I hope you are all doing well. This is my second update email from the Philippines. I apologize it has been too long since my last one. If you missed it, you can read it on my blog (https://willtownes.wordpress.com) which is basically just an archive of these emails. I am currently dividing my time between my fieldwork on the Bataan Peninsula and Manila. Bataan, as you may know, was the site of the famous “death march” during World War II. My reason for going there is to study the seed dispersal of a genus of plants called Leea (Leeaceae). These plants are somewhat common small trees found in many parts of the Philippines. They produce red fruits that are about the size of a kernel of corn. I am excited to have the chance to study them, because no one has yet documented what species of birds eat the fruits, or how far they are dispersed. We take it for granted in the US that scientists already know a lot about the interactions between plants and animals, but in the Philippines the situation is very different. First of all, there are many rare species here that are found nowhere else in the world. Secondly, Filipino scientists are unable to conduct extensive research because they are sorely lacking in funding. I have often been amazed at the perseverance and determination of the scientists I meet here, who make extraordinary personal sacrifices just to advance everyone’s knowledge of the unique flora and fauna of this country.
While in the field, I stay with a community of indigenous people called the Aytas. Members of the Ayta ethnic group look very different from the “mainstream” Tagalog Filipinos. They have dark skin and very curly hair. They also are very short, partially because of malnutrition. They are descended from forest dwelling hunter-gatherers. Finally, they have their own language that is about as close to Tagalog as Spanish is to French. Finally, the Ayta culture is very peaceful and oriented on avoiding conflict. In the past, when lowlanders tried to take their land, the Aytas would just run away into the forest rather than standing up for their ancestral domain. For this reason they are one of the poorest and most oppressed groups in the country.
I was able to establish contact with the Kanawan community near Morong, Bataan through a marine scientist who has started a community development project there. She has hired a social scientist named Borm and a botanist named Ulysses to work with the Aytas on securing ancestral domain rights, and starting a reforestation and bio-prospecting project, respectively. Borm has a PhD in sociology and Ulysses studied under my mentor, Leonardo Co. They are both fascinating people. Borm was born on the tiny island of Romblon to a family of 12. They did not have electricity or running water, and lived off of rice and root crops, with the occasional chicken. He had to run away from home to attend school. He is a prolific community organizer, having in three years organized a food processing coop for cashews that provides income for local women, helped the Aytas apply for their ancestral domain recognition from the government, and encouraged the establishment of an eco-tourism trail to a nearby waterfall. Ulysses, an accomplished pianist and guitarist, has been supervising the reforestation project, as well as searching the forest for new species of plants. These two guys are my biggest role models and sources of inspiration while I am struggling to do my research.
Daily life at Kanawan is very different from life in Manila. While Manila is overcrowded, polluted, and noisy, Kanawan is very quiet and peaceful. The Aytas are extremely kind and friendly. I am living in a small hut made of bamboo and covered with a grass roof. This “Nypa” hut is also home to large spiders, cockroaches, geckos, mice, stray dogs, cats, chickens, and termites. Whenever I wake up in the morning I am greeted by four or five smiling Aytas waiting for me to do something funny. Because of my tall stature, pointy nose, and light skin, I am a constant source of amusement for them. Furthermore, since they do not speak much English (unlike most Filipinos, who are perfectly fluent), I am forced to communicate in Tagalog, which only increases their mirth due to my frequent mispronunciations. For example, I once tried to explain that I did NOT want any more rice (every meal consists of a ton of rice plus a tiny amount of canned sardines or dried fish) by trying to say “busog ako.” That means “I am full.” But instead, I accidentally said “bulog ako,” which means “I am a wild boar.” For the rest of the week, my nickname became “wild boar man!” Sometimes I just have to escape back to Manila for a few days just to avoid really turning into a “wild man of the forest!” I am thoroughly enjoying their company.
Another interesting aspect of life with the Aytas is their unbelievably detailed knowledge of the forest. While it is true very few scientific studies have been done on any of the Philippines forests, I sometimes wonder if it is really necessary to do a scientific study to find out something that is common knowledge already with the Aytas. I am constantly reminded of what Barry Lopez, who has worked extensively with Indigenous Peoples, told our class at W&L about the importance of respecting native peoples’ knowledge. I did not pay much attention to him at the time, figuring that indigenous people were no more or less likely to destroy the environment than industrial westerners. But, while here I have to admit I am very much in debt to the guidance and help of the Aytas. They are the true experts when it comes to forest biology and ecology, and I am just an amateur. That said, someone needs to take the time to translate their insights into a language that people all over the world can understand, and verify that their folk knowledge is consistent with scientific observation. I hope that is a role I can play, however small it may be.
While I very much enjoy hanging out with the Aytas, I also try to get out and explore the other parts of the country from time to time. I have mostly been doing this through an outdoors club based at University of the Philippines. It is called U.P. Lakay Kalikasan Mountaineers. Lakay is an Ilocano word for “wise old man” and Kalikasan means “nature.” Through this organization I have made several close friends. One of our recent trips was to the Cordillera region in northern Luzon. We climbed Mt. Pulag, the tallest peak in Luzon and the second tallest in the country. It was a very difficult climb, and one of our members developed hypothermia (it is possible, even in a tropical country!) so we had to evacuate him. Just getting to the mountain was an ordeal, requiring a six-hour bus ride followed by another seven-hour ride in a Jeepney along a bumpy dirt road barely avoiding the hundred foot drop-offs on either side. The views were incredible along the road; many farmers scrape a living off of the steep slopes, with rice terraces and vegetable farms. The cooler temperatures at this elevation allow temperate crops like cabbages and carrots to grow. The people are very poor, and most probably go their whole lives without seeing Manila. Someone told me that kids often have to walk five miles over the mountain to get to the nearest one-room school house. It made me feel as if I had gone 100 years back in time.
Well, this email is already too long. I hope you have enjoyed hearing a little more about life in the Philippines. I will try to write again soon. Please feel free to email me with updates from your lives, I am always glad to hear from old friends.