Natives Who Worship Pinatubo Feel Its Wrath

BOTOLAN, Philippines - They say there is a god on Mount Pinatubo, one they call Apo Mallari - the "almighty," the source of their sustenance.

They believe Apo Mallari is angry, raining sand and ash and debris over the countryside to show his displeasure.

Here on the road to Mount Pinatubo, at the village of Burgos, buried beneath an 8-inch blanket of wet volcanic sand, Ernesto Abijon gazed out across the bleak landscape.

"I am," he said, "so sad and lonely."

He spoke for his people, the Aetas, who lived in villages on Mount Pinatubo and worshiped the spirit of Pinatubo as their god. Then in April, when serious seismic activity began warning of an imminent eruption, they fled their homes and the wrath of their god.

Apo Mallari is mad, they believe, at illegal loggers, who have stripped Pinatubo's slopes, and at officials from the Philippine National Oil Co., who have drilled geothermal test wells deep into its heart.

And so the fate of the Aetas is the cruelest of ironies: Here in a part of the Philippines devastated since Pinatubo's cataclysmic eruption June 15, no one has suffered more from the volcano than those who worship the god of Pinatubo, the Aetas, a dark-skinned, curly-haired people resembling the Melanesians of Papua New Guinea, considered by many anthropologists to be Philippine aborigines.

The Aetas, who have long fascinated anthropologists for both their physical and cultural distinctness, have kept their distance - to one degree or another - from a lowland Filipino mainstream that has typically regarded them with scorn.

But that distance is gone now, with their villages buried in ash and an estimated 30,000 Aetas living in tent cities and other makeshift evacuation centers run by Philippine government officials.

Those officials say they are working on plans to permanently resettle the Aetas in other upland areas, but Aeta leaders express little confidence in such schemes, saying they prefer to go back to Pinatubo as soon as Apo Mallari calms down.

Mary Constancy Barrameda, an anthropologist at the University of the Philippines, said during an interview that a minority of Aetas who have had little contact with the Filipino mainstream could easily be shocked and devastated by conditions in the evacuation centers.

For them, life has been confined to the uplands around Mount Pinatubo, where they hunt and practice "slash and burn" farming, hacking out a patch of hillside to cultivate mostly root crops before moving on when the rains have washed the soil away. They dress in simple loincloths and speak only their native Zambal.

"I have met one old man who refused to be evacuated - and I think he died," Barrameda said.

Barrameda is not particularly worried about the majority of Aetas, who have maintained their communal, highly egalitarian way of life even as they have mixed and intermarried with other Filipinos, adopting some traditional farming techniques and entering the regular market economy to sell what they grow.

"If there is any group of people who will survive, it will be the Aeta," Barrameda said. "In terms of coping, in terms of adaptation, they have developed far better than the rest of us Filipinos."

The Aetas of Burgos now live in a place called Tent City, a government-run evacuation center 25 miles from their home.

The tents have been donated by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency. The cots come courtesy of the U.S. military - they were last used in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm.

Asked about cultural differences encountered when working with the Aetas, a provincial manager for the Philippine Department of Social Work and Development had a long list of examples, which unwittingly demonstrated the attitude of many Filipinos toward the Aetas.

"You have seen the Aetas physically - no?" said Emilia Fernandez. "Since they are living in the uplands where water is scarce, they don't take a bath very often - that is one distinct difference. And they are all `no read, no write,' " she said.

And so the Aetas have been typically portrayed since the volcano drove them from their homes.

A story is told of a wire-service photograph of an Aeta woman nursing a child on one breast and a wild pig on the other. The Manila newspapers report on Aeta cultural oddities and eating habits.

Barrameda, the anthropologist, calls it the "exoticization" of the Aetas and highly resents the tendency.

Those who have lived and worked with the Aetas paint a much richer picture of a communal, leaderless society where everything is shared and decisions are reached by consensus.

Sister Carmen Balazo, a Catholic nun who has lived and worked with the Aetas for eight years, described them last week as "clannish, very, very intimate and very spontaneous."

As for their belief in Apo Mallari, Sister Balazo said, "they really think of Mount Pinatubo as the mother who nursed them, bringing them water, the green forest and the animals."

And that is why they want to return as soon as the mountain lets them.

Ernesto Abijon scraped a handful of wet volcanic sand from the roof of a thatched hut in Burgos and stared out across fields of gray snow to the steam rising from the foothills in the distance.

"I don't believe that this soil is destroyed forever," said Abijon, who is half Aeta and half Filipino. "It is just covered by a layer of sand and it can be taken away. I plan to live here when the volcano will go normal. I want to plant and harvest here - camote (a root crop) and banana."