It is raining heavily in the Iglit-Baco National Park and we are hunkered in a thatched hut in the forest.
Inside we sit with three ancient Fufu-amas, elders of the Taw’Buid, a tribe from Mindoro.
They are clad in loincloths while smoking a mysterious herb in wooden bak’to pipes. It is supposedly tobacco, but smells like something else.
I was last here in 2012 to photograph the tamaraw, a critically-endangered buffalo WWF is working to conserve. I have returned to learn more about the Taw’Buid, an indigenous tribe helping to protect the tamaraw.
“They wish to visit our village tomorrow to see our way of life,” translates elder Henry Timuyog for the others.
WWF-Philippines together with the National Geographic Channel and Tamaraw Conservation Programme have just given them a shipment of solar lamps, which we hoped would cool ties and finally allow us outsiders, called Siganon, to visit one of their distant forest villages and see how else we can help.
Fuldo Gonzales takes a puff and exhales out gently, contemplating a tamaraw skull beside him.
After a long pause, he clears his throat and speaks in the tongue of the Taw’Buid.
“We shall discuss this more but be ready tomorrow morning. We shall meet you on the trail to Magawang.”
Taw’Buid means ‘people from above’ and is among two names the tribe calls itself – the other being Batangan or ‘felled forest.’
Close to 20,000 inhabit Mindoro’s central highlands, making them the largest of the eight tribes collectively called Mangyan by lowlanders – the others being the Alangan, Bangon, Buhid, Hanunuo, Iraya, Ratagnon and Tadyawan.
Many still sport loincloths called amakan, hunt game with spears called tulag, bows called gadun and spike traps called silo. Unlike other Mangyan who chew betel-nut, nearly all Taw'Buid men smoke tobacco – children included.
Once occupying Mindoro’s lowlands, they were pushed into the mountains by both Spanish colonizers and Filipino immigrants.
Their home forests too have retreated – with thousands of hectares converted into grazing land or rice paddies.
As a people, the Taw’Buid are peaceful, secretive and deeply animistic , careful not to rouse the anger of their four gods including Alulaba, lord of rivers and waterways.
Contact with the Taw’Buid has been established through missionary groups and the Tamaraw Conservation Programme, which employs tribesmen as trackers and forest rangers.
Both Fufu-ama Henry and Fuldo served as rangers to protect the tamaraw, an endangered bovine which once teetered on the brink of oblivion.
Tamaraw (Bubalus mindorensis) are dwarf forest buffalo resembling the more familiar carabao but they are found solely on the island of Mindoro in the Philippines.
About 10,000 thrived a century ago until a combination of cattle-killing rinderpest and poaching left less than 100 survivors by 1969, prompting the International Union for the Conservation of Nature to classify them as critically endangered, just a step away from extinction.
Today a few hundred hold out atop the grassy slopes and forest patches of Mts. Aruyan, Bongabong, Calavite, Halcon and Iglit-Baco – which hosts the most well-protected and best-studied population.
To support existing government conservation drives, WWF partnered with the Far Eastern University (whose school icon happens to be a tamaraw), National Geographic Channel, BDO, Primer Group of Companies, Hubbs Seaworld Research Institute and the Taw’Buid people for a project called ‘Tams-2’ or ‘Tamaraw Times Two’ which aims to double the number of wild tamaraw from 300 to 600 by 2020 by improving environmental education, conservation and park management measures.
‘Tams-2’ has seen the number of tamaraw in the Iglit-Baco range rise from 327 in 2012 to 413 last April, the highest number ever recorded.
“We’ll always protect the tamaraw for our fates are tightly intertwined,” explains Punong Tribo Fausto Novelozo, chief of all Taw’buid. “We are all connected, if the tamaraw ceases to exist, our people might well disappear.”
Four national laws protect the tamaraw from poaching – Commonwealth Act 73 plus Republic Acts 1086, 7586 and 9147. Presidential Proclamation 273 declared the animal as a source of national heritage and pride.
We came trudging down a muddy trail from Mt. McGowen (locally called Magawang), laden with gear from a visit to the peak, where we battled the elements but saw over a dozen tamaraw skulking in swaying scrub.
Soon we met Fuldo’s people, clutching spears and bows.
The old man looks troubled.
“The tribe has decided that you cannot visit our forest village, even just to see what we need. We made a pact with our ancestors not to let outsiders in. We once allowed a group of Siganon over. The gods were angered and one of our Fufu-amas died. Though we need medicine and supplies, we cannot risk angering the gods of the Taw’buid, the gods of the Batangan.”
Respectfully heeding their request, we give them our extra supplies and push on to another Taw’Buid village near Barangay Poypoy.
There are at least 5000 indigenous cultures worldwide – and like the Taw’Buid, they all sit at a crossroads.
The Old Guard like Fausto, Fuldo and the ancient Fufu-amas might hold back the tide – but the younger Taw’buid, who have traded their loincloths for T-shirts and basketball shorts and are dabbling with cellphones, are starting to embrace the future on their own terms.
“One, two, three!” I shout as cackling children chase each other around thatched huts, avoiding the village’s oblivious pigs and chickens.
The solar lamps that were given out are already being put to good use, hanging from the larger huts to illuminate hearths – earthen fire pits where families spend the night.
As we sit and socialize with the community, I notice some of the younger Taw’Buid fussing over gadgets. Cellphones.
I recall the words of Punong Tribo (chief of all Taw’Buid) Fausto at the turnover ceremony. “Those cellphones. They are creating wants for our people, who now want to cut more trees and grow more rice so they can own one. We have always lived fine without them. "
"To preserve who we are, we must return to the old ways.”
Committed to help people and nature thrive, WWF works to ensure they evolve carefully and sustainably.
As dusk settles we say goodbye and leave the village. Soon our forest trail transformed into a paved road, the rivers turned to rice irrigation canals and the Taw’Buid became townsfolk coming home from the fields.