“I don’t need to go to their village to see them; they sit beside me on the jeepnie, so I have seen enough.” The “they” in this story are the Mangyan (pronounced Man-guan), the Indigenous People of Mindoro Island, home to my little enclave of warmth in the Philippines. The speaker is a native-born Filipina.
“The way to understand the Philippines,” muses my ex-CIDA chum, Robert from Montreal, “is to think about Canada or the West in the 1950s.” On one level that may sound condescending, but on another, it prevents you from being judgmental or feeling “better than thou.”
When you visit the site maintained by the Mangyan Heritage Centre, you get the idea that the Mangyan are beneficiaries of benign neglect: they have just been left alone to do their thing. This is truly refreshing compared to the North American indigenous-policies which have been genocidal, assimilationalist, paternalistic, or otherwise misguided (see Thomas King’s “The Inconvenient Indian,” for a fabulous and entertaining primer).
Mindoro Island covers roughly 10,000 sq-km; with a population of 1.3 million. The Indigenous population in Mindoro is around 100,000 or 7% of the island.
For an indigenous group, having uninviting land is a good inoculation against assimilation, and this was my hope for the Mangyan. While there are some “lowlanders” around some of the ports, the predominant area for the Mangyan appeared to be in the mountains.
We are taking about impenetrable jungles.
In 1956, four Japanese soldiers finally surrendered after having hidden in Mindoran jungles for more than a decade. In the 1970s, one Japanese ex-soldier contracted Malaria trying to track and bring back one final Japanese holdout from the slopes of Mt Halcon, Mindoro’s highest peak (deemed an “ultra” for climbing purposes).
I had a taste (really only a petit soupçon) of jungle when we visited the Mangyan community of Talipanan. This is just south of the Puerto Galera’s White Beach area, a locale rendered most colourful by the not-so-initially-obvious trans-community.
Tourists visiting the village today will see weavers hard at work … It’s a far cry from most Mangyan villages which are shockingly poor.
The most obvious thing about this town from the outset is that the buildings are all made with reeds, vines, and wood. No big bad wolves here – but the structures and woods bend with typhoon winds. There is a whole science about the coconut wood you use for the main posts. For the first time since arriving in Phils, there is no concrete road – and no garbage strewn along the edge, either.
A native guide is required both out of respect and for safety. For a pittance (₽200 = C$5), our guide escorts our party of five along a stream. Only a few minutes from civilization and with only a meagre rise in elevation, I will not deign to say that I am in real jungle, but for a western city boy, there is a pronounced vicarious thrill.
Research tries to go deeper.
After this visit, I undertake more reading, and this is where the information about the Manguan gets increasingly fuzzy.
My first source, the Mangyan Centre, provides the basic info: the “Mangyan” (lit “the people”) term is only used grudgingly by the eight distinct tribes arranged in areas that range from the north to the south: each has a different language: only the two southern tribes have their own (pre-Spanish) script, known for their rigorous style of poetry carved into bamboo shafts. Each tribe has adapted to their local environment with their own dress and agricultural or hunter-gatherer practices, often a variant of slash-and-burn or swidden. Each retreated into the interior as the lowlands became populated with Tagalogs, the predominant ethnic group.
The implication is that the eight tribes are still up there, leading their own lives with little interference from lowlanders. And while it is probable that there are some groups that have remained largely unassimilated, except when they barter in the lowlands, it is also possible, it appears, that many have been drawn into the lowlands.
Information on the web is annoyingly sparse, and many of the sites parrot the same. As one for instance, some anthropologist’s study from 1952 keeps popping up. So I am left with repeating some anecdotes here, in the hope of starting to paint a fuller picture.
This past weekend I went to a Filipino version of a water-slide park, in the floodplain of a mountain stream/river/torrent, at the foot of Mt Halcon. To my amazement there was a Mangyan village on the opposing bank. It just sort-of told me that aboriginal land-title might be a squishy area.
While at this water park, my Airbnb host Dean, an Australian, gave me his take:
Aboriginal issues are taken seriously here. They are treated well, not like in Canada or Australia. The National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) is serious.
And then he went on:
That new dump in the mountains above Puerto Galera that I told you about? On Mangyan land. The town forged the change in title, and the Mangyan said: ‘those aren’t our signatures.’
I found a 2010 news release from (former) President Aquino’s office about the NCIP being moved out of a department with a conflict of interest (mining) and back into his office and appointing two very serious and right-minded people to the job. But then Wikipedia has this factoid:
In 2011, the commission was criticized after it made a meeting with indigenous Mangyan communities in Mindoro, where the commission was pushing for the removal of the indigenous Mangyans from their ancestral domains for the benefit of a multi-national mining company. …
An earnest sounding photographer (his photographs are stunning), better with his camera than typewriter, described his various journeys through the jungles and mountains to meet various tribes. Yup, they are up there, and they are doing their own thing, but the idea that they still wear their traditional garb is shattered by pics of ubiquitous t-shirts. And ties to the lowlands seem essential. One interesting point: there is no fair-trading. The lowlanders know that once the Mangyan have floated their produce down the river, it’s a buyer’s market.
One last site. It’s from some sort of faith-based missionary organization, whose banner says that they are based in Uganda, but there they are with a school programme just down the road from my water park. Long on good intentions, but the only way you can find anything palatable in what they write is to employ Robert’s 1950s rule. A sample:
Hank: Do the Mangyans have toilets? If not, where do they go to the bathroom? In the jungle? People get worms by stepping on feces. Are the Mangyan barefoot and does this happen?
Rosalina: Yes, 90% of the children in San Ignacio Banilad have worms. In 143 families 65 among them have toilets. However, due to lack of water they cannot use it. All the villagers go up to the forest for this purpose.
Hank: Do the Mangyans at your mission learn enough to go to high school in Calapan and elsewhere? Do they often go to colleges and universities? Are there often “successful” ones that move to Manila or elsewhere?
Rosalina: Yes, from 1992 up to present we have more or less 300 graduates in Elementary; all fully equipped to study and go to high school. However, the majority stopped going [to] high school, they were forced to work for survival; others particularly females marry at an early age.
So, while there are of course moral dilemmas to benign neglect, the idea that the Mangyan are exempt from assimilationalist trends is most likely a chimera. My initial hope for them has been shattered.
Examples of Ambahan (Hanunuo-Mangyan poems).
All Photos by and © Ian Hornby 2017
Corrections and additions
January 30 (Philippines time), post-time plus one hour: Reinserted a paragraph describing Mangyan housing construction that had been inadvertently removed.
Dean’s title changed from “landlord” to Airbnb host.