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Katrina Isabela Blanco

Year-Prize: The 13th Eco-generation Environmental Essay Competition     Item: Time for Nature

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Katrina Isabela Blanco (Philippines)
UN Environment Prize



“Namumundok ‘yan (She goes up to the mountains).” A friend jokingly said, suggesting that I was rising up against the government, taking up arms, and fighting alongside the rebels in the mountains. The truth is I do go up to the mountains every chance I have to take a break from studying the law not to take up arms or fight alongside the rebels but to be with indigenous peoples and communities.

 This particular day, I was heading to Oriental Mindoro, a province about 140 kilometres southwest of Manila. I remember taking a ferry across the sea and enduring a long drive through fields, going up and down mountains and through dirt roads before we reached Sitio Banaba. While settling down, I was told that Mangyans – the indigenous peoples of the island of Mindoro - from rural and remote communities trekked for hours to welcome us but had to leave as the sun began to set because the trek home would be difficult. From thriving metropolises, bleak buildings, and monotonous skyscrapers, I found myself in the mountains surrounded by a dense and diverse forestry, streams, and rich plant and animal life. 

Before I could introduce myself, the mothers pulled me aside, telling me that the entire community chipped in so that we could feast on three chickens for dinner. I remember thinking to myself how it was possible that these people – these people that barely knew us and who society often discriminated against – would not only be willing to let us enter their community but they took us in and treated us like family.

 As I would later on learn living with the Hanunuo Mangyan, at the core of Hanunuo culture is ugnayan (a Tagalog word, which directly translates to ‘connection’). In contrast with the concept of ‘common good’, ugnayan is this idea of oneness – with one another, with the plants and animals, and with the mountains. This is exemplified by how the Hanunuo farm. I remember Ate Cherlyn bringing me to the kaingin (their farm) to show me how when they plant their crops and till their land, they do so sharing everything with the insects and animals. For the Hanunuo, they share anything and everything because they understood and continue to understand that there is this oneness – that we are all equal, and intrinsically tied, with each other.

 Walking back to the sitio from the kaingin that afternoon, all I could think of was how the forest that surrounded the sitio was undisturbed. To me, an outsider looking in, all I could see was miles and miles of forest. For the Hanunuo, it was home - the land and the environment is part and parcel of their identity. They see the world not for profit, but with gratitude for the land that sustains them – where the fruit of a plant can be one’s lunch, its leaves as plates, and its roots as medicine. In a world characterized by the depressing biodiversity loss and excessive exploitation of natural resources, the indigenous people, like the Hanunuo, are often seen as victims, being among the first to experience the impact of climate change and environment destruction – when what they are in reality are agents of conservation and environmental justice.

 In Sitio Banaba, I saw first-hand how the indigenous peoples are not against development, but for far too long have been victims of development – losing their ancestral domains and lands, which means losing their means for survival, their identities, and their whole lives. The community shared stories of how lowlanders would manipulate and force them to giving up their land or worse, mine on their land without prior notice or consent. It is precisely for this reason why I go up in the mountains – knowing that it’s time that the indigenous peoples that have been demanding to be participants in such development be heard and placed at the forefront.

 The rest of the week in Sitio Banaba was spent playing with the children, running around in the middle of the fields, and sharing a steaming cup of coffee and stories with the indigenous residents of the sitio. They even brought me to the pandan. I still remember sitting on the grass and hearing the rushing water of a creek nearby. There, I experienced the life of the Hanunuo Mangyan, of how they lacked a lot of things – lacked a steady source of water, food, access to healthcare, and many other things but despite all the things that they lack, they live such full lives – doing the most to conserve and protect the environment.

Before I went down the mountains, I remember Ate Cherlyn bringing me to another kaingin – it was her sister’s. She told me that in their culture, they were given their portion of land to cultivate on their own at a young age. I can still envision the rows of palay near the opening of the kaingin. I can still taste the bananas and sweet mangoes that Ate Cherlyn would pick from the tree.

There was just something different in the air – ugnayan, perhaps.
It was hard to leave Sitio Banaba not just for its people but for the mountains cared for and that cared for the people. I knew, however, that as long as the Hanunuo are there, protecting the environment not just for their selves but for future generations, it is there forever.

“Namumundok ako (I go up to the mountains).” Now, these are the first words that come out of my mouth in conversations with anyone that would listen. I do not have the answers to the world’s problems, but what I do know is that it is in working with indigenous peoples that I am able to do justice to the Other, understanding that they hold the key between the past, present, and the future—that they are (part of) the solution to protecting the environment.

After all, defending the indigenous peoples, who for centuries have preserved much of Earth’s diversity, is defending the environment.


Nathalie Iloduba

  • Nathalie Iloduba says :
    This is a nice write up
    I'm just reading it now
    Posted 04-01-2021 22:41

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