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How the ‘sacred forests’ of Palawan maintain balance between man and nature




Although the forests are protected for spiritual reasons, they provide a clear benefit to local environments and the indigenous people who live in them

Palawan is the largest province in the Philippines, comprising 1,769 islands and an assemblage of 87 cultural groups.

Of these cultural groups, only the Pala’wan, Tagbanua and Batak remain indigenous to Palawan due to an influx of migrants to the region, who have displaced other groups that historically occupied the island.

Palawan is categorised as a ‘frontier province’ due to the arrivals of migrants to the area and the island has grown rapidly over the past few decades due to an abundance of natural resources available for exploitation.

A carabao and cart travelling the rocky path to the village of Daan in Aborlan. Picture by Glenn Bitterman

In turn, Palawan’s indigenous peoples (IPs) have experienced resource competition with migrants, which has resulted in the loss of lands — forcing them to participate in illegal logging, cyanide fishing and swidden [slash and burn] agriculture in order to compete with the activities of the new residents. Destructive fishing and problems associated with coastal resource management are prevalent in many areas of the Philippines, including Palawan.

Currently, the largest threat to indigenous communities is that of developmental projects in the form of construction of infrastructure to meet the demands of the ever-growing tourist economy, along with mining and logging pursuits. These types of projects, while they aim at developing the island to produce revenue for the province, have negative implications for indigenous communities who rely on their natural environment for survival.

When changes in the natural landscape begin to effect the livelihoods of Palawan’s IPs many of them end up leaving the tribe in search of greater opportunity. This leads to a loss of cultural heritage among Palawan’s IPs, who are crucial to maintaining a balance between humans and nature.

The preservation of Palawan’s natural beauty should be concern for everybody

An example of the human-nature dynamic that exists among IPs is observed among the Tagbanua tribe in the southern regions of Palawan. The Tagbanua maintain ‘sacred’ forest regions that inhibit anyone from disturbing the areas, whether through clearing of forests, farming, or even walking through them.

The importance of sacred forest areas in Tagbanua culture inadvertently creates a space for forest growth and regeneration in the areas surrounding the forests. Sacred forests act as ‘seed banks’ allowing the surrounding areas, used for farming, swiddening or simply uncultivated, to quickly regenerate.

Thus, Tagbanua cultural belief prohibits forests deemed as sacred from being disrupted, while ecological stability is maintained within the forests and its surrounding areas.

Ultimately, the concept of nature is embedded within Tagbanua culture through the protection of sacred forests. Documenting the function of sacred forests and the tradition of keeping these areas protected is crucial to maintaining cultural knowledge of the Tagbanua of southern Palawan.

By understanding similar dynamics that exist between IPs and their natural environment, the heritage of Palawan’s IPs can be preserved for future generations even in the face of developmental changes.

Cultural anthropologist Shannon Thomas is a US Fulbright Scholar in Southeast Asian studies at Northern Illinois University. This article is based on research she conducted between August 2016 and May this year. Shannon can be contacted at sthomas7@niu.edu.