Walking with the Aetas

October 10th, 2010

Girlie has just finished packing my bag for  my early morning bus trip to Zambales tomorrow, for a two-day visit to the Aetas’ ancestral domain.

She always helps me pack for any trip I make. Though she doesn’t say so, I sense that she worries about this trip. Perhaps she’s thinking of my legs; I’m 67 and have not climbed any mountain in decades.

“Why are you going up the mountain with the Aetas?” she finally asked. “They can just give you whatever information you need.”

My immediate answer was that I really want to see for myself their ancestral domain, including their settlements that they had to abandon when Mt. Pinatubo erupted. I can better help them negotiate with DENR and DA for support, if I have seen the place.

But I realize that the reason for my trip is not merely to familiarize myself with future project sites. The reason I’m going is to have a two-day “visioning walk and talk” with the Aetas.

Together with Carling, Letty, and other LAKAS and PBAZ Aeta leaders, we will be looking at sites where they will build new settlements, where they will have organic farms planted to upland rice, vegetables, and fruit trees, where they will have nurseries for “rainforestation.”

The Aeta barangay officials have already designated 2 hectares for building a primary school. But the Aeta leader-graduates also share the dream of ELF to build a “folk school,” which they have expanded to an Aeta Heritage and Learning Center. Carling wants to take us to the hot springs near Mt. PInatubo, where a future Wellness Center can rise.

It is not the first time ELF has been exchanging with the Aetas our dreams of a better future. From 1993, when we had the first Aeta participants in our Grassroots Leadership Course, and especially in the all-Aeta GLCs that followed, we would visualize our desired future in small groups and in plenary sessions. Their dreams always included a return to their mountain settlements.

Now that they have successfully negotiated to get a CADT for their ancestral domain, they have more solid grounds for their dreams. Tomorrow and the day after,  I will walk with them on those grounds, while we talk about their dreams, our dreams.

More than 40 years ago, I walked up another mountain in my home island of Mindoro. I was a seminary student, assigned to teach basic literacy to the Mangyans. When my Mangyan guide showed me the house where I was to stay, I was surprised to find a Peace Corps volunteer, who immediately engaged me in conversation.

He asked, “Why are you here?” I gave him the simple answer, that I was a seminarian studying to be a missionary and this was part of my training. But that wasn’t really what he was asking about. As we talked, I realized that he was using me to find an answer to that same question posed to himself.

At some point, he admitted that he was there with the Mangyans possibly because he needed to be needed, or even because it made him feel somewhat messianic. That turned me off, and I don’t remember how we ended our conversation.

I don’t think I found a definite answer for myself then. And 40 years later, if I were asked the same question, I still wouldn’t have a definite answer. After 40 years, I know that there is usually not one definite answer. There is more than one answer.

Perhaps I will find a few more tomorrow, while walking with the Aetas.

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