Friday, September 14, 2007

Elegy to the Laua-an Forest

Near the boundary of the land, where my Pa has left his imprints in the last 50 years, stands a lone Bunwang tree, known for its softness (a liability in the world that is obsessed with hardwood, the unquenchable demand of which fuel the wholesale devastation of timber forests.)
“It’s the only tree that is left of the logging,” says Pa. “No one wants it because it’s soft.”
“It’s a big tree, with broad leaves,” he keeps saying, as if, until now, he is still amazed by its uselessness. “It’s not durable and it’s not good for furniture,” blurts out Ma, who thinks I merely want a nice bookstand for the books we carried home in a jutesack.
So, I stand there, too stunned to say a word, unsure whether to feel glad or sad, about the lone tree that is left standing because people couldn’t find any use for it.
When my father arrived in this part of Davao from his hometown in Capiz in one of the islands of the Visayas, the forest that would later turn into his copra farm in Upper B’la had been teeming with Laua-ans. Later, these magnificent trees that littered the land for hundreds of years were cut and fed to the sawmills by logging concessionaires who had stripped the land of trees for lumber.
“Over a hundred Laua-ans in every hectare of land,” Pa estimates. “Trunks as big as drums," he says, "Maybe, even bigger. So tall, you have to cut them down many times to make them easier to handle.”
I find it hard to grasp the tragedy that had befallen the forest.
Afterwards, when the land was stripped bare, settlers like my Pa began buying parcels after parcels of land from the Bagobos, and planted them with crops. This is ironic because the Bagobos, whose ancestral land covers much of the Mt. Apo areas that stretch from what is known today as Davao city's Toril district down to the boundaries of North Cotabato, never used to believe in that foreign concept called land ownership.
“They’d sell the land, then, move deeper into the forest,” says my Pa, who thought that the sale of the land was as real as the buy and sell of goods in the market. He bought one parcel from Ayok, Bagobo. He bought another parcel from another Bagobo named Bansalan, and so on.
Again, I was too stunned to say a word, as I try to grasp the complexity of what happened: the betrayal, even the sell-out, of some members of the tribe of their own ancestral beliefs just to extract a measly sum from the equally unsuspecting (albeit ignorant) settlers.
For according to the Bagobo’s worldview, the land is not for sale.
For a Bagobo wise man, it actually sounds stupid and hilarious for a man to claim ownership of a piece of land.
“How could you claim to own the land?” I remember an old Matigsalug Datu named Salumay, explain to me the worldview shared by most indigenous tribes in Mindanao.
"Long after you die, the land remains," said Datu Salumay, “So, how can you be in a position to own something that outlasts you for over a hundred years?”
He used to live in Davao’s Marilog district before he passed away a few years back. Now, I wonder if there are still enough Bagobos who still think like Datu Salumay.
For the coming in of settlers from the Visayas and Luzon had saturated the population of the Moros and the indigenous peoples of Mindanao and had brought about the dying of a totally different culture. Later, wholesale destruction of dipterocarp forests after the World War 2, coincided with the huge demand for lumber exports to Japan and other markets. At the time, the Parity Rights agreement between my country and the United States, had accorded equal rights to Americans and Filipinos in the exploitation of the Philippine forests and other natural resources.
Pa, who arrived in Upper B'la about a decade after the signing of the Parity Rights, gives me a vivid picture of how it was to live in the time of the logging.
“There were no chainsaws, then,” he says, as if to stress a point. “People used axe and the curtador.”
He leads me out of our house in B’la to show me what the curtador (cutter) looks like. As I stand there, trying to reconstruct the devastating event, I can feel my hair bristle, as I watch him draw out the instrument, bequeathed to him by the former cutters, that had once ravaged whole forests.
All that I wanted that morning was a pleasant conversation with my Pa. But I ended up hearing about the wholesale destruction of the land teeming with Guihos, Apitongs, Narras, Dao, Tugas, and other trees, the likes of which, I may not see anymore.

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