Michellejean Pinuhan, an Indigenous Higaonon, completed her bachelor’s degree in agriculture entrepreneurship in 2022. Then, instead of working in the city after graduation, she chose to return to her roots in the Mount Sumagaya region, in the southern Philippines.
The 23-year-old is part of a cohort of Indigenous youths known as basbasonon (second-liners): volunteers keeping alive an ancient forest monitoring practice known as panlaoy that helps protect ecosystems on the slopes of this biodiversity-rich mountain in Misamis Oriental province.
Elders prepare the basbasonon to be the next cultural bearers and forest vanguards, and expose them to panlaoy and other cultural traditions.
Panlaoy requires immersion in the forest, where participants observe, document and assess the condition of the ecosystem and any threats to it. It’s preceded by a pagbala (foretelling) ritual that involves predicting the permissibility of panlaoy through a bottle containing oil infused with medicinal herbs.
Pinuhan’s father, Mantundaan Perfecto, is a datu (traditional leader), responsible for performing pagbala to seek their guardian spirits’ consent for the annual conduct of panlaoy.
Pinuhan says she can vividly recall the ceremony her father conducted ahead of her first panlaoy in 2021: The 67-year-old datu tied a string around the bottle’s tip, suspended it in the air, and began questioning the spirits.
“We were watching him performing pagbala in a hut in the middle of an umahan [farmland] at the foothills of Sumagaya,” Pinuhan told Mongabay in a video interview. “It’s surprising to see the bottle swayed in the air every time it was asked, signifying the spirits’ affirmation.”
This, she says, is how participants know when the spirits allow panlaoy and what they want as an offering in exchange for the group’s entry into the forest. The ritual ended with a thanksgiving prayer to the Magbabaya (Supreme Being).
The following day, Pinuhan and her fellow basbasonon gathered at the tribal center. A squealing pig broke their silence as elders slaughtered it as an offering. In keeping with tradition, they all touched its crimson blood for blessings and for protection against dangers in the forest.
The five-day trek involved passing by springs and waterfalls, most of them revered by the tribe as sacred places. They took frequent stops to introduce the basbasonon to culturally important plants and animals they encountered along the cold, misty trail.
Panlaoy has become an informal school for passing on the Higaonon traditional ecological knowledge from one generation to the next. Participants say it also provides an opportunity for youths to internalize traditional forest resource management practices, and to learn about their people’s collective struggle for land and self-determination.
During the panlaoy, Pinuhan says, she learned how Higaonon customary law forbids anyone from uprooting plants, especially those with known medicinal value. When sick, customs allow only for the collection of leaves, bark or roots based on the dosage prescribed by their balyan (tribal healer).
“Through panlaoy, I’ve understood better the importance of our forest to us natives; it’s where we get our daily sustenance, from food to medicine, so without it we won’t exist,” Pinuhan says of her experience. “That’s why panlaoy is crucial because it allows us to monitor our vast forest and its state.”
Indigenous forest stewardship
Philippine Indigenous communities, as elsewhere in the world, have historically been dispossessed of land and resources, but are organizing to get their rights respected.
In 2001, Higaonon communities in this part of Misamis Oriental province formed a group called MAMACILA, an acronym for the four villages where members came from. In 2009, the Philippines’ Indigenous peoples’ commission issued the organization an ancestral domain title covering 17,553 hectares (43,374 acres) of land inhabited by around 10,000 people.
A 2016 Mindanao State University (MSU) study revealed that the area is home to at least 52 floral species belonging to 19 families, many of which are endangered and endemic yet grow in abundance in the area and are economically and socially significant to the tribe. In 2014, four new-to-science species of carnivorous pitcher plant from the genus Nepenthes were described from Mt. Sumagaya and assessed as threatened with extinction.
MSU biology professor Frandel Louis Dagoc, who was part of the plant assessment, says the ancestral domain’s high floral diversity is an indicator of the effective traditional management strategies and sustainable harvesting employed by the Higaonon even before external interventions.
A faunal survey that Dagoc is also a part of revealed the area is home to 22 bird species endemic to the Philippines, notably the critically endangered Philippine eagle (Pithecophaga jefferyi) — the national bird — and a variety of reptiles, mammals and amphibians.
“Their forest protection activities are strongly linked to their IKSP [Indigenous knowledge systems and practices],” Dagoc told Mongabay in an email. “This might be the reason for their strong stewardship and commitment in protecting and conserving their ancestral lands thus exhibiting high floral diversity in their ancestral lands and identified ICCAs [Indigenous and community conserved areas].”
The Higaonon implement a set of resource use, harvesting and hunting policies. In their high-elevation pina, or strict protection zone, which covers 9,940 hectares (24,562 acres), or 57% of their total ancestral domain, all subsistence activities that affect wildlife, burial grounds or heritage and historical sites are customarily prohibited.
The rest of MAMACILA’s land is delineated as bahaw-bahaw (buffer zone), where traditional and low-impact subsistence activities are permitted in accordance with traditional regulatory measures. Hunting, for example, is allowed, but with a closed season during the breeding period to allow wildlife to reproduce. Except for shelter-making purposes, the Higaonon also prohibit the cutting of trees, especially those known to be inhabited by bees that sustain their honey collecting and farming livelihoods.
“We need to conduct panlaoy to ensure whether harvesting and hunting are done sustainably,” Datu Pinuhan tells Mongabay. Violators of customary laws, Higaonon or not, are subjected to the sala justice system, under which they’re punished based on the degree of misconduct. For instance, people caught renting or selling communal lands pay material fines to the organization, with repeat offenders facing banishment from the area.
Recognizing panlaoy’s contribution to forest conservation, the local government has adopted and annually subsidized it since 2011 through a program called bantay kalasan, which enlists the help of some 80 Higaonon to conduct forest patrols and biodiversity monitoring twice a month.
“Their financial support is really a big help to us Higaonons,” MAMACILA chairperson Erlinda Morga tells Mongabay. “Instead of leaving the forest to work for non-natives, we’re compensated while monitoring the environmental conditions of our ancestral domain.”
However, the Higaonon territory is constantly under threat from land clearing and grabbing, issues that endanger their access to their land and resources, and, by extension, the practice of panlaoy and other age-old traditions that help conserve the country’s biodiversity-rich forests.
Land grabbing and other threats
While approaching the buffer and no-touch zones, another basbasonon recalls encountering evidence that tribal prohibitions had been violated. A “no trespassing” sign, placed by non-native encroachers, cordoned off the once-verdant area.
“Although we’re young, we can feel that our land is in danger,” says basbasonon Enrique Pallo Jr., adding he suspects the land was cleared for ecotourism and human settlement.
Pinuhan says one elder tested the youths’ commitment and courage by asking whether they would still continue being panlaoy volunteers despite seeing these threats. “I will not stop because it would otherwise be a waste of time if we just simply quit,” she recalls responding.
“I know that it’s us who will ultimately benefit from this,” she recalls telling herself as the group continued into a forest where ancient native trees were cloaked in moss and shrouded in late afternoon fog. “We may not resolve it this time, but someday we will; it’s like rain that ends as the sun rises.”
Higaonon and other Philippine Indigenous communities have placed high hopes in the passage of a proposed bill on Indigenous and community conserved areas that would recognize existing customary and traditional governance of ancestral domains as effective conservation measures. The bill proposes the creation of a national ICCA registry where listed Indigenous territories are prioritized in government-led forest protection initiatives.
“If our area isn’t declared as an ICCA, we fear that the selling and buying of land becomes widespread and covers even our pina,” says MAMACILA’s Morga. “When that happens, outsiders will just encroach, and we’ll lose our herbal medicine, our sacred sites … Our lives and culture rely on the forest; without it, we will vanish.”
Philippine ICCA Consortium president Giovanni Reyes tells Mongabay that the bill supports Indigenous communities’ aspiration to preserve “areas they consider unalterable in terms of land use.”
“ICCAs form the heart of ancestral domain,” Reyes says. “Destroying these through large scale extractives in the name of development is like stabbing a person’s heart to save the person from illness.”
Pointing to cases where he says even policies calling for mandatory free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) are can be used to manipulate and coerce Indigenous communities to endorse projects on their land, Reyes says the proposed bill “serves as an additional layer of protection to this inherent [Indigenous] right to defend territory against land intrusion and land grabbing.”
“The ICCA bill disallows FPIC processes once communities declare these as ICCAs,” Reyes adds. “Meaning, when people say no to a project because it affects a sacred site, then that means there is no community desire to go through a process that gets rigged and manipulated in favor of an applicant private company,” such as an energy or mining company.
While the bill languishes in the Senate, the Higaonon are lobbying for a municipal ordinance declaring their ancestral domain a locally conserved area in hopes of freeing their territory from invasions. “Through panlaoy, we hope to document our wildlife and other natural resources so as to convince the government to recognize it as locally protected,” said Morga.
Climate change makes the weather unpredictable and the trail treacherous on Mt. Sumagaya, but Pallo Jr., now 23, is determined to join again in this year’s panlaoy as a basbasonon. As pandemic restrictions continue to ease, he’s also looking forward to attending a series of community dialogues with non-native land claimants and relevant government agencies to address encroachments on their ancestral domain.
“I draw inspiration from the next generations of Higaonons,” he says. “Where will they go when the forest is gone?”