THE WOUNDED WOMAN had been hiding in the hills for 14 days. Submachine-gun bullets had struck her face, her leg, and her foot. Other bullets had killed her husband. The brass voices of gongs passed the word from ridge to ridge, speaking discreetly, for every¬one in the mountains of Mindanao understands the lan¬guage of the gongs.
Details reached us by runner. The hill people had heard that Manuel Elizalde, Jr., head of Panamin—the Presidential Arm for National Minorities—was in the district. Secretary Elizalde, who holds cabinet rank in the Philippine Government, is the official most deeply concerned with the plight of his nation’s ethnic groups. A man walked two days through the forest to put the matter before him.
The Secretary listened, then summarized the situation:
“As the man tells it, this is a classic case of land grabbing, resistance, and revenge. Someone from the dominant society—the civilized Filipino world—tried to take a tribesman’s holdings. He objected; now he’s dead, and his wife is badly hurt. Did he die because he fought back, or was he murdered? We don’t know. But murder is common in Mindanao. The Manila press calls this island the ‘Wild Wild South.’
“We have our frontiersmen, as did your Wild Wild West, and they’re a rough, tough lot. But we mustn’t forget why they’re here. After World War II the government urged settlers to go to undeveloped Mindanao and start civilizing it. The nation was—and is—suffering a population explosion, and no one cared much about how land was acquired.
“The settlers took what they could get, and the tribesmen moved back to the hills. Now mining and lumber interests want the hills too. But the tribesmen have nowhere left to go. So in desperation they protest. They some¬times even stand and fight instead of quietly vanishing before the advance of what we call civilization.”
The Secretary rubbed his stubbly chin and shoved his dirty white cap back from his fore¬head. “You know, we hear a lot about conservation these days. Conservation of animals, even of plants. But what about conservation of human beings and human cultures?”
Compassion Drives a Complex Man
Young (34), wealthy, Harvard-educated Manuel Elizalde might reasonably have been expected to join ranks with the rich and powerful. To the amazement of his peer group, excepting President Ferdinand E. Marcos and a few other men who cannot forget that the pagan tribesmen of the Philippines are their blood brothers, Elizalde cares more about the hard-pressed national minorities than about his family fortune or his life. He is a visionary idealist and a romantic. But he is also quick-witted, tough-minded, and given to sudden decisions.
“The runner says the woman’s wounds have begun to smell,” Elizalde said. “Let’s bring her out.”
The young American helicopter pilot glanced at the small cumulus of morning floating over jungle-covered peaks. “O.K.,” he said. “But right now. By midafternoon those puffs will be thunderheads. Even if I could get in up there I’d never get out. What am I supposed to land on anyway? “A thousand flying hours in Viet Nam had given Denis Rinehart a skill verging on artistry. His question conveyed no anxiety.”The messenger will show you the place. He says the tribesmen have cleared a little space for you an hour by foot from where the woman is hidden.”
“Little!” said Denis sadly. “Ha!”
“I want some guns up there,” Elizalde told me. “No knowing who’s around. I’ll send two security men with automatic weapons. You take this.” He handed me a compact H-K submachine gun. “Besides your .45.”
Trumpet Heralds a Mission of Mercy
Denis made two trips to deliver the lot of us, cranking down the hole in the jungle like a swift descending a chimney. The whine of the chopper’s jet engine summoned a few hill people out of the green wilderness. No out¬siders were near, they said. They would come with us. The runner pointed the way, and our party set off with National Geographic photographer Dean Conger in the lead, at six feet two a giant of a man among these small, lithe mountainfolk. Distant gongs sounded a soft reassurance, then were still. We walked in silence.
A long climb brought us to the summit of a ridge where a thatched house rested on the closest approximation to level land this crumpled country could offer. We paused while our guides spoke to the men of the place, who brought out a bamboo trumpet and sent a, signal wailing away toward the higher ridges beyond. “That is a secret message,” said the runner. “It tells those who guard the woman that we come to take her out. Now they will not attack us.”
Hampered by a leg badly swollen from a spider bite, I stayed behind as the group went on. Through gestures and pantomime I indi¬cated to the residents of the ridge that their garden patch would be a good place for the helicopter to come if they would chop down the taller vegetation that fringed it. Smiling, they drew their fighting knives and cut wher¬ever I pointed, destroying without protest their own most precious plants—banana, papaya, bamboo, hemp, even a few stalks of sugarcane.
I stripped off my undershirt and threw it down to mark the least lumpy section of our instant helipad, then hobbled back down the trail to signal Denis. In two minutes he came towering up out of the jungle below, caught my wave and eased onto the ridge while the tribesmen whooped and cheered.
A few minutes later our advance party returned, the woman clinging to a young man’s bent back for quick loans.
She was a pathetic little person, emaciated and clearly near death. Her face was dis¬figured by an infected wound, her ruined foot swollen and bleeding. “It’s good we do not have to carry her farther,” said the runner. Careful hands lifted her into the chopper. Dean and two men joined her, and Denis lifted off. I waited on the ridge, watching a storm’s rain curtain enshroud a peak some five miles away.
“It will be close,” said one of the security men, shifting his submachine gun. It was. The first chill drops of the line squall rattled on the leaves around us as Denis came skimming back through a pass and flared to a fast stop. We tumbled in, and he dived into the valley as gusts shook us.
I met the woman again in a clinic miles away (page 223). She lay quietly on the mattressless wooden cot. The runner who had brought us to her sat at her side and stroked her sunken cheek. Tears lined his own. Pana¬min Dr. Saturnino Rebong worked on her foot, his forceps tracing the bullet hole that pierced it.
“How is it?” I asked.
“It may have to come off.”
“She does not cry or flinch. Does she feel pain?”
“She feels,” he said grimly.
Lust for Land Pits Racial Brothers
I found Secretary Elizalde watching solemnly from a corner of the clinic.
“You can see that these tribesmen are only primitive savages,” he said quietly. “You can see that they have no human emotions. So say some of my fellow civilized Filipinos. Well, we’ll teach them their error. That is Pana¬min’s task: not to educate the minorities, but to educate the dominant society. It will take a while. In the meantime, this is what hap¬pens. Just this morning we’ve received radio reports of more shooting, more deaths. Some west coast tribes report several hundred killed during the past few weeks.”
Where, exactly, did all this happen? Who, precisely, were the tribesmen? Who the aggressors? Answers must be withheld pending legal actions now under way. But these are not very important questions. What is important is that this incident did happen, that similar incidents happen frequently in the Philippines’ Wild Wild South, and—most important of all—that something is being done to halt this hideous fratricide.
Fratricide, because the civilized concessionaire and the forest bowman are racially indistinguishable. Both are Malays or, better, Southern Mongoloids.
The land lust that induces today’s violence is a relatively recent development. For four centuries the rich lowlands seized by the Spaniards in the northern and central Philip¬pines sufficed for them and the Hispanicized, Christianized native population. These regions were taken from their tribal owners with no more concern for territorial rights than was shown by the white conquerors of Indian-occupied inland America.
In Luzon, the great northern island which is the heart of modern Filipino culture, the wild mountain tribes in time adjusted to the new world close around them without entirely giving up their special identity. Their leaders became priests, businessmen, officials of the national government. Thus their lands became secure.
In Mindanao, too, one segment of the population has become almost as advanced tech-nologically, and as sophisticated culturally, as the people of the Christian north. These are the Moslem Maranaos and Maguindanaos, who adopted Islam in the 14th century. Powerful fighters, living in highly organized communities, they were and are able to defend their basic rights, if not always to find accept¬ance for their ideology.
Pagan Ways Survived in Isolation
In the mountains of inland Mindanao the pagan tribes remained dominant. Spain never occupied their territories. Nor did the United States, which held the Philippines from the end of the Spanish American War in 1898 until the nation became independent in 1946.* The old ways of life continued. So, when the growing national need for cropland, lumber, and minerals sent more and more Filipino frontiersmen southward, the tragic confrontation of civilized adventurers and primitive residents occurred in Mindanao as it has elsewhere in Asia and in Europe, Africa, and both Americas. The drama is being played out in its classic and brutal form, but with one difference: Civilization is older now, and, conceivably, minutely wiser. It breeds not only exploiters but also dedicated, courageous men to whom the conservation of the natural world includes the conservation of natural man.
Panarnin is the expression of the Philip¬pines’ new national conscience. Elizalde and his colleagues, working under a franchise given by a concerned President, are taking the first steps to establish the rights of the tribesmen they classify as national minorities.
Appropriately, Dean and I first met Secretary Elizalde in a jungle so primeval, among a people so unadulterated, that we might have traveled to them by time machine rather than by helicopter. In the course of a single brain-spraining day we had been transported by a series of aircraft from the luxury of a modern Manila hotel southward over seas and islands to Mindanao and, finally, across the incredible canopy of mottled green that marks virgin rain forest, the climax condition of earthly vegetation. Deep in that vivid wilderness we were set down in a secret spot to which civilization had never come. There, on the Maasam River (map, page 225), a branch of the Higaonon tribe—the “Moun¬tain People”—follow a way of life older than Western civilization.
Villages Few Where Land Was Free
A dozen men stood waiting for us, Higaonon leaders, dressed in the costume of the tribal elite: black trousers and blouses decorated with appliqué patterns of red and white. Each shook our hands gravely. Only when they had finished did Elizalde present himself. The helicopter roared away and we headed upstream.
“We’ll be staying in the home of a local subchief a couple of miles from here,” the Secretary said. “You’ll see how people have lived in Mindanao’s forests since the first Malay migrants reached the Philippines.
“For one thing, there are still few villages here. These are not village people. They’re as much hunters and gatherers as farmers. They spear and trap wild pigs and deer and mon¬keys, and collect roots and honey and edible leaves and insects. To grow their domestic crops—corn, upland rice, sweet potatoes, taro—they slash and burn small clearings, farm them until the rains have leached away the good of the soil (usually in three or four years), and move on.
“Land has always been free for the taking. The forest seemed endless, and within the tribal territory no one owned any particular piece. Now the newcomers who want these mountains claim that the tribes have no rights to any land at all because they have no fixed residence.
“So the Higaonon and other tribes have begun, with our help, to build barrios—permanent settlements—where their forests ad¬join the Christian-owned lands. These people welcome new ideas. They want progress; but they want progress with pride.”
He splashed along for a moment, then noted casually, “You’ll pick up leeches here. Be sure to let the people of the house show you how to get them off later with red-hot embers. Don’t pull them off; their heads will stick in your skin and cause infection.”I was saying the Mountain People want progress with pride. But we haven’t yet convinced the civilized world that our minorities have the right even to exist.”
He spoke quietly, but the phrase hit hard
We waded in silence up the lovely water¬course where cool, clear water swirled over smooth stones. Butterflies glittered over the tumbling ripples. Dark tree trunks rose naked and unbranching to a hundred feet or more, and vines hung from the lofty canopy. The filtered light that reached us was an emerald radiance.
“This is the most perfect forest I’ve ever seen,” I told him. “I hope it can stay this way.”
“It will. The President has told the loggers to stop right where they are. And that’s four days’ walk from here.”