Why Indigenous Folklore Can Save Animals’ Lives

August 2, 2020

A good example of science struggling  with metaphysics – SD

A belief system born of indigenous communities in the Philippines could help protect the country’s endangered species, from leopard cats to cloud rats.

In a jeepney travelling through Iloilo city in the Philippines, the driver hoots the vehicle’s horn on an empty street in broad daylight. These brightly decorated buses are known for their speed in the south of Iloilo, but this driver slows the jeepney right down.

“Why did you hoot the horn?” I ask him. “And why are we slowing down?”

“We are passing by the mariit tree,” he replies in Kinaray-a, one of the local languages.

Part of indigenous wisdom, the “mariit” belief system (pronounced mar-ee-it) is deeply rooted in the relationship of the Filipinos with the environment. It can be traced back to the pre-colonial Filipino practice of animism, or the belief that everything possesses a soul. Mariit stretches back more than 500 years, affecting everything from where buildings are constructed, to how a driver negotiates a stretch of road. Increasingly, it is also being integrated into nature conservation.

The Philippines, one of the 18 mega-biodiverse countries in the world, faces many challenges to its environment and its wildlife, including the development of coal-fired power plants, damming of ecologically important rivers and a persistent illegal wildlife trade, frequently targeting the Philippine pangolin, a critically endangered species, and giant clams. Local conservationists and environmental guards hope working with long-held folk beliefs can prove useful in protecting the nature that remains.

Spirits of mariit

But what is mariit, and how can indigenous knowledge beliefs help to tackle such problems? The essence of mariit comes down to the belief that every part of nature is inhabited or owned by unseen dwellers. Thus, it should be respected and taken care of. Otherwise, it could have unpleasant results.

“This what our ancestors told us: ‘It is not just us – humans – who exist in this world. There are also those that are not visible to our eyes. They are the taglugar,’” says Elias Victor, the leader of the Ati community, who are considered first inhabitants of the Philippines. Victor walks to the corner of the house, and places a plate of food intended for the taglugar. “They take care of the source of our food and water. When we eat, we invite them, too.”

Taglugar (pronounced tag-loo-gar) is a word in the Hiligaynon language that translates to “of place”. It refers to the resident, dweller or owner of a place. In the context of mariit, the taglugar are nature’s spirit dwellers. There are many forms that the taglugar are said to take. In bodies of water, there are siyokoy, sea creatures that appear to be human but with fish-like physical appearance, and kataw, half-fish and half-human. On land, there are kapre, hairy and cigar-smoking giant creatures usually seen smoking on tall trees, and there are duwende, believed to inhabit the soil, that are said to be like small magical humans.

In the mariit knowledge system, disasters such as famine, drought, flooding, typhoons and earthquakes are sent by the taglugar, Victor says. “These are their wrath,” he tells me. He explains these calamities are largely because people no longer respect nature. “They abuse natural resources. They get more than what they need,” he says.

It’s a familiar concept to me. My late grandmother would repeatedly remind me about showing respect when going to nature. She would tell me to “say tabi-tabi”. The tabi-tabi (literally “excuse me”) is an old chant in the Hiligaynon language, which is said when one goes to a place strange place, especially in nature. The full version of the chant roughly translates to: “Excuse me. To those who I would bump into, I apologise because I cannot see you.”

This courteous Hiligaynon chant is just one element of mariit. Joyce Colon, professor of history at West Visayas State University who has been studying the history and roles of babaylan, shamans who were powerful figures in pre-colonial times and still have a presence in the Philippines today. “The babaylans served as community leaders and healers.

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