Philippines: Natives living among the ruins of a government seized pulp mill

Goats and oxen graze among the ruins of a paper mill by the Abra
River, a big-ticket project which brought war on the Tingguian tribal
people of the northern Philippines highlands. “It would be nice if we
could have our farm back,” said Daniel Briones, 54, as he sat outside
his nearby hut weaving bamboo and rattan baskets, his remaining means
of feeding his family of nine.

The pulp mill, which the government
seized and tore down for scrap after the 1986 fall of the late
dictator Ferdinand Marcos, remains a sore topic around this
mountainous region, the ancestral home of upland farmers and gatherers
collectively known as Tingguians. Residents claim the government
forced them to sell their farms to make way for the Cellophil
Resources Corp plant, which won a franchise in the 1970s to harvest
pine on some 400,000 hectares of forest land. Pura Sumangil, a social
worker and former teacher, saw hundreds of her Tingguian students take
up arms to join a widespread communist insurgency. The new government
signed a peace treaty with the hill people in 1987, and Sumangil
helped at least 300 Tingguian former rebels get presidential pardons,
government jobs or payoffs. “The project provoked social unrest
because it encroached on the Tingguians’ ancestral domain,” she told
AFP. Yet as electricity came to the upland communities in the 1980s,
traditional Tingguian society was on its last legs.

The government
lists the Tingguians as one of nearly 100 ethno-linguistic groups in
the Philippines. They number about 98,000, mostly in Abra province’s
highlands, and each of the 11 sub-groups have their own distinct
language. Though nominally Christian, Tingguians were traditionally
guided in their decision-making by shamans who divined from the
internal organs of chickens or pigs when to sow crops, get married, or
even where to find lost livestock. These days weavers, sugar cane wine
makers and traditional medicine men are a dying breed, Tingguian
elders said. “We feel hurt that some of our young people have
forgotten some of our customs and traditions,” said Nestor Guyo, a
former vice mayor of the town of Luba and an elder statesman of the
Maeng, one of the largest Tingguian groups.

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