The day starts early in the mountains, and at four o'clock in the morning, children in a tribal school deep in the hinterlands of Mindanao are up and working their farm. Everyone in the village of Han-ayan in Surigao del Sur
province is wide awake, even before the moon starts to hide behind the mountains of the Andap Valley. The cold morning breeze from the forest greets the students as they walk to the fields. The planting season is over, but the children have to make sure weeds do not overcome the plants. Each student has a piece of land to grow vegetables, herbs and medicinal plants. "Agriculture is part of the school's curriculum," said Mitch Pagaran, a volunteer teacher of the Alternative Learning Center for Agriculture and Livelihood Development
, a secondary school for tribal people.
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Pagaran said students have at least two hours every morning to take care of their farm. The school has 156 students, all from tribal farming communities across the province. "We are not here to teach the children how to plant. They know it already," said the teacher. On this particular morning, Glenda Mae, a 16-year-old from the Manobo
tribe, is cleaning an area where she planted fruit trees four years ago before she was admitted to the school. "These trees come from my family. It is our payment to the school," said the girl. Admission to the tribal school, including the use of the dormitories, is free. Every student, however, has to plant trees before being admitted. While in school, they are also encouraged to share their tribe's way of planting and taking care of a farm. Pagaran said the school encourages students to develop "innovative ideas" that can reinforce their indigenous knowledge in farming. The school maintains an "agriculture-based curriculum" that is sensitive to the culture of the tribal people because the students are the next generation of "guardians of their ancestral lands." Taking care of indigenous culture
For generations, the tribal people of the Andap Valley have depended on their land for survival. Despite contact with lowlanders and the coming of Christian migrants, the Manobo tribe has been able to preserve its own culture. They believe in the "Magbabaya" or "the Creator who is the source of everything." Tribal chieftain Jalandoni Campos said the tribe is always connected to nature. "Everything is created as one," he said. "Our existence depends on the mountains, the forests, the trees, the rivers, and all of its inhabitants. Our life is with nature," he said. The tribal leader said the environment is a "gift from the Creator" who "lends us everything that we need." Tribal people in the southern Philippine region of Mindanao have always practiced communal farming on their ancestral lands. In the last century, however, logging companies came, displacing several tribal families and communities. "Our parents, who did not know how to read and write, were deceived into signing documents that allowed the logging companies in," said Campos. It was then that the tribes saw the need to have their children educated. "We do not want them to suffer the same fate because we were not educated," said the tribal chief. In 2004, some 22 Manobo tribal communities set up tribal schools with the help of Tandag Diocese. Church role in tribal education
In the late 1970s, the late Bishop Ireneo Amantillo of Tandag established the Tribal Filipino Apostolate that provided a numeracy and literacy program to indigenous people. The program later became the Tribal Filipino Program of Surigao del Sur, which later was able to build ten community schools in different tribal villages. The Department of Education awarded the program the "National Literacy Award" in 2001 and 2005, making the province of Surigao del Sur known for its "non-formal education." To address the need for higher learning, the program, with the help of Bishop Amantillo, established a high school in 2004. Catholic priest Raymond Montero Ambray, who has been documenting tribal people in the area for years, said the church's education program supports the Manobo people's "indigenous spirituality." "We want to ensure that the culture of oneness with nature will continue," said the priest, adding that the tribal people have been practicing "what we Catholics have been trying to propagate." Father Ambray said the tribal people's connection with the environment and their will to protect it "is mandated by their faith and spirituality." "We must give tribal students what they really need. They need to become defenders of the environment, people who will teach us how to protect our common home," said the priest.