traditional food as being inferior.







I was very excited and happy to be doing something very different from anything I’ve done before, and which is so important for the survival of this unique, but depleted indigenous tribe. We set of the next morning loaded up with enough food for a few days, and headed along the trail up the Tanabag River with frequent river crossings along the way. After a few hours trekking we reached our base for the cone collecting, a seasonal farming camp used by Antonio and his two nephews from the village. It’s in a beautiful location up above the river with a commanding view of the surrounding forest, and Antonio maintains a very colourful garden of flowers around the shelter that attracts myriads of butterflies and other insects that kept me very preoccupied while I was there.














In the afternoon and the next day, Solomon, who is an experienced climber, introduced the Bataks to some modern climbing equipment and techniques that they were able to practice with in some nearby trees down by the river. They traditionally use the infinitely useful rattan from the forest for climbing for such purposes as collecting honey so it was interesting, and evidently frequently amusing for them to be learning some modern climbing methods. But I was glad that when it was time to tackle the first almaciga tree they employed their tried and tested methods using the versatile rattan vines, and just used the modern equipment for a rapid descent when the task was completed, so that I could observe and photograph their resourcefulness using only what they could gather in the forest.

















Our first cone-collecting day was on September 16th, my birthday, but I had somehow lost track of the date and was oblivious to my birthday for the first time since I was too young to know anything about it haha. It was a long steep trek up a frequently slippery path to get to a suitable almaciga tree. I hadn’t fully recovered from a long debilitating bout of the flu so it was quite challenging for me at times, and I became very hot and dehydrated. Along the way we encountered an almaciga tree that had been deliberately burnt and sabotaged by “lowlanders” from beyond the forest as they are referred to. I was horrified that these “invaders” would deliberately deprive the ancestral dependants of these trees. The Bataks are a very gentle peace-loving people who shy away from any confrontation with these disrespectful lowlanders. It’s another reason why it’s so important for the forests of Cleopatra’s Needle, the ancestral homeland of the Bataks, to be declared as a forest reserve.





We eventually found a suitable almaciga tree, and the men commenced the planning and preparation for the ascent after lunch. As a lifelong traveller who spent many years camping alone off the grid in the Alaskan wilderness for months at a time, reliant on my own resourcefulness as people like this are so accustomed to, I feel a deep sense of connection and desire to live more like them again. It only really happens once in a while now when I take off on solo kayaking trips as I did around New Caledonia last year. I was intrigued to see how they would go about scaling a 30 metre plus almaciga tree with a broad smooth white trunk towering skywards through the forest canopy like a marble column. They all carry a trusty bolo that was wielded with such dexterity precision as they transformed the rattan vines that had been gathered along the way into hooks and loops, and stripped off strands for lashing. We were on a fairly steep slope with quite a lot of undergrowth so it was quite tricky for me to move around taking photos with my cameras dangling around my neck.






Eventually I ascertained that their strategy is to scale a smaller tree nearby that can be bent and lashed to a larger tree growing alongside the almaciga tree, and then create a rattan connecting bridge from there. I used to love climbing trees but haven’t risked it for ages, so I was enthralled to see the ease with which they can clamber up a narrow trunk that they can grip with their hands and literally walk up.



I was getting quite a neck-ache looking up, and trying to observe and photograph the more complicated connection between the second tree and the almaciga. Lito who is 42 and still as lithe as a teenager is the senior climber, and was doing most of the advance work with help from Orebel. From what I could see he was first using a throw rope, the only non-forest resource being used for the ascent, with a stick tied on the end to enable its retrieval with a long pole of rattan with a rattan v-fork lashed on the end as a hook. It took many attempts before he was able to throw the rope and stick around the almaciga branch that he wanted to attach the rattan bridge to, and then haul it back with the rattan pole and hook. In addition to the rattan pole hook Lito had also made a loop out of rattan by bending and twisting the end of a thinner more flexible length of rattan. The rope that had been thrown and looped around the almaciga branch was then tied to the rattan loop so that length of flexible but strong rattan could be hauled back around the branch to create the bridge. As far as I could see more connections were made to secure the bridge, but when it came to crossing the rattan bridge I was amazed to see Lito pulling himself along the top of the single strand, with his toes gripping it to secure his balance. He made it look so easy, and by the way he was already at a height of at least 12 metres I would estimate. They don’t usually use any kind of safety aids when they climb trees but for this Centre for Sustainability project they are required to wear a modern safety harness.













Once he was securely on the almaciga tree Lito proceeded to clamber up the trunk and branches, and knock some cone-laden branches off with the long rattan pole. He looked completely at ease and quite at home high up in the tree, and I watched him with a certain amount of envy; I may have to get some tree climbing lessons with him! When enough cones had been knocked off the tree he made a rapid descent back down using the climbing rope that had been hauled up and attached to a branch. I’m sure that was an exhilarating change for him! The cones were then collected from around the base of the tree, and we made our way back to camp where the cones were carefully sorted to extract the seeds before having a very traditionally prepared dinner with some wild rice from Antonio’s field.




The next day














The next day we had a much easier hike to get to another suitable almaciga tree. By that time I had started to notice some red tender areas on my feet, especially between my toes that I suspected was a fungal infection because I had been foolishly wearing hiking boots with permanently hot, wet feet. By the next morning when it was time to return to Kalakwasan my right foot especially had become very sore, and it was extremely painful for me to walk. I had to walk through the pain barrier all the way back to the village, and I was mightily relieved to get back. I took my boots and socks off to rest them up on a chair, and putting them back on was excruciatingly painful and couldn’t be done without a lot of grimacing! I was taken back to the main road back to Puerto Princesa on the back of a motorbike and nearly had a nasty crash along the way. My feet were getting increasingly painful, and as I waited for the next van I felt very chilled and had to put on extra layers of clothing. Two days later my feet were so swollen, blistered and painful that I realised that it was much more than just a fungal infection……it was the dreaded trenchfoot from a bacterial infection! I was unable to walk more than a few painful steps for another week. It was an unfortunate consequence of my first assignment for the Centre for Sustainability, but in hindsight with my feet and another subsequent leg infection healed I can now categorically state that it was well worth it to add another unique experience to my adventurous life, and to witness the activities of a people who really belong to the forest, and who deserve to have it protected for their survival. I may have forgotten my birthday on the day but it’s a birthday that I will never ever forget.









My infected feet when I got back to Kalakwasan


The next day the infection had spread across my left foot, and a day or two later they were swollen with pustules and so painful.



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