Can Photos Help Save Our Indigenous Cultures?

I believe they can.

Last July I traveled to a remote part of the Sierra Madre mountains in northern Luzon where I spent two weeks with the indigenous Agta and Dumagat communities of the area. Being a travel and documentary photographer based in the Philippines I do a good amount of traveling around the country, but visiting this part of Isabela was different and truly eye opening. During my time there I witnessed an authentic way of life that I have rarely seen throughout my travels. The indigenous Agta and Dumagat communities there are still very much practicing their nomadic lifestyle, living off the land and ocean using traditional hunting and fishing methods passed down from generation to generation. The forest and rivers which provides food for these communities is the cleanest and most pristine I have seen in the country. The main reason for this is because of their isolation, there are no roads going there. A small part of Philippine cultural heritage is tucked away being preserved.

In the next decade, however, this way of life that the Agta and Dumagats have lived for centuries could very well change. There are currently plans to develop a road that would transverse the Sierra Madre mountains connecting the two small isolated towns of Divilican and Maconacon to “main land” Luzon. Building a road through the middle of the country’s last remaining and largest track of primary forest would be a disaster. The pressure a road will bring on the forest resources and influx of people will slowly plunder what biological diversity remains. Aside from the irreversible environmental impacts a road like this would bring, the Agtas and Dumagats in the area will surely lose their way of life. For indigenous peoples who depend on the forest for their food, pharmaceuticals and peace of mind, taking away their land, as history shows, will diminish their way of life. After hearing about this plan to build a road I realized something needed to be done. We had to let people know about the remaining indigenous cultures throughout the Philippines, before it’s too late.

Today, there are 110 recognized indigenous groups remaining in the Philippines making up ten percent of the total population.

After returning from Isabela, I started to gather more ideas and brainstormed for months before my wife and I launched the Katutubong Filipino Project. The Katutubong Filipino Project aims to bring about awareness of the Philippine archipelago’s indigenous peoples by visually documenting their slowly disappearing cultural heritages. For me, creating meaningful photographs to better the world is why I decided to become a professional photographer and this project is just an extension of this. Images can be an incredibly powerful and compelling tool for communication. Strong photographs can cause people to stop and think for a moment letting them generate emotions about a subject while getting a glimpse into a different world. Likewise, photographs have a way of showing our common humanity, despite our many differences, and can help people unite and generate respect toward each other.

From my own experience, many Filipinos know very little about the diversity and cultural richness of their ancestors, but by no fault of their own. Filipinos are taught very little in the public school system about their indigenous history and many come to know indigenous peoples only as beggars on city streets. It’s a sad reality, but similar to many western countries in how their native peoples were treated during times of development and expansion. Perhaps if every Filipino could see their ancestors in a new light they would slowly change their perception of them. If people had more respect for indigenous cultures it’s more likely they would support programs or even elect officials working toward their good.

The Katutubong Filipino Project aims to bring about awareness of the Philippine archipelago’s indigenous peoples’ by visually documenting their slowly disappearing cultural heritages.

Here are two contrasting stories, one of the Tagbanuas in Palawan and one from the Mamanwas in Mindanao.

In 1998, the Tagbanuas of Palawan were given the first-ever claim on ancestral waters by an indigenous community in the Philippines. This 22,000 hectares of sea and land includes Coron island, which is considered a sacred island to the Tagbanuas. Currently, 10% of Coron island is open for tourists to visit and the Tagbanua collect a fee from all the visitors. The remaining 90% of the island is considered sacred by the Tagbanua and they do not allow visitors to go there. The Tagbanua still collect swift nests in the limestone cliffs of Coron island, like they have done for centuries, and sell them to Chinese traders. This is a success story because the Tagbanua have control over a part of their ancestral land and have made the decisions themselves on how to manage it. If more indigenous groups throughout the Philippines were given their rights and had a stronger voice I know there would be many more success stories like this one.

In Surigao, Mindanao, the Mamanwa’s have been given a different history. This area is home to one of the world’s largest nickel deposits and mining companies have come to rule the land. The mining companies provide housing and a small percent share to the Mamanwas in return for their most precious asset, their land. The Mamanwas no longer have a voice and are dictated by what the government and mining companies say. When I went to Surigao last June I visited a remote Mamanwa village 3km into the mountains. It was a sad picture to see and I was treated pretty harshly. I was asked to give 6,000Php to take a few pictures around their community. It wasn’t the issue really of them asking for money to photograph their community, but it was their attitude. Everything now to the Mamanwas revolves around money and they have experienced a loss of their culture and traditions because of it. Perhaps sustainable tourism would be a better option for a place like this, following a similar example of the Tagbanuas. Whatever the case indigenous peoples should have control of their land and have decision making power over it.

Change is inevitable in the modern world that we live, but change can happen without force and with input from all parties. Like in the case of the Tagbanuas, my hope is there will still be many more success stories from our indigenous peoples.

So can photos help save our Filipino indigenous cultures? If you believe that awareness and changing peoples perceptions about their ancestors can be a start for positive change, then yes, photography is a very powerful medium to do this.

Please help us make the Katutubong Filipino Project a reality by supporting our Kickstarter campaign. Visit our Kickstarter page to watch a short video and see all the awesome rewards for supporters. Help us make this project be realized!

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About Jacob Maentz

Jacob is a freelance travel, culture and documentary photographer based in the Philippines. His photographs often reflect his background in conservation and explore issues related to the human condition and natural world.

21 Comments on “Can Photos Help Save Our Indigenous Cultures?”

  1. A very interesting article you have here, Jacob. Thank you for writing this because you made me think about the indigenous peoples of the Philippines. You’re right that the public and private school system don’t teach the students about the indigenous groups. I’m not sure if the government supports them either, which I hope they will, because these peoples reflect the diversity and origins of Philippine culture.

    I’m glad to hear about the Tagbanuas of their right of land in Palawan and I hope other groups will be given the right as well.

    Really, I appreciate this post and I will bookmark your website and support your advocacy. This article made me think of my Filipino roots and at the same time be angry for the lack of government support.

    Maybe one day when I go to the Philippines again, I would love to visit their lands and meet them. *sigh*

  2. Wow! Thank you for this project, I will surely pray that the Filipino indigenous culture will be save that there culture and tradition will not be forgotten and would still remain.
    I lived in the Philippines and i surely would like to discover some of the other communities and cultures that my country has…
    sadly all i know is how the Spaniards, Japanese and Americans has gotten over this country is what they teach in school… 🙁
    Really I’m happy for reading this

  3. Indigenous people are given hard treatment by the ethnic majority, be they Christian or Muslim.

    We don’t mind assimilating into the rest of society, all we ask is that respect be given to our land, or at least our world view and way of life.

    We don’t need to have Tagalog ways and world views forced on us and told that it’s the “Filipino” way. We don’t need a hand-out. We need a hand up.

    Good project for a start.

  4. Dear Jacob Maentz,

    I read your above article and it reads very touching. At the same time it is so incompatible with most of the other articles published here. We all lived that way many centuries ago before the industrial revolution. The message of most other articles point out only/mainly one thing: we have to move on, we have to improve, we have to progress. I dont say we have to destroy the very old and ancient cultures but for sure it was not intended that ancient cultures should block the progess of the majority. Hence probably the building of the road. Maybe the road can be build on a different spot (route), maybe that ancient society can be relocated, maybe a little bit of both.

    1. A very valid point indeed. But you have to consider this as well: most indigenous and tribal reservations prevent the advances and excesses of human development such as pollution, deforestation, and the like. But yes, extreme prudence must be exercised when deciding on issues that touch indigenous peoples.

    2. Of course the world has to progress, but progress doesn’t always mean more money, more infrastructure and more possessions. Progress also comes in the form of a healthy society, security, and peace of mind.

      From my perspective, if the road is built the Philippines will be moving even further backwards. Take a look at the recent flooding in Mindanao. What was the underlining cause of these floods? A denuded cache basin raped of all its trees. That was the main cause so many people lost their lives, because all the trees were cut. Is that progress? It’s more irresponsibility and lack of foresight in my mind.

      This primary forest is one of the Philippines most valuable resources and if protected correctly could be key to the future progress of the country.

      Like I said in the article, change is inevitable, but it should not be forced. The indigenous peoples who have lived on this piece of land from the beginning should have a voice to make change how they want to. They are the best stewards of the land and have every right to make their own decisions.

      This project will help give a face to these different indigenous groups, so that the majority can start to see and respect them for who they are.

      1. Pls understand me well: I am not against such projects. Unfortunetely, most of these road buildings are decided by city, provincial or national governments. As long as the ancient society are not represented by someone in such government then I am just afraid that road will be build. In most countries groups, societies can protest against the buildings/construction of roads or even go to court to appeak against the government. Depending on the merit of such protests the judge will order the government to re-route the road or back to the drawing board.

      2. Like I said in the article, change is inevitable, but it should not be forced.

        Yup. The people have to do it willingly. Giving indigenous people 100% responsibility for their own time will lead to a culture of learning.

        We shouldn’t even tell them they are backwards. Some people in modern society act more backwards than some people from indigenous communities.

    3. @Robert, much of the articles here emphasize progress from a Western perspective (mainly financial wealth and capital-intensive development) because that is what Filipinos choose to measure themselves by. Thus a “successful” Filipino individual as measured by contemporary Filipino society fits the standard Hollywood mode — big house, party lifestyle, trendy clothes, shiny car, and flashy mobile devices.

      The trouble with Philippine society is that we embraced the notional glitz of acquiring those trappings (consumerism) without internalising the deeper process of creating and accumulating the means to produce and apply them (capital expansion). This is because the West originated the tradition of real industrial development whereas hangers-on like the Philippines piggybacked on it — relied on capital imports, “foreign direct investment”, and “trade liberalisation” to create the commercial activity that gives the illusion of progress.

      One example of how this illusion of progress is burst is in the overwhelming evidence that describes the way countries that are rich in natural resources remain among the most impoverished in the world — because the means to exploit that natural wealth are external (foreign technology, methods, and equipment), whilst the ones impacted by the application of those means are internal (local communities and local cultures).

      A second example of this illusion of progress is the ballooning of the population of the Philippines from just 20- to 30-odd million in the 1940’s to 100 million today. Our allowing the population to increase to that appalling number rested upon the dubious assumption that technology and commerce (as European civilisation had defined it) can grow commensurately to support that number. Specifically, our population levels today, rely on modern health care and agriculture to sustain — both of which the Philippines has historically struggled to develop at a rate proportionate to the astounding rate of growth of its population.

      The commerce that drives the tunnel-visioned metrics we use today may be there (enjoyed by the minority), but the actual development (enjoyed by the majority) remains elusive.

      Admittedly we lost a bit of focus on the original message of GRP — which is to take a deeper look at what our society and culture is telling us that we are and re-evaluate not only what we are but how we want to move forward based on an understanding of what we are as a people. Do we change our culture to progress in today’s world order? There is merit in that view. Do we alter our approach to development on the basis of our culture? There is merit in that view as well.

      Jacob’s article, while a good introduction to the plight of “indigenous people”, only scratches the surface of the issues surrounding not only our indigenous communities, but our society at large. Indigenous people (again, the way the West have defined them) often describe the subsistence cultures living in places considered “uncharted” or “untouched” by our way of life. Ironically, they represent everything that Western society aspires to today — they are communities that are in equilibrium with their immediate environments. They take only what they need from the environment and live off only on what their local environment can provide — an approach to living all of us need to learn given the challenges we face today.

      1. Benign0, pls read my comment responding to SalingKetket.

        What I described there would be my biggest fear.

        “It might lead to a whole new tourist attraction, like watching new apes in a zoo. I am sure that was never the intend of the author.”

    1. All our ancesters once were the first settlers. If those were all protected we would still live that way. I am sure 99.9% are glad and happy we live TODAY. I already stated soemwhere else that the Philippines live NOW like we Europeans lived 50-60 years ago.

        1. @SalingKetket,

          Then maybe I am biased caused by what I saw, read & experienced during my visits to Cebu.

          If I really underestimate an entire population then in reality they are doing much better. I probably missed the signs that they are coping up and doing much better.

          Back to the story on hand. To give this ancient society “media” coverage may boomerang and having opposite outcomes. Hence not the outcomes the author & the mentioned society desires.

          Out of curiosity now poeple may want to see and visit that society for themselves, even when that means they have to crawl through forests and bushes (unpaved terrain).

          It might lead to a whole new tourist attraction, like watching new apes in a zoo. I am sure that was never the intend of the author.

      1. @Robert How can society change without concerned individuals voting, acting and expressing their views? If the general public doesn’t even know there are still indigenous people in their country, to me, that would be a hard task to accomplish. Many Filipinos look down or away from IP’s simply because they don’t know anything about their way of life. Sure when you bring information to the general public it can always be used in a negative manner. However, most people who see these images will never have any intention to visit these places. It’s very much likely, however, that they will slowly change their mindsets and ideas of who their ancestors are. That’s the first step in protecting indigenous peoples rights and land. Likewise, as in the case of the Tagbanuas, if ancestral land is given back to the IP’s they could allow or not allow tourists to visit. That’s the beauty of giving rights to people.

        1. I do get your point. Although I was more thinking along the line of “silent diplomacy”, because of the fear – mentioned elsewhere. If you feel that that fear is no threat then media coverage, informing people (awareness) is most likely the best way

  5. I find it insulting that so-called sphisticated urbanites (especially in Metro Manila) don’t even bother knowing anything about Filipino aborigines, or the differences between them, lumping them all into charity cases that need “schooling”.

    We Ibaloi speak better English that those flatlanders, yet their ideal of an Igorot is one who gongs around, smokes pot, and eats dogmeat.

    Media coverage is quite welcome, but please dump the “ethnic” look of people in g-strings and exotic clothes, or old women going topless in far-off villages. We are now far more cosmopolitan than that quaint and pointless ideal.

    1. I understand where you are coming from. Some people even believe that the indigenous people from the Cordilleras are akin to the aetas! I am Cebuano and I dislike that everything not tagalog isn’t purely filipino. Perhaps, they really don’t know themselves and this is why are country is the way it is. We do not accept diversity of cultures here. Just do it the tagalog/Manileno way that they impose our way of life.

      P.S. See that film ‘Ay Ayeng’ about the misrepresentation of the indigenous folks (igorots) to add more insult and ignorance.

  6. I like this article.I am a Filipino Citizen but my ancestry is East Asian and Western European yet I really support IP who are self-determined and wanted the best in their life and for their culture.The problem here in the Philippines is that whatever that is NOT Tagalog ain’t Filipino and a Katutubo or IP is a Charity Case for some of them.Sad truth.

  7. Great article. Our ideal for self-determination including that of indigenous cultures may hamper the evolution of those cultures it seeks to preserve. Static cultures which do fail to adapt become become insignificant especially to the new generation which is needed to carry it forward. I suggest we find ways to integrate the best in each culture and know that there will be a “loss” to the old ways. Cultures are not museum pieces which need to be “preserved” – these are beliefs and practices and systems of life for a group of human beings. They evolve or maintain itself with the challenges of the environment as well as cultural interactions from outside.

    We can leave their ecosystems untouched knowing the requirements to keep nomadic and hunter cultures are vast. Inevitably the needs of other groups (including the more acquisitive general culture) will eventually clash for the same natural resources. I hope we develop a new cultural trait for tolerance and the sophistication to maintain cultural diversity.

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