issue 205 - March 1990
Paul Almasy / CAMERA PRESS
A clumsy encounter with the
mountains of northern Luzon
The rice terraces of Banaue climb up the mountains like a series of giant glass staircases. At various levels I can make out distant specks of blue; closer up these turn into women clad in plastic sacks to protect themselves against the driving rain. They are clambering up the stone walls to repair and weed them; the rice terraces have been here for 2,000 years and are still in daily use.
The bus I'm riding in is packed with students returning to their mountain villages. Jerry Mangmangon, a 20-year-old engineer, is wedged in next to me.
'I'm going back to help my mother plant her sweet potatoes,' he says. His mother is widowed and lives alone. I ask if he will come back here to live.
'Maybe for a couple of years. But then I would like to go abroad.' Migration from this remote province, Ifugao, is common. So indeed is migration from the Philippines as a whole; there are around three million Filipinos working overseas, the majority in the US and Saudi Arabia.
The rice terraces are quite a tourist attraction. When I tell Jerry I am a journalist he produces a piece of paper which says: 'Rita's Mount View Inn - good food, good bed'. Rita is his aunt, so I say I'll do what I can to help (I just have).
I cannot check out Rita's hospitality personally, however, as I am due to meet Linda Gano, a field worker of the Philippines Rural Reconstruction Movement - the organization I made contact with at that embarrassing party in Manila. Linda is to lead me further into the mountains.
'Bless this car by day and night,' it says on the jeepney that takes us from Banaue. I can understand the need for reassurance. The mountain falls away alarmingly hundreds of feet below while the vehicle has to slither over the track, ploughing through the streams which gush across it. Like most rural jeepneys this one is spectacularly overloaded, not just with the 20 or so of us inside but with another contingent perched on the roof. Several of these are dislodged as with a sickening thud we collide with a water buffalo coming round a steep bend. The animal's owner seems to find this hysterically funny - as do the rooftop passengers. Only the driver (checking for hoofmarks in his radiator) and the buffalo (checking for radiator marks in its hooves) seem disturbed.
The next part of the journey is on foot across several ravines. The rain has slicked the paths nicely so that all I can do is launch myself down the 45-degree slopes and slide in roughly the right direction.
'People who come from Manila have problems here,' says Linda reassuringly, picking her way neatly down ahead of me. Her easy progress is embarrassing not just because she is eight months pregnant (and I am not) but also because she is carrying both her bag and mine. I can't afford to worry - I am concentrating too hard on the tightrope act along the rice terrace walls. When the balance or the nerve fails the only choice is between a splash into the gooey rice paddy on one side or a 20-foot fall to a sticky end on the other.
The purpose of all this is to visit a typical mountain barangay. Barangay actually means boat. The original inhabitants of these islands thousands of years ago usually travelled along the coasts and the rivers. The villages they settled in were made up of the boat's travellers, so to this day the smallest administrative unit in the country is called a barangay and the leader is the barangay-captain.
The captain of Barangay Nungulunen is Lourdes Pulig, a 32-year-old mother of six children. She is surprised that I have come to a remote place to see her. I say I am impressed that the barangay-captain is a woman.
'Here in the Philippines women can be elected if they can do the work - serving the people,' she says.
What problems does she help with?
'People here have very little land. We have one harvest a year from the rice terraces in June, but the rice only lasts till about December. Many of the men have to leave the area to look for work. So we are trying to start projects like farming fish in the paddy-fields or raising pigs.'
Does the Government help?
'They ask us to make project proposals. But I haven't yet had one approved. I don't know why they are so slow. At election time the politicians come here and promise to help. But then nothing happens. This year for example we are supposed to be a target barangay for Unicef, but we have never seen any of their staff. I have been to Lagawe (the provincial capital) to look for them, but they only have an office in Manila.'
Unicef and other agencies have been engaged in 'spring development' - piping clean water down from high mountain springs. Otherwise people often drink from the rice terraces. But Unicef funds have to pass through the Government and are susceptible to 'redirection'.
'I often ask for help. We had a Unicef project approved for 1988 but the Mayor gave it to another barangay-captain who helped him in his last campaign. Maybe he hates this barangay because he only got 11 votes here. Or maybe he just doesn't like me because I helped his opponent. We used to be very friendly but maybe he has a heartache because I did not help him.'
This mountainous part of the island of Luzon is called the Cordillera and includes some of the country's original native people. Here they are Igorot. As I talk with Lourdes an old man wearing just a wanoh or G-string is watching us. I remark upon his grey hair: unusual for Filipinos.
'Yes,' says Lourdes, looking at me. 'White people get grey hair very young.
Several more of my hairs turn grey at the thought of the return trek in the dark. Lourdes says that the trick is to walk with the feet pointing outward, bending my knees - which helps, but not much.
Linda lives with her husband Matio and their four children in a small house by the roadside. They have invited a group of neighbours to talk to me. We sit on the floor as they chew betel nut and pass round a Young's sardine can to spit in.
Roger Himmiwat explains how started wood carving.
'When the Americans came to Baguio,' says Roger, 'the Igorot served them rice in carved wooden spoons. The Americans bought them and kept coming back for more. So we started carving other things like animals.'
I ask if things have got better round here since the Aquino government took over. Berto Tapoc says that at least there has been more money coming in.
'But it doesn't all get here. If there is $3,000 from the Government we probably see only $2,000 of it. The money passes through the hands of many contractors. It's different with Oxfam. If it is a $3,000 project then that is what comes.'
But the biggest development project to hit this area is the European Community's $20 million Central Cordillera Agricultural Programme (CECAP). This promises to build new roads and bridges and encourages the farmers with more land to grow vegetables for sale.
'In the short term it will be OK,' says Berto. 'But really they are just producing food for other parts of the country.
And it might also undermine existing local efforts. Charlie, an engineer on an Oxfam water project, has been offered 50 per cent more to work for CECAP.
The more cynical say that the idea of the project is to undermine the position of the NPA which is strong in this area. There is a lot of military activity round here. And the next morning, while we are having breakfast, Linda looks out of the window anxiously.
'We have soldiers,' she says.
Half a dozen sweating military have arrived in the compound and unloaded their guns and backpacks. This isn't the NPA, though - it's the army. They say they have been marching all night and ask if we have seen the NPA.
'Yes,' says Linda 'they passed through about a week ago.' Apparently this is the safest answer, whether it is true or not. They give a corresponding response to the NPA when they arrive. These soldiers seem happy enough with the information - they light a fire and cook their rice outside the front door before trudging off up the road.
It would have been more interesting for me to have met the NPA, but there we are. I do however manage to meet a founder of the NPA on my way back to Manila. He's Bernabe Buscayno (better known as 'Commander Dante'). He was released from jail by Aquino and now operates legally, running a large and successful farmers' co-operative in Tarlac. He's a fairly elusive character (as one might expect) but I manage to pin him down in a corner of the co-op's grain warehouse. He rejects the criticisms from the NPA that he is now a counter-revolutionary.
Founder of the NPA
The NPA tell people that this co-operative will come to nothing, it is counter-revolutionary, that I am really implementing the total war policy of the government, that I am supporting the low-intensity conflict.
That's the thinking of infantile minds. I can understand them. They are still young and I am already old and matured. I have also been a 'school-boy' revolutionary in 'Grade One'. Then I could only write by holding the pencil in both hands and destroying the paper. But now I can write in a graceful way.
The NPA could succeed if they were good change-makers. If they were good at analyzing and planning things either in the underground or in the open. But they should be practical, not limit themselves by their dogmatic beliefs. They come from ranks of students and sometimes they are disorganized.
I am organizing this co-operative as a responsible and practical revolutionary - taking into account the people's present level of consciousness. Farmers are very practical people. They are always driven by poverty. Some are politicized, some are conservative, but most react only according to their economic needs. The farmers see me as a practical development person, not as an NPA or as a politician. They know I am on their side.
We cannot revolutionize by sloganizing alone. That's a part of it: we can educate and orientate. But we should show them practice. We need the support of the people. We cannot fight alone.