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Itogon, Benguet in the 21st Century

This is an excerpt from my research conducted from 2014-2015 on the Ibaloi, Kalanguya, and Kankana-ey communities of Itogon, Benguet.

To say “Benguet,” many would think of a land far away, secluded in the mountains, with people having to resort to walking for hours along the trails just to get to the nearest town. One is left with the impression that people still use g-strings, bury their dead in their homes, and have pristinely preserved their traditions because of little or no contact with those from outside their community.

But as I arrived in Itogon, the largest municipality in Benguet, I was greeted with a 4×4 that will bring me to my host family’s gathering for a house blessing. Then I met the grandchildren who were busy with their iPads and iPods; the elderly men enjoying some San Miguel Beer; and some teenage girls putting on some make-up and taking pictures of each other with their smartphones. I was blown away. Every bit of “Benguet” that was all along pictured in my mind just didn’t fit in. It was like living in the suburbs of Baguio but with more trees, a way smaller population, fresher air, wider, open roads, and a skyline where the stars give way to one’s imagination.

Lusod-Ambasa

A view from the barangay hall: The hazy mountain at the distance is Mt. Ugo

There are three major indigenous groups in Itogon— Ibaloi, Kalanguya, and Kankana-ey—with each group comprising the largest population for Barangay* Tinongdan, Ampucao, and Tuding respectively. The field notes below are excerpts from my research** funded and published by the United Nations Development Programme.

The Ibalois of Tinongdan

Barangay Tinongdan, the farthest from Baguio among all research areas, is reached in two hours by jeepney from the terminal at Lakandula Street, just across the City Market. There is only one ride for Tinongdan-Baguio which is at 7-8am; and the same ride for Baguio-Tinongdan which is at 1-2pm (or until the jeep is filled up). This makes it a challenge for the community to purchase their necessities, that’s why it’s common to ask for favors when a relative or a friend makes a trip to Baguio City.

Tinongdan, comprising mostly of Ibalois, is still largely agricultural. The area is suitable for agriculture because of the wide rice fields, hillsides, plateaus; and the presence of the Agno River which makes water available throughout the year. Rice is the main crop here, with coffee following suit. Other crops include camote (sweet potato), gabi (taro), cassava, ginger, potatoes, celery, tomatoes, pechay (Chinese cabbage), saluyot (jute leaves), kintsay (Chinese celery), pako (fern), saksakdong (rice weeds), avocados, bananas, pineapples, oranges, mangoes and papayas. These crops are also grown through uma or kaingin, otherwise known as swidden farming, which makes planting available for previously cleared areas.

Households also engage in raising pigs, cows, carabaos, goats and chickens. Native black pigs and cows are particularly important because of their necessity in rituals. On smaller rituals, chickens are also used as sacrificial animals. This upkeep of pigs, cows and chickens goes to show the still-central role of rituals in the Ibalois’ lives.

Other activities include fishing, but this is usually supplemental and mostly for home consumption. The native rice wine (tapey), the important part of every ritual especially for cañao, is still manufactured usually by elderly women. Among the wealthy Ibalois, ranching is still present with cows set loose in their privately fenced ranches (estancia).

The Kalanguyas of Ampucao

One hour from the jeepney terminal at Lakandula Street, Ampucao is the most challenging to reach because of its high altitude and sharp zigzag roads. The largest barangay in Itogon, it is home to Philex Mines, the largest and most established large-scale mine in the municipality. Though the roads are zigzagging and an endless set of uphills, these are wide and thickly cemented because of the investment of Philex Mines on revitalizing Ampucao’s highways. It is not uncommon to see, every few minutes, large Philex trucks carrying unprocessed ore with signs of “No Riders” in front. This is for security of the Philex employees carrying the ores, the ores itself, and the riders. A recent incident point out to the immediate disallowing of riders in these trucks, with a rider being accidentally hit while stepping up for the truck. This, of course, had to be settled by the company.

The main industry in Ampucao is mining, both large-scale and small-scale. Mostly settled by Kankana-eys who have always been, traditionally, expert miners, and by Kalanguyas who eventually learned from the trade; and with a mineral-rich soil, it is no wonder that this barangay grew up as a mining community.

Though the people also engage in farming coffee, sayote (pear squash), camote (sweet potato), gabi (taro), beans, bananas, ginger, and a few fruit trees mostly on swidden farms (inum-an), and selling fishes from the Ambuklao Dam, these activities pale in scope with mining. With Kalanguyas residing in high altitude areas, the water is also too cold for irrigation, making it almost impossible to engage in wet rice agriculture.

The area is large, the people are few, the houses are far apart, and the weather and winds are quite

unforgiving. As anyone would choose to agree or disagree on, the environment plays a big part in molding the community’s culture. This kind of environment could explain why households are, generally, more detached from their neighbors than the other research areas, Tinongdan and Tuding. Another possible contributing factor to this is the history of the Kalanguyas, originally living in scattered settlements and moving from place to place to avoid persecution from the Spaniards. Thus, families depend on each other; and seldom do they ask for favors from outside their circle. They had to learn to be as self-sufficient as they could be.

The Kankana-eys of Tuding

Tuding can be considered, distance-wise, a suburb of Baguio City as it is only five minutes away from Wright Park and the Mansion House. There is a feeling of being in Baguio but with smaller establishments, narrower roads, a crisper and cooler air, more trees, and a horizon that extends to the other parts of Benguet. It is also not uncommon to see mine tailings on the mountainsides, with small-scale mining as the main source of livelihood in this barangay.

Settled mostly by Kankana-eys who are, traditionally, expert miners, it is admirable to think how they can extract so much gold, silver and copper from such a small land. Small-scale mining is always a gamble: financiers provide food, shelter and the resources for the miners, and the miners continuously work to extract whatever they can on an usok (mining tunnel) which is in itself, also a gamble. The financiers and miners continuously work until they find something immensely valuable, but other times this is until all resources have been used up and nothing was mined other than soil and rocks.

The Kankana-eys also engage in swidden, and on a smaller scale, wet-rice farming. What used to be a chief means of livelihood, hunting and foraging are now more of past time activities. Many households keep pigs, chickens, dogs, carabaos and cattle as additional sources of food and income, and for ritual purposes.

These days, many people also venture into businesses like putting up sari-sari (convenience) stores and small eateries, but these are but sources for financing mines, or as alternatives when mine revenues run dry. Kankana-eys are traditional miners, and there is no question as to why generations after generations are into mining.

What’s in It for the Future?

I have laid out first-hand observations when I did my field work in Itogon back in 2014-2015. It is such a rewarding assignment, being given the opportunity to live in these communities for six months, and six more months of going back and forth to and from the main office in Manila. I have never experienced until then picking coffee fruits for consumption the following week, eating meat as a rather rare luxury, or not feeling in any way that I need money to survive. Everything that I needed was uprooted on land, the sea, and sky.

With nature as a central theme for survival among the Ibalois, Kalanguyas and Kankana-eys, what future does it hold for the present and future generations amidst the threats of capitalist-driven modernizations? Will they be forced to give in to the demands of local and foreign invaders who present themselves as benevolent assimilators? Only time will tell; but hopefully, I get to go back to Itogon with happy memories as I had on my first visit.

*Barangay is the smallest political unit in the Philippines.

** Title of research: “A Study on the Customary Laws and Indigenous Political Structures of the Ibaloi, Kalanguya and Kankana-ey Communities of Itogon, Benguet.”

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Partner Community: Tinongdan Indigenous Peoples Organization

Lusod-Ambasa

A view from the barangay hall: The hazy mountain at the distance is Mt. Ugo

Lusod-Ambasa is one of two communities residing on the foothills of Mt. Ugo, the second highest mountain in Benguet. Predominantly from the Ibaloi and I’wak groups, these people have been living in relative isolation from the rest of Itogon because of lack of roads that would connect them to the other towns.

To further their self-governing capacity, they have continuously relied on their own Council of Elders to settle disputes and to maintain peace in the community. Also, with the help of the Itogon Community Service Center of the NCIP (National Commission on Indigenous Peoples), they have legitimized their ancestral domain as their own with the documentation of their Ancestral Domain Sustainable Development Protection Plan (ADSDPP), and the issuance of their Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title. This is a laudable feat, considering their population density and geographic constraints.

To get to the nearest town, they would have to walk along the mountain trails for 3-4 hours. This is how Ms. Osana Sadiao, one of our women weavers, visits town several times a week. Serving as a volunteer barangay health worker, she is keen to gain more training to be employed, in time, as a full-time barangay worker. To augment her income from swidden farming, she joins other women in producing colorful pouches, carefully woven with the namesake of their ancestral domain.

Beautiful pouches from Itogon

Beautiful colored pouches woven from recycled plastics

It is difficult for these women, for now, to produce these pouches for a bigger market because a large part of their time and efforts are dedicated to their primary source of livelihood, which is farming. Another factor is the difficulty of making these pouches, which they find time to make at night when the children are already asleep; or on Sundays which is everybody’s rest day.

For now, Ate Osana says, knowing that people appreciate their work is more than enough for them. She hopes, too, that they get more opportunities to turn this hobby into something big. And to say “big”— that’s what they have to let us know soon.

These pouches have proved popular with our partner gift shops and through exposure in small events. Since these are difficult to make, supply is limited. To reserve please send us a message 🙂