The Tingguians of the northern Philippines highlands

by AFP/Cecil Morella, Jan 5, 2009 | Destinations: Philippines

TAYUM, December 23, 2008 - Goats and oxen graze among the ruins of a paper mill by the Abra River, a big-ticket project which brought war on the Tingguian tribal people of the northern Philippines highlands.

"It would be nice if we could have our farm back," said Daniel Briones, 54, as he sat outside his nearby hut weaving bamboo and rattan baskets, his remaining means of feeding his family of nine.

The pulp mill, which the government seized and tore down for scrap after the 1986 fall of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, remains a sore topic around this mountainous region, the ancestral home of upland farmers and gatherers collectively known as Tingguians.

Residents claim the government forced them to sell their farms to make way for the Cellophil Resources Corp. plant, which won a franchise in the 1970s to harvest pine on some 400,000 hectares (nearly a million acres) of forest land.

Pura Sumangil, a social worker and former teacher, saw hundreds of her Tingguian students take up arms to join a widespread communist insurgency.

The new government signed a peace treaty with the hill people in 1987, and Sumangil helped at least 300 Tingguian former rebels get presidential pardons, government jobs or payoffs.

"The project provoked social unrest because it encroached on the Tingguians' ancestral domain," she told AFP.

Yet as electricity came to the upland communities in the 1980s, traditional Tingguian society was on its last legs.

The government lists the Tingguians as one of nearly 100 ethno-linguistic groups in the Philippines. They number about 98,000, mostly in Abra province's highlands, and each of the 11 sub-groups have their own distinct language.

Though nominally Christian, Tingguians were traditionally guided in their decision-making by shamans who divined from the internal organs of chickens or pigs when to sow crops, get married, or even where to find lost livestock.

These days weavers, sugarcane wine makers and traditional medicine men are a dying breed, Tingguian elders said.

"We feel hurt that some of our young people have forgotten some of our customs and traditions," said Nestor Guyo, a former vice mayor of the town of Luba and an elder statesman of the Maeng, one of the largest Tingguian groups.

"Worse, some of them actually are ashamed of their Tingguian identity," Guyo said, blaming the spread of Christianity, modern education and the failure of the land to provide adequate sustenance.

"There are areas where the Tingguian culture is still dominant, and there are areas where Tingguian influence is practically subordinated to a more dominant one," said Roman Catholic Father Cirilo Ortega, an anthropologist and president of the Divine Word College in nearby Bangued town.

"Before, the Tingguians would bring their products to the lowlands. Nowadays the traffic has reversed," he said.

"Of course there's always a danger of them disappearing from the face of the earth," said Ortega, a member of a Tingguian group called the Binongan.

He said the survival of the culture would depend on how the community "confronts the so-called outside influences, and maybe the internal cohesiveness of the group".

Ortega said the Cellophil issue "heightened the Tingguians' awareness of their identity as a people," but the insurgency that ensued had also led to great suffering and strains on the community.

Provincial governor Eustaquio Bersamin said the upland people needed something other than rain-dependent farm plots to feed them.

But as a result of the old Cellophil issue, the locals are generally wary of the outside world, including potential mining investments.

"The elders have a negative mindset, that if we bring this, it would destroy the environment," Bersamin said.

"I tell them mining is good, as long as it is properly regulated."

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