Indigenous youths keep ancient forestry traditions alive in the Philippines

  • In the southern Philippines’ Misamis Oriental province, Indigenous Higaonon practice a forest management tradition known as panlaoy.
  • Panlaoy requires immersion in the forest, with participants observing, documenting and assessing the condition of the ecosystem and any threats to it.
  • The practice is integral to the protection of an area of recognized customary land encompassing 17,553 hectares (43,374 acres) of forest inhabited by around 10,000 people.
  • Guided by tribal elders, Higaonon youth volunteers known as basbasonon are trained to be the next generation of cultural bearers and forest vanguards.

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.”


BANNER IMAGE: Higaunon youth like Michellejean (with the GPS device) join their elders in the annual forest monitoring called panlaoy in the mossy forests of their Pina daw bahaw-bahaw, or their ICCA within their ancestral domain. Image by Archie Tulin / NTFP-EP Philippines.

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