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Visiting the Bataks of Sitio Kalakwasan, Palawan in 2016/17

I first visited Sitio Kalakwasan, a Batak village in the forest in Barangay Tanabag within the city boundary of Puerto Princesa, in 2010 when I was producing a coffee-table book of photos for the then Mayor Ed Hagedorn; I will create a separate post about that. It was one of most unforgettable assignments of that failed project. The Bataks are the smallest of the indigenous tribes in Palawan and face an uncertain future with their population having dwindled down to no more than about 49 families numbering not much in excess of 300 people, less than half the number from the beginning of the last century.  Rapid depopulation, restricted forest access, sedentary living, and incursion by immigrants has impacted the group culturally. Today, very few Batak marry other Batak but tend to marry from other neighboring groups. The pattern has been that the children of these marriages tend not to follow Batak cultural ways, and today “pure” Batak are rare. They are also not reproducing to sustain their population. As a result, Batak are being absorbed into a more diffuse group of upland indigenous peoples who are slowly losing their tribal identities, and with it their unique spirituality and culture; there is even some debate as to whether or not they still exist as a distinct ethnic entity. I was informed that Kalakwasan is the most culturally authentic of the Batak communities, but having first been there in early 2010 and then not until 2016 when I started working with the Centre for Sustainability http://centreforsustainabilityph.org on their “Saving the Almaciga Tree Project” http://centreforsustainabilityph.org/saving-the-almaciga-project/, I could see how the influence of the outside world has inevitably taken its toll, which is sad to see.

The Batak are considered by anthropologists to be closely related to the Ayta of Central Luzon, another Negrito tribe. They tend to be small in stature, with dark skin and short curly or “kinky” hair, traits which originally gave the “Negrito” groups their name. Still, there is some debate as to whether the Batak are related to the other Negrito groups of the Philippines or actually to other, physically similar groups in Indonesia or as far away as the Andaman Islands. Since ancient time they have inhabited a series of river valleys along the 50 kilometers stretch of coastline northeast of what is today Puerto Princesa City. Recently part of that original homeland was designated as Cleopatra’s Needle Critical Habitat, the largest such protected area in the Philippines, thanks to a determined campaign project by the Centre of Sustainability in cooperation with the Bataks. Their economic activities involve mostly swidden farming (slash and burn or Kaingin system as it’s referred to in the Philippines), hunting, and natural resource product gathering: primarily almaciga resin-tapping, rattan pole collecting, and honey gathering. They were traditionally very nomadic hunter-gatherers and thus less motivated to cultivate permanent land areas for crops productions. Traditionally they only plant cassava, banana, sweet potato, ube, gabi, and coconuts. Bataks have always followed animist beliefs of spirits that reside in the natural world, but inevitably the dominant religion in the Philippines, Roman Catholicism, has made inroads into their lives. Prior to residing in Kalakwasan, and seven other villages, their original territory was lost to loggers, minor forest products concessionaires and lowland settlers pushing them from their original settlements to the higher altitude forest interiors. This significantly reduced their swidden farming and hunting activities as well as the forest products gathering area. To safeguard their economic survival the Centre for Sustainability has also been engaged in empowering the Bataks to sell their forest products directly to the main markets rather than through middlemen, which greatly reduces their profits.

 

He was one of the first Bataks that I recognised from my first visit in 2010 when he was one of the two men who performed a hunting dance for me to photograph. He is really friendly and always greets me warmly.

I recognised Antonio from the opening ceremony of the Batak Visitor’s Centre. We stayed at his camp higher up the river during the Almaciga Cone Collecting Expedition. He is also very friendly and gracious. Here he is in his home just outside Kalakwasan with his wife, daughter and grand-daughter in their simple home.

 

Antonio’s neighbours with some fine Batak basketry hanging up. I noticed a monkey’s skull hanging up in the roof and it’s there as part of their animist beliefs in animal and forest spirits. It’s their way of appeasing a hunted animal’s spirit to bring them good fortune for the next hunt. There are some pandan leaves on the floor, which will be woven into a mat.

 

 

 

I feel very comfortable with people like this who live such a simple unassuming life. I could easily live in a house like this a long way off the grid of frenetic modern living.

I was really excited to return to Kalakwasan in 2016 to document the Almaciga Cone Collecting Expedition – see previous post https://wp.me/p6wch1-fP – for the Centre for Sustainability’s Saving the Almaciga Tree Project. After taking public transport from Puerto Princesa it takes no more than an hour to walk to the village in the forest with several river crossings along the way. I recognised a lot of the people who I had photographed in 2010 including the two men who had peformed a traditional Batak hunting dance for me to photograph. On that occassion I was very sensitive to being a photographer intruding into the private lives of these shy people, although it was made somewhat easier because I was working for the mayor. Following on from that assignemt I photographed the opening of the new Batak Visitor Centre at Barangay Concepcion attended by Mayor Hagedorn. Even if they remembered me and why I was previously there I knew that I would have to earn their trust and let them know that I wasn’t just another tourist barging into their village as if it was a zoo open to the public, taking holiday snaps and only giving sweets or instant noodles in return as I was informed. I was there because I had volunteered to work with the Centre for Sustainability to help to preserve the forest, and the best way to do that is to ensure that the ORIGINAL custodians of the forest and their traditional way of life, which is respectful to the earth and its resources, is protected at the same time. I was not there to take from them but to respect a simpler way of life that we should all be aspiring to if we are going to stand any chance of halting the destruction of our once beautiful planet.

 

I heard that the men say that they can have motorbikes and still be Bataks – I really hope so

Fashion and image consciousness has always been part of being a teenager but now it’s more far-reaching

That instant coffee tastes and feels very good to a young boy!

 

Unfortunately plastic bags and other plastic reaches the village in the forest as with just about everywhere and there is a lot of garbage scattered around.

 

 

 

The commonest toys in the world where there are no toyshops or money to buy them are old tyres or wheels on a stick.

 

It didn’t take his older brother long to fix it after he had some good fun smashing it on the ground.

 

 

Taking a “drive” down to the river with her little brother and sister onboard.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was immediately apparent that “modernisation” had arrived when I saw the row of ugly yellow concrete pillars carrying solar-powered lights through the middle of the village and a single TV in a small village store attracting Bataks like moths to a candle with the most incongruous of teledramas from Manila and Korea. I could see that mobile phones were more prevalent, especially among the young men, but for me the most worrying arrival is the new catholic school armed with two loudspeakers that blast out religious proselytising for about an hour every night completely drowning out the once hypnotic sounds of the gurgling river, chirping frogs and crickets, and the laughter of children. I was also dismayed by how religiocentric the teaching is in the new school, which is completely at odds with the traditional animist beliefs of the Bataks that have instilled a deep sense of respect and wonder for the natural world, rather than the purely exploitative attitude that is encouraged by having a biblical dominion over the earth. I know that it’s inevitable in such a devoutly catholic country as the Philippines but I hope and pray that these mountain people of the forest can retain some of their animist beliefs. But having said all of that it was still immensely refreshing for me to observe and photograph these beautiful people living a much more sustainable life than the majority of us in a very close community without walls, fences and barriers; everywhere you look there are people mingling, children laughing and playing together, babies and little children in slings on their mothers, fathers or older siblings, mothers breastfeeding their babies, communal cooking and eating, people making things or just generally chilling out.

 

It’s grooming time!

 

 

This beautiful little girl is a good example of the “negrito” heritage with her mop of curly hair.

 

This fruit was evidently quite a prize.

 

 

 

 

Driving his wheels over a suspension bridge at the upper end of the village. From there on you have to make numerous river crossings in the river to get up the valley, which can be quite hazardous after heavy rainfall.

 

A community meeting was arranged for me to be introduced and approved along with some other Centre for Sustainability business. The Bataks were originally very suspicious of the motives and obectives of the Centre for Sustainability and plenty of diplomacy and presuasion was required for them to be accepted as genuine working partners. As well as introducing myself it was immensely rewarding for me to be able to share some of my photos of them from 2010 at a subsequent meeting. They were so enthralled and when I had finished they asked to see them again. I have done so many photo presentations in my life and I’m quite sure that I have never enjoyed watching the audience as much as I did on this occasion as they pointed at the screen and laughed when they recognised each other. It was an absolute delight for me and a glowing affirmation of why I love to do what I do. It’s great to be published and win competitions but there can be no greater personal reward than this. I hope that one day a small booklet of my photos can be published and distributed among the familys in Kalakwasan.

 

 

There’s usually some activity on the village basketball court even if it’s raining!

 

He was a very sweet friendly young Batak who accompanied us on an Almaciga tapping expedition, which was carried out to implement new cutting and tapping procedures to ensure a sustainable yield. He always wanted to share his knowledge of edible plants in the forest with me. I marvelled at him scaling a tree to collect some fruit for us to sample. They really are people of the forest who have been climbing trees so instinctively from childhood.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lito is the senior tree climber in the village who ascended the lofty almaciga trees during the cone collecting expedition.

 

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