The Aeta, also known as Negritos, are descended from the Australo-Melanesian peoples that were some of the earliest settlers of the Philippines, arriving some 30,000 years ago. There are various groups of Aeta scattered across the archipelago; mainly the Agta, Ati, Ayta, Mamanwa, and Batak. The picturesque plains of Central Luzon, watched over by the majestic Mount Pinatubo, has been the historic homeland of the Ayta people for millennia, long before they were converted large-scale agricultural lands by more recent settlers. When the great volcano erupted in 1991, the second-worst in world history, hundreds of thousands of Aytas were forced to evacuate; many of them have never been able to reclaim their ancestral lands, relocating in urban areas of Luzon and intermarrying with the other groups, like the Ilocanos in the north. In the Sierra Madre mountain range, rapid and continuing deforestation triggered an equally dramatic change in the culture and lifestyle of the Agta who are shifting from a predominantly hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a peasant livelihood dependent on a cash and barter economy. Still, many of the Agta groups remain semi-nomadic, moving from place to place depending on food security and the time of year. Historically, on Panay and Negros the Ati had the islands mostly to themselves, dwelling on the coasts and plains, where food supply was abundant. Later migrants of mostly Malay and Bruneian origin displaced the Ati, who retreated into the mountains, a common refrain in the indigenous story.
An Agta man cooking river shells against a temporary camp of traditional lean-tos on the rocky banks of the Blos River. These shells 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 leaf and shell powder which acts as a stimulant.
Children play makeshift basketball, a popular sport now widely adapted in Agta communities. Traditionally, Agta children could bring down birds with their bows and arrows by the time they were ten, but since the 1970s their lifestyle changed drastically, as communities shifted from a nomadic, foraging lifestyle to a more sedentary, peasant existence.
Men perform a traditional dance around an evening fire. Among the Agta, there is a total of 12 distinct dialects, which may soon go extinct. Today, as they continue to lose more of their ancestral lands to extractive enterprises, the Agta struggle to survive the alarming loss of rainforest in the Sierra Madre.
The rugged path to home on the western side of the Sierra Madre mountains. The Sierra Madre is the longest mountain range in the Philippines containing 1.4 million hectares of forest, or 40% of the country’s forest cover. Although protected on paper, much of the Sierra Madre is still under threat from human encroachment and associated timber poaching, mining, conversion of forests for agriculture, and migration.