10:30 pm June 15

June 15th, 2011

What happened at 10:30 pm on June 15, twenty years ago?

In fact, something stopped happening at that hour, on that date. According to scientists, that was the official end of the 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo.

What happened since then has become part of one  “most significant story”  in my life – my lifelong journeying with the Aetas, the “first people” of the Philippines.

The eruption forced the Aetas to leave their homes, farms,  and hunting grounds on the  slopes of Mt. Pinatubo. Their clans and communities were dispersed into various resettlement areas. Up to now, the original residents of Barangay Villar which is considered the “mother barangay” of Aetas, live in in four or five different sites.

But 150 families belonging to LAKAS  (Lubos na Alyansa ng Katutubong Ayta sa Sambales) decided they would stick together, even if it meant transferring 10 times to different temporary sites. They finally settled in a place, sitio Bihawo, from which they could see Mt. Pinatubo, where they believed Apo Namalyari dwelt.

Wherever they settled, they never stopped dreaming and hoping that they would return to the slopes of Mt. Pinatubo.

Aeta participants would draw details of this dream during the visioning exercises in the GLC – the Grassroots Leadership Courses run by ELF. That is where our life stories met.

I wasn’t in the Philippines when Mt. Pinatubo erupted. It was only in 1992 that I managed to return from an informal exile in Europe. That gave me the chance to set up the Education for Life Foundation with Girlie and activist-friends, using funds  initially provided from Denmark.

Partly inspired by the ideas of Grundtvig on “education for life” and the Danish folkehojskole residential course, ELF’s core program was, and continues to be “grassroots leadership formation for grassroots community empowerment.”

We decided to start with participants from  Central Luzon, because of the region’s history of militancy, and because our NGO partners like PRRM worked there.

We didn’t deliberately seek out the Aetas.  NGO partners sponsored two Aeta participants for the first batch Unang Ani. In the succeeding batches, Aetas remained minorities among the mainly lowland participants of the GLCs.

But after a few courses, the Aeta leader-graduates requested for an All-Aeta course. We did, and that eventually led to the setting up of  PBAZ – Paaralang Bayan ng Ayta sa Zambales – organized by Aeta leader-graduates of the GLCs.

Earlier the Aeta leader-graduates talked of starting an “Aeta Survival Folkschool.” The name reminded me of stories about Aetas training US soldiers in jungle survival skills during the Vietnam war.

Carling Domulot, the current president of LAKAS (the fifth in a series of elected leaders), is clear about what the Aetas need now and in the future: “We need to keep alive our indigenous culture and history, but we also need to acquire the knowledge and skills from the formal schools.”

Last week, we reminisced about our first encounters and the years of journeying together. He talked about a recent trek with a group of LAKAS and PBAZ leaders to the crater of Mt. Pinatubo, to develop a route for future eco-tourists who may want to climb from the Botolan side, rather than the existing route from Capas, Tarlac.

“We found clear running waters two hours from the crater,” he said. “It is in Yamot, the sitio of LAKAS before the eruption. That is where we can set up the nursery for indigenous trees, build huts and a community center, for our Aeta folkschool.”

In early 2010, the Aetas of Barangay Villar, Belbel, Burgos, and Moraza finally got their CADT – Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title – to over 15,000 hectares that include the crater of Mt. Pinatubo. Like other indigenous peoples communities that have acquired legal rights, the Aetas face the challenge of how to develop their ancestral domain.

There are denuded areas that need “rainforestation.” There are upland areas that are suitable for sloping agriculture. The twenty years since the eruption make the farm lands ideal candidates for organic agriculture.

But only a few families have settled back in their ancestral domain. Most remain in the resettlement areas. The older Aetas are eager to return as soon as we can build the ram pump that will bring water for drinking and irrigation to the chosen site for the barangay and their farms. But they acknowledge that many of the younger Aetas are ambivalent, wondering if they still want go back to the life their elders remember, before the eruption.

I asked Carling how he feels about what happened in 1991 and its aftermath.

“At first, I wondered what wrong we have done for Apo Namalyari to allow such suffering to happen to us,” he said. “But after 20 years, I think Apo Namalyari may have used the eruption as a way to broaden our world, and to learn new things that we need, so that we will survive.”

He enumerated the different people he has met, the different places he has visited, the different challenges he has met and different lessons he has learned. “Because of the eruption,” he added, “we have met. And I have learned a lot from you, and ELF, and those we have met through you.”

So did I, from Carling and the Aetas, and the learning still continues.

Looking back on the 20 years, I think of  Soren Kierkegaard and his aphorism: “Life can only be understood backwards. But it must be lived forwards.”

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