Living in Harmony With Nature: A Lesson From the Agtas of Tiwi


LEGAZPI CITY — The tribal leader said he lives nearby. Speaking in Tagalog, he said, “Diyan lang (nearby),” when asked where he would go home to.

To indigenous peoples, the phrase “Diyan lang,” is as simple as pointing to the back with a hand over their shoulder. Without clarifying further, the “bagong salta” (newcomers) might be in for a long walk over the rugged mountain terrain they have never trekked before.

Indigenous peoples are used to walking long hours, their stamina not even challenged, partly because they are used to it, and partly because they are healthy enough to face the hardships owing to the nature of their communities. This explains the phrase “Diyan lang,” which may refer to a distance that would take the “bagong salta” three days to reach.

They said they did not choose to live a poverty-stricken life. They are not bound to suffer as they have been living in mineral-rich and nature-bountiful lands their forefathers have nurtured for generations. The mountains used to give them precious metals such as gold, silver, copper, nickel and many more. The rivers used to teem with fish and other marine resources. The plains gave them the needed cereals, meat and vegetables.

Their forefathers used to enjoy the richness of their ancestral territories, until the “bagong salta” brandishing a piece of paper, told them to leave because machineries would come and build school houses and roads, not just for the “natives,” but for national development.

Tiwi has also lost its hot springs to the geothermal plant, which now produces 289 mega-watts (MW) of electricity contributing some eight percent for the Luzon grid. Tiwi geothermal field is one of only two commercially operating geothermal plants in the country. The other, producing 459 MW, is Makiling-Banahaw geothermal field in Laguna and Batangas provinces.

Renewable energy could be the answer to global warming because it does not produce much greenhouse gases.

The Agtas of Tiwi, Albay are not exempt from this reality, although their counterparts in other areas in the Philippines are not luckier than them either. They headed farther into the mountains and now live in narrow valleys, where they could still ask their gods to control the wind and the rains.

That is the way with indigenous peoples. Their belief systems make them resilient to even the worst impacts of climate change. When they do not see any rain and their crops wither, they perform rituals that would invoke for rains and the cooling down of the temperature.

“We talk to nature through our gods to help us talk to the rain and wind,” the tribal chieftain said in Filipino. He was referring to the rituals they perform from time to time but mostly twice a year depending on the need.

The Agtas see climate change and global warming as nature’s way of punishing those who have violated it. As one Agta teacher would say, “Climate change is nature’s whip because it has been violated.”

To remedy this, the tribal leaders offer prayers and ask for forgiveness in behalf of the erring people. They invoke for the resumption of good weather.

“The holding of the ritual is the responsibility of the whole community. It is not just of the persons performing the rituals, according to Roland Atanacio,26, a teacher from sitio (subvilllage) Altong in Misibis.

There was one ritual, which the Agta performed in Cagsawa, near the belfry ruins, with Lumad peoples of Mindanao. One of the Lumads reportedly saw in a vision, that Mayon Volcano would erupt. Lumad leaders then coordinated with the Agta to perform the ritual, where the “Kingdom of the unseen” was claimed to be in the vicinity of the Cagsawa ruins.

The Agtas of Tiwi, Albay are further subdivided into the Coron, Agta-Cimarron and Agta-Tabangnon. They make up 272 families who now reside in sitios Joraan, Misibis and Malem.

They live tending abaca and processing the stalks into semi-finished fiber, which they sell at P25 per kilo. They harvest abaca once in five to eight months, when there is enough sunlight to dry the fiber.

They also plant root crops, which is their staple and scour the mountain for anything that feeds them.

They till the slopes of mountain sides and plant these with whatever that sustains life. “Anything in the mountains that sustain life,” as they refer to food crops and wildlife.

The Agtas inspired Tiwi Mayor Jaime C. Villanueva to support a program on education that would promote Perma-culture (short for permanent agriculture) at the Tiwi Agro-industrial School.

Perma-culture is nature-based organic, agro-forestry, according to Vilanueva in an interview in his office during the Coron Festival on August 6.

Living with nature, like the way indigenous peoples live, is the best way to combat climate change and global warming. There is less input in agriculture and fisheries and the result is sustainable, according to Villanueva. “We can live in the way of nature,” he told the members of the Philippine Network of Environmental Journalists (PNEJ).

The Agtas of Tiwi are among 14 million indigenous peoples all over the country. The lure of urban living and development aggression into their indigenous abode and ancestral territories have driven many indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands.

Like the Igorots of the Cordillera who have to give way to projects such as large dams and mining in the name of national interest, the Agtas and their counterparts in other parts of the country have to make do with little government attention to their plight, decline in agricultural produce and a dwindling natural resource, which may, or may not, be a result of global warming and climate change.

It was past 2:00 p.m. when the group of journalists belonging to PNEJ arrived in the place where the indigenous Agta leaders would meet the entourage. Because the leader insinuated he lives just a short distance, the talks went on longer than what the journalists and their hosts in the provincial government of Albay had expected.

It was already dark when the PNEJ convoy reached the next stop: organic farm. They wished there was another day to see other sustainable projects like the marine sanctuary and the mangrove reforestation.

On the way home, the visiting journalists could not help but wonder how many more kilometers do the Agta leaers have to walk to get home to their respective communities in the bosom of Tiwi’s Mount Malinao. Do most of them have food on the table when they get home, knowing that they have spent the whole day preparing to meet the “bagong salta”

For the Agtas of Tiwi, the phrase “Diyan lang,” must be referring to the road to their liberation as indigenous peoples. It is a long and winding road that may be shortened depending on how one sees development. As they always say, it is just there. (

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