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Tribes and Troubles: A Trip To Zambales

Liwa, Zambales - A lot of things have changed in the sea-side community of Liwa. For one, there are a lot more people. After the pandemic ravaged their tourism sector, people are finally coming back again. There is a constant flow of tourists visiting the beaches, eating at restaurants, and enjoying the night life. The energy in the air is ecstatic. However, the mist of uncertainty hangs low over Liwa. Quarantine was really difficult for local business, and despite the increase of city-folk hoping to escape Manila, things were not easier. These upcoming months are Liwa's chance to rebuild itself into something new.

From the Fire

As a full-time social worker, Ate Jermaine is called to do a lot. While she initially started working for the social enterprise Circle Hostel, she is currently working at Sambali Farm. They grow organic produce and help local farming communities improve their techniques and technology. Most recently, they have been pushing farmers to use an organic fertilizer and nutrient bomb called "Biochar". A mix of compost, activated charcoal, and animal droppings, Biochar is another step forward in making things more sustainable. Sometimes, she works odd jobs for other social enterprises like MAD Travel and tours people around the local tribes.

Ate Jermaine feeding Dogs

Whenever things change, it is a time to recement new norms. Ate Jermaine notes how the town and the local tribes have really changed and grown over the past few years. Recalling the Mt. Pinatubo eruption, she points out that the town was rebuilt once before. After the major set of earthquakes and eruption in 1991, the entirety of Liwa was covered in ashes. A wave of ashes buried entire villages. Ashes up to ten feet buried thousands of people. Entire rivers and fields were covered in lahar, forever changing the local environment. Most everything in Liwa today is built on top of mounds and mounds of ashes from that fateful eruption.

But you would not be able to tell that by just looking at the city. Everyone smiles and works like nothing ever happened. The only traces of the disaster are the rivers of dried ashes. On the other hand, the pandemic still leaves its mark on the town. Ate Jermaine's first social enterprise, Circle Hostel, closed its branch in Zambales. In fact, the local Yangil Tribe, accessed by MAD Travel's Tribes and Treks package, only opened up this December. Nevertheless, the city is recovering. Ate Jermaine remarks, the ber-months and summer attract a lot more visitors.

She emphasized supporting local business. Beyond just sustainability, reincorporating Filipino businesses into a new Liwa will only make the community stronger. This is another branch of her social work advocacy. In addition to environmental solutions, Ate Jermaine seeks to give back and support the people who have been supporting us.

A goat standing on lahar

The Yangil Tribe

Having only five families in 2005, the Yangil Tribe has grown to a size of fifty five families. Their tribe is located a decent way into the mountains. Through MAD Travel, a social enterprise which Ate Jermaine worked in before, you can reach the tribe. They offer a full guided tour called Tribes and Trek. This service package

allows anyone to travel into the wilderness, experience the local culture, and learn more about the situation of the Yangil people. However, the service is not luxurious in the slightest. After reaching the drop-off point, you need to travel across five kilometers of not-so-empty nature. Sprawling fields of lahar, tall grass, and a stunning view of the mountains surround the path to the tribe. If it's sunny, you can easily cross the multiple streams and rivers separating the grasslands from the woods. In fact, it’s common practice to play and wash in the rivers alongside the lazing carabaos. The water is cold and flowing as it rushes down stream. When it’s rainy, rivers rise to knee level and have currents strong enough to stop locals from crossing.

After the whole ordeal of getting to the tribe, you discover that the people there are not so different from yourself. In fact, they’re exactly the same. They have Sunday service in their small church (which is lacking twenty chairs). They go to school over at the nearest public school and play with plastic cars and books. They also have a monkey chained to a tree, but that’s besides the point.

ABM Students and Teacher cooling off in the river

Not So Different

The people of the Yangil tribe share struggles many of us can relate to. The pastor and new chieftain of the tribe arrived a little after lunch with a guitar and a big smile. He began talking about how things have been opening up recently and how glad he was to have visitors again. After getting a bit to eat, he began to talk about the families of the tribe and how they have been growing. There was a genuine and palpable love emanating from his speech. He cared for the people he grew up with and took care of. For instance, he wants the youth to focus less on courting each other and more on studying in school. This was something he wished he did because he only finished one semester of college before going back into the workforce. Another issue they faced was job security. He talked briefly about coming back from a trip to the nearby provinces to secure mining jobs for the tribesmen and funding from government offices.

Despite the hardships of daily life, there is one big responsibility the Yangil tribe carries that many of us do not bother ourselves with. They must protect their land and the crops and environment that lives on their land. Ate Jermaine notes that the trees and crops provide a source of income for the farmers, protect the locals from flooding and disaster, and feed consumers with quality agricultural produce. Indeed, the Yangil tribe members work hard to sustain themselves with good farming practices that are constantly being updated and improved. They start working at seven o’clock and plant all types of produce like calamansi, kangkong, cashews, banaba, and rice. One important plant they grow is bamboo which, ex-chieftain Erese mentioned, is a double use produce that can be grown quickly.

Central tree and eating area

Children sitting outside the day care listening to the chieftain /pastor make music

The Yangil church

Responsible for Life

However, everything is not right. Erese discussed the regrettable state of their land rights. While governments are not necessarily forcing them to sell their land, many major companies are looking to buy their land from them. Many of these humongous conglomerates are seeking to turn the Yangil tribe’s vast lands into solar energy fields which can be sold to the nearby cities. Erese notes that these lands have been theirs for a very long time, and it is not just theirs. Many other tribes and smaller groups of people live in the mountains of Zambales. In fact, they contribute their seeds, hands, and resources to help the mountain heal and grow.

Ate Jermaine and chieftain Erese showing how to plant a tamarind seed
A small field of palay/rice planted a few kilometers away from the tribe

Nevertheless, the constant pressure from business is difficult and may negatively affect the tribes at large. While compensation may in fact be appropriate, the land will be transformed and desecrated into something purely extractive. Large parts of the local fields will no longer be useful for growing crops or trees. This can create negative impacts for the environment and surrounding tribes that rely on the flourishing nature to sustain and protect their lifestyles. More importantly, Erese feels as if their voices are not heard by the government. He and other tribe members constantly approach local governments and organizations to inform them of their situation. However, he notes, if they are not told they do not do anything. They require nudging before any action is taken. The issue is getting out of hand, so much so that social workers, like Ate Jermaine, have created organizations and defense groups to better represent and protect indigenous tribes.

In spite of the challenges, the tribes have currently reforested fifty hectares of the mountain! They aim to reforest over three thousand hectares of the mountain. Mt. Pinatubo’s eruption destroyed many of the trees on the mountains and so there’s a lot of empty space the tribe wishes to reforest. In order to achieve this, they rely on (1) revenues from their produce, (2) revenues from their local work, and (3) revenues from social workers and tourism. The previously mentioned MAD Travel actually contributes to not only the awareness of these pressing issues but the funding of them. In fact, Ate Jermaine admits to having earned very little from the seven hour tour saying most of the profits went to the tribes. In addition to this, MAD Travel also purchases some of the surplus crops the tribe produces. Support and sustainability are the name of the game and Ate Jermaine and others like her are showing the way to creating that world.

There have definitely been concrete steps forward. A clear indicator of this are the smiles on the faces of the Yangil tribespeople.They carry themselves with joy and gratitude despite the difficulty they find themselves in. Social workers and the tribespeople themselves are working harder and harder to show us where the future lies. To them, the future lies in a world where business and environment work together. In fact, they not only work together but also sustain each other. Creating an environmentally healthy, socially supportive, and profit making business is definitely difficult but it is the future that they are trying to build. They are doing this by not only working together, but getting the word out. They call upon more and more people, and by this they grow year after year. Of course there are setbacks and opposing agendas, but that hasn't stopped them aiming higher and higher. There is a chance after all for something new and fresh. There is a chance that something great can come from the ashes of the pandemic. Just like how Zamables was built over the ashes of Mt Pinatubo’s eruption, the future of business, agriculture, and society be made into a sustainable and healthy environment leaving behind the old notions of “profit first” and extraction. The Yangil tribe and social workers like Ate Jermaine show us the concrete path forward, all we need to do now is follow along.

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