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Aetas in Pampanga: ‘We are not artifacts’

A chapel and a statue of Christ were built in Nabuklod along the houses provided by the provincial government. Some in the community did not agree to the statue, considering it disrespectful to their belief system. Photos: Ruston Banal

The last time I visited the Aeta communities in Nabuklod, Floridablanca and Pasbul, Porac, I was warned by the elders that we should refrain from photographing them as it was an abuse of their culture and an exploitation of their ethnicity.

They stopped allowing photographs after finding out that the photos were being sold at exhibits at higher prices without their knowledge, and in some cases were used by certain foreign groups to obtain funding.

"We are not artifacts," stressed Roy Bacani, a kagawad and a leading community representative in Nabuklod.

This time, though, I was allowed to take photos because they were needed for a project.

Organized by the International Photography Awards and the De La Salle College of St. Benilde AB Photography Department, the project entails searching for a student from an IP community to be awarded a four-year scholarship for a full degree course in photography.

Roy Bacani hopes that Aetas will be given rights equal to other Filipinos in terms of government subsidies.

During this trip, I was accompanied by Benilde arts professor Gerry Torres. We met with Bacani, who lamented that lowlanders' lack of knowledge about Aetas and their current situation leads to the former treating the latter as if they were museum pieces, only existing as a visual spectacle.

"We have long been treated as low, uneducated and lazy by the lowlanders," said Bacani.

"People have disrespected us in terms of making us re-enact our supposed sacred rituals and chant during their festivals. People from the government would just suddenly appear, telling us that we are part of an event and making us wear our traditional 'pinang.' They would even require us to speak in Tagalog in order to attract tourists," he said.

"We cannot do anything about it as we have became slaves to this perception."

Bacani is concerned about educational opportunities for the children in the community, who should be in school instead of following the same cycle of illiteracy and poverty.

Bacani is involved in the protection and security of the rights of the Aetas in their community. His wife, a public school teacher, is working on her Masters degree.

However, he added, "You never see an Aeta who is a lawyer, a famous actor, a famous artist, a dermatologist, an army general, a manager in a fast food chain or a taxi driver. The list goes on."

Torres, who became quite emotional while listening to Bacani, then spoke. "I admit I wasn't aware with this reality," he said. "But I hope the offer of a scholarship program would help by just starting out from a single scholar with a guided education."

The scholarship will allow Benilde's best photography students to undergo a workshop conducted by an international master photographer provided by the IPA. The photographer, Indian-Canadian-British filmmaker and anthropologist Indrani Pal-Chaudhuri, will mentor these students on the concept of story-telling documentary set-up, in the community itself.

The students will immerse with the community and seek among the families a student who may have a great interest in photography or visual arts. In other words, the students will find a photography scholar through photography.

Motorcycles are the fastest and most convenient way to travel and bring things to and from the lowland.

A graduate of Princeton University whose expertise is in Southeast Asian studies, Indrani has collaborated with NGOs on projects to empower women and underprivileged people. She has shot for celebrities including David Bowie, Jennifer Lopez, Anne Hathaway and Kate Winslet, and directed Bon Jovi's most recent music video.

Bacani said that this scholarship will be unusual, as most of the scholarships provided to members of their community only go up to high school.

"[It would happen] that along the way, an Aeta student had to stop studying as the supposed funding for him was never delivered fully, [so he would have to] find his way back to the mountains," he said.

Bacani believes that greater educational support will help change lives in the community.

Bacani feels that Aetas are still the government's lowest priority, as jobs and opportunities for people like him remain elusive.

"Some people from the government use us for their own ulterior motives. Funding that is given to us is like ice. It is given to them in full, but by the time it reaches us, the funding will have turned into a small portion and you would wonder where the other pieces have gone," he said.

It is to be hoped that this project will provide a real opportunity for at least one member of the community. — BM, GMA News