by Jessica Sherman, Greengrants Intern
The story of the Tasaday people is a fascinating one, filled with intrigue and controversy. An indigenous people of the mountains of the South Cotabato Province of Mindanao in the Philippines, the Tasaday were officially “discovered” by the outside world in 1971. According to oral histories, the Tasaday fled to the inner reaches of the rainforest several hundred years ago, living in caves after disease threatened to wipe out neighboring communities. They believed that the forest was the entire world and that they were the only ones left alive. As the rest of the world ogled these “untouched” people, anthropologists declared that this was a major opportunity to learn about “stone age” human life.
In 1986, however, several journalists and anthropologists declared that the story of Tasaday isolation was greatly exaggerated – that it was a hoax by Philippine anthropologist Manuel Elizalde, who had first established contact with the Tasaday. Journalists reported that members of the tribe had been bribed by Elizalde to wear nothing but leaves and say that they had never heard of agriculture or war or the outside world. Once again, the Tasaday were the center of international attention.
But the story does not end here. Anthropologists who had studied the Tasaday in the 1970s rallied and called for more research. Eventually, the hoax claims were refuted, as it became clear that several journalists and anthropologists had bribed the Tasaday to support their claims of a 1970s hoax. It turns out that the area where the Tasaday live has been eyed for several decades by logging companies; they were blocked when the Tasaday were “discovered” and their lands declared (by President Marcos) a reservation for the exclusive use of the Tasaday and their nearest tribal neighbors. If logging interests could convince the world that the Tasaday story was a hoax, then the land would be opened up for resource exploitation.
Today, the Tasaday face many struggles. Although there is no longer speculation that they are not a “real” people, their land – and therefore their culture – remains under threat. While they still retain the reservation Marcos delineated for them, they need to secure the lawful rights to the territory to ensure that logging threats are not carried out. One route is to obtain a Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title, which guarantees protection of a tribe’s right to the land. The Tasaday are no longer an isolated group, sheltered from the modern world. Now they must navigate the channels of contemporary society and learn how to make their voices heard by the Philippine government.
To obtain the Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title, the Tasaday must map in detail their traditional territories. The Tasaday have been assisted by several organizations, including the Helobung Troupe Cooperative of South Cotabato, a group founded by members of the neighboring T’boli tribe to honor, preserve and advance cultural traditions of tribal peoples, and the Friends of the Tasaday. Through these groups, and with the assistance of a $3,000 grant from Greengrants, the Tasaday engaged the help of Environmental Science for Social Change (ESSC) in 2001. This highly regarded organization, based at Ateneo University in Manila, is in the process of guiding the Tasaday in mapping their lands and cataloging their resources. The entire community is involved in the mapping and field verification facilitated by ESSC and Helobung Troupe Cooperative.
The area that the Tasaday are claiming covers 4,438 hectares (11,000 acres), substantially less than the territory the government had proclaimed as the original reserve. It represents the land that the Tasaday feel is absolutely necessary for their survival; the Tasaday are willing to share the adjacent lands with neighboring communities. Interestingly, the maps generated by the community fit very clearly into natural watershed boundaries, demonstrating the sophistication of their traditional territorial systems. Currently, the Tasaday are waiting for their land claims to be processed through the Philippine courts. The last step will be to publicize and post the boundaries of the demarcated territory to ensure that their rights are respected. The goal of delineating this territory is to permanently prevent the exploitation of the rain forest by outside commercial interests and to prevent in-migration of other groups. The Tasaday view themselves as stewards of the land and value the healthy state of their rain forest home as an integral part of their identity.
The community mapping activities have promoted a collective decision-making process and introduced negotiating skills that the Tasaday need in order to ensure that their claims are heard by the government. As the Tasaday learn about the world outside their forest, they also must take on new skills that include cooperation and participation with people and communities far beyond their traditional ken. This presents a delicate balancing act, but fortunately the Tasaday have great resources available to them, including many other Philippine indigenous communities that are dealing with similar issues.
Friends of the Tasaday funds education, medical care, and rain forest protection programs. This includes funding for Tasaday youth to attend public schools, adult classes to teach basic skills required in outside communities, and regular medical assistance (especially important considering the barrage of new diseases the Tasaday are exposed to). The Helobung Troupe Cooperative also provides regular advice and support for the Tasaday. These combined efforts are helping to ensure that the Tasaday successfully cope with the challenges of the new world that has opened up for them, and yet still maintain a sense of community within their traditional territories.