Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Of Fireflies and Forest Fairies (Part 1)

{Or Enchanted Trees, Sacred Groves and Forest Fairies: A Sampling
of Folk Beliefs Associated with Trees and Forests}


NOTE: This piece was originally written as a term paper on Environmental Communication at the UPLB Institute (now College) of Development Communication, then presented as a discussion paper in the Seminar-Workshop on the Application of Indigenous Knowledge Systems in Sustainable Upland Development held Oct. 17-19, 1995 at the UPLB College of Forestry, College, Laguna, Philippines. It was later published as a popular article in the Diliman Review, a quarterly journal (previously magazine) of the College of Arts and Letters, College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, and the College of Science in UP Diliman. At the time, I was serving as University Researcher at the UPLB Forestry Development Center and, on part-time basis, was taking graduate courses in Development Communication and Environmental Studies at the University of the Philippines Los BaƱos. I'm posting the essay here because it does not only say something about my Dupax childhood, it also puts on record my strong views about Nature and rural people. (The photo of fireflies amidst trees here was borrowed from )

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WHEN WAS the last time you have seen fireflies?

Don’t look now but I started with this rhetorical question to plug on the idea that fireflies and folk beliefs have a number of things in common.

First is that we don’t see much of the two anymore.

In the case of fireflies, many bad things have happened to them – pollution in the air, for instance, then destruction of their habitat, disruption of their life cycles, and dwindling sources of whatever food it is that nurtures these insects.

As for folk beliefs, same problems – pollution by intrusive technology, destruction of the sites associated with their use, disruption of their fruitful existence by purveyors of miseducation, and diminishing number of nurturing believers and practitioners.

I also thought of fireflies because, just like much of our folk beliefs, they bring nostalgia. They evoke images of those sweet yesteryears when, yes, grass was green and roses were red and you and I were young and alive and there was beauty in the twinkling stars and paradise could be found underneath the friendly neighbor’s guava or mango trees.

When we get to see fireflies flickering and cavorting and swarming the way fireflies normally do atop some geriatric or flowering tamarind tree, we would believe among other things that they were the playmates of some invisible and supernatural friends. And, indeed, if you were alone and brave and in the middle of the night stared closely and long enough, the myriad of flickering tiny lights would morph into an evanescent yet quite distinct figure, the likes of the outline of a long-haired maiden clad in flowing white.


HERE ARE still remnants of the notion that folk beliefs and related indigenous knowledge systems and practices (IKSPs) have no scientific basis. Many of us belittle them as nothing but superstition and stupid concoctions fit for gullible dwellers in areas that have not been sufficiently reached by evangelizers, educators, and modernization.

Fortunately, there are local as well as international agencies working in the environment and natural resources sector that are showing keen interest on IKSPs to which folk beliefs belong. For example, the Rio Declaration explicitly calls for their respect and recognition. If this development means anything, it could only be the fact that we’re now realizing the immense value of this erstwhile ignored treasure trove of wisdom in improving life on Planet Earth and in increasing the chances of humans themselves to survive.

Yet the growing concern for IKSPs may have come a little late. For one thing, these nuggets of wisdom are rapidly vanishing, and frittering away beyond our reach and far beyond the enjoyment of our children. In other words, IKSPs are going… going… going… just like, well, the fireflies that formed magical moments in the youthful years of many of us who have been blessed to live during that era when kids were not yet Nature-starved.

Don’t ask me why this snapshot  appears biased for indigenous systems. I have been foraging and ruminating on belief systems and traditional practices for well over a decade now, partly because of my inclinations as a leaf-lover. And partly due to my involvement in social forestry and upland development where IKSPs should never be ignored.

So far, my distillations include the following:

1. Belief systems are “windows” that we could use to review our history as a country that is well endowed with natural resources – and to mend our environmentally disruptive ways. For instance, they could indicate that their originators and earlier advocates, the early Filipinos, did have very deep respect and love for Mother Earth or Inang Kalikasan.

According to Celso Roque (a pioneer of environmentalism in the Philippines), earlier Filipinos – such as the Ifugaos and the Kalingas of the Cordillera, the Maranaws and the Tausogs of Mindanao, and the swidden cultures of Mindoro and Palawan – have developed systems of ecological adaptation to their environment, and that some of these successful systems are still extant in the Philippines. In a paper presented in the First Seminar on Philippine Environmentalism (jointly sponsored by the FDC, DENR and PCARRD in 1988), Roque said:

“These systems of use and management of natural resources were learned through empirical testing over centuries of trial and error. While most of these have no basis in theoretical science, their merits have been demonstrated by the stability of the ecosystems that they worked. However, the most important feature of these indigenous systems is their total integration with the political economy of the society. The system of use of natural resources has become an indistinguishable component of a seamless cultural fabric.” (Roque, 1988)

2. Indigenous knowledge systems are pathways we could try in our search for ways by which human beings could live in harmony with God’s Creation and not subdue or exploit Nature for the sake of short-term material growth. They may be one golden key towards finding solutions and powerful allies to minimize, retard, forestall, ward off, or even annihilate humanity’s emerging nightmares, ranging from widespread famine and starvation, balding hills and festering fields,  and loss of species and biodiversity, to dying lakes and drying rivers, to destruction of the ozone layer, to acid rain… etc.

The Washington-based Worldwatch Institute noted this earlier in its On the Brink of Extinction: Conserving the Diversity of Life. A snippet from the booklet:

“Indigenous people in every tropical forest region have developed traditions of forest restoration and management but such traditional practices have not yet been systematically examined as a basis for sustainable development by growing populations, let alone a promising tool for conservation. The loss of such cultural knowledge could prove as costly as the loss of plant or animal species.” (Wolf, 1987)

3. Indigenous knowledge systems are reminders that indeed ordinary folks are also capable of extraordinary ideas and, along with their hinterland homes, can no longer be considered as unattractive backseat passengers in nation-building. Moreover, their continued presence may just be a blessing and a reminder for us who may have forgotten that conscientious scientists, academicians, researchers, development workers, and policy-makers have much to learn from them.

As the World Conservation Strategy (IUCN, 1980) puts it:

“Rural communities often have profound and detailed knowledge of the ecosystems and species with which they are in contact, and effective ways of ensuring they are used sustainably. Even when a community is growing in numbers and is clearly destroying a part of its environment, it should not be assumed that all this knowledge has disappeared or become invalid, or that the traditional ways of regulating use have atrophied.”

4. As bodies of knowledge, cultural beliefs and practices are largely related to the stewardship of the natural environment, are highly adaptive for improving human-environment interactions, and often play critical roles in determining behavioral patterns that, in turn, affect, modify, and regulate many interactions within the human ecosystem.

In the words of George Lovelace, an anthropologist who helped reorient people-focused forestry programs at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO):

“Belief systems help human societies understand the world in which they dwell as well as other worlds they may believe to exist, and help account for each society’s position and its members’ roles with respect to these worlds. Beliefs – and the ideas, emotions, and motivations that they generat – often serve as important stimuli for a wide range of human behavior that directly or indirectly affects the environment. Beliefs affect how humans position and organize themselves within, and with respect to, the landscape. They also affect human decisions to exploit, and how, when, and to what degrees these should be occupied or exploited.”

5. IKSPs are answers of rural people (including what some call “the barriotic folks” and the “Baroks and the Bartolas” in the boondocks) to: a) lack of government attention, b) dearth of extension workers, c) inaccessibility of development programs, d) scarcity of truly grassroots and remote-village-friendly civic organizations; and e) the Metro Manila-centric nature of many environmentalists.

(NEXT: Belief in the Divine Presence;  Belief in Sacred Sites. FORTHCOMING:  Belief in Critical Hours; Belief in Haunted Places; Belief in Unfit or Disfavored Trees; What’s Next for Folk Beliefs?; Appendix: Isnegs Declare Lapat to Conserve Natural Resources)


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