After a night of heavy rain, Marites Lara Babanto and her four-year-old son are finding it harder than usual to return home on the pumpboat – a motorised longboat with a tarpaulin canopy. Behind fallen tree trunks, bamboo stalks and water hyacinth build up and clog the muddy stream. Two boatmen have to pull away the debris, so the narrow vessel can pass through to reach the wider river.
Mother and son are travelling back from the town of Loreto, located 185km north of Davao City, to the village of Sitio Panlabuhan. This remote settlement isn’t built on solid ground but floats in the middle of the Agusan Marsh, the largest protected swampland in the Philippines. The 41-year-old mother of five often makes the hour and a half journey between the town, where her children go to school, and the village, where she works as a project coordinator for the Agusan Marsh Indigenous Cultural Tourism Program. Funded by private donors and the United States Embassy in Manila, the project was launched in 2016 through the assistance of Tuklas Katutubo, a national volunteer organisation for indigenous peoples. The goal is to employ cultural tourism as a tool for poverty alleviation among the marginalised tribespeople living here. This has meant the creation of a community-run guesthouse where visitors can come and experience this magical setting and learn more about the people who call it home.
Spanning seven municipalities of Agusan del Sur province, the 110,000ha marsh is fed by the 390km Agusan River – the third-longest river in the country – which overflows into a complex network of lakes, tributaries, marshes and peat swamp forest. Declared a wetland site of international importance in 1999, per the Ramsar Convention – a treaty among 170 countries for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands – this refuge supports incredible biodiversity, including 127 species of birds. A paradise for birdwatchers, the marshes offer the chance to spot endemic waterfowls like the Philippine duck and Philippine swamphen. It’s also a critical stopover for egrets, herons and other migratory birds from Siberia and East Asia travelling south from November to March. What’s more, the most secluded areas harbour the country’s largest remaining population of estuarine crocodiles, and also the Philippine crocodile – the world’s rarest crocodilian, with only an estimated 250 left in the wild.
Lined with sugarcane-like grass and edible tangkong (water spinach), the river eventually snakes into Lake Kanimbaylan, an ethereal expanse of water so placid it mirrors the cottony clouds hanging in the sky. Leafless tree trunks spear the horizon, skeletons of a rainforest now permanently inundated by the shifting waters of the marsh. A solitary Brahminy kite circles high above, hunting for fish feeding close to the surface.
“This lake is the paradise my lolo cared for,” Marites says in Cebuano, a common lingua franca in Mindanao. She is recounting how her grandfather was one of the two Agusan Manobo brothers who first settled here in the 1960s, living off its bounty of freshwater fish.
The largest group of lumad, or indigenous people, living in and around the marsh, the Agusan Manobo are one of the numerous tribes categorised under the Manobo, an umbrella ethnic group of culturally related tribes scattered across mainland Mindanao. Since the early 20th century, the lumad have struggled to keep their ancestral lands, squeezed out by settlers, spurred by government-sponsored resettlement programmes and multinational companies involved in large-scale farming, logging and mining.
In Sitio Panlabuhan, villagers had to fend off illegal loggers and poachers until the marsh was officially declared a protected area by the Philippine government in 1996. “Before tourists started coming, we shied away from outsiders,” shares Marites, who has lived here her entire life. “Because we have grown accustomed to other people looking down on us or trying to take advantage of us.”
Yet, a tight-knit community of Agusan Manobos has thrived in this waterlogged sanctuary for four generations. The fishing village of 200 people comprising some 40 wooden bungalows with rusty iron-sheet roofs and a primary schoolhouse, hugs the lake’s northern edge.
Villagers of all ages row dugout canoes to get around, and to the nearby fishing grounds, while women wash clothes on their porches next to barking dogs and quacking ducks. Built on algae-covered rafts of hardwood logs, bamboo poles and empty barrels, all the homes – including the attached pig pens, vegetable gardens and stores – float on the surface, adjusting to the seasonal ebb and flow of the floodwaters, which can alter the depth of the lake by up to four metres.
At the village entrance, surrounded by fields of water hyacinth and swamp cabbage, Marites and her son alight at the visitor centre where tourists stay. Built by the cultural tourism programme, the wooden two-storey structure is currently the only operational tourist facility on the entire marsh, consisting of a kitchen, a small dining room and spartan upstairs accommodation with mattresses on the floor, covered with mosquito nets. Here, travellers can enjoy local dishes made from the freshest catch, watch cultural performances and spend the night in the marsh, waking to the eerie sight of thick fog enveloping the lake on cold mornings. The guesthouse also serves as the jump-off point for guided canoe tours of the village and for longer birdwatching excursions around the lake.
Shortly after Marites and her son arrive at the guesthouse, a lanky man in a sleeveless shirt and basketball shorts paddles up on a wooden canoe, bringing carp, tilapia, snakehead and gourami he has netted, together with dark-shelled kambu-ay (native apple snails) collected from the flooded forest. Marites gathers the fish and snails in a plastic basin, which she carries into the kitchen to have them prepared for the guests’ meals. “You should try the kambu-ay – it’s best cooked adobo-style,” she enthuses, referring to the popular Filipino cooking method which involves marinating meats in vinegar, soy sauce and spices.
The man delivering the day’s catch is tribal leader Remy Reyes – fondly known as Datu Boyet by the villagers; Datu is the title for tribal chiefs in the southern Philippines. Reyes has come for the panagtawag, a welcome ritual performed for the safety of guests. He is one of only a few residents to still hold on to these animist beliefs; most are now devout Roman Catholics, as evidenced by the village’s modest chapel dedicated to St Peter, the patron saint of fishermen.
According to Marites, Remy – her second cousin – is the only person still performing these traditional rituals in the entire marsh and, if it weren’t for tourists participating in cultural immersions, this practice would have entirely disappeared. The 39-year-old fisherman inherited the ritual from his grandfather, who was a baylan or shaman so powerful that Remy swears he could bring the dead back to life.
“We were born and raised here, but we still fear this place because it can be dangerous living so far away from help,” he explains, when asked why he still seeks the aid of engkantos or nature spirits. “If I hadn’t continued the traditions of my ancestors, this village would have long ceased to exist,” he adds, expressing his gratitude to these unseen guardians for protecting their community from calamities such as typhoons, disease and environmental changes, a consequence of the rampant deforestation of the surrounding uplands.
While the original panagtawag featured the slaughter of pigs and chickens, today’s offerings of one-peso coins, chicken eggs and glasses of gin and cola are more straightforward. Remy asks for guidance and protection from an engkanto he addresses as amigo or “friend” before pouring the eggs and some of the drink into the marsh water to “feed the spirits.” Remy, however, worries that these traditions will disappear, if the values of his community change further.
“Now, there are Manobos in other villages who no longer have a heart for others, and are only concerned with money, politics and other superficial things,” he laments. “We should care for our neighbours. That is the trait of a real Manobo.”
Aside from these rituals, traditional Manobo music, songs and dances have also returned to the village. Dressed in bright red blouses and skirts with black and yellow trim, eight women bustle in to perform cheerful folk songs and dances that evoke their everyday life. “We forgot the ways of our ancestors but we are slowly rediscovering our roots,” says Eleonita Reyes, one of the dancers who also works as a caretaker at the visitor centre.
“Some children perform when they’re not in school,” adds Marites, showing how the younger generation is starting to embrace its tribal identity. “Two of them have even learned to play traditional instruments like the agung (gong) and gimbae (goat-skin drum).”
Among the dances they were taught by Manobo elders from Loreto are binaylan, inspired by the movements of a shaman, and pinangabuhian, which portrays their daily activities such as paddling on canoes and netting fish. “Life was so quiet here. We only depended on fishing and selling our catch in town,” recalls the light-hearted 53-year-old Eleonita. “Now we earn more by entertaining visitors.”
Aside from financial gains, sustainable tourism has benefited the villagers in more profound ways. “The most important thing I realised is that our attitudes have changed for the better,” Marites affirms with a luminous smile, while watching her little boy play in the multi-purpose hall. “We have been awakened that we, as indigenous people, should no longer be looked down upon, ridiculed or merely profited from.”
Outside, the sinking sun intensifies the beguiling atmosphere of the marsh, painting the lake and sky as one seamless canvas in shades of purple and vermilion. But while the day might be ending in the marsh, tourism could be heralding the dawn of a new future for the community that calls it home.
From Davao City Overland Transport Terminal, there’s a once-daily AC Trans bus (P270) that leaves for Loreto at 11am. Pumpboats from Loreto to Sitio Panlabuhan may be chartered through the local community. Total travel time takes around six hours.
Arrange visits to the floating village at least three days in advance. Return boat transfers between Loreto and Sitio . Panlabuhan are ₱3,500 (S$90) for up to six persons, and overnight stays start at ₱1,615 (S$41), inclusive of entrance fee, tour guide, welcome ritual, accommodation, three meals and guided canoe tours. For inquiries, contact Marites Lara Babanto at +63 93 052 87194
- 15%: Percentage of the country’s freshwater contained in the marsh
- There are 26 fish species in the marsh
- 59: Number of individual lakes during the dry season
- The “Lolong”, an estuarine crocodile found in the marsh – the world’s largest ever to be caught and placed in captivity, weighs 1,075kg
- 200,000 migratory birds visit annually
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This article was originally published in the November 2018 issue of Silkwinds magazine