by Rey Salita of Manila Standard Today
Aetas begging on the streets during the holidays are met with amusement and some degree of curiosity.
We frown on them when they use makeshift musical instruments in an attempt to provide their potential benefactors some entertainment.
Only a few of us urban dwellers appreciate the fact that the problems facing these indigenous peoples go deeper than cultural discrimination. Indeed, being seen as tribal novelty and comic sidekicks are the least of their concerns.
How many of us are aware of the displacement and the injustice—let alone the indignity of subsisting on coins doled to them during the holidays —these families endure?
We know land grabbing and agrarian disputes happen in the movies. Landed tyrants lord it over poor farmers in more ways than one. In the real world, however, land grabbing is performed by an unlikely villain—our very own government.
The latest casualties in this real-life drama are some 3,000 Dumagats—the Aeta bands in the northern Sierra Madre—in Aurora province who are being evicted from their ancestral land by the Aurora Pacific Economic Zone and Freeport Authority. The zone expands to 12,427 hectares, covering most of the municipality of Casiguran, including sitios Dibet, Esteves, San Ildefonso, Cozo, and Culat.
This special economic zone is perfectly legal like in all perfect cinematic plots. It was created by Republic Act 10083 filed in 2007 by no less than Senator Edgardo Angara with Representative Juan Edgardo Angara, his son in the House of Representatives, and endorsed by the senator’s sister, Aurora Gov. Bellaflor Angara-Castillo.
That the Dumagats seem to be in for the show of their lives.
Fr. Edu Gariguez of the National Secretariat for Social Actions of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines says the setting is rife. “Whatever you’ll find in the movies;” Gariquez says, are here. “We have deceit and violence.”
Gariguez says the farmer-occupants were never consulted when the economic zone was being conceptualized.
The area is made up of rich arable and fishing grounds that it’s a waste of human capital to convert the 12,000-hectare area to an export zone, the priest adds.
Local journalists were also reported to have been harassed when they tried to inform the public about the proposal to convert the land and the establishment of the freeport three years ago.
“Yes, now that it’s a law, occupants are left with no choice but to move to the APECO’s relocation sites. The problem is that these sites are under the Comprehensive Land Reform Program and already have beneficiaries. So what will happen next is that re-settlers will be evicted out of those lands as soon as they are relocated.” Gariguez adds.
Very little is known about the Aeta that most do not even know their groups. But the Aeta of the Sierra Madre are widely referred to as the Agta in Quezon and Aurora provinces. To the far north in Cagayan Valley region, they are known as Dumagats.
The Aeta of Central Luzon was called by the Tagalogs as Ita; the Pampangos, Baluga; and the Zambals, Ayta.
Atrocities against the Aeta are incessant through the centuries that it is quite alarming to see such violations still happening in the 21st century.
When the Americans came to colonize the islands in the early 20th century, their commonwealth government instituted the Bureau of non-Christian Tribes. In Cagayan province, an archived account detailing the actions of the first commissioner of this bureau documented a “development program”. This program established an orphanage for non-orphans that took away Agta children from their parents with the view that they were “being raised in the most deplorable way of life.”
Agta children were rounded up to live permanently in the orphanage where they were taught “civilities,” as the commissioner wrote in his reports. He said what he found in his post was a “newly found tribe of cannibals in the upper Sierra Madre.”
The commissioner write in his memoirs: “…the most primitive, wild, fierce and dangerous group… a generation from the stone age… having no clothes…fond of eating raw meat…children unwanted and unloved…ignorant of days, weeks and months, as well as years… idolatry and adultery are supreme…”
It was unknown if there were children who survived this captivity but there were oral stories passed on to generations among the Agta that many suffered and died. There were also a number of Agta mothers that were reportedly shot and killed outside the orphanage.
The Aeta remained obscured in the sidelines of the mainstream Filipino society that perhaps there were more atrocities that were committed against them as history unfolded.
During the fighting in the Second World War for the liberation of the Philippines in 1945, there were Aeta bands that aided wounded soldiers and participated in the guerilla warfare against the Japanese.
In the final air battle that followed the retaking of the Clark Airfield in Pampanga, the Aeta villages in the mountains surrounding the contested military installation played a critical role in rescuing downed American pilots.
As a show of gratitude, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in the Pacific and the United States Armed Forces to the Far East, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, signed a memorandum granting exclusive privilege to the Aeta to scavenge freely in all American base dumps in the country.
The earliest documentation of feudal agriculture in the Agta territory was in the 1910s in Casiguran, Quezon, when a US Army officer took several Agta men and chained them together to clear a track of forest where the soldier intended to farm. In July 14, 1923, the Casiguran Municipal Council also passed a formal resolution, asking the national government to “suspend the advance” of the Agta farmlands within their “non-Christian” reservation out of fear that the “Christian” townsfolk will loose trade in the future.
Empowered with that resolution, many Unats charged in the forest reservation and threatened the Agtas to vacate their clearings as the government was forbidding them land ownership. The clearings were then inhabited by the Unats and more maneuvers were taken to keep the Agtas dependent on them that the Unats may extract cheap labor and lopsided trade with the Agtas.
The insurgency problem in the countryside during the 1960s also gave the Unats more reason to drive away the Agtas from their clearings with the help of the military. Tales were woven that Agtas of a particular hamlet, who have already cleared and are tilling a sizable forestland, supports the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army as assassins and spies, prompting the military to be suspicious and take direct actions against them with bloody results.
Next time you happen to pass by an Aeta roaming the streets, remember: you don’t know even half the story.