My Name is Mercy Gawason. My Subanen ancestors were the first humans to occupy Zamboanga peninsula in Northwestern Mindanao, the Philippines. In the old days we survived by foraging in the forests and later by growing corn and root crops on small hillside plots next to the forest. Then settlers from other islands started making farms on the Subanen land, and we retreated deeper into the forest and mountains. Finally, logging companies began full scale operations in the forest. Now only second growth forest remains.
My parents and my siblings now survive on a small plot where we grow corn. This tiny bit of land is our last stand. We have nowhere else to go. The Columbans are helping us and other Subanens keep and develop the little land we have. The Columbans Sisters were the first to start a ministry specifically for the Subanen people. Over the past three decades, their Subanen Ministry has helped the Subanens in the parish of Midsalip through programs that promote literacy, hillside agriculture, and tribal land rights.
About eight years ago the Subanen Ministry recommended me to another Columban ministry called Subanen Crafts. Subanen Crafts was started by Columban Fr. Vincent Busch. Subanens are expert basket weavers. The Subanen Crafts Project has adapted our traditional basket-weaving skills to produce saleable crafts such as “Creation Mandalas” and inlaid Christmas cards. With income from the project I can help feed my family especially during ting gutom or “the hunger season.” “The hunger season” is the time after we have consumed all of our harvested crops and have to survive for many months with very little to eat. Poor nutrition leads to serious illnesses, and during “hunger season” many Subanen families have had to sell their land and farm animals to pay for medicine and hospital costs.
Although I can help my family during “hunger season,” other Subanen families are not so fortunate. All Subanen families need to find ways to make our land more productive without using expensive fertilizers. In the old days Subanens used what the forest offered. Our ancestors harvested abaca, fruit, nuts, fuel, edible leaves, and medicinal herbs from the forest. Back then, the forest was big and bountiful. Now our forest is almost gone because of the logging and burning. As I said before the Subanens have no more forest to retreat into. The little land we have is our last stand.
To learn more about how to use our land more productively, the Subanen Crafters attended a seminar at yet another Columban Project called CELL, “The Center for Ecozoic Living and Learning.” Columban Fathers Frank Carey and Dom Nolan helped establish CELL as a center for learning practical ways to produce more and to eliminate waste in the lives of ordinary Filipinos. We brought a camera with us so we could photograph our experience. CELL is near Manila, and so we were a little afraid since not only was CELL far away but also we had to speak in Tagalog. Tagalog is our third language, and although we learned it in school we were not used to using it in conversation. Thank God the seminar was handson, and the CELL staff used simple Tagalog.
Our experience at CELL was similar to our traditional agriculture in that we learned how to use the forest as part of our garden. In a sense we relearned the forest wisdom of our ancestors but on a smaller scale. We learned what trees provide food as well as keeping the hillside soil from eroding. We learned how to make fertile soil from compost and from worm tailings. We learned how to grow herbs and vegetables in small plots. We even learned how to make bio-gas and fertilizer from human waste. For protein we saw how we can raise chickens and rabbits by feeding them leaves from certain trees. They even had a fish pond at CELL.
All that we learned at CELL will benefit more than the Subanens. Our mountains are also the watershed area for the rivers and streams that provide irrigation for lowland rice farmers. If we can help reforest our mountains with trees, then we can also enhance a vital watershed. This watershed is now threatened by mining operations that want to strip mine our mountains. The Subanens and the low-land farmers oppose strip mining, but we are up against very powerful and rich people who can buy influence in high areas. Experts in sustainable economies say that our watershed is much more valuable as a long term agricultural resource than it is as a short term resource for the strip mining companies.
After our CELL seminar, we returned to our workshop in Mindanao where we crafted our Christmas Cards. This year our cards celebrate Christmas throughout the story of God’s Creation. Our forest and soil are God’s gifts to us, and our care of His gift is our way of thanking Him. One of our Christmas cards shows Mary placing Jesus in the manger of our blue-green planet. We believe He abides with us now in the manger of our mountain home.