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June 3, 2008 / calebdresser

Marcos

His name is Marcos. His first name, he hastens to add, unlike the late President. Beyond the fence at the edge of the yard emerald-green stepped riceland stretches down the valley toward the forested mountains of Ifugao. His hectare of steep, terraced rice paddy lies somewhere around a bend in the valley, outside our vision. It is his main source of subsistence and income, although he also cultivates sweet potato in the mountains and is active in village politics.

He used to carve wood – it was what put his children through school – but he does not do so anymore. Government regulations, he says. It is illegal to harvest trees without a permit, measures meant to prevent deforestation. “But,” he points to the forested slopes east of his village, and to the trees in whose shade we sit, “we love our trees. It is not a problem.” On the drive in, we saw devastation, swaths of red dirt washing into the valleys, whole hillsides waiting to collapse. Shady large-scale logging operations and corruption may be more to blame, but nonetheless, smoke from small-scale burning on the slopes was clearly visible. Sometimes towns are buried in mud and hundreds die, but he says that has not been a problem near Banaue.

Born a Catholic in 1948, he was born again in 2001, and has little use for what he labels “superstitions,” be they those of the Catholic Church or the ancient harvest rituals of his ancestors. He looks at us with firm honesty: “I fear the Lord.” He holds the Bible as his reference, though he says many Christians still perform the harvest dances and the sacrifices that have been integral to life here for two and a half thousand years.

Marcos married soon after he finished high school. He has “only ten childen;” he had hoped for fifteen. His wife bore them in their village with the help of tribal nurses; medical facilities are limited. Mostly, he says, the people treat their sickness with medicinal plants, although when there are serious problems they will go to the doctor in Banaue. He complains that often the doctor cannot do anything, and the bills are high. Many of the problems now are not treatable here – he mentions cancer, arthritis, cysts, others they do not know. As time has passed, he has seen the health of his people become worse: it used to be that lives of a century or more were not uncommon, but now it seems many people live only into their sixties o seventies. Marcos blames the modern food; a “lack of vegetable and much commercial food” are his prime concerns. The old diet, mostly rice and sweet potato with some chicken, pork, taro, and vegetables, was “less good tasting but more for strong health.”

The changes in rice have also left him unsatisfied. New varieties brought with them disease, and besides, he says, they do not taste so good. Unfortunately, he must cultivate them, for now yields of the traditional variety are low; it is usually grown for export to American markets when it is grown at all. Marcos and his family divide their labor on the farm. Women select the best pannicles to provide seed for the next crop, while men carry the harvested crop in bundles hung from long poles – a load may weigh 80 pounds or more. Another problem, he says – modern varieties have pannicles that shatter when mature, and half the harvest may fall to the ground while being carried home. He also has to replant with a new seed type every four years or his yields drop. He trades seeds with other local famers.

Earthworms are another problem. He does not know where they came from; one day, they were there. They break up the compact soil that holds water in the paddy, forcing farmers to spend huge amounts of time and effort rebuilding terraces and carrying stones up the steep valley walls.

Before we leave, he shows us his old home, a single cramped room on stilts. The whole building is made of exquisitely crafted timbers that fit together like a puzzle – not a single nail was used in its construction. He says it is more than a hundred years old, and has survived many typhoons “by the grace of God.” Now, however, he enjoys his slightly bigger “modern house” of concrete and wood.

Many changes he has seen, and on the whole, he says, “not so good.” Still, there is much he enjoys in life. His family, though it has spread far, comes together regularly; “love is still intact.” Once, he says, he nearly went to Denmark – a traveler he befriended arranged for him to build a traditional house there. In the end he could not get a visa, for he has no birth certificate, a setback about which he is philosophical. “God will bring blessings,” and people will help him. He takes time to thank us, the Americans, for liberating the Philippines in the second World War, though that was before he was born.

Things change, but he has family and food and happiness. For Marcos, that is enough; his world, though nudged away from its ancient equilibrium, is still intact. The village remains a good place to live. He is hopeful about the future.

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5 Comments

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  1. Becky / Jun 4 2008 2:47 am

    I like food for strong health!
    Have you been learning anything about heavy metal absorption by rice plants? My envi. chem. professor, Prof McBride (http://css.cals.cornell.edu/cals/css/people/faculty.cfm?netId=mbm7), went to China and did some work on this… I think the metal he worked with was cadmium. Anyway, contaminated rice can cause ouch-ouch disease (Itai-itai in japanese).
    Rice is not always good for strong health.

  2. Margaret McCandless / Jun 4 2008 2:52 am

    This is so very interesting. I would like to know more about farmers all around the world. There are so many people, now, it is difficult to get a window into these important lives, the farmers’ lives and views that shape what can be done to keep life livable on our planet. “We love our trees.”
    In my teen years, late ’60s and early ’70s, Zero Population Growth and The Limits to Growth were deeply important. Yet that impact missed huge numbers of my peers; it is only beginning to be taught in many places. I wonder how long history can repeat itself, with wise people speaking and only a few hearing. The limits to growth may limit, at last, the destiny of those who ignore history. Rather than repeating history, something different entirely may be next. I wish I felt as hopeful as Marcos sounds.

  3. Margaret McCandless / Jun 4 2008 2:54 am

    This is so very interesting. There are so many people, now, it is difficult to get a window into these important lives, the farmers’ lives and views that shape what can be done to keep life livable on our planet. “We love our trees.”
    In my teen years, late ’60s and early ’70s, Zero Population Growth and The Limits to Growth were deeply important. Yet that impact missed huge numbers of my peers; it is only beginning to be taught in many places. I wonder how long history can repeat itself; something else may happen.

  4. Amy / Jun 5 2008 5:20 am

    That sounds so very much like the situation I experienced in Alaska, except ten million times more optimistic about the happiness and well-being of his village. But it appears that worldwide, elders acknowledge the necessity of traditional and subsistence diets for health even as the younger generations embrace change and unhealthy food practices. Hopefully our generation spent enough time at the feet of our grandparents to make real change incorporating these ancient values. After all, they are practices and ways of life that were thousands of years in the making 🙂

  5. Nadia Beard / Jun 6 2008 6:28 pm

    Good stuff. Excellent photos! Useful for us Americans to be reminded that people can “live,” be happy even, with what they have, without being caught up in what they don’t have. More importantly, it seems that people adapt when that is their only choice (the earthworms from nowhere…). The hope is that science will step in and fix the problems that religion cannot. Good luck with that, the science part of course. Anyway, this farmer stands in stark contrast to the girl on the bus, who perhaps has had more exposure to commercialism or Western culture.

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