Struggling for Existence after the Pinatubo Eruption 1991: Catastrophe, Suffering and Rebirth of Ayta Communities




Paper Presented at the Session

 “The Philippine Negritos: Past, Present and Future,”

Held at Inter-congress of IUAES 2002, on September 27,

Toshi Center Hotel, Tokyo, Japan



Hiromu Shimizu

Graduate School of Social and Cultural Studies

Kyushu University




The eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in June 1991 was the largest eruption of its kind in this century. Damage caused by the volcanic explosions and ash falls at the time of the eruption as well as by rampaging lahar flows (landslide of wet volcanic debris) during successive rainy seasons reached an astronomical figure, spreading over five provinces. Eighty thousand houses were damaged and eight thousand more were totally destroyed. Far more than one million people suffered from the damage or loss of their properties (Bautista 1996, Mercado et al 1996 ). Over one hundred thousand people were forced to live in evacuation centers or tent cities temporarily, and then many of them moved to settle down in twenty resettlement sites (11 for lowlanders and 9 for highlanders=Aytas) provided by the government or in other places voluntarily.

        According to Mercado et al, “Damage to crops, infrastructure, and personal property totaled at least 10.1 billion pesos ($US 374 million) in 1991, and an additional 1.9 billion pesos ($US 69 million) in 1992. In addition, an estimated 454 million pesos ($US 17 million) of business was foregone in 1991, as was an additional 37 million pesos ($US 1.4 million) of business in 1992. The costs of caring for evacuees (including construction of evacuation camps and relocation centers) was at least 2.5billion pesos ($US 93 million) in 1991-92, and an additional 4.2 billion pesos ($US 154 million) was spent during the same period on dikes and dams to control lahars (1996: 1063).”

        The Aytas, who used to live on the slopes and foot of Mt. Pinatubo, were the most seriously affected by the disastrous eruption. I conducted 20 months field work in the late 1970s among the Aytas living in and around Kakilingan village [1] in the southwestern area of Mt. Pinatubo, and since then have made repeated visits to my friends there.

     Before the major eruption in June 1991, almost all Aytas in the Pinatubo areas, except for more than a hundred villagers in Ma-aguagu and Lomboy who refused to go down but fled into nearby caves and got burnt to death, had evacuated in May or in early June to the lowland towns, and many of them never came back to their home villages in the mountains since then. Their houses and fields were all buried deep under the volcanic ash and pebbles during the eruption or mudflows during the rainy seasons. After spending hard lives for several months at more than 100 temporal evacuation centers and tent cities, more than half of them moved to nine resettlement areas developed by the government to settle down and start new lives while the rest continued to stay behind in the centers for a while. Nearly all of these evacuation centers and most of those resettlement areas, however, provided the Aytas with only small farm lots which were too dry and stony for crops to grow.  It was, therefore, almost impossible for the Aytas to support themselves by agriculture inside those resettlement areas nor in evacuation centers.

     Some fortunate Ayta families have gone back to their old villages that were spared by lahar attacks, or to adjacent mountain slopes of their buried villages, where accumulated volcanic ash and pebbles were washed away by hard rains and natural environments were partially recovered from damage.  They all hope to resume the life they had before the eruption.  Majority of the Ayta refugees in the Zambales side of Mt. Pinatubo, however, could not go back to the mountains but stayed in the government resettlement areas such as Baquilan and Loob-bunga near Botolan town, working as casual laborers for lowland farmers, or as construction workers and as simple laborers in the informal sector in nearby towns.  Some of these families occasionally went back to the mountains to work in swidden fields during the dry season, while they stayed the whole rainy season in the resettlement areas.  Some other families or a group of families moved to a private land which were fortunately donated to them by a NGO, or to a public land granted through petition by the government as another resettlement site, or to any vacant place where they just squatted.

     As a general tendency, it seems that the Ayta population has been dispersed and scattered around into small segments, and assimilated into the lowlander society. [2]   While an individual Ayta might be able to keep his/her strong Ayta identity, he/she could also receive and/or accept strong influences from lowlanders and would not be reluctant to adopt the lowlanders way of life and material culture in order to adjust himself/herself and survive in mainstream society. It might be safely said that majority of the Ayta refugees are now in the process of rapid adjustment to lowlanders’ way of life at least superficially.  In the aspect of material culture and life style, the Pinatubo Aytas as a whole will move, step by step, toward the lowlander Christians way of life.

        On the other hand, however, the cultural and ethnic self-conscienticization has also been strongly enhanced among those living in the resettlement sites through interactions and negotiations with lowlanders, media people, government employees, and NGO workers, even with foreign journalists and philanthropists. From the mixed feelings of depression and repulsion against the lowlanders scornful attitudes, they have been led to realize that they are discriminated against because of their being Ayta. At the same time, however, they also understand that they were and still can be given special aid and consideration by supporting agencies also because of their being Ayta.

     Before the eruption, Pinatubo Ayta society was not culturally homogeneous. Individual Ayta were located on a gradual continuum between the two ideal types of “culturally pure” Ayta living on the higher parts of Mt. Pinatubo on the one hand and the Christian lowlanders on the other hand.  After the eruption this diversity has widened much much further.

In general, the number of Ayta who maintain the “traditional” way of life by practicing swidden cultivation is becoming fewer.  Even though individuals may maintain a strong identity of being Ayta, they may still be strongly influenced by the lowlanders.  In terms of material culture and life style, the Pinatubo Ayta will, on the whole, move, step by step closer to the Christian lowlanders’ way of life.


Contrary to my worries, however, about Aytas’ ethnic and cultural survival after the eruption, their consciousness of being Ayta has been strongly enhanced especially among those who settled down in the resettlement areas and accepted or adopted lowlanders’ way of life.  They are keenly aware of the fact that they were the people who suffered most violently from the eruption, not only from the deaths of close relatives but also from the hardship of life both in the evacuation centers and resettlement sites. They feel that all the Pinatubo Ayta share this fate equally.

Moreover, a couple of years after the eruption, Ayta residents in each resettlement site started to establish small grass-roots organizations among themselves according to residential and factional subdivisions in order to qualify as beneficiaries of government or NGO projects, and to apply for funds for their own subsistence projects.  These small grass-roots organizations have formed in turn regional umbrella organizations such as PINATUBO (Pinagsama-samang Ayta na Tutulong para Umunlad ang Botolan) in the Iba-Botolan area, ADA in the Subic-Olongapo area, and, at the widest level, CLAA, the overall Central Luzon Ayta Association.  Because of the eruption, through their exodus and suffering, and through their exposure to and struggles in lowland society, the Pinatubo Ayta have strengthened their ethnic identity and, more importantly, have established solidarity among themselves.

       Since the eruption they have been facing drastically the same problems as other indigenous peoples in the Philippines like the Tasaday in Mindanao (Headland 1992), the Batak in Palawan (Eder 1987) and the Agta in Sierra Madre of Northeastern Luzon (Rai 1990).  The common problem of these groups is how to secure a land to make a living as well as a sociopolitical space in which they can enhance their human, civil, and ancestral rights, given that they can no longer live in the isolation from the outside world nor maintain the basic resources necessary for their livelihood. The urgent issue for them is to find a way to avoid being absorbed totally and helplessly within the political and economic system of the modern world, at the very bottom of the hierarchical social order.

       The Tasaday, for example, are caught in a dilemma.  If they are a true “Stone Age” people, they are not allowed to live as our contemporaries and citizens with equal status, but are excluded as an exotic and confined to cultural preservation schemes resembling human zoos. But if they are not “Stone Age,” they become a mere ethnic minority with no legitimate claim to cultural uniqueness or special rights as a group (Bodly 1992).

       When the leaders of the Ayta groups recognized this dilemma and decided to try and survive with dignity in lowland society, demanding their rights as indigenous people as well as Filipino citizens, they started to use the term kultura nin Ayta (culture of Ayta) frequently.  When they apply for funds for subsistence and other projects, they usually explain the urgency and the necessity of a project as being indispensable for the restoration and maintenance of the Ayta community with its distinctive culture.  Consciousness raising and the frequent use of the word “Ayta culture” is, in one sense, an appropriation of the tactics of the supporting NGOs.  They explain that special assistance to the Ayta has priority over that to lowlander refugees by emphasizing the importance of the Ayta cultural heritage for the sake of the continuity, integration, and development of the community.


    There is no instant remedy to solve hardship, difficulties and problems of the Aytas caused by the eruption.  One fundamental solution, however, would be for the Aytas to redeem the ancestral land around Mt. Pinatubo.  Ayta POs and its umbrella organizations like PINATUBO and CLAA repeatedly demanded through petitions, demonstration rallies, and press conferences that the sites of Subic and Clark bases, or at least priority to use them should be returned to the Aytas.

     As early as November, 1991, an Ayta delegation made a petition to the Senate to seek the immediate passage of a bill declaring Mount Pinatubo and other areas inhabited by tribal minorities as ancestral domain. Philippine Dairy Inquirer reports as follows;


    Aetas of Central Luzon are seeking to reclaim Clark Air Base and its surrounding lands after the US military facility is turned over to the government on Nov. 26. “The land in Clark was just borrowed by the Americans from us. We are asking government to get it back.” Said Ric Guiao of the Samahan ng mga Katutubo sa Floridablanca.

     “We only lent our land to the Americans early this century for their horses to graze.  They did not tell us they were to convert it into an air field and later into a military base,” Guiao said. “Now that the Americans are gone, we are getting it back and nobody could take it from us,” Guiao said … The Aetas are asking the government to declare the base ancestral domain to prevent the plunder of its remaining forest. The governments is planning to relocate the Aetas elsewhere (11/25/1991).


       Moreover the Ayta leaders insist that until the 19th century, when the Spanish colonization process rapidly expanded deep into Zambales and Pampanga, the inland areas of both provinces were covered with thick forests and occupied by their forefathers.  The lands were forcibly grabbed from them and they were pushed up to the Pinatubo area by the pressure of Zambal, Kapampangan and Ilocano migrants.  In order to justify the demand for the recovery of the base sites as well as the petition for other government lands, the Ayta leaders strongly put forward the hunter-image as their self-portrait.  In the seemingly contradiction that they described themselves as hunters in essence in order to demand land for cultivation as farmers, the bow and arrows symbolized neither primitiveness nor their being exotic, but indigenousness with direct descent from these ancestors and aggressiveness to protect their own rights and dignity.

 Although this kind of self-representation runs the risk of strengthening the stereotypes and prejudices of the general public through the media reports – which often call them ironically “our ancestors” with mixed feeling of contempt and respect – it is still effective in their cultural politics thanks to strong support from foreign and domestic NGOs, as well as from progressive urban intellectuals. [3]

    All the Aytas are keenly aware of the fact that they were harmed most violently by the eruption and have suffered most seriously from displacement, uprootedness and total deprivation, death of close relatives, and the hardship of life both in evacuation centers and resettlement areas.  They strongly feel that all of the Pinatubo Aytas shared this fate of suffering equally.  I hope and believe that this awareness of their shared experiences as well as their sincere desire to live with basic human rights and dignity could be a solid foundation for their united effort to establish a secured position with indigenous peoples’ rights and human dignity in the Philippine society. [4]

         As a strong consciousness of shared fate and ethnic identity among the Aytas has been emerging since the eruption, what is now needed is to make it easy for the Ayta leaders to participate in the nationwide cultural and political arena and to play for the welfare of the Ayta communities against ignorance, injustice and discrimination toward them. By sharing their experiences, the National Society of the Philippines, I heartily hope, could better understand the once-and-still marginalized people, and accept them as fellow citizens building together a heterogeneous, multi-cultural and harmonious society.




Bautista, Cynthia, 1996, The Mount Pinatubo Disaster and the People of Central Luzon. in Newhall, Christopher & R. Punongbayan (eds.) Fire and Mud: Eruptions and Lahars of Mount Pinatubo Philippines, Quezon City: Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology.

Bodley, John. 1992. “The Tasaday debate and indigenous people,” in The Tasaday Controversy, ed. Thomas Headland. Washington D.C.: American Anthropological Association.

Brosius, Peter. 1983. “The Zambales Negritos: swidden agriculture and environmental change,” Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society 2 (1–2).

Eder, James. 1987. On the Road to Tribal Extinction. Berkeley: University of Californi Press.

Headland, Thomas. 1992. “The Tasaday: a hoax or not?” in The Tasaday Controversy, ed. In Thomas Headland. Washington, D.C.: American Anthropological Association.

Koshida Kiyokazu,1993. “Jiritsu e no mosaku,” Hokkaido Daigaku Kyouikugakubu Kiyou 60.

LAKAS. 1991. Eruption and Exodus: Mt. Pinatubo and the Ayta of Zambales. Quezon City, Claretian Publications.

Mercado, Remigio, J.B. Lacsamana, & G. Pineda, 1996, Socioeconomic Impacts of the Mount Pinatubo Eruption, in Newhall, Christopher & R. Punongbayan (eds.) Fire and Mud: Eruptions and Lahars of Mount Pinatubo Philippines, Quezon City: Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology.

Rai, Navin. 1990. Living in a Lean-to: Philippine Negrito Foragers in Transition. Ann Arbor: The Regents of the University of Michigan.

Sahlins, Marshall. 1972. Stone Age Economics. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Co.

Seitz, Stefan, 1998, “Coping Strategies in an Ethnic Minority Group: The Aeta of Mount Pinatubo,” Disasters Vol.22, No.1

Shimizu, Hiromu. 1989. Pinatubo Ayta: Continuity and Change. Quezon City; Ateneo de Manila University Press.

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[1] I used the pseudo name Kaugan for Kakilingan in my book Pinatubo Aytas  (1989).

[2] It must be pointed out that the government, by allowing non-Aytas to settle in government-established resettlement areas supposed for Aytas (highlanders), has unwittingly established and followed a policy of forced integration. At least in Iram and Cawag in southern Zambales, government resettlements for the Ayta refugees from San Marcelino area, the Aytas were left with no choice but to accept and live with the influx of many non-Aytas who are now becoming the dominant and dominating group in these resettlements. Mr. Rufino Tima, the executive director of EFMDI-ADA which has been operating with the Southwestern Pinatubo Aytas since 1975, pointed out that the negative consequences of this forcible assimilation are to merge:

   1. The increasing problem of drunkenness and alcoholism among Ayta men in Iram.

 2. The infrequency of traditional healing ritual performances because Aytas are rather reluctant to arouse the curiosity and  

   the belittlement of their traditional practice by their lowland neighbors.

 3. The increasing use of Tagalog/Filipino, rather than Zambal, as the preferred language of everyday discourse.

Given this process, over time this would lead to a loss of their native tongue and all the cultural elements associated with ones language.(Personal correspondence, June 17, 1997)

[3]  Such a strategy of cultural politics is not unique nor isolated, and the Kayapo of the Brazilian Amazon, for example, present another illuminating case. Turner reports that “In 1986–87, and even more in 1989, it was common to hear Kayapo leaders and ordinary men and women speaking about continuing to follow their cultural way of life and defending it against assimilative or destructive pressures from the national society as the animating purpose of their political struggle” (1991: 304).



[4] LAKAS, a Peoples Organization from the western slope of Mt. Pinatubo, already published in 1991 Eruption and Exodus, the compilation of narratives by its members about unforgettable experiences as well as reports about its activities and achievements before and after the eruption reports of the achievement.