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Sanghay Mountains

January 9, 2008

If I could say one thing about the Filipino terrain it’s that this whole nation teems with life. My experience is quite limited, but Mindanao is far from the exception of this observation. Whether it’s the lizards on the ceiling, chickens on the street corners, or homeless children tucked under the overhangs, something is always being born, and in turn, beginning to die. The countryside is even more so, being overrun with hungry livestock and fruit bearing trees that tower above miles and miles of vegetables and flowers. I was deposited in this threatened land of promise, particularly a barangay named Sanghay for two weeks during the Christmas season. It’s always hard to vocalize the intended benefits of these immersions. Certainly it’s about education and solidarity, but there’s a certain part of just being that comes into that, a certain reality that has to be based upon person-to-person interaction. This time together can hardly summed up in terms of issues or political ideas.

Sanghay is high in the mountains- the rain comes everyday and everything seemed damp against my skin. My washed clothes never seemed to dry and at night I would listen to the drops of water falling from the ceiling to a bucket near my bed. The rain was like the mountains exhaling, a quiet but constant rhythm. In the daylight I would see them towering above the town basketball court. I would see the clouds rising like a winter’s breath.

Only a few hundred years ago the people lived here with enough, with plenty. The land and the Lumads belonged to each other in the way that there was enough food to go around from the trees and the land and the animals and the bay that there was no reason to break down the mountains and tear up the forest. Certainly I’m not the part of the group that came in to take that away, but I’m part of a race and a country that benefits from the societal ‘evolution’ of Mindanao and no matter how much I ally myself with the activists here, I cannot change that.

And so to truly understand the people and the mountains as much as I could during my brief stay I felt I had to divorce myself from my self. Easier said than done. It’s a daunting task anyway, human beings are full of self-awareness, and in a tiny barangay tucked so far away from a real metropolis, the rarity of white presence attracted a fair amount of finger pointing, staring, and shouting. Often my self would become the most obvious part of my experience.

A few days into my stay there I was invited to make a trek up the mountain to New Kamotes, an even more remote village a bit of a motorcycle ride away. The local priest was going there to attend a festival and I was invited as his guest. My host family would, of course, be accompanying me.

“Cars can’t up there,” the priest said with a laugh. “And there’s no sweet potatoes.” I asked him the nature and purpose of the festival, but never got a real reply. The trip up was a bit painstaking. It had rained for hours the night before and so the motorcycle my host sister and I had had hired to take us up the mountain kept tipping over. After falling off a few times, we decided to walk the steepest parts and only use the bike when the terrain looked clearer. The mud covered my clothes, speckled my face and stuck in my hair.

It would be ridiculous to say that the trip to New Kamotes was any sort of right of passage, but there’s something to be said about commonality in new experiences. When the people stared at me when I arrived in the town for the festival (it turned out to be a baptismal celebration) I couldn’t tell if they were staring at me because I was white or because I was covered in filth. Chances are it was the former. Regardless, walls come down. They’re Western walls- walls of perpetual disparity and cultural theft, globalization and racism. And they’re my walls- walls of personal space and foreign ignorance, guilt and discomfort. And when the walls began to crack I could move out of my emotional barricade and move into a more accessible place, in the space between my self and the farmers around me.

And in that space I could hear when people spoke about the mountains about the over-flow of life and death around them. In a country plagued with the colonized love of the foreign and with a government encouraging labor exportation, the peasants I met in Sanghay are at the same time both a foil and a mirror to the national societal changes going on around them. Certainly the fascination with the West was obvious in their intense reception of a white visitor and in the vast quantity of American pop songs on the town’s token karaoke machines, but it was clear to me the people are in belonging with the land. I saw it especially with the farmers, willingly sharing knowledge about their crops and enjoying the fruits of past harvest prepared in coconut milk. The questions I fielded about America were theoretical and humorous, very different from the specific questions I received in Manila about visas and green cards. That’s the foil.

Sanghay also reflects the most recent threat to the environmental and economic survival of many mountain communities.

“Up there,” a local man said, pointing to the top of the nearby hill. “They’re starting mining, on the other side.” I asked him who owned the land and he replied that a company had bought it from a local farmer. The specific questions I asked about the transaction and price of the sale were shrugged away.

Doesn’t matter, he said. There’s going to be mining everywhere soon. I wondered what that would look like- those beautiful mountains full of machinery. I wonder if they would be able to breathe in the rain under all that garbage, if they would get cold when they were naked of trees.

My host father Titing and I talked about what this would mean for the community.

“All that is mine is the land,” he said. “The land, the goats, the chickens.” He went on to say that, that was all any of the families here had and if the companies came in the land could be ruined. It wasn’t just the actual mining sites, but the places below that would suffer under the erosion, the communities that would have to be plowed through to make access roads.

“Maybe (the companies) will give (the people) a little bit of money. It’s a lot for us so they take the money. Do they know the land will be destroyed?” he asked. His wife brought us out a place of bananas.

“Sagin,” she said, pushing the plate on the table towards me. “Esai, sagin.” (Bananas. Lindsey Bananas.)
“Buso ko,” I replied smiling at her and touching my stomach. She frowned at me. (I’m full.)
“Kaun, kaun sagin,” she said and took one off the plate and extended it to me. (Eat, eat bananas.)

“Oh, oh,” I said, taking the banana. “Salamat,” I turned back to Titing. “It seems like the people need education,” I said, peeling the banana. I felt fat.

“It’s happening right now. Organization. We need to organize,” he said, nodding. I noticed when he feigned being full his wife took his word for it.

I’m far from knowing much about the mining issues affecting Mindanao. And as both a foreigner and a Westerner I think I would be quite out-of-place in offering any in-depth analysis or a tangible solution. But I have my perspective, an outside perspective, I have quite enough of that to go around.

A place like Mindanao with so much life and unknown promise seems to be a rare gem in the face of an over-industrialized and hyper-developed Western world. To deny any mining or development for the sake of a rustic nostalgia would be seen as irrational, especially in a country crippled with foreign debt and mass poverty. I fear the biggest problem facing Sanghay is not the mining itself but the very present reality that decisions that could destroy this community are being made on a different island (cynically one could say in a different country) by people who have undoubtedly never had to survive harvest to harvest, one day at a time. The minerals mined in the mountains of Davao Oriental will undoubtedly be shipped abroad and the only time Filipinos will ever see the wealth of Mindanao is when it reenters their country via shopping mall as electronics and hardware the vast majority won’t be able to afford.

I wonder what the people in Sanghay would make with those resources if it were up to them. Modern farming equipment so farmers could yield a profit at the end of year? Tougher motorcycles so the people in New Kamotes could still get into town even if there’s been rain? Or maybe low-cost computer technology so their children could have a better education?

Certainly the people know what’s happening: They know the government doesn’t have the people’s interest at heart, that the wealthy will only get wealthier from these mining operations. What they need to know is that other people know, too. People in different cities, people on different islands, people from different countries. Clergy and reports and activists know. Education on these issues will start with making sure people know they’re not alone in their struggle. Titing knows better than anyone- this is happening right now and if the people don’t organize so much could be lost. Everything, really.

Among all of the life on Mindanao, none of it belongs to foreign investors, big companies, and none of it belongs to the government. The people here belong to the land; the tillers and workers shepherd the life that springs from the ground and lives off the soil. So if anyone should speak for resources and potential here it can only be them. It’s hardly a political theory or a radical idea. It’s really just what makes sense.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Emily permalink
    January 9, 2008 3:22 pm

    I just wonder if anyone will listen.

  2. Angelous permalink
    January 17, 2008 6:37 am

    Hello from San Antonio, Texas, USA, this is your cousin Chris 🙂 I must say that in reading your tales of travel and insight you inspired me to read and research the areas that you are traveling in. I admit my knowledge of the archipelagic nation is reserved to my interest in world war 2 naval campaigns and as such leaves me ignorant of the amazing differences in culture and life that you are finding while there in person. You may be interested to know that I found several essays based on similar arguments about what industrialization is doing to the old ways of life in Mindanao. I would be remiss in reminding you to not only look towards the west when assigning blame but remember that a majority of new mining capital is coming from the east, mainly from China. Her insatiable desire for raw materials leads to billions of dollars being sunk into the region in order to make it suitable for extraction. You’re views on a government not willing to help it’s own people is spot on. It reminds me very much of the revolutionary era Caribbean, Central, and South America countries when witty, and opportunistic men took the discontent of their people (very much in similar situations – in this case the United States and and Western Europe being the antagonists) with empty promises of better lives, and new beginnings, and forged it into supreme power over their respective people. There have been rumblings for quite some time in the Philippines about the government and coups attempted in the past. My question to you in leaving is in your travels do you get a sense that the people have had enough and are willing to fight back or are they so defeated and beat down that they are willing to accept the status quo as it stands? I hope this finds you well and we all think of you in your time away from the states. Be well and may God be with you.


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