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An Indigenous basket-weaving tradition keeps a Philippine forest alive

  • Traditional handicrafts like the Pala’wan Indigenous people’s tingkep woven baskets are deeply tied to local ecosystems; experts increasingly understand that supporting traditional practices can aid conservation by creating incentives for keeping forests intact.
  • Efforts to support tingkep weavers have been undercut by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has dried up tourism in Palawan as well as reduced disposable income for many potential buyers, dramatically slashing the demand for the handicrafts.
  • At the same time, climate change is already affecting the forests from which tingkep weavers gather materials.

PALAWAN, Philippines — On a fine day at the onset of the dry season, Sublito Tiblak wakes up very early to the sounds of birds. They’re perched on trees surrounding his home in Kamantian, an upland village tucked in the Mount Mantalingahan Protected Landscape in the southern part of the Philippines’ Palawan province.

Tiblak, 46, eats boiled bananas for breakfast and prepares his tukew (bolo knife) to gather raw materials for tingkep, the Pala’wan people’s traditional handcrafted basket, whose designs and uses are reflective of their deep relationship with the forest.

“You have to leave before 7 in the morning because you don’t want to walk for hours under the scorching midday sun,” says Tiblak, one of Kamantian’s 65 traditional basketry cultural bearers.

Later on, the tribal leader (penglima) and father of two finds himself deep in Mantalingahan’s forests, trimming native species of bamboo (binsag), palm (buldung and busnig), and vine (gehid), among other non-timber forest products used in making tingkep.

Tiblak ties the cuttings together with vines. Walking uphill and downhill, he’s drenched in sweat while carrying the bundle on his shoulder.

Sublito Tiblak preparing materials for tingkep. Shaving bamboo is delicate work, as each strip must be uniform and even to form a sturdy basket. Image courtesy of Brooke’s Point Tourism, Culture and Arts Office.

Back home, his wife, Labin, 31, waits for him to begin the laborious weaving process of tingkep. This can take three days to a week, depending on the basket’s size, the couple says.

Sitting on a footstool, Tiblak begins with the meglegis, the process of finely shaving the binsag bamboo with a small peis knife. These strips will be used for weaving the bilug et tingkep (the basket’s body), and the preparation is delicate work, as each strip must be uniform and even to form a sturdy basket.

“Instead of poaching wildlife and timber, we’d rather create and sell baskets,” Tiblak says.

Basket weavers like Tiblak are trained to report violations they spot in the forest, supporting the government’s overwhelmed rangers by serving as extra eyes and ears, says Mantalingahan information officer Michael John Cantuba. “In our outreach activities, they always express their eagerness to partake in the protection of their ancestral forest where they get materials and design inspirations for their baskets.” He adds some Pala’wan community members have been trained and authorized as wildlife law enforcers.

Scientists and conservationists increasingly recognize that allowing Indigenous peoples to practice their craftsmanship and other cultural traditions creates incentives for forest conservation. “The success of any intervention activity in a protected landscape hinges on the support and participation of Indigenous communities,” says Rogelio Andrada II, an expert in protected area management at University of the Philippines Los Baños.

However, the twin threats of the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change have crippled the Philippines’ tourism industry, stifling the demand for tingkep and other traditional handicrafts and endangering the transfer of knowledge for creating this intricate artwork — and, by extension, the protection of Mantalingahan, one of the country’s key biodiversity areas.

Sublito (left) and Labin Tiblak (right), are recognized as being among the 65 bearers of the Pala’wan Indigenous people’s traditional basketry practice in Kamantian village in the Mt. Mantalingahan Protected Landscape. Image courtesy of Brooke’s Point Tourism, Culture and Arts Office

Pandemic hits traditional basket sales

The once booming tourism industry was the major market for tingkep and other traditional handicrafts, says Arlene Piramide, the tourism officer for the municipality of Brooke’s Point, where the majority of the Mantalingahan range is located. “The rigid pandemic protocols have restricted many people from traveling, and it forced many souvenir shops and other tourist establishments to close down,” Piramide says. “So it drastically reduced the demand for tingkep.”

From a pre-pandemic monthly average income of 25,000 pesos ($485), Tiblak says his earnings have slid to 6,000 pesos ($116) a month. This, he says, is still much better than the first year of the pandemic, when he had no sales at all.

The Non-Timber Forest Products–Exchange Programme (NTFP–EP), a nonprofit organization that helps Pala’wan and other Indigenous communities in the Philippines revitalize their handicrafts traditions, acknowledges the difficulty of selling handicrafts at a time when economically stressed people must prioritize essential spending.

“Now, we’ve helped them venture into online selling, all while continuously supporting them in terms of extending whatever tools and materials they need for their handicraft production,” NTFP–EP enterprise development officer Ma. Margarita Consuelo told Mongabay. “But despite our push-marketing efforts, life’s really hard nowadays, so it’s understandable that people would set aside their non-basic needs.”

Tiblak says he worries that diminished demand and sales could dampen the spirit of Kamantian master weavers, who had turned to basket making to support their households.

“If the pandemic continues and there are less buyers, I fear that the tingkep weavers would lose interest and stop doing the handicraft,” says Tiblak, recognized as a cultural master for making tingkep by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA). “When that happens, the tradition would not be transferred to the youth.”

Experts increasingly understand that supporting traditional practices, including the art of making Pala’wan Indigenous people’s tingkep woven baskets, can aid conservation by creating incentives for keeping forests intact. Image courtesy of Brooke’s Point Tourism, Culture and Arts Office.

‘Gap in the transmission of knowledge’

Minnie Degawan, director of the Indigenous and Traditional Peoples Program at Conservation International, says gatherings like weekly meetings of cultural masters and their trainees “strengthen solidarity among the communities and serve as a platform for elders to pass on knowledge to the younger generation.” But with the pandemic health protocols in place, “this is no longer possible, so there is a gap in the transmission of knowledge.”

Due to the pandemic, the Philippine government suspended face-to-face classes, including in the NCCA-established Schools of Living Tradition (SLT). One of these suspended program is in the village of Amas, where Tiblak assisted his wife, Labin, in teaching her five students — all girls aged 10 to 13 — every Friday.

Like other Pala’wan weavers in Mantalingahan, the couple learned the skills from observing their mothers. While her husband learned the craft at 12, Labin started much earlier, at 8. “I just want to pay it forward,” she whispers shyly when asked about her motivations for teaching the art of making tingkep.

Consuelo, who serves as a Palawan coordinator for the art commission’s SLT program in addition to her role with NTFP–EP, says the commission’s assistance started in 2017 with the provision of basketry tools and materials. By the end of 2018, when the center was finally built, designated cultural masters for tingkep and other art forms started holding classes.

She says there are 25 weaving students, all of whom have to advance through three stages, creating progressively more complex types of baskets and culminating in tingkep. “Most of them are in the first stage, some in second, but they’re not all able to advance to the third because of the pandemic,” Consuelo says. “We hope that, as the restrictions ease and schools slowly reopen, we’re able to resume this year.”

Sublito Tiblak, far right, and Labin Tiblak, second from right, at the Amas School of Living Tradition in 2019. In-person gatherings like this have been suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic. Image by Keith Anthony Fabro.

Climate crisis threatens basketry

On top of the pandemic, the climate crisis already wreaking havoc on Indigenous territories and resources is another threat to traditional practices.

“One of the impacts of climate change that does not get much attention is that on culture,” Degawan says. In many ancestral lands, landslides, excessive flooding and drought have disrupted not only the practice of traditions, but also the preservation of languages and livelihoods, threatening the very survival of communities, says Degawan, herself an Indigenous Kankanaey-Igorot.

“These are the visible impacts — what’s more dangerous is the unseen danger of ethnocide,” she says.

Tiblak says he and other weavers already feel the impacts of climate change throughout the year, and are already having to adapt.

The dry season now is hotter than before, Tiblak says. “I no longer go out into the forest beyond 10 in the morning, because the heat is unmanageable,” he says. “And if I do, I try as much as possible to go to areas with a spring nearby or with vines that hold water to quench my thirst and cool my body down.”

During the dry season, he says, the heat at the forest edge can be so intense that it dries up vegetation. “So to get the best materials, you have to walk for another hour and a half further into the forest.” The collected materials should also be away from direct sunlight to prevent them turning brittle.

It’s a different story in the wet season, when climate change makes landslides and flashfloods more common occurrences. “When there’s a typhoon, we can’t gather materials for days. There are four big rivers here that overflow during heavy downpour, and it’s dangerous to cross them to get to the forest,” Tiblak says. Steep and unstable slopes are risky to traverse because they have a tendency to erode.

A government report noted that southern Palawan is highly susceptible to floods. The interior mountain ranges of Mantalingahan are also identified as a climate change hotspot, being highly susceptible to rainfall-induced landslides.

Traditional baskets, woven from local materials and with patterns inspired by nature, reflect the Pala’wans’ deep relationship with the forest. Image courtesy of Brooke’s Point Tourism, Culture and Arts Office.

Full government recognition

Full recognition by the government of the right to their territories and self-determination will go a long way to helping Pala’wan communities uphold their tingkep tradition while weathering the double whammy of climate change and pandemic, Degawan says. “No amount of relief in the form of food or other materials can replace the impact of rights recognition,” she says.

“If communities are left to decide for themselves their paths to development and recovery, they would be able to define these based on their needs and capacities; but if their basic right over their resources is taken away, no amount of external intervention can ensure sustainability,” Degawan, whose group supports Mantalingahan’s conservation.

Andrada, from the University of the Philippines Los Baños, says the Pala’wan tribes should be regarded as integral elements of the Mantalingahan ecosystem, embodying the principle of sufficiency in their system of production and consumption, whether in making handicrafts or in other traditional subsistence activities as hunters and swidden cultivators.

“The knowledge, understanding and skills that they possess regarding the conservation of their resources maybe different from what we know,” he says, “but it may prove to be richer and has more depth if scientists take time to examine it.”

With the pandemic and climate change disproportionately affecting the Pala’wan people, Tiblak says he’s unsure what the future holds for the tingkep tradition. But he says he remains hopeful: “I know the Empu [Supreme Being] will not leave us.”

Once all the needed strips are ready, the basketry master starts weaving the tingkep’s body (bilug et tingkep), integrating nature-inspired designs, such as the different body parts of plants and animals they commonly see in the Mt. Mantalingahan Protected Landscape. Image courtesy of Brooke’s Point Tourism, Culture and Arts Office.


Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: What can the world expect in terms of forest conservation news in 2022? Listen here:

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