Lubos Alyansa ng mga Katutubong Ayta ng Sambales (LAKAS) —The Aetas are considered to be one of the first native settlers in the Philippines. According to one theory, the Aetas are descendants of the first settlers in the country some 300,000 years ago. Artifacts show that Aetas once lived in the lowlands but gradually retreated to the hills and mountains when subsequent immigrants and conquerors pushed them into the forest.
In 1988, there were about 412,794 Aeta in the country. They were divided into 25 ethnologuistic groups scattered from Luzon to Mindanao. Some social scientists consider the Aetas of Mt. Pinatubo as the most important ethnic group because of their preserved cultural identity. It is estimated that more than 800,000 Aetas in the Philippines live in Mt. Pinatubo.
In Zambales, Aetas are located in the 19 towns of this province. Before the Spaniards came in the 16th century, the town of Botolan was the home for the Aeta. When the Spaniards arrived, Aetas were pushed into the mountainous barangays of Zambales. In the town of Botolan alone, eleven (11) barangays in the periphery of Mt. Pinatubo are homes to Aetas.
In this place, they live in a very simple life. They have their own system of farming. they plant sweet potatoes, bananas and vegetables. They practice bayanihan wherein they help one another in planting, harvesting crops and constructing their houses. Their pastime is talipi, a community dancing accompanied by native guitar. This dance mimics their everyday life and animals around them.
However, they were also the subject of deception and exploitation of the lowland traders who bought their products at a very low price. Sometimes they were also the victims of military harassment.
Organizing, Literacy, and Empowerment
In 1992, nuns from FMM (Franciscan Missionaries of Mary) who lived with the Aeta of Pinatubo in 1982 introduced changes in some Aeta villages. The missionaries initially set up a health program and later introduced functional literacy program . This program did not only focus on reading and writing but on their rights as indigenous people.
They also started to organize a cooperative. Their skills in upland farming were also enhanced. Because of these programs, they were gradually liberated from the clutches of middlemen and the pitfall of eternal debts. Their dignity and self esteem were restored.
LAKAS (Lubos na Alyansa ng mga Katutubong Ayta ng Sambales) was the first organization of Aeta in Zambales. It was initially formed in 1984 with 45 members from 12 sitios of barangay Villar and Maguisguis. The main activities of the organization were cooperative building, literacy classes and trainings on the rights to ancestral domain.
This organization was formally founded last 1985 as a federation and was registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission in 1987.
LAKAS hurdled different trials like harassment from the military. Some LAKAS members were offered guns and recruited to be part of paramilitary unit in their place. The organization also encountered problems with some local traders who perceived their cooperative as a threat.
The Aetas after Mount Pinatubo eruption
When the Mt. Pinatubo erupted in June 1991, LAKAS could already stand by themselves without any help from the nuns. However, like other Aetas living near Mt. Pinatubo, everything they built was buried. In spite of this, they maintained their dignity, culture and faith.
They evacuated to different places ten times. With the help of the FMM nuns, NGOs and some friends, they bought land wherein they built their permanent community.
After the FMM sisters phased out from LAKAS community, LAKAS remains to be strong community. Their distinct social organization remains to be cohesive and their culture is well preserved. All the leaders were very able, active and participatory in their style of leadership. They are also active in helping other Aeta communities through sharing their knowledge derived from their experiences.
From Relief and Rehabilitation to Education
Some Aeta leaders during the mid-nineties attended a six-week leadership course conducted by the Paaralang Bayan of the Education for Life Foundation. After this course, they became very active in negotiations with local government units and national government agencies for programs and services due to them. And this resulted in several livelihood projects awarded to them.
Aeta organizations were also formed to manage the implementation and distributions of benefits from these projects.
In 2002, an Aeta folkschool named Paaralang Bayan ng mga Ayta ng Zambales or PBAZ, was formed by the graduates of ELF's Paaralang Bayan. This school which is intended for all the Aeta of Zambales, envisions to provide leadership, technical, and enterprise development courses.
Presently PBAZ is also active in providing alternative learning system (ALS) for the youth and adult who did not finished their formal education. The aim of ALS is to provide education beyond basic literacy, that is, functional literacy among the Aetas. The government recognizes this type of learning system as an alternative pathway that can make the learners eligible for higher education.
Relief good will not last forever. The case of LAKAS is a living example that through education and leadership formation, indigenous people can empower themselves.
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