Uma (swidden) field used for growing upland varieties of rice; root crops such as cassava, sweet potato, yam and taro; trees such as banana and coconut; and other staple crops such as millet and corn


“Without Plants, We Cannot Live”

Why plants matter to the Pälawan

by Dalia Iskander

For the indigenous Pälawan living in Bataraza on the island of Palawan in the Philippines, plants are central to life, health, and wellbeing. As 10-year-old Jonery articulated, "without plants, we cannot live." Within Pälawan cosmology, Ampu ("creator" and "owner") is said to have "woven" the world together in seven days. As well as crafting the visible environment and all living entities that dwell in it, Ampu also created the unseen world of diwata (spirits) who live within, and are said to own the seas, ground, forests, mountains, animals and plants. Diwata are both dangerous and protective, and everyday life for the Pälawan is characterised by avoiding, assuaging and harnessing the unseen power within the environment in order to achieve timbang (balance) and avoid sakit (sickness) within their own bodies, their communities and the cosmos. The basic logic of health and illness involves both prevention (avoidance of imbalance) and curing (restoring balance). Of particular importance in the maintenance of equilibrium are the dichotomous attributes of hot and cold and wet and dry, which are conferred in all living things by the elements of earth, water, fire and air and need to be kept in steady order through a range of practices. My anthropological doctoral research focussed on health and malaria among the Pälawan and, in particular, the role that young people play in ensuring their own and their communities' health. For three months during my fieldwork, 44 predominantly Pälawan children, aged 9-14, from two elementary schools in Bataraza, took part in a participatory photography project in which they documented their lives using digital cameras. Together, we spent 15 weeks sharing photographs and discussing them in small groups, addressing the questions of what health and malaria meant to children. It was apparent that plants were central to the way in which children conceived of and dealt with health. While upsetting the spirit owners of plants could cause illness, the same powerful beings could be called upon to heal. Plants are simultaneously a source of life, strength and pleasure, and key to preventing sickness. The photographs below are a selection of images taken by children and represent some of the ways that they articulated that plants are important in their lives.

“Plants make us fat”

— Gary, age 11

The majority of Pälawan living in the uplands of Bataraza rely on food gathering, hunting, fishing and a rotational cycle of slash and burn agriculture -- swidden kaingin - as their principal methods of subsistence. Although many people engage in a mixed cash economy, selling non-timber forest products such as rattan, bamboo, palms, resins, vines and grasses or working on lowland irrigated rice fields and coconut plantations belonging to migrants for cash, the vast majority of people that I spoke to retained their own swidden fields (uma) for growing upland varieties of rice; root crops such as cassava, sweet potato, yam and taro; trees such as banana and coconut; and other staples such as millet and corn (see title image) for their own consumption (although products are often shared with family members). Most children were involved in preparing, tending and harvesting their family upland swidden fields as well as growing fruits and vegetables in garden patches located close to their houses. They say knowledge of how to do this was passed down to current generations from "time immemorial" by their ancestors. Children did not have a specific term for "health" or "healthy" but associated terms include metaba (fat) and masubug or kaya (strong). In sessions, all the children spoke of the importance of growing and eating fruits and vegetables as their principal way of ensuring their bodies maintained timbang and gained nutrients.

Photo by Relan Jamesa

In the picture you can see a squash that is good for you. It will make you fat and give you a good shape for your body. I took this picture when I was in the garden of my aunty. I went there just to take a picture because I pick squash from there to eat often.

Relan, age 12, Matyag Elementary School

Photo by Clarisma Albe

I help my aunty preparing vegetables so that we will be strong. In this picture, there is wood in there, some curtains, the flooring made of bamboo and walls made of sawale (anahaw leaves). I am holding a bolo (knife) and a squash. I took this picture in afternoon time, preparing for dinner, I always help my aunty to cook. You should wash properly the squash so that it is clean otherwise you will get sick with stomach pain and also have worms inside your stomach.

Clarisima, age 14, Matyag Elementary School

Photo by Gina Buat

Maryjane is helping her mother cooking rice and is holding a cooking pot. She has is wearing a patadyong (wrap). I want to show you a person cooking rice to feed her family. When you eat rice, you will be full and it will make you fat. Rice is very hard to grow so although you can borrow it from your neighbour, you should return a few days later. But vegetables, you can just ask as much as you want. You pick the vegetables and two days later it will sprout again so it is ok to take.

Gina, age 13, Taysay Elementary School

Photo by Jomar Bekiat

This is a picture of Jomar preparing some coconuts from his garden. Coconuts are very good for you because they make you fat and strong. Eat coconuts and plenty of rice if you want to avoid getting sicknesses like malarya (malaria) but don’t drink cold coconut juice when you are hot from working otherwise the malarya (malaria) may come out.

Jomar, age 13, and Ailen, age 11, both from Taysay Elementary School

“We must be careful in our surroundings to avoid getting sick”

— Angelyn, age 11

When human beings pass by, disturb, ignore or harm diwata, they may speak the name of or greet the perpetrator causing illness and misfortune. One of the principal ways in which children mentioned they get sick was from bati (from nabati in Tagalog meaning to be greeted), or salibegbeg/samban (Palawano). Bati is a very common cause of illness and most children had suffered from it. Although the effects vary between participants, they commonly include fever, sweating, body pain, rashes, insomnia and the body becoming "stiff" or "too strong" to move. As well as disturbing the diwata that own them, plants themselves are also a source of sickness through virtue of attracting dirt and insects. All of the children talked about the importance of clearing dead and overgrown vegetation in order to prevent mosquitoes breeding in these areas, as they carry "dirt" and cause malarya (malaria) if they bite humans. Like bati, malarya is common and characterised by fever, sweating, body aches and a loss of appetite.

Photo by Jeverlyn Rista

This picture was taken by Jeverlyn in her house and the child is taking some medicines given by her mother to cure the sickness. The medicine given to the child comes from the health centre. She has a headache, chilling and vomiting. This could be malarya (malaria) or bati (greeting from spirits).

Jeverlyn, age 11, and Halija, age 10, both from Matyag Elementary School

Photo by Isabel Santos

In this picture is scattered gabi (taro) with a little child sitting down in it. The dirty surroundings are where the mosquitoes are hiding. Mosquitoes are carriers of malarya (malaria) which comes from the dirty places, dirty hands, dirty bodies, dirty food. What we can teach to the people is to maintain cleanliness of the surroundings by clearing the dirty vegetation.

Isabel, age 11, Matyag Elementary School

Photo by Jonery Buat

Because the banana tree has many dry leaves, this is the cause of bad smells that attracts mosquitoes. The dry leaves are the nesting place for them to lay their eggs and they live there. Anyone who gets bitten by mosquitoes from there is sure to get malarya (malaria). We can teach the people they must clean the banana plantations and remove the dry leaves and pull the grass so that the mosquitoes will not have a place to lay their eggs.

Jonery, age 10, Taysay Elementary School

“Plants can help us get better when we are sick”

— Gina, age 13

As well as being a source of sickness, plants provide one of the principal ways for people to get better by restoring balance to the body. Children use plants in addition to allopathic medicines that they obtain from local sari-sari stores (road-side shops) or the Rural Health Centre. All the children had learnt from their elders about how to grow, identify and prepare plants - knowledge that they said had passed down through generations from the ancestors. Children thought of plants as "strong" and "free" sources of medicine. They can be used to treat ailments such as headaches, fever, chills, vomiting and diarrhoea, but confidence in using plants as medicine varied between children. As well as consulting elders, many also sought help from balyan (healers) who are skilled in using plants due to their special relationship with diwata. As children articulated, plants are strong, containing, as human do, ginawa (breath or life). Diwata can therefore guide balyan in how best to use plants to restore life and strength.

In these pictures you can see the Sambong (Blumea balsamifera) leaves being soaked, squeezed, and put in the glass by Farazana’s mother. She got the Sambong from her garden. We can teach the people that Sambong is effective medicine for malarya (malaria) when you are cold and chilling.

Farazana, age 14, Gary, age 11, both from Matyag Elementary School

You can see in this picture the root of the papaya tree (photo 1). You can see also the Katal (jackfruit) tree and the Lagundi (Vitex negundo) plant (photo 2). All of these will heal your headache. I can find them in the surroundings and I use these when I am sick. We can teach the people to grow these for free and to use to help with malarya (malaria) because they are strong medicines. But, the ones from the RHU (Rural Health Clinic) are stronger in my opinion.

Jobert, age 10, and Ronel, age 13, both from Taysay Elementary School

Photo by Clarisma Albe

This is my lolo (grandfather). He is a balyan (healer) and knows how to use plants to treat sickness. His knowledge is passed from the ancestors and from his relationship with the diwata (spirits). He has taught me some things about which plants can heal. Here, he is curing his wound using some roots he collected from the forest.

Clarisma, age 14, Matyag Elementary School

“Flowers make us happy”

— Rhea, age 10

In every village garden, people grow vast arrays of colourful flowers, from orchids and roses to morning glorys and hibiscus. Flowering plants can be found growing in all sorts of containers from tin cans to coconut shells, and cuttings are often shared among family members, friends and neighbours, who take great pride in producing beautiful displays. As children articulated, flowers make people feel masaya (happy) and make the surroundings beautiful. They spend time and effort caring and tending to flowering plants in their homes and school grounds in order to make Ampu, the spirts and people happy.

Photo by Jessica Guindaya

This is a picture of watering the plants. This is my older brother. This is for the beatification of the school which makes us feel masaya (happy).

Jessica, age 11, Matyag Elementary School

Photo by Aisel Ambuugan

In this picture there are flowers and a flower pot. The name of the flower is a rose. You can see the leaves. It is taken in front of my house. I took it because it’s nice to look at. It makes your house beautiful and so is good for us.

Aisel, age 12, Matyag Elementary School

Photo by Ronel Balabag

I collected these flowers from my garden and put them in my house to make us feel masaya (happy) and full of joy. They are yellow and red and green and are very beautiful.

Ronel, age 13, Taysay Elementary School