Hinubog ng Panata: The vanishing spiritual traditions of the Aetas of Capas, Tarlac

By Pau Villanueva

August 10, 2021

By: Pau Villanueva/ Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

Indigenous peoples have long been considered guardians of global biodiversity, who have accumulated intimate knowledge of the ecosystems in which they live. Villanueva’s photo essay shows how development aggression not only threatens indigenous culture that is deeply rooted in land, but also the extinction of an entire heritage, in the context of the Aetas in Capas, Tarlac.

Nature and biodiversity are more than just resources for food, water, energy, and raw materials for the Aeta communities of Capas, Tarlac. Their cultural identity, well-being, and spiritual traditions are grounded on their regard for the living world. Among Philippine indigenous groups, the Aetas are quite known for their extensive amount of herbal knowledge and indigenous healing modalities. 

Spirituality is a way for them to honor their worldview, which has existed throughout history and was traditionally adopted by their ancestors who have lived in the Luzon mountain ranges even prior to colonization. Aeta healers, locally called “mang-aanito”, are highly sought after in their community to ensure the well-being of their people. Considered custodians of their ancestral knowledge and philosophies, these community elders are keen on preserving their indigenous ecologies. 

One of the local healers in Sitio Binyayan, Nida Cautibar recalls how her calling began. “When I was sick with typhus, my Aeta neighbors took care of me and eventually taught me how to use herbal medicine,” says Nida. “Being trusted with this knowledge, it has now become my responsibility to heal the sick without asking for compensation,” she adds. Aeta healers believe that their mission is to share their healing experience as a means of maintaining society rather than a means of acquiring wealth. Healing, for them, is also a way to give back to both the Aeta and the non-Aeta community.

Land development projects such as the New Clark City being built in Capas, Tarlac continues its relentless path without free, prior, and informed consent from the Aetas that have long been residing in the area. According to the official website of the Bases Conversion and Development Authority (BCDA), its implementing agency, the city is designed to be “wrapped around magnificent views of the hills.” The changing landscape – from flora and fauna to roads and infrastructures – continues to render irreversible damage to their natural cultural markers. The natural world where they are living is the Aeta’s only source of information, passed on from one generation of Aeta to another through oral tradition.

“We used to roam the forests freely but now, we are scared. We are restricted in our own lands”, says Rosette David, an Aeta healer who has been living in Sitio Bagingan for more than 28 years. “Nature is vanishing as roads are being paved.”

The world over, indigenous peoples have long been considered guardians of global biodiversity, who have accumulated intimate knowledge of the ecosystems in which they live. Development aggression not only threatens indigenous culture that is deeply rooted in land, but also the extinction of an entire heritage.

This story is one of the twelve photo essays produced under the Capturing Human Rights fellowship program, a seminar and mentoring project organized by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism and the Photojournalists’ Center of the Philippines. 

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