Back in the Sierra Madres with our Agta Friends

Isabela, Luzon, Philippines

Things often do not turn out the way you might expect them to. Such was the case during my recent trip back to the Sierra Madres. I returned to a part of Isabela and Cagayan provinces to visit some old Agta friends from last year. Upon returning this time I had a plan to go on a hunt with some of the men, a hunt for wild pig, deer or monkey. These are game items that the Agta still hunt for occasionally in the forest to eat or sell to locals. I was excited about this trip and thought with the contacts I had made everything would fall into place fairly easily. However, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Uncontrollable circumstances such as bad weather, broken transportation, and previous obligations of my contacts lead to a serious amount of time waiting. Watching the pouring down rain, sitting on the side of a dusty road in the middle of nowhere and waiting for conditions to become just right for a hunt. Conditions that never happened during my two week visit.

An Agta man walking in the shallow reefs on the coast of Isabela looking for fish and octopus. The rainy weather during our visit did not make the conditions ideal for a forest hunt, but fishing continued as usual.

Despite the many hours of waiting, we were able to make the most of the circumstances. I’m referring to ‘we’ because I was with a friend, Norman Mabborang, who without his help in the four local dialects he speaks would have made for a much more difficult trip. I am very thankful for Norman’s help and for being so patient with all the down time we had. A lot of our time was spent visiting families in the different villages and getting a better sense of community life. Being back at the Blos River was also a nice treat as we were able to print pictures from our visit a year ago and share them with our friends. Seeing the excitement on the peoples faces after viewing their photos was priceless and worth the trip in itself just for that short moment.

Traditional Agta homes on the rocky banks of the Blos River. A year ago when we were at the Blos River we did not see any traditional nomadic Agta homes. However, on this visit there were about ten families who had setup a camp on the side of the river. Each shelter is a single home for a family. I also noticed that during heavy rains they will move all of their homes together to make one larger space which helps prevent rain from being blown in from the side.

The Blos River from above. The forest still has many wounds (landslides) from Typhoon Juan back in October of 2010 which is visible from the air. The weather was beautiful upon flying into Maconacon, but it did not stay that way for our whole trip.

Our journey back to Blos began from the small town of Maconacon on the east coast of Isabela. The 17 passenger Sky Pasada plane that we flew into Maconacon was full of passengers and brought us over the beautiful and lush mountains of the Sierra Madres. It took a day to reconnect with familiar faces and we soon we were off on a kuliglig heading for the Blos River. To set the tone of our adventure, our kuliglig got a flat tire about 30 minutes into our trip. We ended up waiting for a few hours on the side of the road for the kuliglig to fix the problem back in town. Eventually, our transportation returned and we made it Blos before dark.

Community members from Blos ride a local kuliglig as their main form of transportation when going back and fourth to the larger town of Maconacon. A kuliglig is basically a diesel farm engine mounted on the front of a harness which is attached to a platform where people and cargo can be placed. It's a two hour ride on one of these from Maconacon to the Blos River.

A grandfather and his grandson coming home in the rain from collecting fire wood on the nearby beach.

It was great being back in Blos and visiting with friends we hadn’t seen in almost a year. We immediately began talking with the men about arranging a hunt of some sort. It sounded like something might be possible, but then the rain came and we ended up waiting for a couple of days for the low pressure to clear. Generally, I try not to let weather stop me from shooting, but under these circumstances the men would not go hunting in the rain because the animals get scared off. While waiting for the weather to clear, daily life continued and I tried to document what I could.

Eventually the rain did clear and right away we were told that two men were going to look for octopus. I quickly grabbed my gear and headed out with them. After an hour walk to the reef the men immediately found an octopus hiding in the rocky shoreline. A pleasant surprise.

Two Agta men catching an octopus in the rocky shore where they hide out. They use a metal spear to pierce the octopus and then it takes the two of them to pull it out of the rock.

Two Agta men pull a live octopus out of the water. We ended up cooking this later that evening and it was very tasty.

For those of you who regularly follow my blog you will know that I have talked before about the proposed road connecting Illagan to Divilacan. Essentially the government wants to build an 82km road that will connect the isolated towns of Maconacon and Divilican to mainland “Luzon.” I know the road is close to being approved, although I haven’t heard if it has passed all of the clearances yet. It’s only a matter of time. During this trip I made it a point to ask regular people I met about their thoughts on the proposed road. I wanted to hear from locals who would be most affected by the plan what their thoughts were.

I talked with school teachers, pastors, Agta men and local people while riding the kuliglig. To no surprise, I found people stating both good and bad things about the road. It seems everyone is aware about the harm it will have on the environment. Everyone I talked with mentioned this. However, a few people mentioned that it will be easier to sell their goods and have access to better medical care if a road is built. Although, with that being said it was always made clear to me at the end of our conversation that the road would do more harm in the long run. As one person told me, “the government never did a survey of all the citizens that will be directly affected by this road. This seems to be a plan of certain politicians who will benefit from the project. Why would the government want to build a 1.9 billion peso road to only connect two small towns. Maconacon only has a population of 5000 people. There could be other alternatives such as a subsidized fairy boat for residents.”

It saddens me that in 5 years time this area will be connected to the rest of Luzon and slowly peoples life’s will start to change. An influx of people will certainly put more pressure on the areas natural resources and the life in the Agta communities we have come to know will change as well.

The coastline of Isabela near the town of Maconacon. The coral reefs and marine life in this part of the country are still very rich. The proposed 82km Illagan to Divilacan road will certainly put a lot more pressure on the areas natural resources.

We ended up spending most of our time socializing with the different Agta communities and drinking a lot of coffee. There isn’t much else to do when it’s pouring down rain and everyone else is waiting as well for the weather to clear. This time was nice though and provided some intimate moments among family members that we were able to be apart of.

Women and children talking around the fire while heating water for coffee. Because of the rainy weather the dogs were enjoying the heat from the fire as well.

Once the sun goes down many families will spend time in their homes talking around a fire or kerosene lamp. Especially when the weather is wet families tend to stay inside.

A father and his child play on a hammock while waiting for the rain to stop.

Agta children playing basketball on the side of their house. This was an activity the children were constantly playing whether rain or shine. Right after this photo was taken one of the boys mother came over and ripped down the plastic hoop from the wall. I guess she had enough of the ball beating on the side of the house.

An Agta man cooking shells which will eventually be crushed into a white power and used as an ingredient for mama. Mama is a mix of beetle nut, tobacco, a type of green leave and then shell powder. It's a type of drug commonly used by the Agta and causes the body to weaken.

Preparing a fire for cooking. The rain would occasionally clear for a short time allowing for fires to be built outside of the homes.

A mother applying oil to her sick child's body. I was told the baby had a fever and rubbing oil on the body is a way to help the child.

Children helping an older man in their community get lice out of his hair. He eventually cut all of his hair off after the fun was finished.

After talking with some of the men in Blos they recommended we get in touch with their cousins on the other side of the Sierra Madres. They said that the hunting grounds there were much better and it was very likely we would catch something within a couple of days. After all of the waiting in Blos we decided that the best option would be to at least visit their cousins and see what was possible. We still had a few more days in and around Blos before catching our flight back to Tuguegarao. But now we had a plan.

The men from the Blos community did a small dance around the fire during our last evening there to show us a traditional dance. It was a bit comical because I don't think they have done the dance in a long time. All of the women were laughing at the men and they only ended up dancing for a few minutes.

With some down time in Maconacon before heading back to Tuguegarao, we decided to go out one morning to two different Agta communities living nearby on the beach. These two communities primarily catch lobster as a source of livelihood and sell them to locals. Locals will then pack the lobster and fly them out to be sold either in Tuguegarao or Manila where the prices are much higher. We were able to go out with some of the men to see how they catch lobster one morning, using a single rod spear. Usually, the men will fish all night long looking for lobster because the conditions are much better at night. During our short time in the water the only thing the young Agta men caught were a couple of fish (no lobster).

A young Agta man from Maconacon heads out early in the morning to look for lobster. When looking for lobster at night the men will use waterproof flashlights and stay out all night, however, occasionally early morning excursions also happen like this one.

Two Agta men head out from their boat to look for lobster near the town of Maconacon.

An Agta man bringing in his nightly lobster catch on shore early morning.

Once back in Tuguegarao, I spent the next few days trying to arrange a guide to get up to this new community. I was optimistic as I saw two deer skulls and was told just a few days before the Agta had delivered a deer for the barangay captains birthday party. The barangay captains house is a two hour hike from the Agta community. Despite three flat tires on our motorcycle and multiple blisters we eventually arranged for a guide and reached the community where I needed to be. It was a beautiful place and I was pleasantly surprised being fairly accessible from Tuguegarao City. It’s a rugged road to the start point of the rough two hour hike, but nonetheless it is still accessible by a vehicle. I spent three days in the community, but again no luck with finding any animals to hunt. I spent almost three days waiting for the men to find the location of the wild pigs and deer but our time wasn’t long enough and again nothing could be found. I ended up photographing more everyday life images from around the village. Some of the images from this particular community are mixed in with the other images from this blog post.

The rugged path to an Agta community in Cagayan province on the western side of the Sierra Madre mountains.

The Sierra Madre mountains from above. If you look hard enough you can see the small Agta village in the bottom left hand corner of the image near the river. This was taken from the airplane on our way back from Maconacon and it wasn't until later that I realized I had captured the actual place I would be visiting.

Corn was a common crop grown in this community. It was a nice change from canned tuna and rice every meal.

A common sight I saw along the river to the second Agta community I visited was hard wood from the forest being floated down river. This is clearly an illegal activity as the wood is coming from a natural park and harvesting any type of old growth hard wood in the country is now banned. However, I was told that the police don't mind because they know it is a source of livelihood for the community down river. When I asked about the DENR (Department of Environment and Natural Resources) I was told that the workers have to be careful when DENR officials visit the area. It amazes me, however, that the regional headquarter for DENR (a large three story building) is only two hours away and accessible by road. This activity is clearly happening and you can see large piles of wood being stacked along the side of the river. Every morning I saw about 20 men heading up river to start their daily cutting. The Agta are also engaging in this activity as it is a relatively easy source of income for them. Once the logs are cut they are floated down river using old tires or rice bags filled with plastic bottles.

With the initial plan for this trip to be based around some type of hunt, we actually only went out hunting for a few hours one afternoon. We went looking for monkeys, however, because of the strong rain apparently they were no where to be found. We came back empty handed and the picture below is the only hunting image I was able to capture. My initial vision of an Agta man carrying a large wild pig or deer on their shoulders through the forest did not happen. I guess this will have to wait for another visit and when my energy level is back up to try and arrange another hunt.

Tapog and Odang hunting in the forest looking for monkeys.

On another note, going back to the Sierra Madres came at an appropriate time. Discovery Channel Magazine is running a 12 page photo feature about my trip to Isabela last year in this August issue. If you are in Asia or Australia you can pick up a copy at any decent bookstore or newsstand. The article is written in the first person and talks about my trip there and a little about my shooting style. I’m also excited that the article mentions the Katutubong Filipino Project so perhaps it will bring some more attention to the indigenous people here. I’ve attached the tearsheets below, but you will have to pick up a copy to read the article.

The Agta of Isabela from my trip there last year is featured in the August 2012 issue of Discovery Channel Magazine.

I’m back home in Cebu now for a couple of more weeks for some non-profit assignment work, a relatives wedding and my 33rd birthday (which has already passed now). Then it’s off to Davao, Mindanao to continue working on the Katutubo Project. I’m hoping to be able to document an interesting practice that still happens in that part of the country with the Lumads. If all goes as planned I’ll be sure to post some images here on the blog and share all about it.

A memorable sunset over the Sierra Madres which was spectacular. I will be back once again in the near future.

Tagged: aeta, agta, asia, documentary, dumagat, images, indigenous people, luzon, philippines, Travel,
Posted on: Aug 6, 2012


Would you like to know when new stories are published here?

All I need is your name and email. Don't worry, I wont share your info with anyone.