Agricultural Practices of the T’boli in Klubi: Blotik Éhék (Star of the Sharpening Stone) and the Fu (Spirit Owners)

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This story is a part of a broader study on “Climate Change Experience, Expressions, and Responses in a Tboli Community.” It is based on the understanding that indigenous peoples worldwide have been experiencing the impacts of climate change, such as extreme weather changes, longer droughts, and increasing rainfall, which causes floods and landslides. More especially to indigenous peoples, climate change is not something that comes in isolation. Climate change magnifies already existing problems of “poverty, de-territoriality, marginalization and non-inclusion in national, and international policy-making processes and discourses.”

The study examines how the Tboli of South Cotabato, perceive and respond to the impacts of climate change, analyzing local sources of knowledge such as oral narratives. But more than a mere description of this experience, the study also explores how oral narratives of the Tboli are expressions of their experience of the impacts of climate change, and how, in turn, these narratives are forming and informing their responses to climate change. By investigating how oral narratives contribute to how meaning is generated and attached to experiences, and consequently to risk information and perception, the study sought to contribute to a better understanding of how to inform, update, and apprise indigenous peoples on the realities of climate change.

The study was set in Barangay Klubi, Lake Sebu. The topography of Barangay Klubi is hilly to steep to very steep (30% – upslope range). One would easily notice that there is considerable forest loss due to conversion of forest land to agricultural purposes. Going up from Korononadal City to Lake Sebu, it is plain to see that many areas have been converted to rice and corn farms. Surallah, an important trading center between Lake Sebu and Koronadal, is considered a rice granary because of its wide valleys planted with rice, corn and other products. Surallah is predominantly inhabited by settlers from the Visayan islands, mostly Ilonggo. The T’boli of Lake Sebu has to learn the Ilonggo dialect for them to be able to communicate with the settlers (most of them merchants) and for them to study in schools (most teachers are Ilonggo-speaking).

Going up Barangay Klubi from the Poblacion of Lake Sebu, commuters will have to hire a habal-habal motorcycle for P50 and go up a steep dirt road. This makes it also hard for the farmers who have to transport their produce from their farms up and down the mountains. This further explains why they opt to plant corn and rice instead of vegetables, as vegetables will not be able to stay fresh in this arduous trek down the mountain-farms.

Houses in Klubi are set in a compound of one family, usually numbering more than 5 houses but not exceeding 10 in a compound. The Sulan Family’s compound (research partner) has 7 houses, not including their grinding center, the Lake Sebu Indigenous Women Weavers Association, Inc. (LASIWWAI) office and the gono bong (long house), currently used as a Designers’ House for the women weavers. All of the neighboring families are involved in farming, directly planting and harvesting or helping in the marketing of produce.

Another noticeable feature of Klubi is the abundant water flowing in creeks and springs. A few meters of digging a hole would already tap into the aquifer as in the case of the planned septic tank for the Day Care Center that they had to abandon due to the restrictions of the elders. Some families’ compound has a fishpond fed by this underground aquifer or a spring. At this point, it is worthwhile to note how the T’bolis of Klubi believe in the fun (owner or spirit). Several fu are said to reside and own certain natural resources like water (‘el), abaca (kdungon), rice (halay), forests (dlag koyu), wild animals (Taha Kilang – or in some chants, Tud Bulul, and Taha Kilang are the same), Lake Sebu (S’bu), mountains (bulul) and others. My host family’s fishpond is believed to be inhabited by one of these spirits. The patriarch Eko Sulan used to give offerings near the fishpond to appease this spirit due to the belief that it claims human victims, in some accident or another.

The farm of the Sulan family was divided equally (even among women) among the sisters and brothers. This farm is located in Sitio Datal Sbuyon, Barangay Klubi mostly hilly to steep. Datal Sbuyon is a 45-minute hike from Sitio Lamkua, Barangay Klubi. Facing south of the farm is the mountain of Te Tofuk, and facing east is Meli Botu. They get water for their farms from the spring Sboyun, named after the spirit/owner (fu) of the water that comes from the aquifers of Te Tofuk. It is believed, by the people interviewed, that this fu is fickle and is regularly appeased with demsu or offering. ‘Fickle’ because there are times when the springs become dry and the farmers have to look for another source of water, and also because of the belief that disrespecting fu sboyun will also cause illness to the farmers.

The soil within the forest areas is classified as undifferentiated mountain soil, which has no agricultural importance at present. Along with the flatlands, the soil classification belongs to silty loam and sandy, which range from very good land to moderately good land for cultivation.  Soil in the rice and corn farm is dry while the abaca farms are moist, dark humus shaded by tall trees. The T’boli also believes that the soil is owned by fu tonok (lit. owner of the earth). This general belief in the fu may point to the local people’s cognition that resources are not theirs to exploit but as something borrowed from the ‘owners’ hence the rituals of asking for permission to use those resources.

The Tnalak weavers of Lake Sebu

Land ownership is considered communal. The watershed, forests, river systems, farm, and pasture lands are considered communal properties and therefore their use and conservation are the responsibility of the whole community. Lake Sebu is an ancestral domain with a Certificate of Ancestral Domain Claims (CADC) Nos. 003 and 004 facilitated through the Lake Sebu Ancestral Domain Claim Association (LASADCA). The 2 CADCS (CADC 003 for the Ubo tribes and CADC 004 for the T’boli tribes) have a total land area of 19,377 and 20,475 hectares respectively (Logong, 2000). In the case of the Sulan family, their farms are in the ancestral domain claim and no title from the government has been issued to them. According to an interview, the farmlands were acquired through the uncle of the patriarch Eko Sulan. His father was a hunter and had no hand for farming. It was Eko Sulan who first cultivated the land and then passed it on to his daughters and sons.

Jelly Escarlote, a farmer who manages a farm in Datal Sboyun and Lamkadi talked about land ownership in an interview: “Yung sa amin, sa tatay ko mismo tapos namana niya na rin sa lolo namin… Ang pag-aari ng lupa ay depende sa sipag mo. Kung gaano ang sipag niya, yun na rin ang lupa na mapa-sakanya. At sa ngayon, dahil hindi pa ito napatituluhan, kasi ancestral domain, mabagal siguro ang pag-ano ng NCIP. Kahit yung assessment nila, parang on the table pa lang.”

T’meba or slash-and-burn is done to clear forests in preparation for planting. This is usually done at the beginning of March. Before, they used to clear small patches of forests to plant root crops and transfer to other locations for the next planting cycle, but in contemporary time, they no longer practice this due mainly to decreasing availability of land and the increasing number of families who owns the land. Land ownership is through clearing and planting. If a person clears a forest and plants it, then that land would be his or hers. During the time of Eko Sulan’s father, they would move on to another land after harvesting and let the soil rest. T’meba is done in another area where they would plant again. But this time, they are using the same plot of land and never let it rest for the entire year. Eko Sulan said that because of this they have lesser and lesser harvest each year.

Farmers are both men and women, and starting from a very young age, children are exposed to farm life. Traditionally, farming is the exclusive domain of the men, but in contemporary times, women are now helping and even owning their farms as in the case of Jelly Escarlote and Jenita Eko. In the case of Jenita Eko, she is the 2nd child from the 1stwife of Eko Sulan. According to her, because of her father’s frustrations of not having a son, she was brought up like one by her father and so was exposed to hunting, farming and other men’s activities, most interesting is her involvement in conflict mediation. Her father and is one of the mediators in the tribe or tau mugut kokum. Bo-i Diwa (a celebrated tau mugut kokum) is the aunt of her mother.

Jelly Escarlote is a farmer and member of LASIWWAI. She is also a pastor of the Alliance Church in Klubi. In an interview, she was introduced to farming through her father who would bring her to their farm in Lamkadi and taught her through hands-on experience. “Bata pa ako, sumama na ako sa papa ko lalo na sa pagtatanim ng palay. Mga ano siguro ako, Grade 4, nag-oobserve na ako kung paano magtanim ng palay at paano rin magtrabaho sa palayan.”

The T’boli S’bu was described in ethnographies as hunting-gathering societies, with swidden farms, and not until recently did they plant rice, corn, and other agricultural products. Several interviews suggest that the great grandfathers of the current generation (i.e. Jenita Eko and Eunice Sulan’s) are still exclusively planting root crops and hunting for their food. The generation of Eko Sulan may be the first farmers of rice and corn in the area.

Planting may be considered organic, traditional organic means of killing insects include placing fak binuten (frog with warts, i.e. Hawaiian frog) in the farms to eat the insects, and wong (spiders) are also left to make their webs in the farm to eat insects.

Another method is to create boundaries of bamboo forests in between corn/rice and the abaca farms. The bamboos serve as natural screens for flying insects that might bring diseases from the corn to the abaca or vice versa. Madre de cacao (Gliricidia sepium) bark is also used as insecticide by soaking it for 3 days then mixing with chili pepper (capsicum frutescens) and detergent powder. This is then sprayed to the corns to kill the worms that eat the corn stalks.

In an interview with Eko Sulan, he said that there were no rat infestations before because they used to eat the field mice by setting different traps on the farm. He shared that when migrants increasingly brought in their different varieties of corn and rice, the diseases and pests have also increased. Melem éhék is a ritual done to call for rain. A sharpening stone is placed in the river and is said to call for rain within a few days. The symbolization, according to Jelly Escarlote, is that a sharpening stone always feels cool and it becomes wet when being used. The coolness and the wetness symbolize rain. The person making this ritual must bathe several times every day until the rain comes. Jelly shared that when she went to a place in Caraga, Mindanao, there was also a similar ritual done by the family who housed them. A sharpening stone was placed in the river and then placed at the edge of the roof.

Several plants are planted in the gardens of the Sulan compound. This includes taro, garlic, malabar spinach (alugbati, Basella alba), Chinese cabbage (Brassica rapa), cabbage (Brassica oleracea), cassava, eggplant, okra, and sweet potato. While crops planted in the Datal Sboyun farm are: corn (sweet corn variety, Zea mays), upland rice (different varieties) and abaca. Animals domesticated by the T’boli in Klubi: dogs, cats, carabaos, cows, chickens, horses, ducks, goats and turkeys.

Ma Dodong Ulaw wearing his ulew, the plaid-styled headpiece worn by men

The T’boli in Klubi uses the phases of the moon, positions of stars and directions of sunrise, sunset, moonrise, and moonset to guide them in planting and harvesting. Awed, et al described the phases of the moon concerning rice planting. This is specifically for March sélél  and April, tdanan hotuk, the months for rice planting:

nengel ohu – it’s in the ground, can’t be seen. New Moon.

uluk lanab – it appears just above the ocean as large as a wild pig’s tusk. New Moon.

sebwól tikung – it is one handspan above the ocean, red in appearance.

lulón klembew – it appears over the tops of the mountains.

nù lem léhéken – it appears halfway between earth and sky. Crescent. (Poor harvest if planted at this phase.)

slafin – it appears at the highest point of the sky. First Quarter. (Excellent harvest if planted at this phase, when the moon and blotik ehek ‘star for planting’ are in a direct line, one above the other).

deng semfóyón – it has just passed the sky’s highest point.

stileng – it is halfway down the sky (by daylight reckoning), beginning to be large. Gibbous. (Poor harvest if planted at this phase, because the moon and the blotik ehek have passed each other).

mangu ­– becoming larger. (Not good to plant at this phase).

saif – Usually the best time for planting. Last Quarter.

tngel – Full moon.

kbit – still very large.

sotu knifuhen – ‘first night with a (time of) darkness’ before the moon comes up.

lewu knifuhen – ‘second night with a (time of) darkness’ before the moon comes up.

tlu knifuhen – ‘third night with a (time of) darkness’ before the moon comes up.

limu knifuhen – ‘fifth night with a (time of) darkness’ before the moon comes up, known as kifu lóbô ‘night of the wild things’ like animals, snakes. (Good harvest only if the owners themselves do the planting).

nem knifuhen – ‘sixth night with a (time of) darkness’ before the moon comes up, known as kifu likò ‘night of being afraid’ (because the darkness is so intense). [According to Jenita Eko, it is the ‘night of being afraid’ because the T’boli believe that many bad things happen during this night, most especially ‘robbery resulting in homicide’ committed by the Ubo tribe.

hitu knifuhen – ‘seventh night with a (time of) darkness’ before the moon comes up, known as tanay ketfesen or tfes udì. (Good harvest if planted at this phase).

wolu knifuhen – ‘eight-night with a (time of) darkness’ before the moon comes up, known as tfes sumy or tfes bong. (Good harvest is planted at this phase).

syóm knifuhen – ‘ninth night with a (time of) darkness’ before the moon comes up, known as yewen bong; half of the moon is seen. Third/Last Quarter.

sfolò knifuhen – tenth night with a (time of) darkness’ before the moon comes up, known as yewen udì; only a small part of the moon is seen. Crescent.

sudù kdaw – Moon is no longer seen it sets the same time the sun comes up. New Moon.

limu butengen mbut bulón glimun ­ – ‘five nights until the fifth-month starts (i.e. May 1, the last chance to plant rice).

sélél – the month of March

stileng – the month of July

tdanan hotuk bulón – the dry season, usually from the last week of February through March, after the field has been cleared while waiting for it to be dry enough to be burned (lit. time of resting).

In an interview with Eko Sulan, he shared that they should only plant banana when it’s a full moon and when the moon rises from the east. Rice and corn are planted during the full moons of March and April. Eko Sulan explained that when the moon rises from the ‘sea’ (this was explained as a metaphor for sea of mountains surrounding Klubi) or geographic west, accompanied by the star blotik éhék while it rises, is the proper time to plant rice and corn because the earth will be dry (hence no worms) and maya birds will not eat the corn and rice.

The star blotik éhék means the ‘star of the sharpening stone’. It is a celestial marker for T’boli agriculture not unlike the star Sirius in ancient Egyptian agriculture that marks the annual flooding of the Nile River. Éhék is the stone used to sharpen knives, tok or sudeng, and other implements. Whetstones or water stones are hard rocks, and according to Eko Sulan, they are also very hard to find. This star’s name, marking the agricultural planting season, may also be interpreted as preparing the farming tools for the coming planting season. When this star rises together with the moon, as if riding on the moon’s back, then that month is the lunar month for March-April.

Lake Sebu Municipality is a Type IV climate according to the standards and categories of the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) which is characterized by “a more or less evenly distributed rainfall throughout the year.” Climate data for a representative city, General Santos City, show that the lowest recorded precipitation in a year is during March and April, 1.6 and 1.9 inches respectively. Annual average precipitation is 42.2 inches, with June having the highest average precipitation at 4.8 inches. This scientific data validates the practice of planting during the dry season to avert pests that multiply during the rainy season.

Another detail here: Eko Sulan added that the blotik éhék must not be flickering so much because this will also mean a bad harvest. Stellar scintillation is caused by “small-scale fluctuations in air density related to temperature gradients”. This marker shared by Eko Sulan is part of the compendium of traditional knowledge on agriculture that, seen through the lenses of western, modern science, considers atmospheric conditions that are essential to a good harvest.

One of the striking observations during the interviews and fieldwork in Klubi was the increasing unreliability of these astronomical markers in the agricultural practices of the T’boli.

Jelly Escarlote put it succinctly: “Noon, sinasabi nila, ang buwan ng Marso, buwan ng Abril, kahit hindi mo tingnan ang araw, kahit hindi mo tingnan kung saan siya magsikat o ano, basta yan na buwan, mabilang ng mga matatanda, yan ang buwan na maganda ang harvest, maganda ang lahat ng mga produkto, pero sa ngayon dahil sa pagbabago ng panahon, mahirapan na kami. Kasi hindi mo na ma-ano, hindi mo na mabibilang sa kalendaryo na ito pagmag-tanim ako ngayon, bilangin ko lang hanggang, isa, dalawa hanggang pitong araw, hindi pa yan tutubo ang mga damo, pero sa ngayon kahit ilang araw lang maya-maya uulan nanaman. So malaking epekto, nahihirapan kaming mag-timing sa pagtatanim ngayon. Kung minsan, ano na lang, sinusunod pa rin namin ang mga buwan na sinasabi ng mga matatanda na ganito, maganda ang pagtanim, pero ang problema, may deperensya talaga sa produkto tapos, sa tayo ng mga halaman. Kagaya nito (points to the corn field), ito sinunod namin ang buwan ng pagtatanim ng mais dito, pero tingnan mo, kinain ng mga uod. Kaya kita mo doon sa baba, hindi nalinisan ng mabuti, kasi kung maulan doon lalabas yung uuod. Ulan tapos mainit nanaman, biglang uulan, biglang iinit. Yun lalabas yung mga uod.”

Erratic weather systems have been blamed by the informants for the confusions in the planting calendar. Although the stars, moon, sun, and mountains are still there to tell them when to plant, the weather tells a different story. When the elders tell them that it is the right time to plant, as it is the dry season, it suddenly rains and brings with it pests that eat the newly planted corn stalks. In a Focus Group Discussion conducted on 30 March 2013 in Klubi, several of the elders answered that they will not change their planting calendar believing that the seasons will go back to normal. They shared the story of the long drought experienced by the generation of Eko Sulan’s grandfather when there was no rain for months and all their crops failed. They said that eventually, the rains came and the seasons ‘normalized’. This attitude may not be shared by all the farmers in Klubi, many of whom are no longer following the traditional methods of planting, but the elders are still thinking along these lines of ‘it will get better soon’.

One sees in these events the dilemma of following the old, static cultural system (illustrated here as the traditional knowledge in agriculture) in the face of a very dynamic natural system, but certainly any researcher must take into consideration the capabilities of a society to adapt and undertake “actions necessary to maintain the capacity to deal with future change or perturbations to a social-ecological system without undergoing significant changes in function, structural identity, or feedbacks of that system while maintaining the option to develop” (Nelson, Adger, and Brown 2007).

Indeed, ethnographies of many different indigenous groups reveal their resilience in the face of adversities, human or environmental. But here, one is reminded of the synergy of a resilient ecosystem reinforcing the resilience of the social system (and vice versa). Indigenous place-based resilience requires understanding the traditions and sustained relationships with the land. Relationships are embedded in the land. This becomes tied to the personal identity, spiritual development of people, and their overall relationships with others.

Can the maintenance of community relationships be part of indigenous resilience? How can this be realized when place-based traditions are already being compromised by climatic perturbations? How can this relationship to the land be guaranteed when most are already leaving the mountains for the cities? Can the T’boli of Klubi be resilient to anthropogenic climate change, compounded by other “existing challenges, including political and economic marginalization, land and resource encroachments, human rights violations and discrimination?

The now unreliable blotik éhék may have a stark future as just another star against the millions twinkling in the night sky of the month of sélél. No one knows for sure, if the blotik riding the moon of a cloudless night, will still call the T’boli to prepare the okol, fiku or the tok, the sharpening stone eager in a dark corner.

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