Human Side Of Economics


(Part 4)

During the different activities that were part of the celebration, we got a glimpse of the cultural diversity on the entire island. The rich cultures of the various indigenous tribes were in display: Tagbanua, Batak, Palaw’an, Tau’t Bato, Molbog, Agutayon, and Cuyunon are among the area’s very diverse indigenous ethnolinguistic groups. These are the cultures that are co-existing peacefully with the Christian faith. Some of them have actually enriched the outward manifestations of Christianity that is always open to other cultures as regards external practices. The most pervasive of the cultures is that of the Cuyunons which, unlike other tribes, are everywhere in the province, including Puerto Princesa. The Cuyunons have embraced modernization and incorporated it into their daily lives, integrating smoothly into Palawan society. It can be easily observed that the agri-tourism thrust of the largest province in the Philippines is further enriched by the cultures of the different indigenous tribes.

As reported in Wikipedia, a team of anthropologists from the National Museum, led by Dr. Robert Fox, unearthed fossils at Lipuun Point (now known as the Tabon Cave Complex) in Quezon town that were classified as those of Homo sapiens and believed to be 22,000 to 22,400 years old. The recovery of the Tabon Man and other significant findings in the area earned for Palawan the title “The Cradle of Philippine Civilization.” Further research has shown that the Tagbanua and Palaw’an are possible descendants of the Tabon Caves’ inhabitants. Their language and alphabet, farming methods, and common belief in soul relatives are some of their cultural similarities.

Among the ethnic groups is the Batak, which means “mountain people” in Cuyonon. They are a group of indigenous people who reside in the rugged interiors of northeastern Palawan. Living close to the nature, they are a peaceful and shy people, believing in nature spirits with whom they communicate through a babaylan or shaman. Then there are the native-born lowland dwellers called the Palawenos of which the Cuyunon and Agutayanen are sub-groups. The Cuyunons, originally from the town of Cuyo east of northern Palawan, are considered the elite class in this group. They are disciplined and have a highly developed community spirit. Their conversion to Christianity has led to the merging of animistic beliefs with Christian elements to produce a folk Christianity which is the prevailing belief of the Cuyunon. The Agutaynon practice a simpler island lifestyle, with fishing and farming as their main source of livelihood.

Of great interest to tourists focused on indigenous cultures would be the Tau’t Bato which means “people of the rock.” They are a small community of traditional southwestern Palawenos who reside in the crater of an extinct volcano during certain seasons of the year, in houses built on raised floors inside caves, although others have set their homes on the open slopes. They are still primitive in lifestyle, even in their way of dressing. The men still wear G-strings made of bark and cloth, and women wear a piece of cloth made into skirts to cover the lower body. Both of them are half-naked although sometimes the women wear a blouse that is not indigenous but obtained in the local markets.

Because of their uniqueness, the Philippine Government declared that their area is off limits to strangers to protect them from unreasonable exploitation. This tribe subsists on hunting, gathering fruits, and planting crops and rice near the forest. The tribe has recently come under threat from mining concessions that have been granted. The Government, working closely with civil society and private business, must find creative ways of raising their living standards through rural development based on small-scale farming and the establishment of micro-, small- and medium-scale enterprises (MSMEs) while at the same time allowing responsible mining, especially of nickel and copper which are indispensable inputs into the Industrial Revolution 4.0.

Then there are the Tagbanua tribes who are found in central and northern Palawan. They can contribute significantly to the promotion of MSMEs engaged in decorative materials with indigenous designs. They are excellent producers of baskets and wood carvings. They are most famous for their beautifully crafted body accessories such as combs, bracelets, necklaces, and anklets usually made of wood, beads, brass, and copper. The products of these MSMEs can significantly complement the tourism industry.

Of special relevance to religious diversity are the Molbog people who dominate the municipalities of Balabac and Bataraza in southern Palawan. They are the only indigenous people in Palawan where the majority are Muslims. The area constitutes the homeland of the Molbog people since the pre-Spanish era. The Muslim presence was very visible to me in that four-hour road journey I made from Puerto Princesa to Rizal town. I saw many mosques along the highways, interspersed with churches of different Christian denominations. In addition to the physical beauty provided by Nature, the cultural and religious diversity clearly manifest in the island of Palawan is another reason why it can be the tourism center, not only of the Philippines, but at least of the entire ASEAN region.

In fact, the dinner that was held in honor of the Church dignitaries during the 400th Anniversary of Christianity highlighted even more the interweaving of Western, Filipino, and the indigenous cultures. Entertaining the guests were not only the local musical talents (the Church choir that sang during the Mass celebrated by the Papal Nuncio was as good as any Manila-based or internationally known choir) but renown violinist Brian Cimafranca playing (and singing) pieces from Antonio Vivaldi and Brazilian Zequinha de Abreu and local compositions by Louie Ocampo and Ogie Alcasid. There were also the Nightingales combining the beautiful voices of Bernadette Mamaug and Keiko Cayanga — former members of the Madrigal Singers — who have captivated audiences in their most recent performances in China, Canada, the United States, Africa, and Europe. To cap the evening’s musical event was tenor Erwin Notes Lumauag, also a former member of the Madrigal Singers. Combining the natural beauty of the entire province of Palawan with the artistic talents of the Filipinos will be a strong attraction to the millions of tourists in the Indo-Pacific region where the fastest economic growth will be experienced in the coming decades.

Those four days I spent in the paradise that is Palawan gave me a glimpse of what could happen if the Government and the private business sector will closely collaborate to endow the entire province with the necessary infrastructure envisioned in the Build, Build, Build program the BBM Administration is determined to continue with the help of foreign direct investments. To start with, we should seek the help of Spanish, South Korean, or Japanese infrastructure companies, among others, to upgrade the airport in Coron, Puerto Princesa, and San Vicente to world-class levels like that of the Mactan International Airport.


Bernardo M. Villegas has a Ph.D. in Economics from Harvard, is professor emeritus at the University of Asia and the Pacific, and a visiting professor at the IESE Business School in Barcelona, Spain. He was a member of the 1986 Constitutional Commission.