Lumad community in Bukidnon turns to prayers in adapting to climate change

Alanah Torralba

Posted at Oct 04 2017 11:11 AM

Photos by Alanah Torralba

Photos by Alanah Torralba

Photos by Alanah Torralba

Photos by Alanah Torralba

Photos by Alanah Torralba

Photos by Alanah Torralba

Photos by Alanah Torralba

Photos by Alanah Torralba

Photos by Alanah Torralba

Photos by Alanah Torralba

Photos by Alanah Torralba

Photos by Alanah Torralba

Photos by Alanah Torralba

Photos by Alanah Torralba

Photos by Alanah Torralba

Kitaotao, BUKIDNON—Maundaroy Dusunan, an elderly farmer of the Matigsalog-Manobo tribe, remembers how as a child she would wear a jacket while tilling the hills in Barangay Digongan, Kitaotao, Bukidnon. 

It was cold even when it was noontime, she says. The mountains were filled with trees and the cold breeze was a welcome respite from toiling in the farms.

These days, however, Dusunan says it’s hot even when it’s only 8 a.m. Gone are the big trees that would provide shade and cool the warm air. Instead, the far-flung community is now mostly populated with cornfields for commercial farming. The forests had long been denuded. While a total log ban has been enforced in the area, no reforesting project is in place to fill the area once again with trees and plants.

Farmers in Digongan also used to be able to work in the fields without clothing. These days, however, the heat of the sun is too much to bear that even double layering clothes could barely protect them. It can be too hot sometimes that it feels as though our skin is being pricked with needles, the farmers say.

“Sabi nila ay climate change. ‘Yun daw ang dahilan kung bakit sobrang mainit at bigla na lang umuulan nang malakas (They say it’s climate change. That’s supposedly the reason why it rains hard all of a sudden even when it’s very hot),” says Datu Madula Man-ukil, the village chieftain and president of the Digongan Tribe Association.

Record-breaking hottest years

Climate scientists are predicting a rapid rate of record-breaking heat for decades to come. 2016 was the hottest on record, with global temperatures rising by 0.12 degrees Celsius, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The two years before that had previously set the highest temperatures yet since the measurements of global temperature started in 1880. This means that a pattern of unprecedented global warming is emerging.

In recent years, Datu Man-ukil says he has seen more Lumads experiencing high blood pressure while working in the farm, amid warmer temperatures especially when the sun is at its peak. People only used to get sick with fevers and cataract, he adds, but now there are many of them contracting tuberculosis and dengue.

In a community long deprived of access to quality medical care, treatment for illnesses that are not easily recognizable can cause tension in the community’s delicate social fabric. 

“May isang Lumad na habang tanghali, bigla na lang hinimatay. Akala ng mga kamag-anak niya ay may nambarang sa kanya. Naghahamon na sila ng ‘pangyaw.’ Kinailangan kong dalhin sa health center para malaman ng pamilya na high blood ang sanhi ng pagkahimatay niya (There was one Lumad who fainted in the peak of the sun’s heat. His family members thought that someone put a curse on him. They were ready to wage a tribal war. I had to take him to the health center and we found out that he fainted because of high blood pressure),” Man-ukil says.

Stronger typhoons, more intense droughts

Climate change has also been linked to more severe droughts, and stronger and more frequent typhoons and storms.

Typhoons are indeed becoming stronger, Dusunan says. Barangay Digongan, a hamlet surrounded by mountain ranges, had always been protected from strong typhoons. In 2012, however, she was astounded by the floods and landslides wrought by Typhoon Pablo. Water rose as high as her shoulders. She had never seen floodwaters that high, she says.

Four years later, Barangay Digongan experienced four months of El Niño, a weather phenomenon that brings intense heat waves and disruptive rainfall patterns, thereby affecting global temperatures. It was the worst drought the country experienced in 17 years that lasted from 2015 to 2016.

Mindanao, which supplies 40% of the country’s food, recorded nearly P2 billion worth of damages to crops and other agricultural products. Some 59,000 farmers were affected by the drought and rat infestation, the Department of Agriculture says.

The province of Bukidnon declared a state of calamity twice in 2016 after incurring the biggest loss in the region—as much as P1.3 billion in rice and corn products.

Climate change and public health

In an archipelago such as the Philippines where transporting food between islands can be expensive, ensuring that people can produce their own food for consumption is integral to public health. 

Dusunan recalls that during last year’s drought, they could not plant anything. Her family could not even eat their normal diet of boiled leafy vegetables and rice. In four months, she had to scourge for abaca in the forest to sell to earn a living. There were days when they could not have a proper meal.

She says they only received a half sack of rice as aid from the government. It did not even last a month in her family. When their supplies were emptied, the family resorted to eating a bitter kind of cassava that could be poisonous when cooked incorrectly, she says. 

Food security: a top priority

The unpredictability of precipitation will have negative effects on agriculture, former environment undersecretary and climate negotiator Antonio La Viña says. 

An integrated climate change adaptation and mitigation program that has food and nutrition components should be implemented by the government, he adds. With climate change disrupting local food production, it is important for the government to aid farmers in adopting climate change-adaptive farming practices.

La Viña says it is important for the government to tap available international funding sources in these climate adaptation projects.

“Climate change will have the greatest effect on health in societies with scarce resources, little technology and frail infrastructure,” the World Health Organization says in a 2009 report on global health risks. 

Some 3.5 million people, mostly children and the elderly, are killed every year due to diseases that arise from undernutrition, according to the WHO. As changing weather patterns become the new normal, agricultural communities will be struggling the most in securing existing food production systems. 

Prayers to Manama

In the past, Dusunan used to plant a variety of crops: cassava, rice, corn and vegetables. These days, however, she only plants rice once a year in her small patch of land in the hills of Barangay Digongan

“Mas maganda rin ang ani dati. Dati ang ani namin marami at nagtatagal hanggang Pasko. Ngayon kaunti na lang, hindi pa umaabot ng dalawang buwan ang bigas (We had better harvests in the past. We used to produce so much rice that it could last us up to Christmas. Now, it can barely last us two months),” Dusunan says.

On a sunny Friday morning, members of the Matigsalog tribe would sound the bangkakawan (log) with an alho (bamboo sticks). The ringing sound is meant as a call to gather at the Panubaran, a hut made of bamboo and wicker where tribe members congregate for the panubad, a scared tribal prayer to the god Manama. 

Dressed in her finest traditional attire, the elderly Dusunan starts to sing a soft melody. It is meant to welcome everyone in the community for the ritual. Then the eldest chieftain begins the prayer.

“We are praying so that Manama will bless us with a good harvest and good health,” Datu Man-ukil says. With the dire effects of climate change showing no sign of letting up, however, experts warn that more than prayers, concrete adaptation and mitigation programs must be put in place, especially for the most vulnerable people. 

(Alanah Torralba is an independent journalist and photographer based in Manila, Philippines.)