Sunday, June 14, 2009

Crossing the Upian at flood stage

We awoke at 3 am to catch the bus from downtown Davao City, Philippines to the whistle stop at Marahan, an hour and half up the mountains, though still technically within city limits. Marahan does not have much to boast, aside from one two story building painted green. From there we rented dirt bikes drivers, with our stuff tied in sacks on the side, to fly 30 minutes down a rocky dirt road to Maluan village and the Uppian River, our trail head. We then forded the river with the sacks tied onto a horse, (though in Colorado we would call it a pony), as well as a water buffalo. Then began an hour hike straight up the next hill to the village of Malikongkong.

The point of this whole endeavor was to attend a community meeting of the Matigsalug tribe, who had been mysteriously chosen by the local oligarchs down in the city proper to have a new city jail built in their ancestral territory. While it is beyond me as to how the city chose this exact location, there seems to be a propensity (which translates across cultures) to try and isolate and hide those who have been judged as threats to society. Never mind that they might become less threatening if they were close enough to have their children, brothers, sisters, parents, or anyone for that matter, come visit them.

In exchange for enticing a third of the families in Malikongkong to donate their land to the project, the city government agreed to “terms and conditions.” These included the city constructing a “model tribal village” including water, electricity and homes with cement floors - for the thirty-one families only. Apparently the carrots (basic services) dangled to split the community were luxuries the rest of the community would have to somehow acquire on their own. Yet as we came to the top of the hill where the elementary school framed the Malikongkong village green, there was a model tribal village standing in front of me. It’s their current village, alive, simple, beautiful.

We were soon to discover further irony as the city was simultaneously supporting an environmental disaster preparedness project in Malikongkong. The environmental surveyor for that project was presenting his results at the community meeting. He had completed surveys of the area, which was classified as city watershed, and found much of the land, including the part donated for the jail, was at a “critical” risk for landslides due to deforestation. (Somehow this had been missed when the city issued an “environmental clearance certificate” for the jail site.) Meanwhile just last week, in a not so distant community, a landslide had washed away virtually an entire mountain. The slide covered a village killing 31 residents, though rescued teams were still digging through the mud to get a final count.

My job, as a peace worker, would be to try and work with the community leaders of Malikongkong to see if they could re-unite themselves and advocate for their common interests as a single Matigsalug indigenous community, including their right not to be washed down into Davao City proper. As the community meeting ended and we had lunch of sardines and rice wrapped in banana leaves, clouds began to move across the ridges and valleys. I hurriedly finished my meal and followed my guide Sam down the trail, hoping to make the Upian crossing before the rain brought it to flood stage. We didn’t have a chance, minutes into our hike, it began pouring and Sam took off his flip flops to slide barefoot down the creek that had been the path on my hike up. Just before reaching the river, two Matigsalog men came riding up the trail on water buffalo, yelling through the downpour that the river was already too high. As we arrived, the rain subsided but the river continued raging in a muddy brown funk.

It was mid afternoon, Sam said it could take hours for the water to subside. I suggested maybe we just return up the muddy trail to Malikongkong. My wife would be left at home overnight with three small children, but there seemed no other way. Some of the residents of Maluan village on the other side came out to yell and wave us away from the rapids, their gesticulations indicating it might be possible to ford further up the river. We tried walking round the bank, but a cascading tributary feeding the Upian was literally rolling large rocks down it’s riverbed in defiance.

We returned to the Upian to see a man coming toward us along the river bank. He had somehow crossed at the shallower ford up the river. With his help we made it to the ford where the Upian current was still flowing fast. Another man came swimming around the bend and pulled himself out, with a rope in hand. The first didn’t wait for it to be tied across, without a word, he took my back pack, and, like the fox with the gingerbread man on his nose, waded out deeper and deeper til it was just his head above water, arms holding the back pack aloft. He seemed to be swimming, but made it across. I, then Sam my guide, followed his exact route. It was chest high on me, just shallow enough not to get swept away if Ileaned into it, holding the rope.

Laughing and commenting about the whole event, a small crowd had gathered on the other side to see the spectacle of a white guy pulling his muddy self out of the water. The dirt and sand that was once their land was now caked into my shoes and pants. Whatever the path ahead for the Matigsalug of Davao’s valleys and hills, they would face it with a smile and self sacrifice. I just hope their dreams of fertile forests prevail before the rains wash them away in a nightmare mud.

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