You can never go wrong when you are in the countryside.

Bukidnon for example, offers a picturesque view of the mountains and a weather far better than any crowded metropolis’s discomforting humidity. Walking past unending greenery that is only dotted by interspersed rows of houses, one would only imagine what’s behind the innocuous plains, valleys and plateaus. Still, the hidden wonders escape yet patiently await both the lucid and the jaded travelers.

But it isn’t just about the delightful weather and postcard-perfect scenery that invoke images of unfussy parochial living.

The lumads

Past the bustling City of Valencia and from the city proper of Malaybalay, known for its Baguio-like temperament, off we went to Kibalabag which unknown to many, is home to the industrious Higaonon tribe. Some time during the two-hour ride and walk through pebbled and grassy roads, and a river that was inviting for a quick swim, we, a group of select-media practitioners together with some 4Ps NCR staff and regional field workers, were greeted by sudden rain. But as we arrived at the place, we were in awe of the welcoming dance-and-sing lumads that we totally forgot about the arduous trek. The breathtaking mountains offered a seething backdrop to the settlement that only defined consummately how ‘humble and proud’ they are as seemingly forgotten people. The tentative showers failed to dampen the festive atmosphere. They danced to the steps of ‘Pasasalamat’ and courtship, and even sang the Philippine national anthem in their own dialect.

HIGA means Living, GOAN means mountains and ONON means people. They could be described as “people of the living mountains.”

According to The United Association of Higaonon Tribes or UNAHI Mindanao Inc., the Higaonons are an indigenous tribe found in the northern regions of the island of Mindanao in The Philippines. “With a population estimated at 350, 000, they are distributed over five provinces — Agusan del Norte, Agusan del Sur, Misamis Oriental, Lanao del Norte and Bukidnon. Since “Creation Times” the Higaonon have lived in their forest home, undisturbed, managing the forest in a natural and harmonious way,” the website said.

The tribe, it further added, is made up of eight clans centered in the eight main rivers of their “Ancestral Domain” that are divided into warrior and peaceful clans. They follow a Datu system of government where each Datu, generally an elder, is trained in distinct areas of expertise, e.g. administration, spirituality and education.

The women-beneficiaries of 4Ps

Wencelie Lagunday, wife of the barangay captain easily talked about how at least 30 women earned a living out of raw abaca that they plant themselves to craft baskets, bags, brooms and other home decors. “Mura lang po ito pero binibenta po nang mahal pag nasa labas na,” she generously quipped. She was referring to their products being sold to traders from the lowlands who bought them at cheaper rates.

Wencelie is one of the 1,204 of the nearly 27,000 IPs in Bukidnon who is a beneficiary of DSWD’s 4Ps. As a member of the ten-year old Kibalabag Handicraft Makers, she received from the start a P1,000 capital from the DSWD which was payable on installment basis to help propel the women’s communal livelihood.

“Matagal na pong bayad kami at sa awa ng Diyos nakatulong naman kahit papano,” said Nancy Odiseo, president of the handicraft makers. The challenge she said is to be able to sustain their livelihood. Apart from selling their finished products on cheaper prices, the travel to the trading areas is long and takes a considerable amount of money for fare. “Minsan wala nang natitira sa amin.” They would be elated if occasional visitors come to their barangay and buy their products. She said the DSWD has already discussed to them other programs they can avail of to reinforce and build on what they already have.

According to the September 2013 Valencia City’s accomplishment report, Higaonons has the most number of beneficiaries. “Pantawid Pamilya Pilipino Program has saturated the whole province of Bukidnon,” said the City’s report. The 4th district includes the City of Valencia and the Municipalities of Kalilangan and Pangantucan.

The Higaonons today are simply living by their unique customs and traditions – a legacy passed on by their forefathers from one generation to another. In their struggle to survive as indigenous people and adhere to the sacred duty to preserve the tribe’s heritage, Higaonons adopt to the challenges of modern times through peaceful co-existence and acceptance for what they really are — as relevant as every Filipino who has a valuable cultural and indigenous imprint. (Written by Ariel C. Sebellino, Executive Director, Philippine Press Institute)