Ever since the beginning of times, the Aetas – indigenous people of the northern Philippines – have lived on the slopes of Mount Pinatubo. One day, the sun turned black, the mountain spewed ashes, ricks and volcanic death and the Aetas fled their ancestral land. Danish Niels Petersen who has lived in the area for 28 years is helping them to get back on their feet and fight for their right to stay in their own land.
Traces of escape
Niels Petersen, 76 years old, was last in line to get petrol for his car when he had to flee the eruption of Mount Pinatubo 16 years ago. “My Aeta friends on the mountain also fled and as a result they stayed in refugee camps for months before they were able to return to the mountain”, he explains. Today, the Aetas – a people originally known to live a secluded hunter life on the mountain – live in small home made huts. In order to get to the community on the mountain, Niels Petersen drives 15 minutes through the former US airbase of Clark. On the way he passes a large number of ruined houses that were never rebuilt after the eruptions of 1991. The eruptions were so violent that the mountain itself was 300 meters lower afterwards. Most of the nearby houses were destroyed and nobody knows how many lives were lost those days.
A short term bargain
On the top of the mountain we meet Ricardo Laxamana who has built his small house on the verge of the hill. Looking down on the dry river bed he can still see the prints of lava that had him fleeing with his wife during the disaster. “The Aetas cried a lot during those days”, he says. “I am now working as an electrician in Manila, but I miss the days when I was farming the land of Pinatubo”, he says. He has lived all his life in these hills and after the disaster he built his house here. Now gazing at the slopes of the opposite hill he sees only a few mango trees that he and his wife have planted recently. “I am not leaving”, he says firmly with reference to the rumors that Clark Development Cooperation (CDC) – a government owned company that is in charge of the area – is looking into some lucrative development of the area. Apparently, CDC is willing to purchase the land from the Aetas, but Niels Petersen hopes that his friends will resist the offer. “They are like kids and candy when it comes to money”, he says. “They don’t consider their own future if they take the money”, he adds.
A man with a lonely cause
For the past years Niels has had a good relationship with the Aetas. In order to help them after the disaster he took a 1.5 million pesos loan in his house. “I can’t say no to a mother who brings a sick child to my house”, he says. “It is my responsibility whether the kid lives or dies”, he explains agitated. Living on retirement funds from the Danish government he does not have the funds to help all the Aetas – which is a number of tribes counting thousands of individuals all over the northern Philippines. Without the necessary funds, niels has tried to raise awareness of the Aeta cause, but so far no other Scandinavian has offered any help or assistance.
An old fight in an old area
In this tribe, the problem does not seem to be poverty. The community just had a common water system in their area and the children seem well fed. The problem is the CDC which have already visited the community and calculated the costs of purchasing the land. “They came without warning and without talking to us, they just started taking notes”, the villagers say. Some guess that the CDC are going to build a theme park or a golf course, but the CDC has no such plans, says vice president of the CDC, Franco Madlangvayan. “We are looking into the possibilities of developing the area”, he says. “We are dealing with land owned by the Philippine government. The Aetas came there after the eruption in 1991, but that does not make it their land” he says. He stresses that the CDC is doing all it can to protect the rights of the indigenous people as they are obliged to by the ‘Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act of 1997’. He is not willing to reveal the details of the development plans, but compensation to the Aetas is ‘an option’. He does not think that the court rooms will be taken in use in order to resolve the dispute, but he says that the matter is being looked into at the moment.
When the life stops at Mount Pinatubo
For the moment everybody who is gathered in the small community store and café agrees that they are not leaving the area. An old woman joins the meeting and loudly declares that she is planning to die on the slopes of Mount Pinatubo. “Over my dead body”, she shouts as the matter is being discussed. The Aetas are all afraid that not every one of them will have the will power to resist a generous offer of the CDC when that time comes. And so is Niels Petersen. He is not well and as a 76 years old man he fears the day when he can no longer present the Aeta case to local politicians and possible donators. “I have retirement benefits of $2000 every month and I have the responsibility of 100,000 people” he exclaims.