The Noble Aetas

An interview with Donal O’ Dea, ssc

They live in the Northern Philippines and have retained their own way of life for two thousand years despite many attempts to make them change. The catastrophic eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 presented a new challenge to their existence.

An interview with Fr. Donal O’ Dea, ssc who works with them.

Q. Where exactly is the area in which you presently work in the Philippines?

A. it is the Province of Zambales, 150 miles north to Manila. I was asked by the bishop and the Columbans to do some work with the Aetas people who live in the region.

Q. Could you give a bit of background on the Aetas?

A. One theory is that they came for Papua New Guinea, are related to the Australian Aborigines and came via Borneo into the Philippines at least 2000 years ago. They first settled along the shoreline but eventually they were pushed up into the mountains.

Q. Physically, are they different form the majority of the Filipino people?

A. Yes. Filipinos in general share characteristics with the people of Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. The Aetas are also known as Negritos because they are black. On average they are smaller, have kinky hair and features that are quite different. They have their own language. Apart from this there are other important differences. They, unlike all the other ethnic groups, were not conquered by the Spaniards. The vast majority of the other groups in the Philippines were integrated into the colonial system. In the South of the Philippines there were attempts by the Muslim groups to absorb the Aetas. In the Northern area where I work they slowly moved up into the hills. They held on their own culture, language and traditions. They did not accept Christianity.

Q. Since you first went to the Philippines in 1952 the population has gone form 17 million to about 75 million. Does that mean that many ethnic groups are being swallowed up by this population explosion?

A. their land is being swallowed up first of all. That is the principal causes of the conflict in the Southern Philippines. In some provinces ethnic groups that were thriving 50 yeas ago have totally vanished.

Q. Some people would no doubt argue that it is unfair that people like the Aetas should want to hold on to large tracks of land while there is such an increase in the population and in the need people have for land.

A. People are not allowed to ask similar questions about the big multinational fruit producers or mining corporations, or the tourist or golf complexes. Big companies want the land to increase their profits. All the Aetas are looking for is enough land to live on. Unfortunately they have no legal claim to the land on which they have lived for the past 2, 000 years. It belongs to the State. They want to be recognized and have a right to some land. A major threat at the moment is mining. A powerful mining company can get a concession for an area the size of the combined country. They are given all the mineral rights to that area and the tribal people, whose home it has been for centuries, are given no voice in what happens.

Q. The philosophy of the Aetas is presumably very different to that of the mining corporations?

A. Yes, the only thing in common is that they both somewhat nomadic. The Aetas plant bananas and sweet potatoes. They shoot wild pigs and live mainly on fruits and various types of vegetables. They fish in the rivers. Groups of six to nine families plant rice and corn in the hills. They don’t believe in planting anymore than they need. Some occasionally come down to cost and take jobs during the harvest. They can live very simply on a low diet. Their health, sanitation and literacy is very poor. Very few of the Aetas would be considered practicing Catholics. It was only in the sixties that Christian communities were organized in the area.

Q. They live at the foot of Mt. Pinatubo. How serious for them was the eruption of the volcano in 1991?

A. It was a major disaster. Thousands of hectares of their land was covered by eleven billion cubic metres of volcanic ash which has now hardened. The Government did make an effort to help them by providing some resettlement camps. Some of the people moved away to other areas. They were being swamped by people with good intentions. They became something of a curiosity. One of the good things was that the Aetas became known. Suddenly the public realized that there were up to 10, 000 of them and that they needed help urgently. But apart from the short-term help the fundamental question was how would they survive as a people?

Q. When did you get involved with the Aetas?

A. About five years ago. I was the last Columban who had worked in their area in the hills. I knew a lot of the people who had been working with them. I knew that they were in need. They have been devastated and scattered by the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo. Around that time the bishop asked for a Columban to work with them. I offered to go.

Q. What did you do at the start?

A. At the beginning there were questions to be answered. Where were they now and how many of them were left in the area? Who was with them? What were their immediate needs and long-term needs now that they had lost their original base? What, in practical terms, could we do to help them?

Q. At the beginning what did you see as the pressing needs?

A. At this stage many of them were reduced to begging. The needs were survival, food, work, land to till. We tried to gather solid information and identify the natural leaders. We also checked on the aid they were entitled to from the Government. We took steps to ensure that the rights of the remaining people were respected, that they would not be pushed of f their land. The local Church has committed itself to the defense of the Aetas. It defends their claim to their ancestral land. It has helped them to preserve tier culture, tradition, language and even religious beliefs. It has tried to make the people of the Philippines more aware of the rights of the indigenous peoples in general, those who once owned the land and have now been herded into its remote corners.

Q. Do you believe that there is something worth preserving there?

A. Any language that is unique is worth preserving. It is an extraordinary vehicle of expression. They have their music, their dances, they feel at home with themselves and their environment. Their ability to live simply in sparse situations challenges our voracious consumerism. Enough is enough with them. They share everything they have. These are a people who have survived simply and admirably for two thousand years.

Q. When you look back over the past five yeas, has anything been achieved?

A. Some things have been achieved. The Aetas are now aware that they are not alone. Others are concerned. We have helped them to articulate their needs, even though often these haven’t been answered. Programmes have been initiated with quite a bit of support from NGOs and the Church. We have backed them right up to Congress in their struggles to get rights to their land.

Q. The history of work with indigenous peoples has many examples of paternalism and damage dome by well-meaning people. Have you ever been accused of that?

A. Paternalism is the simplest thing in the world to get into. It is very difficult to avoid. One of the first dangers is that you try too hard to protect people from outside influence. If you worked to develop leaders you must let them lead, let them make mistakes. This can be hard if you think in terms of money or efficiency. They managed to get on without us in the past. We have to learn only to come into the picture when we are needed.

Q. You were a parish priest for most of your life. How did you adapt to this very different approach?

A. At first it was a pretty difficult change. I didn’t realize it until I left the parish. There I knew everything that had to be done. Suddenly, in a sense, I was a free man but one ho was no longer clear on what he should do. I had been asked to reach out to the Aetas – brother s and sisters in need but also people who had little interest in things one normally associated with the ministry of a priest. I was sent to be with them but also to be respectful of their ways. It was a mission that was very different for me but one which, over the last few years, has stretched the horizons of my own understanding of what the Christian message is all about. (The Far East)