Breathtaking Agusan Marsh: A Surreal Experience
Agusan del Sur, Philippines
Text and Photos by Jojie Alcantara
“Please do not take photos without a proper ritual…we do not want you to be harmed,“ Boyet Reyes, a Manobo who approached us from a small wooden boat, quietly told us in the vernacular. Though said in a nonthreatening manner, it got our attention.
We were loudly taking group photos, having just landed on soft earth after more than an hour’s traverse through the marsh land via boats. I moved away, transfixed at the surreal vista before me. I’ve been hoping to explore Agusan Marsh and its wilderness for a long time. In my personal quest and capacity to roam Mindanao and promote its unexplored beauty, I have yet to see one of Philippines’ largest and most ecologically significant wetlands.
The Agusan River Basin, located in the northeastern part of Mindanao, is the third largest river basin of the Philippines (river length of 350 kms. and total drainage area of 10,921 square kilometres). That day, I was inside the Agusan Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary (Bunawan, Agusan del Sur), declared as a Protected Area by virtue of Presidential Proclamation No.913 (Oct.13, 1996), and covering an area of 19,197 hectares. It is also a recipient of Ramsar Site Certificate (No. 1009 from a list of 1,923) on November 12, 1999 as a Wetland of International Importance.
At five in the morning, along with students who won a field trip through an essay writing competition, we boarded low passenger boats while I was given the rubber boat used for rescue purposes. I joined this trip upon request because of an invitation to be one of the judges of an ongoing photo competition about it.
We entered the river at the crack of dawn, and as the boat pushed off noisily in the dark, chilly wind pushed against our faces. Nothing but the roar of engines could be heard, and ripples of disturbed waves.
Ten minutes of peaceful journey through a thickening swamp forest, my hair went damp and my equipment began to moisten. We were entering a scene from Avatar or Anaconda, depending on your wild imagination and fear of murky swamps. A heavy, cool mist permeated throughout the stream, making the environment more dreamlike and unnatural. We passed thick, strange silhouettes of menacing trees shaped into gargoyles with branches reaching out to you like claws. I was internalizing my National Geographic moment (if you wish for this job long enough and dramatize it badly, they will find you), poised with my two cameras, making sure I missed nothing.
When the sun crept through dense, cold haze, an orangey glow gave a different dimension of time and place in the past. Great, no Photoshop needed to even recreate this sepia scenario! After more than an hour’s trip, we docked on a riverbank and walked (saw an unbelievably huge okra in a garden patch!) until we came across a vast field of lily pads. Farther ahead, migratory birds said to be flocking at these time of months are grazing serenely upon water lilies. Occasionally, a white long necked bird identified as the Purple Heron alighted gracefully on topmost tree branches.
But we go back to Boyet. The Manobo datu, with its religious belief that revolve around unseen spirits naturally protecting its habitat and intruding in human activities especially when provoked, was speaking from the heart. He introduced himself as the leader of the floating community we inadvertently intruded in, and would like to urgently appease ancestral spirits by lighting a candle, if we so willingly join him. Inside the floating wooden school’s empty classroom, we surrounded him as he closed his eyes and prayed for our safety in all activities while asking for forgiveness at our awkward disturbance. The small flickering candle on the table indicated many pacifying ceremonies, as its melted form was nearing its end.
We dug through our bags and placed peace offerings on the table with the candle – coins, flattened Jollibee burgers, biscuits, mineral water, Coke and Tanduay bottles brought from a nearby outlet. Outside the mist has suddenly cleared. Before us was a breathtaking panorama of a vast lake whose reflections mirrored incredibly clear blue skies and cloud formation. It was absolutely, unbelievably a photographer’s paradise. The ancestors were placated. My companion whispered, “We should bring them candles next time.”
Boyet took me out to the lake (Bukogon and Kobasayon has merged with Lake Kaningbaylan to form a big body of water), two of us squeezed in a narrow wooden vessel that barely fit my hips. It was a very quiet, calming atmosphere. Boyet regaled me with stories as we leisurely headed towards thicker blankets of lily pads. His community is composed of 20 houses and families. Birds and ducks were freely roaming around, probably among the listed 127 bird species identified by the Haribon Foundation in 1999 (10 of which are threatened, and 31 endemic to the country), apart from visiting species avoiding winter in China, Japan, Russia and other countries. A Brahminy kite (red brown sea-eagle) soared through skies and I snapped a few shots before it disappeared into an eerie looking forest swamp whose trees are covered in mossy vines.
Boyet was told by his grandfather that in order to live and survive in their settlement, you have to have anting-anting (amulet, like crocodile tooth) for safety and protection. He regaled me with stories of lone tourists who dropped in unannounced and unaccompanied. They have experienced unexplained mishaps (near drowning, injury, body pains and other misfortune). He talked of one known TV celebrity with a famous photographer whose bag of films was destroyed when they went home. A mysterious ailment would seize an unlucky visitor, prompting him to come back and beg for healing with tribal leaders. All he wanted was respect for his forefathers and ancestral domain.
His was one of several small communities scattered in the vast marsh land. Often with the rise and fall of the tide due to seasonal changes, their homes would adjust, docked on bamboo poles underneath and strapped to trees with ropes. In a sanctuary where many undiscovered species dwell, life was uncertain for them as well. Last year, the controversy of a ten year old girl whose head was bitten off by a “monster crocodile” (bite marks on the bayto –Manobo dialect for banca, pronounced beyto– leave morbid imprints on display) prompted the whole community in Lake Mihaba to be evacuated. After a few months, the houses were back, because they know of no other way of life. Stories of “Putol” abound, a notorious and legendary 30-foot croc said to have once been captured but have escaped sans one arm, still lurking underneath deep swamps.
Food and supplies are brought to them by a komprador (seller) who comes in regularly. Their diet consists of fish (carp, tilapia, catfish), frogs and kuhol (snail) and vegetables, or whatever is found in the rivers and lakes. Several floating houses we passed by were simple, others were more colourful. Some created flower gardens on windows whose houses were already buoyant within a bog of water hyacinths and ferns. In Boyet’s community of Lake Kaningbaylan, in the old municipality of Loreto, the floating school was sadly empty of students, because there was no budget for a teacher this year. Tourists do not regularly drop by their area because there are more accessible floating communities.
Asked what their past time was, Boyet replied, “Paminsan guapo ang signal sa TV (sometimes the TV signal is good)…unta karong Pacquiao fight makatanaw pud mi (hopefully, this coming Pacquiao fight we can view it clearly)”.
On our way back to Bunawan, we passed by locals on riverbanks, some doing laundry, cleaning boats or bathing their carabaos. Children were swimming, others peeping from windows in curiosity. Each time we waved our hands, shouting “Maayong adlaw, agi lang mi! (Good day, just passing by!)”, they cheerfully waved back with smiles. My rubber boat captain pointed to a narrow, dense tributary which leads to the crocodile sanctuary. He asked if we would like to go there. We didn’t have much time left to go back to Davao. However tempting it was, I wasn’t Crocodile Dundee, and I was in their territory.
An old friend of mine who grew up there used to swim in the once clean and clear river during his childhood. He was also given a baby croc for a pet which has escaped eventually. Today, you are lucky to spot two or three crocs at the most, heads barely bobbing on the surface before disappearing into the muddy chocolate-colored river. While they have kept their distance, the locals made respectful efforts by imposing a curfew –no swimming and fishing between 6pm to 6am, the most active time for these nocturnal reptiles, most of which are already threatened species.
In the very heart of this enormous wetland may live the amazing “Wonderland” (a vast peat land of remarkable dwarf trees whose heavy roots serve as floating anchors, you have to step on them slowly to reach into the thicket), a diversity of fish, animals, birds, flora and herbaceous plants, fresh water turtles and endangered reptiles, and 59 of the most scenic lakes, including shallow ponds, rivers and rice paddies. Here, human beings also thrive within the environment, trying to sustain their way of life by coexisting in harmony with a shifting habitat that surrounds them.
Outside their world, they are being closed in by illegal logging, destructive mining and other manmade threats that drive an old ecological system askew (or a territorial croc to go berserk).
I ask myself, am I writing this article to promote a beautiful refuge I want others to experience, but inwardly hoping to shield away from opportunistic exploiters? Or am I writing to create awareness of a dying paradise before it is too late? I am wondering myself, even as I already have plans of going back there again soon.
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