It’s break time at the Yangil community, the urge to sleep off a spectacular lunch a natural inclination. We had some Filipino classics: tinola, adobo, fried tilapia, and of course, a little mango to top it all off. Coupled with some homemade lemongrass tea, the meal was just what the doctor ordered. The day had begun more than six hours ago. Liw-Liwa’s Circle Hostel started stirring at around 5:30 in the morning, and not long after, we were in a jeepney, on the road to the jump off point of our adventure. A long trek through lahar, two hours of planting seeds, and another hour of walking later, a nap was surely in order.
But as tired as we were, we found a cup of coffee and mingled instead. There was still so much to digest, literally and figuratively. Prior to our arrival in the settlement, we had gone through quite the journey. San Felipe, Zambales boasts some scenic landscapes, and not long after beginning our trek, we were in the thick of it. Once the tall grass flanking the path began to thin, we were met with the sight of mountains sprawled around us — their tips flirting with the few clouds above. Although it was still rather early, the heat of the sun was baring down. And as we made our way further up the trail, the terrain started to change from firm ground, to the softer, sand-like surface of lahar. Since the massive eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991, volcanic mudflow had become the overbearing intruder — a remnant of the 52 feet of ash that smothered Zambales and threw the area’s natural balance into chaos. We trudged along, happy to trade the shade for the sights in our midst, only stopping on occasion to take photos, or like the carabaos we encountered, to cool off in the odd stream or shallow river. The sound of feet, and distant conversation were our companions for almost two hours in the desolate plain as we made our way to our first destination.
Grim Realities, Hopeful Future
The greenhouse was a welcome sight, a much needed respite from the relentless heat. And it was here where our tour guide, Andrea, educated us on the gravity of the journey we had taken part in. She explained that while the mountains we came across were undoubtedly scenic, they were actually dangerously devoid of trees — a predicament that inevitably led to a host of environmental issues. At the top of the list was water. Without the forests to cool the clouds, rainfall came much less often, which meant bodies of water dried up, leaving vegetation starved of their life source. The lack of plants not only meant devastation of wildlife in the area, but also of the livelihood of the natives as well. And with the soil in such a poor state, the locals turned to the creation of charcoal for a source of money, further accelerating the deforestation process. Unbeknownst to us, charcoal is created by burning trees. More disturbing, however, was the fact that each tree sacrificed for charcoal yielded a measly P150. A tree that took years to grow, traded for what could essentially be an overpriced slice of cake in a Manila coffee shop. So there we were, brought to a sobering reality of the alarming state of the surroundings we had just so gleefully explored. And as an exclamation, we learned that less than 3% of primary rainforests still existed in the country. Less than 3%! Simply staggering.
So with our hearts on the floor upon hearing the sad facts, Andrea revealed Mad Travel’s ambitious endeavor to drastically transform 3,000 hectares of San Felipe back into a thriving rainforest. Following a successful reforestation model implemented in Bukidnon (which received a climate change award in Paris), we were going to play a small, but important role in making this vision into a reality. With that idea firmly in our minds, we spent the next two hours diligently filling small plastic bags with soil, and placing a single seed in each one. In the span of a couple of Game of Thrones episodes, we managed a few hundred. Our own little section of a future forest.
Need for Seed
Next on the agenda was a trip to the Yangil community, a native Aeta tribe in the area, that Mad Travel had partnered with to help bring their vision into fruition. A percentage of every tour they conducted went directly to the group. On top of that, Mad Travel started helping build a food forest for the community in order to steer them onto the path of self-sustenance.
“The idea is to make this community 100% sustainable,” said co-founder Raf Dionisio.
“All their food should be grown and raised locally. The food will not only feed the locals, but will also be sold to tour visitors for income. Produce can also be sold to local markets to create more streams of income. At the moment, there is papaya, lemongrass, and ube. Next, chickens will come.”
With their food forest still in the early stages, though, the tribe is constantly in need of a variety of seeds — anything from rambutan, kalamansi, and mango, to adlai, and rice. Given the benefits of these fruits and crops to the community’s livelihood, Mad Travel began the “Need for Seed” campaign, which encourages people to store seeds, so that the Yangil may benefit from them down the road. Turns out, most simply required air drying, and to be placed in a glass jar with dry tissue. Easy peasy.
We kept that in mind as we made our exit from the greenhouse and headed to a nearby spring for a refreshing dip. It was the perfect precursor to our reintroduction to the desolate plains of San Felipe. This time, as we made our way through the lahar, we saw it with a new lens. Still in awe of the scenic nature of our surroundings, but also with a sense of what was lost here. Years of nature’s cultivation wiped out in frighteningly rapid fashion. There was a sense of hope, though, as well. Ten years down the road, with perseverance and perhaps a bit of luck, the same walk could be much different. For one, there would be shade. We would be surrounded in greenery. The ground would be free of the killer cogon grass, and its place, trees. Lots of them. Tall ones, short ones. Water would become more common, the ground would be richer, the rivers would flourish, and so would the wildlife. What a sight that would be.
Meeting the Yangil
The Yangil community lived at the foot of a mountain. They picked their spot well. The air was considerably cooler, and the area was the most covered in green we’d had the chance to see. We settled under a tree, enjoyed that fantastic meal, and talked about the massive undertaking we had just played a small part in. And here we were, mixing in with the people that it would most strongly impact. The Yangil were laid back in their ways. They laughed a lot. They shared stories of the harshness of the Mount Pinatubo eruption and how things changed forever. They shared stories of finding religion. One even spoke of his strained relationship with his father growing up, and how he felt that affected his character. I barely knew this guy, but for this moment, we were connected. Strangely, such a genuine and candid conversation felt foreign. In a world obsessed with the idea of trying to better connect individuals all across the globe, somehow the simple, raw conversation — eye-to-eye, honest, uncontrived — had become lost in the clutter of social media, FaceTime, and texting. Much like our little dip in the spring, it was refreshing.
One of the locals then brought out a bow and a few arrows, so we immediately took the opportunity to take turns watching each other fail miserably at firing what they used to hunt birds, and on occasion, wild pigs. It wasn’t as much fun as the dancing, and singing that followed. They showcased their talents, and they gave us the chance to display ours as well. When the performances ended, we were taken on a short tour of the various plants they grew and used to treat a wide array of ailments and injuries — a sobering reminder of how nature once quite abundantly provided everything we required to live long and healthy lives. The vibrant 90-year-old lady dancing earlier was proof of that. We’d just forgotten how.
When the heat subsided, we began our trip back to the Circle Hostel. Fortunately, our journey wouldn’t involve a tiring trek. Instead, we sat comfortably on a cart pulled by a carabao, free to enjoy the views without adding to the strain of what was already quite a long day. It allowed time to appreciate the fact that not only did we have the opportunity to expand our knowledge and bring ourselves closer to the diversity of humans in the Philippines, we just played a part, however small, in something that would create drastic and lasting change. We promised we’d return to see the thriving rainforest.
Words by Jing Jamlang
Photos by Tabitha Jamlang