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Batak Craft is a social enterprise that works towards skills and livelihood development for the vanishing Batak Tribe of Palawan, Philippines. We are so excited to share their story - and their beautiful hand-woven bamboo baskets - on Coopita.

Check out Batak Craft's Coopita store here


Can you tell us how you came to be involved with the Batak Tribe and how you started Batak Craft?

Palawan – as known to the world – is the Philippines’ last ecological frontier because of its abundant biodiversity in endemic plants and animals. Palawan is home to several indigenous ethnolinguistic groups, such as the Batak, Palaweños, Palawano, Taaw’t-Bato, and Tagbanwa . You could say that Palawan is also one of the last cultural frontiers of Philippine indigenous history.


Caption: Batak elders performing traditional dance.  

The land is so rich that the locals often say, “Now that you drank Palawan water, you are forever bound to return again and again throughout your life.” It may have been true for me, for little did I know that coming to Palawan to manage a construction project (2 years ago), would forever change my life.

I was working for an NGO to construct a yoga center at Roxas, Palawan, and we hired workers in the vicinity for the construction. Over time, I noticed that some workers were tougher, more honest, and more hardworking than the others. They showed up early at work; they left the last. They were humble, and seemed to be content with the simplest things in life. Curious, I got to know them better by visiting their homes, asking many questions, and ultimately discovering that they were members of a tribe called, Batak.

“Batak” is a truly fitting name as they sport very strong, lean bodies, and the senior citizens there are way, way stronger than city-dwelling youth (Batak in Tagalog means “strong”).

I went back home to Manila when the project concluded, but my relationship with the Batak was just beginning. Poring through academic papers, I started having a sinking feeling in my chest when I discovered that there are only about 300 of the Batak left, which is half of their population back in the 1900s.  They are traditionally hunters-gatherers, but with the forest resources on a steady decline, they are losing more and more of their food, livelihood, and cultural identity. This pushes them further into poverty, with not enough government laws and social safeguards to provide them some protection. I decided to carry out deeper research myself to learn if they wanted help, and identify the best way to help them.

I formed a small team with two other locals. With just a motorcycle, our bags and food supplies, we sought the 6 most populated Batak settlements on a three-week adventure of trekking hours across multiple river crossings going to and from each community.

Caption: Lara and her favorite Batak playmates. From left to right: Angelo, Bobby, Nikay, Baby Cow, and Angel

It wasn’t always like this though. During our first visit to the Batak pilot group at Sitio Manggapin, a woman ex-chieftain named Baselisa glared at us with a suspicious, “Who are you and why are you here?”

Caption: Baselisa and her grandchildren, sifting rice grains

We spent a short time explaining how we were there to help them and that we were researching how they’d want that support (if they did want support). She and her husband spent the next hour sharing how people in the past introduced themselves as NGOs and ended up exploiting them. One provincial guard in particular even succeeded in putting them to jail a few years ago because he wanted to claim their land – land which should not be claimable by outsiders as it is of ancestral domain. This piece of land used to be a sacred graveyard where the Batak lay their dead. Now it is owned by a corrupt provincial guard (now retired from post) – while a chunk Batak history lies buried within the confines of his plot.

Caption: Map of Community Ancestral Domain Title for the Batak at Sitio Manggapin

It was there on that rainy evening, that Batak Craft was firmly planted. The Batak are the custodians of the forest – the originals – who are being rooted out of their own land by the greedy businessmen who make a living selling what they do not own in the first place. There are so many injustices to indigenous peoples, and any person seeing the Batak suffer the repercussions as they do, would not sit back and watch it continue.

Please tell us more about the impact Batak Craft has had on the Batak Tribe

The majority of the Batak have lost hope in an abundant future for the tribe.

“When they speak of the future, it is with complete resignation. For it is a future in which, it is generally believed, da’ na ang Batak – “there will be no more Batak.” (James F. Eder, 1977)  A documentary even interviewed a Batak woman who said most women didn’t want to marry inside the tribe anymore, fearing that their children will only live in poverty.

Caption: Chieftain Berto of Sitio Manggapin, showing his sack of almaciga tree sap. Selling almaciga sap to local homeware manufacturers is one of the Batak’s primary sources of income

Caption: Bobby, Chieftain Berto’s grandson, holding their catch – freshwater eel and some small fish. This will be the whole family’s lunch.

Over the time we have been buying our first batch of baskets, we’re proud to say that we’ve been able to inspire the Batak pilot community to embrace their culture more; enough for them to realize earning an income from existing cultural practices is possible… that they didn’t have to resign themselves to participating in lowlander work or exhausting themselves selling forest resources for so meager returns.

Besides our continuous efforts in documenting their practices for newer Batak generations to come and learn from, we have also started attracting followers of the cause, who in turn spread the word and help connect the Batak to kind-hearted donors and potential investors. We’re positive that with your continuous support, we’re scaling the opportunity even faster for the rest of the Batak population.

What is unique about the Batak Tribe’s technique of basket weaving? How long does it take for a basket to be completed on average?

The Batak Tribe has a distinct set of weaving patterns inspired by snakeskins, vines, animal eyes and sea waves – which they make design variations of. In 1986, a researcher visited the Batak at Sitio Kalakwasan and documented 29 weaving patterns, but only 18 patterns were explained.  Today, I have seen them make only 12 patterns. This worries me, so we’re here to help preserve and innovate what’s left of their cultural handicraft knowledge.

On average, it takes about 3 weeks for one basket to be completed from harvest to finishing, since baskets are usually made in batches or “families”. The weaver starts from the smallest basket (the mother), and works her way up in size, using the smallest one as a mold for the father, the children, and then the baby (the largest) baskets. Every basket is a work of love from an entire Batak family, as it is the husband and children who collect and prepare the bamboo, and the wife who weaves them into baskets.

Here’s what the timeline looks like:
1. Harvesting bamboo: half day
2. Surface preparation: half day
3. Burning: 1 day
4. Splitting into strips: 1 day
5. Weaving: 1 – 3 days (depending on size)
6. Drying: 1 week
7. Finishing: half day
8. Final drying: 1 week

Caption: Teresa Madamay, chieftain Berto’s wife (left) and Chieftain Berto himself (right). Here, Teresa weaves a basket in Tiningkulob weaving style.

The Batak is also said to have a matrifocal family structure  in which mothers head families and fathers play a less important role in the home and in bringing up children . Both men and women can head the tribe as chieftains.

Could you share some of your memorable experiences based on your interactions and experiences with the vanishing Batak Tribe? What has been their perception of Batak Craft?

One of my most precious memories of the Batak was when we were watching a movie through my laptop, just a few weeks before Christmas. A little background – many would think that the Batak are every bit as wild as they would be as forest-dwelling hunters-gatherers, but they actually want the same things city-dwellers want: education so they can find better jobs; healthcare support so they can treat diseases such as malaria, measles, tuberculosis, diabetes; and access to electricity and technology so they can connect to the outer world through mobile phones, radios and televisions.

Know that the Batak at most settlements have no power access and clean water, and only have limited access to mobile signal. Majority of Batak elders cannot read nor write, while only a portion of the children are able to go to school. At night, their small bamboo huts are lit by gas lamps or burning tree sap. Amidst the cricket chirps and river sounds of a wild forest evening, their entertainment consists of playing techno tunes on phone loudspeaker (while the kids dance to them), sharing stories over dinner, and singing to and playing makeshift coconut guitars before retiring to sleep.

Caption: Polka, a Batak elder, playing makeshift guitar made out of coconut shell and plywood

All of that said, movie nights are extra special for them. I would charge my laptop battery at the nearest sari-sari store (by “near”, we mean 1 hour of trekking with 6 river crossings), and come back to the Batak announcing a movie night later that evening and the day after – or until my battery runs out. Several families, about 50 people, would come over after dinner around 7:30 – 8:00pm. We’d place the laptop on the floor of a hut, while the Batak elders, youth and toddlers would sit on the sand. As they watch, they pass around popcorn – their latest fancy, especially since they didn’t know they could fry corn kernels, where they had only enjoyed corn grilled before. As we didn’t have Tagalog movies on hand, we watched Avengers, Troy, and other movies I readily had at the time. These were in English, so I had to sit beside the laptop to translate in real time. I watched as they gasped and chuckled and wondered how Iron Man could fly as he could and Hulk could defy the laws of physics, or amusement at what ancient warfare looked like with swords, bows and arrows in the movie Troy.

There were gasps and chuckles in the audience, and watching them so happy made me feel ever grateful in realizing how the things we take for granted are already magical to the Batak.

I loved seeing them so fascinated with what technology – combined with meaningful stories – can do. Through Batak Craft, we’re helping bring technology to them so they have the same learning opportunities you and I have, and so they can use it to innovate their own livelihood.

Batak Craft has always been designed to be passed on to the Batak when time comes that they can run it themselves. We do all that we can to make it into a business that the Batak are primary decision-makers of, instead of a one-time project that’s abandoned as soon as the NGO leaves. The Batak has expressed full support for the project, and has since come up with new designs for us to try and find markets for (such as bamboo tubes they use as containers for honey, and parols, which are lanterns Filipinos hang around the house during Christmas), among other things.

Caption: Pablito (Baselisa’s husband), holding up a bamboo parol or lantern that they learned to make in prison. During Christmas, it is customary for Filipino families to hang a lantern in their homes, symbolic of the Star of Bethlehem in the story of The Three Kings

What are your plans to scale Batak Craft in the next three years?

In the next three years, we’re going to scale operations to the rest of the Batak settlements across Puerto Princesa and Roxas Cities, Palawan. You see we’re only selling baskets right now, but new crafts are in the product research pipeline, so do look out for bags, mats, home décor, furniture and textiles in the near future. Our dream is to establish the local bamboo industry and have a bamboo craft school at the heart of the Batak communities, so the Batak not only have a culturally-rooted livelihood, but also so they can inspire the rest of the Philippines and the world to use bamboo as a primary construction and design material.

 


Profile and Contact Info:

Coopita Shop Link: http://coopita.com/partner/33/

Lara Frayre (Founder)
Lara is a multi-disciplinary designer focused on helping social enterprises build their brands, establish online presence, and tell their stories effectively. She is also an entrepreneur, explorer, volunteer, and an eternal optimist.

Social Media Links:
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/larafrayre
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/larafrayre
Twitter: https://twitter.com/larafrayre
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