By Rhaydz B. Barcia
TIWI, ALBAY --- Before the crack of dawn, the Agta-Tabangnon tribesmen gather together in the pilgrim village of Joroan, of this town, as they prepare to revisit their homeland.
From Joroan, the tribesmen, led by 70-year old Dalmacia” Macing” Dacoba, head to sitio Antom before the first light on their way to sitio Tobgon, Misibis village here.
There are 178 household or 867 persons of the Agta-tabangnon tribesmen resides in Barangay Joroan after fleeing their original abode in Sitio Tobgon, Barangay Misibis 12 years ago.
Barangay Joroan is the center of piety and religious rites in Albay where the 242-year old miraculous image of Nuestra Señora de Salvacion made of Calpe tree is enshrined and where the tribal hall of the members of the Agta-Tabangnon tribe was also built.
Dacoba, is the oldest and one of the seasoned trekkers among the tribesmen, the caravan of mostly women and children as the male tribesmen go ahead to the site a day after the annual ritual. Along the way, other tribesmen who live mostly in “kurob” huts trek back individually to their homeland.
Along the mountain trails is the sweet perky humming of the birds hovering over the towering trees the sounds complemented by the reverberating sound of water undulating downstream.
Upon reaching the river of mesmerizing crystal clear water midway of the trek, the caravan of tribesmen gleefully rest for a while, eat their breakfast and scoop drinking water in an aquifer before heading to the final leg of backbreaking hike.
After the 30-minute or so break, the tribesmen continue the hike. The second salvo of the trek is the most complex and tricky trail where hikers almost kiss their bended knees while manuevering the slippery and rocky route spanning three -- Antom, Mayharige, and Pase -- before reaching the top of Tobgon in Barangay Misibis, a place considered by the Agta-tabangnon tribesmen as a sacred spot.
Sitio Tobgon in Barangay Misibis serves as the boundary line between Albay and Buhi town in Camarines Sur, where the majority of indigenous people dwell. The municipality of Buhi in Camarines Sur is the home of Agta-Tabangnon and Agta-Cimarron tribes in the Bicol region.
The rigorous and strenuous five-hour hike passes through cliff-to-cliff mountain trails. On top of the mountain one can see the wide stretch of plateau where the clouds kiss the mountaintop that seem to welcome the revisiting caravan of tribesmen and guests here.
The site is full of cogon plants, wild orchids wild strawberries and a few blueberry trees locally called here as “igot.”
In the middle of the plateau is a blue tent put up by male tribesmen as temporary shelter where the indigenous people can rest and cook food. The male tribesmen came here a day before the ritual to clean up and pepare the site.
Immediately upon their arrival, the rest of the caravan prepare to cook lunch that consists of indigenous crops.
Fe Dacoba Isidro, 54, who came from Barangay Joroan recalls the tragic incident they went through in the area 11 years ago now.
She says that Sitio Tobgon used to be the habitat of the indigenous people with existing chapel. It was a bright and breezy community that they also call as “Garden of Eden” where root crops, vegetables, fruit trees, and palay were plentiful, aside from the number of native chicken, swine, cattle that stray within the premises.
“We love this place because we’re communing with nature and the unseen gods every day,” she says.
But the peaceful community was shattered after the military and the New People’s Army intruded their sacred place with deadly fighting.
She narrates that on July 12, 2006, her husband Jose Isidro, who was 49 years old then and son Michael, 24, father of one-year-old baby boy Joecel, were gunned down by members of the CAFGU.
“They were mistakenly accused as members of the New People’s Army by the militiamen. My grandson Joecel was only a year old when the shooting happened and i almost went crazy after that tragedy,” Isidro recalls.
“My heart bleeds every time I come back here. But I have to come back here with my grandson for the ritual,” she says, adding that the ritual is a tradition, as they pray to the unseen gods to seek protection for their tribesmen, as well as good harvest, good weather, and peace in the country.
According to Virginia Cervantes, 54, also of the Agta-Tabangin tribe, the ritual started way back during the Japanese occupation in the 1940s.
After their lunch, the tribesmen again cook food for the gods of the unseen. Dove was butchered instead of chicken for offering. The blood was set aside for the ritual. Hot chocolate was boiled and sticky rice was cooked with a fusion of coconut milk and sugar that they call as “linukay” or “sinuman” to the lowlanders.
The food is placed on the table with white mantle together with other offerings they have prepared. Cervantes says their grandparents used to dance the “tumago” as part of the ritual.
During the ritual, the tribal folks ask for forgiveness from God and “gods of the unseen” for the people’s misgivings and greediness and for harming the environment that causes strong natural calamities. They also call on the gods of the sun, water, wind, fire and earth to be merciful.
“Forgive us. Don’t give us more calamities. For Apo Mayon (Mount Mayon) please don’t erupt. All plants and trees were almost gone because of natural calamities. Typhoons are getting stronger claiming so many lives. We don’t want natural disasters as our source of livelihood and the forest, the very source of our survival are dwindling. We cannot survive without them.”
They also pray for peace in Philippines that the Marawi tragedy will not be repeated in other parts of the country. After the ritual, the tribesmen share and eat the food they have prepared for gods of the unseen.
The tribesmen also talk to nature through their gods in solemn way. There are two tribal chieftains present in the ritual, such as Arsenio Condeno of Barangay Joroan and Feliciano Cultivo of Barangay Misibis.
Condeno says this is the first time that their ritual is being documented by a journalist.
“You’re the first journalist with courage who dares to join our tribe in going back to our homeland in Tobgon inspite of the strenuous hike. We’re grateful because through you, the people may know what we are praying to help us protect the environment for our survival,” the tribal chieftain of Joroan tells this writer.
Actually, the event is also being documented by the municipal tourism office of Tiwi for the first time here.
The tribesmen’s forefathers, according to Condeno, used to enjoy the richness of their ancestral territories with the aid of natural sign. Today, Condeno said, the Agta-tabangnon tribes in Albay blend science and natural signs to adapt to climate change
The tribesmen view climate change and global warming as nature’s way of punishing people for destroying the environment. They live tending abaca and weaving twigs into semi-finished fiber product as novelty items. The Agta Tabangnon tribe of Bicol is traditionally nomadic.
Dwindling tribal population
These Tiwi-based tribesmen are among the 14 million indigenous people all over the country. In Albay province alone, specifically in Tiwi town, there are four tribal communities living in the upland villages of Mayong, Misibis, Tabgon and Joroan.
Across Bicol Peninsula, the IPs are found in the hinterlands of Albay, Camarines Sur, Sorsogon, Camarines Norte and Catanduanes.
They live in far-flung barangays, along the slopes of Mt. Asog and Mt. Isarog as well as forest lands across the other provinces of the Bicol Region.
The Agta tribal communities in Bicol, are subdivided into several sub tribes; Agta-Tabangon, Agta-Cimaron, Agta Taboy; Dumagat and the Kabihugs of Camarines Norte. They are the predominant IP groups in the region.
Based on NCIP record, there are 9,007 IP families, 24,507 males and 24,187 females or a total population of 48,743 as of April 2016. Including the undocumented tribesmen, it is estimated that some 213,311 IPs are scattered all over the region.
Among the six provinces of Bicol, Camarines Sur has the biggest number of tribal communities with 4,799 families; 13,336 males and 12,863 females or a total of 26,199. They are followed by Sorsogon province with 2,231 families with 6,174 males, 5,953 females, or a total of 12,127; In Albay province there are 1,229 families, 3,471 males and 3,427 females or a total population of 6,947. Camarines Norte has 774 families, 1,526 males and 1,944 females or a total of 3,470 Kabihug tribal population.
The indigenous people’s adaptive capacity to face the changing climate is based on home-grown and proven effective employment of indigenous practices. But with the harsh and bleak climate conditions due to global warming, Condeno says the weather pattern is completely dismal and threatening to their children’s survival, made worse by the thinning forest cover.