A group of men standing on the rocks around a waterfall
Photograph by Jacob Maentz

The Land Is Home, the Sea Is Community

Eight ways in which
the Philippine Islands shape life

In 2020, I was introduced to a photography project that left me speechless. For ten years, Jacob Maentz had been photographing the Indigenous communities of the Philippines for a book he titled Homelands. He invited me to provide the accompanying text, but I found myself at a loss for words; in his images I saw glimpses of a home I didn’t know I’d lost, of a relationship I didn’t know I needed. It made me wonder if I’d ever truly known the Philippines, the country I call my own.

To find my way back, I would need to listen. In the Philippines, there are one hundred and ten communities whom we call “Indigenous,” those who have remained rooted to the diverse landscapes of our archipelago against great, unrelenting adversity. If we want to be in “right relationship” with our planet, we must learn from those who have never forgotten how. Together with Jacob and our team of researchers, we spent a hundred hours interviewing Indigenous leaders, students, nongovernmental organization (NGO) workers, artists, and academics from around the Philippines.

“Land is life,” we were told, over and over. I came to realize that these words speak of more than the resilience of our Indigenous brothers and sisters; they tell the story of our islands, which is also the story of those who call it home. In the Philippines, life is shaped along the same lines as its islands.

The ocean is grey and blends into the sky. In the forground is a blurry child. In the background, other children are swimming

A wooden house sits in the middle of a forested area. The sun is bright and is casting shadows on two children walking away from the house.

Photographs by Jacob Maentz

1: Every island is a world all its own.

One afternoon, while walking across a limestone ridge covered in rainforest, a Filipino geoscientist named Narod Eco told me that the island we were on, Luzon, shelters hundreds if not thousands of endemic plants and animals. Nearly all of its fifty-six kinds of mammals are found nowhere else on Earth. The karst landscape had been completely deforested and scarred by large-scale quarrying before a civil engineer named Ben Dumaliang fell in love with the jagged rock formations that stood like the sentinels of a disappeared civilization. He decided to rehabilitate it, and twenty years later, here we were, picking our way through the dense tangle of bamboo groves, rattan vines, and strangler figs of an award-winning land trust that he and his daughters named Masungi, from the Tagalog word used to describe sharp, uneven objects, oftentimes teeth.

The geoscientist went further: even the mountains of Luzon have their own species, so that if you were a giant and used the mountains like steppingstones, hopping from one peak to another, you’d discover that each forest’s ecosystem is unlike any of the others. “Sky islands,” he called them.

The same goes for the bodies of water between our islands. They shelter forests of their own: coral reefs as diverse and life-sustaining as any ecosystem above the ocean’s surface.

A child is in a boat on the water, navigating around small islands and bits of wood

Trees arise from the mist

Photographs by Jacob Maentz

2: The truth of this ecological richness remains, like the islands themselves, submerged.

The scientific world has long overlooked the fact that more kinds of marine creatures can be found in the Philippines than anywhere else on Earth. Many of the world’s known marine fish species were first discovered and described in Indonesia, which also happened to be home of the most prolific ichthyologist in history, a Dutchman by the name of Pieter Bleeker. Nobody looked at fish in the Philippines until the Americans arrived in the early 1900s. Or, to put it better, Filipinos were already looking at, catching, and even preserving fish, but they did so for less convoluted reasons: they were not cataloging or conquering anything; they just wanted to eat and live. Nevertheless, things cannot be broadly known if they are not named. And if something isn’t known, it can’t be related to, accounted for, given space.

A wide shot of houses and buildings on sand and on stilted foundations in the water

The rock of a cliff face is showing through trees and vegetation. On the rock there are wooden signs.

Photographs by Jacob Maentz

3: The story of the Philippine archipelago is complicated, written in layers.

Life is shaped, first and last, by the land. The Philippine archipelago’s biodiversity is complex, because its geography is complex, layered as it is with various geological events. There’s a dad joke about how our total number of islands depends on whether the tide is low or high—in truth, this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. As the ocean rose and fell according to the changing epochs, many islands came together, and broke apart, over and over. Some of them coalesced once more, while others stayed separate. Luzon, the Philippines’ oldest and biggest island, is believed to be composed of four paleo-islands—eventually, these ancient islands became those mountain sky islands. Luzon’s closest neighbor, Mindoro, actually broke off from continental Asia, before traveling to its current position. Meanwhile, the Batanes islands north of Luzon always stood apart, having emerged from the ocean: part volcano, part coral reef. And that’s just three of the 7,641 islands, some more ancient than others, each with its own unique origin story.

The Philippines is the capital of the water world—at least in this current epoch—largely because of this singular geography. The formation of these islands over millennia resulted in a distinct shape and position that make the archipelago a safe and easy place for life to grow. Gradually, the scientific world is coming to accept marine biologist Kent Carpenter’s description of the Philippines in his landmark paper, “The Center of the Center of Marine Shore Fish Biodiversity.” This has also become a catchphrase for Filipino conservationists and tourism operators. And as geographical conditions shift over the succeeding millennia, so too will the world’s centers.

A person with a spear standing in the water near a rocky shore. They are surrounded by bright green plants and vegetation

Trucks kicking up dirt as they drive througg bare earth, navigating pits and mounds of dirt and rock

Photographs by Jacob Maentz

4: Like our islands, our biodiversity is vanishing. 

The famous microcosm of Lake Lanao in Mindanao drew evolutionary biologists from around the world, with its twenty endemic species and four endemic genera (never mind the Latin words: think of branches; think of tree trunks). Fish farms introduced foreign species like catfish and tilapia to the lake, and hydroelectric plants were built in the area. Today, a few decades later, only two native fish species are left.

So ends the extraordinary explosion of life in one of the most ancient lakes in the world—all the more wondrous for its smallness, and now all the more devastating. Some of the most tragic acts of ecocide are also the most local. If you’d rather think globally, it’s no better: we are losing our spectrum of species at a rate a thousand times more than anything Earth has seen. Extinction is natural, but its current speed is man-made.

Two people, a man and a child, are crouched near a small cooking fire.

A wooden structure glowing red with fire sits amongst the trees and plants. A blue, starry sky is the background

Photographs by Jacob Maentz

5: Yet, no island is alone. 

Each island may have its own diverse ecology, but there is constant flow and exchange between them. After all, the Philippines is more water than land; movement characterizes life in these islands. This also means that, ecologically speaking, no island is more important than all the others. They belong to an archipelago, and so in a sense they belong to one another.

Let’s begin under the sea. Coral reefs are actually long-term settlements, gradually built by millions of tiny creatures called coral polyps, in which other species take up residence for varying lengths of time. Although coral polyps and, say, giant clams settle down more or less permanently; others, like tuna and sardines, travel great distances, never stopping for long. When it comes to mobility, however, most species are somewhere in the middle: depending on the time of day or season, angelfish mostly hang around their home reef; parrotfish might roam farther, visiting different reefs; and some species of octopus will even migrate vertically, going from shallow waters to deep, and back.

It’s also common for fish to change habitats according to their life stage: butterflyfish and groupers, for example, spend the first weeks of their life adrift at sea, stopping over in mangroves and sea grasses before settling down on a coral reef to mature and reproduce—they’ll continue to commute, even then, foraging or spawning in other habitats, the distance varying with the species. The same ocean currents that bring microscopic coral larvae, fish spawn, and life-giving nutrients to safe harbors also send off schools of fish and other species to populate other parts of the world’s seas. Sanctuary and mobility are equally essential.

The humans that inhabit these islands move around much the same way. Some humans send roots deep into a place, growing in kinship with the land and with one another to foster distinct, independent communities. Other humans hop around the archipelago—residing on one island, marrying someone from another, working a job on yet another. And many go abroad—2.18 million of us, as of 2019. They sent 33.5 billion USD home to their families, representing 9.3 percent of our gross domestic product. The Philippines is also the world’s largest supplier of commercial seafarers. Above and below the sea, for humans and nonhumans alike, life on these islands is like water: it connects, it mingles, it flows.

An up-close shot of someone carving characters into bamboo

A close-up of an older mans face a torso. Tattoos in intricate patterns loop around his chest and arms.

Photographs by Jacob Maentz

6: This is a land of many languages.

No land without life, Indigenous Filipinos like to say. But where life goes, language follows. One harks to the other, just as in the Cordillera Mountain Range of Northern Luzon, the cry of the kiling bird invited its naming: ki-ling ki-ling. Much is made of the nature-culture divide, but the reality is deliciously entangled. The patterns ecology makes are far more pervasive than those made by our minds.

Genetic studies confirm that, for the most part, humans echo Earth’s geography in terms of where we migrate, and how our cultures diversify. So much so that the centers of the world’s biodiversity also hold 70 percent of Earth’s languages. The Philippines alone is host to 186 living languages, and many of these languages are endemic to a very specific, concentrated area. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the mountains of Luzon are a hot spot for both endemic biodiversity and Indigenous languages.

Read more from Asian American and Pacific Islander authors and learn more about culture and language here.

Like the world’s plants and animals, the world’s languages are also disappearing. By the end of this century, at least half of our languages, and possibly up to 90 percent, will be extinct.

People in ceremonial dress walk down a hall.

Many people in a river, most wearing red cloth wrapped around their waists. By standers with umbrellas can be seen in the background.

Photographs by Jacob Maentz

7: The languages of these islands shelter life.

The connection between language and life goes even deeper: linguistic diversity protects biodiversity. The story returns, as it always does, to the Indigenous. Not because they are “the last,” as colonial anthropologists fancifully imagined. Nor even “the first,” which is how our national histories mythologize their communities. Rather, their culture remembers what urban societies often forget: on our planet, everything is connected.

Like all words, the meaning of “Indigenous” is alive, evolving. Minnie Degawan, a Kankanaey-Igorot from the Cordillera and director of the Indigenous and Traditional Peoples Program of Conservation International, says that she gets into an argument with her daughter about it, every time. “She’s trying to be—what does she call it? Not quite an atheist?” she laughs. “For me, I always think that being Indigenous means just simply recognizing that there’s always a bigger force out there. I don’t want to call it anything other than that, but at the end of the day, you are accountable to what you do and to your relationship to the things around you.”

Making up only 5 percent of Earth’s human population, Indigenous peoples are the global minority. Yet, they take care of up to a quarter of the world’s land, and 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity. The knowledge and practices that enable them to sustainably manage Earth’s resources better than most national government-run conservation systems are ingrained in their traditions and infused in their everyday life, a nuanced system refined over centuries; it is not a product or program that can be extracted or replicated outside of their homelands.

Degawan moved with her family to the United States to bring the voices of her people to the attention of the world’s most powerful policymakers. In the words of Windel Bolinget, another member of Degawan’s community and the head of the Cordillera People’s Alliance: “Indigenous means what I am today and what I will be tomorrow.” Ultimately, this mindfulness, or perhaps time-fullness, is a mode of being in the world that Degawan holds onto despite the distance. It helps her never forget what she tells her own daughter: “You are not alone. There’s a community with you wherever you go.”

A group of people are huddled around a hand-drawn map.

A person in a river, leaning on a rock to fish with a spear. Another person sits on the rocks along the water's edge

Photographs by Jacob Maentz

8: No survival without coexistence.

There is no way that Indigenous communities can continue to take care of our ecosystems if their way of life, their very lives, are eradicated. Indigenous lives and lands are in constant danger, and their cultures and languages face near-certain extinction. The Philippines is the most dangerous place for environmental defenders in Asia; forty-three defenders peacefully protesting the harmful impacts of extractive industries were killed in 2019 alone. The fight against mass extinction and the Indigenous struggle for self-sovereignty is one and the same. We cannot save the world’s biodiversity without Indigenous lands and lives. And we cannot protect Indigenous lands and lives without protecting Indigenous cultures and languages. Indigenous or migrant, Filipino or foreign, we all belong to the same present-day Earth community. In this sense, we are all Indigenous—genetically, ecologically, existentially. We must take our lead from those who, for centuries, have stood, fought, and died for the right to coexist.

Irene, fourteen years old, is a young Indigenous Filipino fighting for her right to an education in Mindanao. She is a student at Salugpongan Ta’ Tanu Igkanogon Community Learning Center, an Indigenous school that the Philippine government’s Department of Education officially recognized until they abruptly shut down its fifty-five locations in 2019, displacing nearly two thousand students, a month after former president Duterte’s daughter, Sara Duterte, called for its closure.

Irene’s homeland in the Pantaron Mountain Range, one of the last old-growth forests left in the Philippines, is currently threatened by mining companies and hydro dam projects. She told me her story from a university campus in the country’s capital, where she and her classmates had sought sanctuary to continue their studies, fleeing the military presence in her homeland. “Para naman ito sa ating kinabukasan, kalayaan. Para sa ating mga anak. Kaya dapat magkaisa tayo. Kahit iba’t iba man yung ating salita o mga Tribo, magkaisa pa din kami kasi alam naman ng mga kasama namin na tama yung pinaglalaban natin—We must be united because we are fighting for our future, our freedom, our children. Even if our words or tribes are different, we are still united because we know that what we are fighting for is right.” In June 2022, Sara Duterte was elected as vice president of the Philippines, and appointed as head of the Department of Education. Human rights groups believe this does not bode well for Indigenous schools.

The environmental front line is not a straight line drawn across the ground, or a border fortified by a fence. It is a returning circle, like Earth’s seasons: ever present, ever changing. If Indigeneity means to choose coexistence in our every word, deed, and day, then it is an ideal as much as an identity. It can only be claimed if earned. And it can only be achieved if done in solidarity with the Indigenous communities that protect our planet—the only home we’ve got.

When asked what her dream is for her community, Irene’s reply was simple: “Maging malaya—to be free.” When asked what freedom looks like for her and her community, she held up a colorful hand-drawn map of her homeland. In bright marker she’d detailed features she knows by heart: rolling green mountains, pointy house roofs, warm yellow of a rising sun, a Philippine flag.

Ito po yung paaralan namin tapos nakapalibot po yung kahoy. Tapos ito po yung community, marami po doon grass. Tapos ito po yung sun, yung hanapbuhay namin ito, yung mais at palay. Tapos ito po yung ilog—This is our school surrounded by trees. And then, this is our community. There’s a lot of grass. This is the sun. This is our livelihood, this is the corn and rice. This is the river.”

A person under the water. They hold a spear and are waring goggles while standing on a board strapped to their right foot.

The starry night sky as seen behind a few trees.

Photographs by Jacob Maentz

This piece is adapted from Homelands, a collaborative book with photographs by Jacob Maentz, writing by Nicola Sebastian, additional essays from Neen Sapalo, Gabriel Malvar, and Anna Canlas, and artwork by Kristine Caguiat, Cian Dayrit, Raxenne Maniquiz, and Jo Tanierla.

A book cover. Shows a map of the Philippines superimposed onto a photo of birds flying oover the land at sunrise
Purchase your copy here and help distribute this book to Indigenous communities throughout the Philippines. One hundred percent of profits will go back into Project Katutubong Pilipino and provide scholarships for Indigenous youth.

 

Subscribe to Orion Ad

Nicola Sebastian is a Filipino writer, surfer, and National Geographic Explorer. Born in Hong Kong, she is interested in “islandness,” both as space and sensibility. Her work has been published in Orion magazine, Virginia Quarterly Review, Bellingham Review, VICE Asia, and CNN Philippines. Nicola graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University, New York, where she was the managing editor of the Columbia Journal, and taught fiction writing to undergraduates. She lives in La Union, Philippines, where she cofounded Emerging Islands, a coastal-based arts-for-ecology collective that tells island stories. She is also working on an ecological memoir on disaster, discovery, and the Philippines.

Jacob Maentz is a documentary photographer currently based in Cebu, Philippines. His work explores the interplay of the natural world, culture, and identity. For more than a decade, he has collaborated with various Indigenous communities and groups who have been historically marginalized in the Philippines. He studied conservation biology at Colorado State University and served as a Peace Corps volunteer from 2003 to 2005. Jacob is a project photographer with Blue Earth Alliance, a community of professionals that supports visual storytelling on critical environmental and social issues. His images have appeared in publications around the globe including Geographical, GEO, National Geographic Traveler, BBC Travel, Discovery Channel Magazine, and DestinAsian. Jacob is a 2021 Leica Oskar Barnack Award nominee.