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Onepage

“It’s because of our ancestral lands that we have our distinct right to self-determination, our indigenous cultures and indigenous ways of life and identity."
Windel Bolinget, Bontok-Kankanaey
chairperson of the Cordillera People’s Alliance
Life in the Philippines can be described along the same lines as its islands

Every island is a world all its own.

Every island is a world all its own.

One afternoon, while walking across a limestone ridge covered in rainforest, a Filipino biologist told me that the island we were on, Luzon, shelters hundreds if not thousands of endemic plants and animals. Nearly all of the 56 kinds of mammals that live here are found nowhere else on Earth. The karst landscape had been completely deforested and scarred by large-scale quarrying before a private individual and his family fell in love with its jagged rock formations standing like the sentinels of a disappeared civilisation, and decided to rehabilitate it. Twenty years later, and here we were, picking our way through the dense tangle of bamboo groves, rattan vines, and strangler figs of an award-winning land trust. The family named it Masungi, which comes from the Tagalog word used to describe sharp, uneven objects, oftentimes teeth. 

The biologist went on further: Even the mountains of Luzon have their own species, so that if you were a giant and used the mountains like stepping stones, hopping from one peak to another, you’d discover that each forest’s ecosystem is unlike any of the others. “Sky islands,” he called them, tossing the phrase, a bit of poetry gleaned from the study of island biogeography, over his sweaty shoulder. 

The same goes, with some differences, for the bodies of water between our islands. They shelter forests of their own: coral reefs that are as diverse and life-sustaining as any ecosystem that can be found above the ocean’s surface. 

The truth of this ecological richness remains, like the islands themselves, submerged.

The truth of this ecological richness remains, like the islands themselves, submerged.

The scientific world has long overlooked the fact that more kinds of marine creatures can be found in the Philippines than anywhere else on Earth. Most of the world’s fish species that have been named and classified were discovered in Indonesia, which also happened to be the home of the most prolific ichthyologist in history, a Dutchman by the name of Peter Bleeker. The Dutch were better naturalists than the Spanish—or so I’ve been told by one of the first marine biologists to realise the richness of the Philippine seas, an American by the name of Kent Carpenter, who like many Americans, fell in love with the archipelago during his time in the Peace Corps. Nobody looked at fish in the Philippines until the early 1900s, he said. To put it better, there were people already looking at, catching, and even preserving fish, but they did so for less convoluted reasons: they were not cataloguing or conquering anything; they just wanted to live. Nevertheless, things cannot be known if they are not named. If something isn’t known, it can’t be accounted for, built around, given space.

The story of the Philippine archipelago is complicated, written in layers.

The story of the Philippine archipelago is complicated, written in layers.

Life is shaped, first and last, by the land. The Philippine archipelago’s biodiversity is complex, because its geography is complex, layered as it is with various geological events. The dad joke about our total number of islands—how it depends on whether the tide is low or high—isn’t the half of it. Some islands, like Luzon, emerged from the ocean: part volcano, part coral reef. Some, like Luzon’s closest neighbour, Mindoro, broke off and travelled from other land masses. Some are primordially old. Some are relatively young.

The Philippines is the capital of the water world—at least in this current epoch—largely because of this singular geography. The formation of these islands over millennia resulted in a distinct shape and position that make the archipelago a safe and easy place for life to grow. Gradually, the scientific world is coming to accept Carpenter’s description of the Philippines in his landmark paper: The Center of the Center of Marine Biodiversity. This has also become a catchphrase for Filipino conservationists and tourism operators, some less willing to accommodate its conditional nuances than others. And as geographical conditions shift, as they always have, over the succeeding millennia, so too will the world’s centers.

Just as the rising seas brought about by the climate crisis threaten the existence of our islands, our biodiversity, too, is vanishing.

Just as the rising seas brought about by the climate crisis threaten the existence of our islands, our biodiversity, too, is vanishing.

The famous microcosm of Lake Lanao in Mindanao drew evolutionary biologists from around the world with its twenty endemic species and four endemic genera (never mind the Latin words: think of branches; think of tree trunks). Aquaculture ventures introduced foreign species like catfish and tilapia to the lake, and hydroelectric plants were built in the area. Today, a few decades later, only two native fish species are left.

And so, just like that, ends the extraordinary explosion of life in one of the most ancient lakes in the world—all the more wondrous for its smallness, and now all the more devastating. Some of the most tragic acts of ecocide are also the most local. If you’d rather think globally, however, there’s this: we are losing our spectrum of species at a rate 1000 times more than anything the Earth has seen. Extinction is natural, but its current speed is manmade.

Yet, no island is alone.

Yet, no island is alone.

They belong to an archipelago, and so in a sense, belong to each other. Each island may have its own diverse ecology, but there is constant flow and exchange in between them. After all, the Philippines is more water than land. In other words, movement characterizes life in these islands, and the conditions that make it possible.

Let’s begin at the bottom of the sea. In our coral reefs, some species are settlers, like the parrotfish, octopus, and grouper, taking up permanent abode; other species, like tuna, turtles, and sardines, are transients, biding time as they breed, and feed, and grow. The same oceanic currents that bring microscopic fish spawn and life-giving nutrients to these safe harbours also send off schools of fish and other species of marine life to populate the rest of the world’s seas.

The same goes for the humans that inhabit these islands. Some humans send roots deep into a place, growing in kinship with the land and with each other in order to yield distinct, independent communities. Other humans hop from place to place—residing on one island, marrying someone from another one, working a job on yet another, and every now and then taking a trip to visit distant relatives several seas over.

For life above and below the sea, for humans and nonhumans alike, life on these islands is like the water: it connects, it mingles, it flows.

A land of many languages.

A land of many languages.

No land without life, Indigenous Filipinos like to say. But where life goes, language follows. One harks to the other, just as, in the Cordillera mountain range of Northern Luzon, the cry of the kiling bird invited its naming. Much is made of the nature-culture divide, but the reality is deliciously entangled, the patterns made by ecology far more pervasive.

Genetic studies confirm that, for the most part, humans mirror the Earth’s geography in terms of where we migrate, and how our cultures diversify. So much so that the centers of the world’s biodiversity also hold seventy percent of Earth’s languages. The Philippines alone is host to 186 living languages. Many of these languages are endemic to a very specific, concentrated area, much like Luzon’s mammals. This brings us back to the mountains of Luzon, which are not just a hotspot for endemic biodiversity, but also for indigenous languages—the linguistic diversity of the Cordillera is second only to southern and central Mindanao.

And like the world’s plants and animals, the world’s languages are also disappearing. By the end of this century, at least half of our languages, and possibly up to ninety percent, will be extinct. Life on Earth is interconnected; so too is the crisis that we face.

Mother earth, mother tongue.

Mother earth, mother tongue.

The connection between language and life goes even deeper: linguistic diversity actually protects biodiversity. The story returns, as it always does, to the Indigenous. Not because they are “The Last,” as colonial anthropologists fancifully imagined. Nor even “The First,” which is how our national histories mythologise their communities.

Even the Indigenous themselves would offer different explanations of the word “Indigenous.” Minnie Degawan, a Kankanaey-Igorot from the Cordillera, and the director of the Indigenous and Traditional Peoples Program of Conservation International, says that she gets into an argument with her daughter about it, every time. “She’s trying to be—what does she call it? Not quite an atheist?” she laughs. “For me, I always think that being Indigenous means just simply recognising that there’s always a bigger force out there. I don’t want to call it anything other than that, but at the end of the day, you are accountable to what you do and to your relationship to the things around you.” Degawan tells me with a laugh that, when she tries to remind her daughter of the way her actions impact the future, her only reply is “But that’s too far away!”

Making up only five percent of the Earth’s human population, Indigenous peoples are the global minority. Yet, they take care of up to a quarter of the world’s land, and 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity. The knowledge and practices that enable them to sustainably manage the Earth’s resources better than most national government-run conservation systems are ingrained in their traditions and infused in their everyday life, a nuanced system refined over centuries; it is not a product or program that can be extracted or replicated outside of their homelands. Indigenous communities have historically chosen, and continue to choose, to live at the most local level. Just as the Indigenous tend to the cycles of our water and air, so too do they care for the rhythms of our flora and fauna.

Degawan moved with her family to the United States to bring the voices of her people to the attention of the world’s most powerful policymakers. In the words of Windel Bolinget, another member of Degawan’s community and the head of the Cordillera People’s Alliance: “Indigenous means what I am today and what I will be tomorrow.” Ultimately it’s this mindfulness, or perhaps time-full-ness, a mode of being in the world, that Degawan holds onto despite the distance. It makes sure that she herself never forgets what she tells her own daughter: “You are not alone. There’s a community with you wherever you go.”

One home, one land.

One home, one land.

There is no way that Indigenous communities can continue to take care of our ecosystems if their ways of life, their very lives, are eradicated. Like the life forms and life systems that they protect, Indigenous lives and lands are in constant danger, and their cultures and languages face near-certain extinction.

Bae Leonora Naraval is an Indigenous leader from Davao, the southern part of Mindanao, our second-largest island. Now 62 years old, for decades she has worked endlessly to help the Matigsalug, one of the Indigenous tribes of Mindanao, win legal recognition of their ancestral lands. “Meron tayong gobyerno pero hindi naman tayo naproproteksyonan ng gobyerno,” she says. “Karamihan dito nakukulong yung tribo na lumalaban sa area. Ikaw na yung may ari ng area dahil nasa ancestral land, ikaw yung Tribo, ikaw yung nakulong,” she says. (We have a government but the government does not protect us. What happens here, if you fight for your land, is that you get jailed. Thanks to the recognition of ancestral lands, you are the official owner of the land, you are the Tribe, and you are imprisoned because of it.) In May of 2021, she was shot and wounded by an unidentified gunman.

The fight against mass extinction and the fight of Indigenous communities for survival and sovereignty is one and the same. We cannot save the world’s biodiversity without Indigenous lands and lives. And we cannot protect Indigenous lands and lives without protecting Indigenous cultures and languages, as well.

While Indigenous Knowledge Systems and practices may be ancient, they themselves are not. Indigenous or migrant, Filipino or foreign, we all belong to the same present-day Earth community. In this sense, we are all Indigenous—genetically, ecologically. But if so, we must take our lead from those that, for centuries before us, have stood, fought, and died for this way of life, which is in truth a fundamental right for every living being on earth: the right to co-exist.

Irene is another Indigenous Filipino fighting for her right to live and learn in Mindanao. She is fourteen years old, and a student at Salugponan Ta’ Tanu Igkanugon Community Learning Center, an Indigenous school officially recognised by the national Department of Education: “Para naman ito sa ating kinabukasan, kalayaan. Para sa ating mga anak. Kaya dapat magkaisa tayo. Kahit iba’t iba man yung ating salita o mga Tribo, magkaisa pa din kami kasi alam naman ng mga kasama namin na tama yung pinaglalaban natin.” (We must be united because we are fighting for our future, our freedom, our children. Even if our words or Tribes are different, we are still united because we know that what we are fighting for is right.) The sight of soldiers with guns in schools is an everyday reality on Irene’s island—Mindanao is caught in the middle of the oldest civil war in Asia.

The environmental frontline is not a straight line drawn across the ground, fortified by a fence. Rather it is a returning circle, like the Earth’s seasons, ever-present, yet ever-changing. If Indigeneity means to choose co-existence in our every word, deed, and day, then it is an ideal as much as an identity. It can only be claimed if it is earned. And it can only be achieved if it is done in solidarity with the Indigenous communities that protect our homeland—the only one we’ve got—the place we call Earth.

When asked what her dream is for her community, Irene’s reply was simple: “Maging malaya.” (To be free.) We spoke over Zoom, unable to meet in person because of the COVID-19 panedmic. Her teacher told me that Irene drew a map of what freedom looks like for her and her community, and urged her to show it to me.

Irene holds her map up to the built-in camera of her teacher’s laptop, and speaks it into meaning for me: “Ito po yung paaralan namin tapos nakapalibot po yung kahoy. Tapos ito po yung community, marami po doon grass. Tapos ito po yung sun, yung hanapbuhay namin ito, yung mais at palay. Tapos ito po yung ilog.” (This is our school surrounded by trees. And then, this is our community. There’s a lot of grass. This is the sun. This is our livelihood, this is the corn and rice. This is the river.)

Homelands: The Book

This excerpt is part of Homelands, a photography book that unfolds Jacob Maentz’s close and continuing collaboration with various Indigenous and national minority communities in the Philippines. The book’s 218 images are supported by 18 essays as writer Nicola Sebastian et al. reflect on indigeneity and the diverse concerns of Indigenous communities: the importance of solidarity in the clash between self-interest and shared interests; the submerged history of political resistance; alternative education and traditional knowledge systems; food sovereignty; the idea of Indigenous peoples as environmental frontliners leading the race against irreversible ecological devastation; and the successes and challenges of reclaiming land recognition after centuries of colonization and modern development aggression. 

Words by Nicola Sebastian | Images by Jacob Maentz | Illustrations by Kristine Caguiat