Isabela, Luzon, Philippines

I just returned from a two week trip to Isabela province in northern Luzon to document the Agta and Dumagat Indigenous people in the area. Oma and I traveled for three days to reach our destination; starting in Manila we traveled by bus for two days and then took a 15 hour boat ride on a small outrigger to reach the towns of Divilacan and Maconacon. These two towns are separated from “main land” Luzon by the Sierra Madre mountains. There are no roads going here and the towns are only accessible by boat or a small plane. The remoteness of the area is what initially attracted me because I was hoping to find something more authentic, something different from other places I have been to in the Philippines. The east coast of Isabela did offer the authenticity I was looking for, but I also found there a way of life that I started to fall in love with. The beautiful indigenous people, the unspoiled beaches, rivers and forests, and the simple way of life that could touch any travelers heart.

The Agta and Dumagat are a subgroup of the Aeta people, who are more commonly called Negritos here in the Philippines. This is because of their very dark skin and kinky hair. The Aeta are thought to be among the earliest inhabitants of the Philippines, preceding the Austronesian migrations. As was explained to us the Agta people mostly live in the mountains or forest while the Dumagat live close to the shore, although they frequently migrate to either location as they are still semi-nomadic people.

Agta women traveling in a kulig-kulig (a modified farming truck to carry passengers). These women are on their way to the Blos River where they will wash clothes, bath and wait for their husbands while they fish.
Agta women and children walking home on a nearby road. The Agta and Dumagat live very simple semi-nomadic lives working just to provide for their daily needs. If they cannot grow or find food they will transfer to another location. Although much of their original lifestyle is still practiced, influences from the modern Filipino (such as wearing clothes and practicing Christianity) are starting to change the way they live.
A Dumagat family takes shelter in their home during a light rain storm. This is a typical nomadic home of the Dumagat people. Before Super Typhoon Juan hit in October of 2010 the Dumagat used palm leaves for roofing, but because of the mass destruction from Typhoon Juan, World Vision donated tarps for all the Dumagats. They are still making good use of the tarps as we saw them on almost every house we visited.
An Agta boy welcomes us into their community.

The men spend most of their days either fishing, hunting or tending to agricultural crops. The Agta men will hunt or set traps in the forest for deer, wild pig or monitor lizards, although they often have to go very far into the forest to find these animals. Fishing for eels, shrimp and small river fish is also a very common practice among the Agta men. Although we did see some Agta planting rice and other crops this is still not very common as the Agta like to keep their semi-nomadic lifestyle. The Dumagats living close to the ocean fish use spear guns or a single rod spear. Sometimes the Dumagats will venture into the forest to hunt as well. The forest, ocean and rivers are of vital importance to the Agta and Dumagats because everything that supports them comes from these places. I recorded a short song by an Agta man on the shore of the Blos river after he had finished fishing. He told me the song is about the river and the importance of the forests for them as a people. You can listen to the song HERE.

An Agta man shows a Philippine Sailfin Lizard that was caught in the forest. Once the lizards are large enough they are sold to the Chinese market for a small profit. We were told the Chinese use the lizard as a medicine to help cure HIV.
A Dumagat man hunts for fish in the shallow murky waters of Isabela’s coast. Fish are the main source of protein for the Dumagats and what they use to barter for other goods such as coffee, tobacco and sugar.
A Dumagat man fishing with a single rod spear. He uses the rock attached to his back to anchor himself to the floor of the ocean while fishing.
Agta often hunt for deer and wild pig far into the Sierra Madre mountains. The men can be be gone for a few days at a time when they decide to go on a hunt. They use a traditional bow and arrow and sometimes will use a trap to catch their food.
Men fish for shrimp, eels, and small river fish in the strong rapids of the Blos river.
The men chase small fish under larger rocks in the river, trapping them so they can be speared. This happens in the very strong rapids of the river. I myself got washed down river a few times while trying to photograph this activity.
Another view of an Agta man fishing in the strong rapids of the Blos River.

We were able to visit a number of Agta and Dumagat communities while in Isabala. Life is simple in these communities with people doing the typical day to day chores and tasks most people do. The men will spend the day hunting and gathering food while the women generally stay back and watch the children. Some of the Agta and Dumagats find work in the towns of Divilacan and Maconacon and in one community a big percentage of the children have started to attend school.

One month old newborn Agta twins in their home. The mortality rate of newborns among the Agta is high because the lack of access to proper medical care and medicine. These two twins were sponsored and flown out a larger city for their birth because of possible complications.
Many of the Dumagats and Agta will work as laborers in the larger nearby towns. Here they are clearing a field in the town of Divilacan for a local family.
A Dumagat man cooking fish in his home over an open fire.
A Dumagat woman attends non-formal class once a week to learn how to write basic strokes. Most of the Dumagats and Agta have never attended school, although some of the younger generation is now starting to get formal education.
Agta children walking from their village into town to attend school. Their school uniforms and backpacks have been provided to them from different donors. Not all the children attend school, but we were told more and more are starting to go.
In one Agta community everyone gathers in the barangay captains house (the community leaders home – a non Agta Filipino) at night to watch the one tv in the village. They use a generator for electricity in the evening and it seems to be the highlight of the day for the children and adults.

Although somewhat shy, the Agta and Dumagats are some of the friendliest and gracious people I have met in the Philippines. They welcomed us into their communities and shared what little they had with us. We laughed together, played together, ate together and I even tried their natural drug (from a seed), called mama. If you ever get the chance to try this I would stay away. It made me completely dizzy and I lost all the strength from my body. I was zapped. There was some communication problems and I didn’t realize I was actually taking some kind of drug. I thought it was just something they chewed on for flavor. 🙂 The Agta and Dumagat are constantly chewing this stuff, but I suppose they build up a tolerance.

The tropical forest of the Sierra Madre mountain range after a rain storm. This is home for the Agta people and provides them with the food they eat and the materials they need to survive.

Everyone helps out in the community, even young children. This is a common sight we saw — young children carrying babies on their backs.

The communities we met seemed happy with what they had, which by most peoples standards is not much. The possesions they own are very little, a few pairs of clothes, a simple covering to keep them dry and the tools they need to get food. After our trip I realized that the Agta and Dumagat are relatively content with the life that they live. Many have been given the option to move into permanent housing, but they prefer to use a tarp roof and continue their semi-nomadic lifestyle. As long as they are able to catch fish and hunt for food, which in turn will be traded to buy rice, coffee, sugar and tobacco, the Agta and Dumagat seem content. Its nice to see a group of people that want to continue their way of life despite the growing pressures from outside. Perhaps this will start to slowly change when the proposed road to connect these municipalities to “mainland Luzon” is approved. Apparently a proposal to build a road is in the works and we heard a lot about this from local government officials. Personally, I know if a road is built that the way of life of these Agta and Dumagats we were able to witness for the past two weeks will start to change. There are always positive and negatives sides to any project, but in this case I believe a road will slowly start to wear away one of the last remote places in the Philippines, socially, ecologically and culturally. Perhaps certain types of development are not always ideal?

Agta boys enjoying the Blos river. This is some of the most refreshing, clean and clear fresh water I have ever seen. We were able to drink straight from the river and couldn’t help but spend hours swimming in it.
Men from a young Dumagat community play basketball before heading out to fish for lobster at dusk.
Boys climbing a tree to get sweet guava fruit.
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