The Aetas among us
It was in the wake of the Great Earthquake of 1990 that Aetas coming down to Metro Manila to beg became a fixture of our metropolitan lives. Over the past decade or so, they have also engaged in an annual migration to Metro Manila to beg during the holiday season. Last Thursday, in New Manila, I saw one Aeta walking around with a hand-lettered sign; over the years, they have tended to congregate to sleep on the sidewalk in front of the San Juan Reservoir.
What natural disasters began — the displacement and continuing poverty that makes annual migrations to beg something to do — official policies might well make even worse. The New Clark City (formerly Clark Green City) project of the government has officially notified Aetas that they are being evicted from the land they occupy. At best, they can look forward to forced resettlement somewhere else. The irony is that the passing of the colonial era may be harsher for the Aetas than it was during the time of the Americans, who preserved forest areas within their base perimeters for conducting jungle warfare training courses, and where the Aetas gave them jungle and mountain living training. The Americans are gone, and nature and the Aetas don’t stand a chance.Here, once two different world views collide: the precolonial, indeed, prehistoric, culture and world-view of the Aetas, and that of the present-day republic with its colonial and postcolonial history, laws and popular and official culture, itself a hybrid of the precolonial lowlanders and the nation-state. Under our present republic, laws have tried to harmonize the two, by creating the category of ancestral domains, collectively administered by what used to be called non-Christian tribes and, today, indigenous peoples (IPs). But as the eviction of the Aetas proves, the closer to urban areas, the further away in practice the lives of IPs get from the supposed protection and respect of our laws.
The collision of world views has cost in lives. Forests and other ancestral domains, because of the nature of insurgency, are also of interest to rebels. A peace advocate long ago told me it takes a decade for change to become permanent; and that one of the most effective means for peace promotion in communities was for a community to stand up and declare itself out of bounds for both the Armed Forces and communist rebels. Headlines frequently refer to Lumad communities, for example, whom the Armed Forces claim are a hotbed of the insurgency; the counterclaims of allies of the insurgents denounce the AFP for interdicting “educational” and other community activities among the Lumad. The AFP, of course, is also widely suspected of being less interested in Lumad as IPs (and protecting their rights) than in fostering the financial interests of loggers and local politicians.
One commenter said the government ought to provide for livelihood training and so forth for the Aetas, which reminds me of a story someone who’d worked with a nongovernmental organization once told me. They’d gotten their volunteers to build Gawad Kalinga or Habitat for Humanity-type homes for the Aetas, but they ended up dying: “They were literally baking to death having to live in little concrete houses with GI sheet roofs,” the person claimed. Whether true or not, it reveals the problems that come with trying to turn uplanders into lowlanders: Deprived of habitat and culture, they become not just impoverished, but also spiritually and culturally marginalized—a double life sentence.
From 1916 to 1935, the Senate had two seats reserved for minorities (“non-Christian tribes”). One seat invariably went to a Moro leader; the other, to someone representing what today would be called IPs. From 1935 to 1971 and from 1987 to 1992, the old bargain with the Moros to incorporate them into the political class, and thus with the major parties supporting national Moro candidates for senator, endured. But the Marcos-era fragmentation of the Moro leadership, and the collapse of the party system, means that Moros have had no national representation for decades now. It might just be that in some future rethinking of the Senate, ensuring a seat for the Moros and the IPs might be an old idea whose time has come again.
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