It was raining hard while we were on our way to Yangil Village, Zambales. As we braved an hour-long trek, the sweltering heat of the sun came in between whips of rain, the loose lahar and volcanic ashes mixed with mud, the sudden darkness covered the morning sky, and the river current almost washed our weary bodies away. All of a sudden, the seemingly end-of-the-world scenario when Mt. Pinatubo erupted in June 1991 flashed before my eyes.
The eruption painted the provinces of Tarlac, Pampanga, and Zambales black and white and took away belongings, livelihoods, bursting vegetation, and more than 800 lives, followed by series of earthquakes, a typhoon, and mudflows—making it the “second largest eruption in the twentieth century.”
“Lahat ng pag-aari namin napinsala [All of our possessions got swept away],” Yangil Tribe Chief Erise recalled as we trek. “Wala kaming nabitbit kahit isa. Pati mga palay, kalabaw at baboy, naiwan. Ang nadala lang namin ay iyong suot namin [We were not able to save anything. We lost our crops, our carabao, and our pig. All we had was the clothes we were wearing].”
It took the Aeta survivors in Zambales about five years to recover, but their resiliency still won over misery. “Inabutan kami ng limang taon bago kami nakabangon ulit [It took us five years to recover],” he said. “Hindi mo naman kaya mag-isa, kailangan gagawin niyo ang solution ng buong community, lahat kayo [You can’t recover alone. Everyone in the community has to work and find a solution hand in hand].” And they did. They strived hard to revive what they lost through agriculture and fishery.
Twenty-four years later, The Circle Hostel and MAD Travel co-founder Raf Dionisio veered away from the norm and found the heart to help alleviate the poverty the Aeta community has been facing through “voluntourism” and refinement of their land. Since 2015, he has spearheaded a tribal tour called Tribes and Treks, where people go on a trek for an hour, cross four rivers, plant hundreds of seedlings, and live like a local in Yangil Village, Zambales.
“Our take on tourism is that it’s supposed to be fun. I like it to be inspiring and to be very educational to people. We have a culture of destructive tourism in the country and I would like to change that. We want to create a model that’s really good for the environment—where tourism grew it back [rather] than took it away. Our main goal is their [Aeta community] sustainability and the environment’s sustainability. It has to be both,” Dionisio firmly shared.
The Yangil tribe
The road to Yangil Village is no easy trail, but the stories along the way made everything light. An almost two-kilometer-stretch of lahar and volcanic ashes, and four rivers with mild to rough currents need to be crossed to reach the village, and Aetas endure these from and to Yangil every single day to bring and sell fruits and crops in town, come hell or high water. As voluntourists, we braved the same roads and held on for our purposes: to help and to not let anyone get left behind—“walang iwanan” as they call it. Even before the tour went in full swing, a lot of people who visited Yangil and the eight other tribal villages in Zambales promised to come back to help them, but only a few stayed true to their words. More than anything else, Aetas need help on reviving what the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo had taken away from them—not money-making monsters, otherwise known as illegal loggers and miners, who add more destruction to their already barren ancestral domain.
“Many times they [Aetas] would say ‘Basta magkaisa kami, may mangyayari [Our hardships will pay off as long as we work as one].’ They understand that cooperation works. The system prior to Pinatubo explosion is if they have a farm, they invite everyone to farm with them. Magbabayanihan sila [They will work under the collective spirit of labor]. When they harvest, lahat sila makikinabang [Everyone will be able to benefit]. It’s pretty amazing how community-centric and how helpful they are to each other. It’s an absolute no-no for someone old to be hungry because the young have to feed them whether they are blood-related or not,” Dionisio recalled with admiration.
When we reached the village, an Aeta kid timidly smiled and said, “Masaya kami kasi nandito kayo [We’re happy because you’re here].” Most of the Aetas kept mum but their eyes were overflowing with happiness by our mere presence. They welcomed us with fresh sweet potatoes and lemongrass tea for breakfast, and adobo, fried fish, and tinola for lunch. The Aetas were also eager to let us experience their way of life through traditional archery, courting in the form of song and dance, and healing in the form of herbal medicines found in the mountains. In the long run, able voluntourists are projected to do literacy classes in the village to help Aetas gain more knowledge, especially in agriculture.
“The biggest problem is our ability to understand where they are economically,” he said. “We want it to be more on agriculture lectures because they have 3,000 hectares [of land]. They should be the one doing something on it. If they become successful, they can lower the cost of living here.”
Breath of life
The final part of the tour allows voluntourists to plant as many calliandra and bamboo seedlings as they can. With the climate change we have been experiencing not only in the country but also around the world, trees serve as our saving grace, our breath of life. With their absence, sudden forest fires happen, temperature increases, and rainfall decreases—this led Dionisio to reforest the 3,000-hectare barren ancestral domain of the Yangil tribe.
“After discovering the tour, I learned about the situation of the rainforest in the country where there’s only three percent left. Because we don’t have the forest, we lose the ability to regulate and insulate ourselves from climate change. Either raining too much or raining too little, it’s too cold, it’s too hot, then there’s crop failure all year round because of too much sun or too much water,” he shared.
Forest nurseries for food security and medicine have been planted in the forest to make the tribe self-sufficient when it flourishes at 10 feet high in two to three years’ time. Seedlings are kept under the balete tree and are planted in the wild after 120 days. Calliandra trees are “non-invasive, make the land fire-proof, can be used as charcoal, create shade to cool the area, create mulch that increases the soil nutrients, and nurses the main forest trees.”
Dionisio is hopeful to plant 3 million trees by 2018. Currently, Yangil Village has more than 4,000 trees planted, half of the nurseries, a healthy carabao, hundreds of helping hands, and a thriving tribe.
“If we can get the system to reforest this town, I want all of them to be self-sufficient farmers. All the food we need for the tourists will be bought from those communities, their surplus will be used as start-up seedlings for the eight other tribes in the other areas,” he anticipated. “[What] I want people to take home is that the poverty of the land is the poverty of the people, and vice versa. People who are connected to the land by gardening, farming, they are very stable people; it keeps them very calm, and gives them a special appreciation of the land.”
Now, are you willing to help plant the remaining 2,996,000 trees?
Tribes and Treks tour is a joint, innovative effort by The Circle Hostel and MAD Travel. Part of the proceeds will go to the reforestation for the 3,000-hectare rainforest project in Zambales. Make a difference by joining their upcoming tours. Visit and book through The Circle Hostel website or through MAD Travel website.
This article was originally published in the November 2016 to January 2017 issue of Explore Philippines Magazine with Rhian Ramos on the cover.