Mt. Pinatubo Shakes Aeta Lives

For descendants of earliest Filipinos, loss of land after eruption also threatens culture

THE Aeta people, a nomadic tribe of dwindling numbers, once lived on the fertile slopes of Mt. Pinatubo in the northern Philippines. When the volcano exploded last year, it killed hundreds of the people it had sustained for centuries. Hundreds more - mostly children - have died in ramshackle evacuation centers since then.

Scientists from the United States Geological Survey say a new series of eruptions of the Aetas' volcano is imminent.

Homeless now for the first time in their collective history, the Aeta people live in rows of huts in evacuation centers. Food is running out and several agencies that provide relief are scrambling to find ways around their own bureaucracies. The standard "emergency assistance" period has lapsed. Home no longer exists

For the Aetas, home no longer exists. When Pinatubo eventually ends its eruptive phase, cartographers will have to rechart a 10-square-mile area which has been shattered, overrun by molten rock, and etched with new rivers.

"I've never come across a situation as difficult as the Aeta problem because the typical solutions are not apt," says Alistair MacDonald, a counselor with the Commission of the European Community (EC) based in Manila. "They want to go back where they were but that place does not exist at the moment."

While the government has tried to find resettlement areas, the Aetas have been hesitant to leave temporary evacuation centers. The fear of the unknown - and another eruption - loom for a people who have lost everything.

Pinatubo appears to be no more than a smoldering hill nestled in the Zambales Range, which curves up the Philippine west coast along the South China Sea. Scientists say the 1,063-foot volcano is amassing a core of molten rock which will be hurled into the air in an eruption that could be even greater than the June 15, 1991 eruption, classified as one of the largest this century.

To Tiplok Hapda, June 15 was the end of his world. He and his family survived the rolling black clouds of ash that turned day to night. Their lungs were scorched as they ran across fields rocked by earthquakes. They found their way to a tent city in the town of Palauig and stretched a blue plastic tarp and banana leaves over a bamboo frame.

His wife and four of his sons did not survive the next few days. At one point he brought one of his four surviving daughters to a hospital in the tent city. After a brief examination he was told to take her to the morgue, but she was still breathing. Mr. Hapda says he will never go to a hospital again.

"We don't belong here," Hapda says. "I want to go back to the hills."

Anthropologists say the Aeta tribe are descendants of the earliest inhabitants of the Philippines. They are dark-skinned and curly haired, and have a distinct culture and language. Over the years they have climbed higher up the slopes of mountains to avoid the encroachment of lowlanders.

The Aetas' reverence for the earth is immense. Aeta men can easily identify at least 450 plants, 75 birds, most of the snakes, fish, insects, and animals in their area including 20 species of ants, says Robert Fox, an American anthropologist.

Their oral tradition links important events to particular places or even a specific rock, stream, or tree - most of which are now buried under impenetrable layers of volcanic debris.

Their forced exile to the lowlands has disintegrated their communities - hunger, disease, and death have been disproportionately high among the Aetas, who numbered 20,000 to 80,000 before the 1991 eruption, depending on varying estimates.

As of October 1991, evacuation centers were home to 97,000 people, many of them Aetas. An average of five children a day died in these centers at that time, almost all Aetas.

The EC provided emergency assistance and grants to several nongovernment organizations which in turn provided medical assistance, food, shelter, and sanitation facilities from June 1991 to February 1992.

About 1,000 Aetas live at the Magalang-Ayala Evacuation Center, a quiet, tense camp once supported by the EC.

Some Aetas have moved from this camp to relocation areas. There is no source of clean drinking water and the municipal government, which agreed to lend the land as long as the camp was temporary, is rumored to be considering cutting off the trucked-in water to speed up the Aetas' departure.

Orderly rows of huts stretch along the packed mud. The gate is blocked by the belongings of families who have agreed to leave. They await government lorries that will haul them to a resettlement area several hours away.

In one of the huts, Tessie Figueroa runs the health clinic.

"Before, we had only tents and the people slept on the ground. Then there were many deaths. But things have improved since we built huts," says Ms. Figueroa, a lowland city nurse who left her own children in the care of her mother to help in the camp.

"We tell the people the decision to leave is up to them," says Aeta leader Romy Sapalada.

"But the resettlement area is also close to the volcano," he adds. "It is not safe." Unaccustomed to aid

Meanwhile, men, women, and children wait listlessly for rice and canned food, which may or may not be delivered. No one seems to know for sure if the Red Cross is still distributing food.

"Our most serious problem is food, next firewood - and we have no work," says Mr. Sapalada. "Before this we never went to agencies."

The compassion shown by lowlanders such as Figueroa and agencies such as the EC is moving. But a clash of cultures has emerged between well-intentioned aid-givers and those who have been stripped of their land.

"In losing their land they have lost more than their way of living - their culture and their soul are at risk," says the EC's MacDonald. "For the Aeta this is not an economic problem, it's a sociological problem."

Almost all anthropologists agree - more than anything, the Aetas need land to meet their deep need to be self-sufficient.

The problem, in an overpopulated land of 63 million, is where to find such a scarce commodity.

"Where will we run if the volcano erupts again?" Sapalada asks.

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