As I safely try to scale a giant tropical Dipterocarp tree, hauling myself from the humid forest floor to the cooler tops of the canopy I need an array of equipment. 100 m ropes, slings, helmets, a harness with an assortment of safety devices including karabiners, a jumar, duck, and kroll, using techniques developed from professions such as an arborist and rope access technicians. Compare this to Escobar, my Agta field guide in the Philippines. As he scales the same huge trees the only equipment that he is reliant on to reach the same dizzying heights are his bare hands and feet, alongside years of knowledge and skills passed down from generation to generation. The Agta truly are people of the forest.
The success of ecological field work in the tropics is heavily dependent on the skills and knowledge of the local field assistants employed. I am presently making my way through the identification of thousands of Bornean ants, the basis of my current research project. Without the aid of a local team of tree climbers it would not have been possible to collect the huge range and number of specimens I have to answer my questions. News that my first scientific paper has recently been accepted for publication prompted reflection. The data for this particular study was entirely reliant on the expertise of my local Agta guide in the Philippines: Escobar. Professional recognition is not sought by those such as Escobar but personal recognition and thanks can and should be given.
The Agta are thought to be descendants of the original inhabitants of the Philippines, crossing over from mainland Asia via land bridges rather than by sea. Showing resistance to change in rule over the Philippines, the Agta remained scattered in isolated, mountainous regions of the islands, where many still remain today. Distinct in stature and appearance from other ethnic groups in the Philippines but also in their depth of knowledge on the forest and in their skills as hunter gatherers. Traditionally the Agta are nomadic people, reliant on their subsistence from what the forest provides. Settlements cluster around fresh flowing water and access to forestry resources. Temporary shelters are built with remarkable speed from sticks driven into the ground and covered by large palm leaves. Escobar shunned any offer of a tent or tarpaulin under which to sleep opting instead to construct a shelter however fleeting our stay at one location. During my time in the Sierra Madre all Agta I encountered were never without a pair of rubber swimming goggles hung around their neck and a basic spear in hand. Accomplished fishermen and women, spearfishing prevails over the use of nets within Agta communities. I discovered to my advantage that it does not take an Agta long to spear a healthy number of fish and eel. Catches are often traded by the Agta for other supplies, new rubber for spears being a desired item to trade for.
Varanus bitatwa was the subject of my research and the reason I employed the help of Escobar. A frugivorous monitor lizard, endemic to the Philippines, found within the mountainous rainforest of the Sierra Madre in North Eastern Luzon. With no prior research completed on this taxa little was known. Unfortunately for monitor lizards in the Sierra Madre they are a desired source of protein and often hunted by the Agta. Fortunately for me this meant I could employ the help of an experienced hunter to help capture and track (not kill) these lizards. It is very easy to lose the way roaming around dense rainforest searching for monitor lizards. To me each direction looked the same, each tree looked remarkably similar. To Escobar each tree was a landmark for navigation. Even more extraordinary when at our second study site it had been more than 20 years since Escobar had last visited that region. Loaded down with first aid kits, litres of water, scientific kit, and bags of rice for lunch I would traipse through the forest in sturdy jungle boots. The only items Escobar required were a pair of rubber sandals, a machete and a pouch of ‘mama’ by his side. ‘Mama’ is chewed traditionally to stave off hunger and tiredness but more frequently it is part of social etiquette, offered on any encounter with a friend or acquaintance. Betel nut from the areca palm is chewed with ground and burnt shell, both wrapped in a leaf, preferably of the betel vine. Chewing this concoction is referred to as ‘mama’, a bitter taste and grainy texture that requires some getting used to. Producing a blood red spittle and, although it is not solely used by the Agta, many Agta are seen with teeth stained red from the constant chewing of ‘mama’.
The nearest village for a basic resupply was at best a 4 hour round trip, without Escobar I certainly would have gone hungry and the research project constantly interrupted on day trips to source food. A fresh supply of eel speared from the river each morning, the occasional frog and crayfish, mushrooms and edible plants gathered from the forest were welcome supplements to our only stock of food which was rice and coffee. On finding a bees nest at the top of a tree there was no way to stem Escobar’s enthusiasm to gain something sweet in our diet. A fire was lit, the bees smoked out, the tree quickly climbed, the nest collected, followed by a mad dash away from some rightfully angry bees and a few bee stings later the taste of honey has never been sweeter. To take from the forest one must always be thankful and considerate. Always a small helping of each meal was first left by the river for the forest deities to ensure that our supply never ran dry. The Agta are able to locate all items to meet their basic needs within the forest at ease, be it food, fresh water or materials to construct shelters or weave baskets. The knowledge of the forest runs deep within them.
The inevitable changing social situation and degraded forest continues to change the traditional lifestyle of the Agta. As I understand and have seen in the small community I spent time with, many Agta now reside in permanent establishments within or besides a larger ethnic community close to the forest. With permanent settlement comes a move towards economic transactions, changes in social status and prejudice. Knowledge of the forest is undervalued and skills are no longer required for working in paddy fields. A move towards dependence on employment and access to cheap liquor can and does lead to exploitation. Goals and ambitions begin to shift towards the more mainstream view of improving remuneration, materialism and education. Such ambitions are not to be disparaged but occur at a loss to a rich, knowledgeable culture, educated in an alternative way. Cultures such as the Agta safeguard the rainforest along with the precious resources and services they provide. The loss of cultures dependent on the forest ultimately results in the loss of understanding, care and protection of these vastly important ecosystems.
Field assistants are the backbone of many ecological research projects. Neither this blog nor the journal article is ever likely to reach the eyes of Escobar. The admiration I hold to him and other field assistants alike is one of high esteem. All I can offer is deep thanks and gratitude to them all, to maintain the familiarity with an ecosystem so unfamiliar to most.