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Forest Feast, A Celebration of Mam-eh among Aetas

Posted on February 21, 2013

Forests sustain indigenous peoples with food, water, medicine and shelter. Here they get bush meat, wild vegetables and fruits, root crops, mushrooms, fishes and other aquatic resources. These organic bounties are, by far, more nutritious and tasty than commercially processed, nutrient-poor foods common and widely available to most communities. Indeed it is timely to honor these graces often touted to mean backwardness and inferiority.

With anticipated delight, Aetas jovially celebrated Mam-eh, the Aeta term for sharing, which valued the importance of forest foods. First held in 2011, Aetas showcased their gastronomic culture through food gathering and preparation practices and rituals, and survival skills. Essentially, their indigenous knowledge system was highlighted and it gave young Aetas the opportunity to understand, appreciate and take pride in the practices of their elders.

The Aetas of Central Luzon is one of the indigenous people (IP) groups collectively called Negritos. Negritos are widely recognized as the first inhabitants of the Philippines. They are few and scattered all over the country, and known for their nomadic and semi-nomadic practices. They are often marginalized because they have limited economic and political influence compared to other larger and more organized IP groups.

Certainly, Aeta’s way of life is connected with the forests where they live and which sustains them. In the heart of the wood lands, they hunted deer and wild pig, catch freshwater fish, crabs and shrimps, and gathered honey, orchids and rattan. However, the 1992 Mt. Pinatubo eruption displaced their population. The once lush farmlands, hunting grounds and fishing sites were buried in deep volcanic mud. Unable to grow food in these lands, they were forced to stay in resettlement villages far from the mountains and sacred grounds.

More than a food festival, Mam-eh also sought to answer significant issues. It linked the importance of valuing the forests for survival and conserving what remains of their culture and land. Crucial concerns of better health, sustainable livelihoods, rightful ownership to ancestral domains, and representation in local governance were discussed with government agency representatives and civil society groups. It also facilitated alliance among the Aetas of Tarlac, Pampanga and Zambales and the Agtas or Dumagats of Quezon. Through this, solutions to commonly shared problems on land tenure, delivery of basic services, and livelihood options will be worked out together. It is also important to take their perspective into account and give them greater hand in planning and management to make them better managers of their ancestral domains.

The main organizer, Kabalikat sa Kaunlaran ng mga Aeta, Inc. (KAKAI), has partnered with FPE in this endeavor. KAKAI actively pursues its main programs on land tenure, agriculture, education, health, and spiritual development since 2004. In Tarlac, they capacitate Aeta communities, advocate for rightful claims on ancestral domains, network with other NGOs and POs, and advance programs for primary education. Local organizations who participated were LABAYKU, a federation of Aeta Mag-ansti active in 8 sitios adjacent to KAKAI sites; the Samahan ng mga Katatubong Agta/Dumagat na Ipinagtatanggol at Binabaka ang Lupaing Ninuno (SAGIBIN-LN), a broad federation of Agta communities in Quezon Province which is at the forefront of securing Agta’s ancestral domain claims; and the Non-Timber Forest Product Task Force (NTFP-TF), a collaborative network of Philippine grassroot NGOs and POs engaged with nontimber forest products.

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