Words and photos by Raf Dionisio
We’ve been working with the Yangil Tribe for the last 20 months trying to re-forest 3,000 hectares, grow a 100 hectare food forest and create a 1 hectare herbal healthcare forest in the ancestral domains of San Felipe, Zambales. I visit Yangil about 3 times a month and it is during those days together that they give me a glimpse of what the ideal community culture should look like. I particularly enjoy my morning walks and conversations with former Chieftain Alex Bagat, a 57 year old farmer.
Kuya Alex teaching me about edible flowers.
I recently found myself deep into the domain with a dozen Aeta men and women, planting trees and planning the next phase of the sustainability project. While planting, Kuya Alex invited me to his hut, which was two hundred meters away from our forest nursery. We walked through his farm and saw proof of how the tribes can bring the land to life – despite the barren ash wasteland on the other side of the brush, Kuya Alex’s land was fertile, and blooming. He had watermelon, white and purple string beans, wing beans, yellow sweet potatoes and rice – all planted on a mix of volcanic ash and mud, near a stream and by the foothills.
We were well into the dry season and the nearest water pump was two hundred meters away. I was flabbergasted at the thought of how many buckets of water he had to haul manually to hydrate his hectare of crops (no easy feat for someone who is almost 60 years old.) When we got to his hut, he excitedly showed me around the simple 7×7 foot structure that was built out of tree trunks and grass. The roof was low and I had to bend over to enter.
Kuya Alex’s hut
He said, “Kung sa susunod nandito ka, pwede kang bumisita. Baka maisip mo –‘nandiyan kaya is Kuya Alex?’” (“The next time you’re here, you can visit me. It might occur to you, ‘I wonder if Brother Alex is home?’”)
He was sincerely delighted at the prospect chilling with guests inside his hut, sipping black coffee, ( a beverage that I noticed the Aetas are all big fans of). As I sat on his wooden mattress/bed, he explained to me how to eat different flowers and which trees were suitable as Reforestation Pioneer Species.
Our team’s quest for reforestation has showed us the irony of how my first-class Manila education cannot compete with the natural knowledge of the Aetas regarding biodiversity and the function of different plants and trees in the forest. He explained to me that Ipil-Ipil tree is a great tool for reforestation because it is drought tolerant, grows very quickly and has leaves that, when shed, provide the volcanic soil with much needed nitrogen. It’s not a very big tree – growing only up to 25 feet. He also explained that a large concentration of Ipil-Ipil trees can, over time, create solid mud paths through the shedding of their leaves. The benefits of this plant do not stop there. Apparently, the tree trunk can be used for paper and is also a good source of charcoal. The leaves of the tree are a favorite of deer, chickens, pigs and cows.
Encouraged by this information, I asked Kuya Alex how to plant an Ipil-Ipil tree – was it via seed or cutting? “Pareho pero mas matatagal ang punong galing binhi.” (“Both but trees grown from seeds last longer.”) He added that to increase the success rate or germination of the seeds, one can boil the dried brown seeds before planting.
After our lesson, I jokingly asked him if I could eat the dried browns seeds. He said, “Ay syempre hindi. Pero pwede mong kainin yun batang binhi.” (“Of course not but you can eat the fresher green ones.”) So my 57 year old guide climbed an Ipil-Ipil tree with his bare hands and feet to fetch me some fresh seeds which were hanging some 20ft in the air.
He climbed up and down smoothly, and returned minutes later with a few pods. He opened them for me and started nibbling on the green seeds. “Pangpurga ito ng hayop at tao mula sa bulate.” (“This is used to cleanse animals and people’s stomachs, specifically against stomach worms.”)
I popped two seeds into my mouth and chewed. It tasted like raw gumbo (Okra) with a hint of bitter cough medicine at the end. The consistency and texture was similar to the seeds of undercooked string beans. Kuya Alex laughed at my facial expression and regaled me with stories of stomach worms that he discovered after eating these seeds.
A lone Ipil-Ipil tree near the nursery.
At this point, the late morning sun was rising in the sky and so was the temperature. I had to walk back through the volcanic ash valley before noon or else I would risk getting a heat stroke. The barrenness of the valley mixed with super reflective volcanic ash makes for a blistering stroll from 11am to 2pm. I told Kuya Alex that I had to go and he offered to escort me to the entrance of the valley.
As we walked back, he insisted on giving me a going away present for the team back at The Circle Hostel. He wanted to give fresh string beans. I felt embarrassed at the offer and told him that I could buy the produce from him. Kuya Alex declined, and unknowingly proceeded to teach me the lesson of the day about the culture of sharing and giving.
I wont mince words here. Kuya Alex is poor. He is a subsistence farmer, and I am an entrepreneur from the city. Surely 2 kilos of string beans could make a difference to his life more than it could affect mine? Right?
As he picked the beans, he shared this with me: “Kultura kasi ito ng pagbibigay. Dati hindi kalingang bayaran ang mga bagay. Kultura natin na magbigay. Ngayon kaunti na lang ang taong ganun. (This is a culture of giving and sharing what you have. We didn’t have to pay for things in the past. It was part of our culture to share with others. Today, there are very few people who still live by that culture)
As I accepted the fresh, hand-picked string beans, I reflected on what this meant to me. I questioned my own concept of sharing and giving. Here was living proof that those that have the least are also the most generous. The city has a tendency to teach us to appreciate gifts that are more expensive, fancy or lavish. Yet the Aetas in the countryside were teaching me about another frame of mind – that some of the best gifts are the ones that take the most time and effort.
His 2 kilos of strings beans weigh much more in my mind than the P80 market value they hold. I am grateful that his generosity has resonated with my own heart, and am now left to ponder what else I can do.
This made me more determined to come back, and help them grow their agri-businesses through the power of sustainable and responsible eco-tourism. So please, wont you join us for our next Tribes and Treks tour? It starts with a walk to the Aeta Village in Yangil where you will learn about their story, their culture, share their food, and most importantly, help replant their rainforest.