Reading accounts of early travelers to Sulu, one cannot help but note a common impression among these chroniclers: enchantment.
Even today, if you just try to look beyond the garbage, the squatter colonies, the constant threat of armed groups and the destructive consequences of these forces combined, it is difficult not to fall in love with the Sulu archipelago.
On the more visible plane, it is as if on this small group of islands, which looks like a mere addendum on the map to the mass that is Mindanao, God in His benevolence bestowed all the magical manifestations of what we call nature: mountains and plateaus; a volcano; mountain springs; a heart-shaped lake; waterfalls, rivers, brooks and streams; all scaled down to size, with lush vegetation that covers everything with green. Each island is buffered by thick mangroves and outlined by white powdery sand, marking the boundaries between land and the clear emerald sea.
(As I write this, the Saturday evening news announces that 12 people are dead in today’s clash between army soldiers and the kidnap-for-ransom group Abu Sayyaf. “How many times must the cannon balls fly before they’re forever banned?”)
And what is it you don’t see unless you live there? Or at least when you just stay awhile?
Rich volcanic soil that actually “grows” and fertilizes itself, pure mountain spring water, a rich marine reserve that also nurtures the famous
Sulu pearls, fruit trees that bear exotic fruits so plentiful with each season as if their supply will last forever.
Yet these are all there is now, because once upon a time—the time that those smitten travelers came upon—the Sulu archipelago was a wonderland: aside from coconut and abaca, there were rubber trees, dark maple and various grains—barley, millet, sesame and a variety of rice that I have not seen anywhere else and are, or were, definitely superior to whatever fancy grains there are in the market. Then there were the herbs and spices that only now have become sought after by the health conscious, like lemon grass, turmeric and wild ginger.
And all of these virtually grew by themselves, with only the birds to help sow the seeds. The
“Tau Sug” used to say that you could plant a pole in Sulu and it would grow.
This was how and why the Sultanate of Sulu was able to engage in international commerce and trade at a time when gold was the prevailing currency, to become the wealthiest government in what is now the Philippines.
Today, the province of Sulu is listed as one of the poorest provinces in the country, although ironically, and fortunately, no one starves there.
It imports vegetables from the Zamboanga Peninsula because there are only very few Tau Sug left who are interested in planting vegetables. Because of the volatile peace and order condition in the countryside, they have abandoned Sulu’s wide spaces to crowd into the town of Jolo, which is the smallest in area. And they have discovered a “golden goose”—that is, the drug trade, which is almost as rewarding as the kidnap-for-ransom industry.
But there is hope.
A group of authentic young revolutionaries is determined to slay the windmills in the countryside of Jolo, whatever it takes, in the pursuit of the almost impossible dream of turning the island into the miracle that will save the Tau Sug from themselves. Armed with the implements and weapons of their forefathers, they are now clearing spaces on which to plant fruit trees, vegetables and other crops that will all be organically grown, using the same kind of age-old natural pesticides their forebears made use of.
The government should not lose this chance to help these warriors of peace and restoration. The Department of Agriculture, specifically, can help not only with seeds and seedlings, but more so with less labor-intensive farm implements, technological know-how and irrigation systems.
Although in my experience growing up in Jolo, I observed that the Tau Sug, like all indigenous peoples elsewhere, had their own practices regarding environmental protection and preservation long before the civilized world became conscious of the word, it is now necessary to share information on modern environmental concerns like solid waste management (which means more than the daily collection and disposal of garbage, especially plastics and styrofoam), as well as climate change.
This is not just pride of place, but I noticed that the coconuts, avocado, and guyabano (soursop) of Sulu are much bigger, sweeter and meatier than those I find in groceries and wet markets in Metro Manila. These fruits are all in demand as they have lately been found to be very important health foods, but they are so highly prized that the ordinary wage earner can hardly afford them.
The many coastal areas of the province should be very good for growing watermelons and other gourds. And while the Tau Sug, with their abundant marine resources, don’t bother to engage in in-land fishing, one can just imagine how rich its coasts are in bangus fingerlings that they have no use for but which could be shipped to nearby provinces.
And it is important to revive the art of green packaging, at which they are born craftsmen. In their past, everything brought to the market was contained in baskets made of coconut leaves and bamboo; food was wrapped in banana leaves, and everything was tied up with abaca ropes and strings.
The salvation of the people of Sulu clearly lies in a return to their beginnings, a return to the land and the sea.
And to those who will set up barriers to this homecoming, a quote from John F. Kennedy: “Those who make a peaceful revolution impossible, make a violent one inevitable.”
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