The Tasaday Maps and John Nance (1935-2010)

tasaday IMG_5562Sylvia Miclat

About 10 years ago, a man named John Nance approached ESSC seeking community mapping assistance for the Tasaday community for ancestral domain application. A few years before that, the Philippines just passed a law that allowed ancestral domain titling for its indigenous peoples who live in many of the country’s upland and coastal areas.

ESSC saw in John this great desire to support a small, marginalized cultural group who drew much attention in the 1970s but who in the 21st century was largely forgotten and neglected. The Tasaday community’s situation is not much different from many of the indigenous communities who are viewed as marginalized groups as against Philippine mainstream society. But within this sector, the Tasaday is doubly marginalized as even among the indigenous groups in the Philippines, the Tasaday community and the culture they represent is largely questioned and doubted. Their authenticity as a separate ethnic group was seen as a hoax and persists to this day. Their reality was the subject of various conferences, forums, and discussions amongst academicians and experts.

John Nance chronicled the Tasaday from the time they were discovered in 1971. He took thousand of photographs, wrote books about them including The Gentle Tasaday, and in the 1980s, was in the center of the controversy that challenged the authenticity of the Tasaday. He survived this period and continued to pursue ways by which he could effectively support the Tasaday. He put up a foundation Friends of the Tasaday ( that provided critical funding and other material support for the Tasaday community. John, with support from an assisting local group in Lake Sebu, the Helobung Troupe Cooperative, helped the community build skills in organic agriculture so that they can plant and harvest their own food, vegetables, and fruits. They were taught to use farm tools and equipment. He looked for ways to ensure regular health and medical care and education for the children. In 2008, Klohonon, a young lad from the community, was the first Tasaday to enter college.

tasaday IMG_5685Where the Tasaday lives is also an area with abundant natural resources and where primary forests can still be found. There are aggresive coal mining and logging claims and interests in this area. The Tasaday community area provides ecological services for the surrounding areas in Lake Sebu in South Cotabato province.

In 1972, the Philippine government awarded the Tasaday a 19,000-hectare reservation. In 2000, the Tasaday community wanted their area proclaimed as their ancestral domain. When ESSC engaged with the community to understand and translate for Philippine society what they wanted, the Tasaday community sketched with detail the land and resources they are willing to protect and maintain. They identified an area of around 4,400 hectares at the core of the original reserve area: the biodiversity, the different tree species, the animals, the plants, the rivers, creeks, and streams. This resulted in a series of Tasaday maps that ESSC developed with the Tasaday community and which is the basis for their ancestral domain application. ESSC integrated their knowledge of their area in government technical maps. The Tasaday community then presented and shared these maps with the local and national government.

John and the Tasaday community appreciated the maps in that they now have a basis to engage with Philippine society and they pursued the effort with the National Commission for Indigenous Peoples. As of the latest development, the process is in the final stage. But John never got to see this. John passed away last 9 March 2010 in Columbus, Ohio, USA.<

ESSC is sharing with its readers the accompanying text that explained the Tasaday Maps developed in 2000.

The Tasaday Maps of 2000

tasaday_mapIn 1972, the newly discovered Tasaday tribe was granted 19,247 hectares of land as their settlement area by the Philippine Government. The land was officially proclaimed as the Tasaday Manobo Blit Preserve. After 30 years, and all the fuss has died down over their uniqueness and not as a tribe, the basic needs of the community require attention. The community is in the process of proclaiming their own understanding of, and relation with, the land, water, biodiversity, and forest and wants the government’s agreement to their management approach.

The Tasaday, taking their name from the mountain above their cave, was proclaimed a new tribe as Philippine society moved towards martial law. Academic discussions ensued about their finding being a hoax, and later a hoax of a hoax, but few in the academic world did any service to the community addressing their basic needs for survival. Martial law plunged the greater area into inaccessibility and the people have since been forgotten until neighboring communities supported them in getting assistance.

The language they speak is Tasaday and the National Commission of Indigenous Peoples now lists this ethnolinguistic group as one of the indigenous Philippine communities. The place where they live is administratively referred to as Sitio Tasaday. They have shifted from the Big Cave and now live in wooden houses scattered around the mountain in forest clearings. Major portions of the forest below the mountain have been cleared and their area is increasingly under pressure from outside.

tasaday_map2The surviving members of the original group in the 1970s and the succeeding generations that came after are struggling to be heard once again, but on their own terms now and with a sharper understanding of the context of their daily lives. The area they want to proclaim as their ancestral domain and for which they are willing to manage and take responsibility is a mere 23% of the land proclaimed by government: 4,438 hectares in the heart of the original reserve area.

Originally drawn on plastic sheets four and a half meters by six meters, the community map was reproduced in finer detail and reduced to one meter by one meter. The map was reviewed by the community, integrated with government technical maps, and again validated by the community. The resulting maps graphically depict who they are and how they live. Their depiction of reality and of the environment in which they live is a challenge to Philippine society to listen to what they are saying. Both the community sketches and the integrated maps illustrate that the community very clearly works with the reality of watershed boundaries as determined by the topography and the natural flow of water.

tasaday_map3There is a need to understand the “reduced” area of the community’s claim and there are several points to consider. First, the government was trying to protect the area and wanted to create a buffer at a time when ancestral domains were not recognized. Second, the community never identified the area that they used, nor their needs, to survive. Third, the area included some lands used by other communities in part and who were never able to recount their activities. Fourth, and very importantly, the Tasaday do not operate in a control mode and are happy to share the resources around them. When they did identify the core area, this is then what they desperately need to protect and manage at this point and do not want it further whittled away. They have little sense as yet as to how their community will grow and what the needs are beyond the present sense of insecurity. Therefore, what are of utmost importance are primarily the protection of the core area and then a further review of the broader Preserve area with neighboring communities to establish the importance of this area in buffering the mountain and reviewing the possible shared uses.

The community mapping activities carried out during the year provided them a clearer basis to communicate with society and by which to deal with the future as they struggle to survive on a daily basis. The community is showing its willingness to work with government and society, if government and society are willing to come together with them. While these maps will serve as appendices to the community’s request of government for clearer rights, the social collective process the Tasaday community went through to sketch their area is a strength they will draw on in crafting their management plan and in externally negotiating their claim.

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