A MANILA-BASED social entrepreneur is seeking financial backing to bring the indigenous handicrafts of the Batak tribe to the international market through the “Project Bamboo Crowdfunding Campaign” to help it survive and thrive in the modern economy.
Lara Frayre, a multi-disciplinary designer focused on helping change-makers deliver large impacts in the global scene through unique homegrown designs, is the founder of the Batak Craft that hopes to address the poverty problem of the vanishing indigenous peoples of Sitio Mangapin, Barangay Langogan by creating sustainable livelihood opportunities out of their artistry.
“We are a community-led organization called the Batak Craft, and we are essentially helping the Batak tribe make a sustainable livelihood out of the bamboo products they produce. Our primary products are baskets and mats, and we help them bring their wares to the international market,” she told me.
The BA Industrial Design graduate of the College of Fine Arts at the University of the Philippines, Diliman, alleged being hunters and gatherers of non-forest timber products, the Batak people are “ill-equipped to work in today’s market economy.”
With limited access to education, they face the challenge of not being able to work suitably with lowlanders and searching for appropriate employment opportunities. Steady income in this situation does not add up, Lara averred.
“For now, baskets and mats are the only products available. Hopefully, we can bring other products like furniture, accessories. Right now we’ve continued our crowdfunding campaign to help us continue working with them,” Lara said with high hopes that she’d be able to help them.
This interview with Lara was done on August 23, a week (or so) after she and her friend, Renato Estepa Jr., went to the Mangapin community for the nth time to introduce and train eight Batak mothers on accessories-making that might stream in new income for their households.
I had been to this Batak community with my JCI friends in 2015, and the trek there wasn’t easy considering the multiple river crossings we made out. Lieutenant Christopher Maguinsay of the Marine Battalion Landing Team-4, who accompanied us, was certainly joking when he leveled his finger to a mountainous area in the said baragay and uttered, “Doon lang.”
“Doon Lang,” to me, implies a distance that is just close by. In the case of Mangapin, I stopped imagining how short the distance we needed to walk the moment my tired feet crossed the second river bend, then the third, then the fourth, and so on.
The only two honest things about the trek was the verdant scenery along the way and the nice people we were with because we didn’t have to carry the heavy boxes that contain school bags and supplies for our target beneficiaries.
“We just went to Mangapin and trained them how to make accessories that might be a good source of additional income because they are fast to learn,” Lara added.
I liked looking at Lara’ expression while she was telling me about what her long-term goals are for the Batak settlers of Langogan, whom I also hold dear as they’re gracious, gentle, and always smiling people. She must have caught the bug of kindness from the Batak that infected me as well.
Lara narrated that those she trained actually just visited one household in the village where they frequently stay.
“Eventually, we hope to provide the training to a big group of Batak women,” she said.
The solution is to continuously work within the Batak tribe’s cultural foundation by developing their skills and process efficiency in traditional basket-weaving, document the tribe and its culture alongside, and sell their products to the international market.
On her website, Lara wishes to achieve four goals for her Batak friends in Mangapin: “to earn a sustainable living, document their cultural practices before they vanish; disseminate the information to a global audience, and inspire them to nourish their culture.”
The Batak mothers she had initially trained are fast learners. In a span of two days, they have already completed accessories made out of beads that she brought them.
“What training they need right now is color combination, more on aesthetics, but they have managed to make beautiful ones despite that,” she explained.
Lara and Renato believe it is also important to bring to the public’s awareness the Bataks of Palawan as they are often asked what they are or who they are.
“We’ve been asked a lot of times what the Batak is, or who they are, because people do not know them compared to the Tbolis of South Cotaboto. This is why the Batak Craft wants to bring them also to the consciousness of the Filipino people and the world,” she said.
There are over 30 families currently living in the hinterlands of Mangapin, and Lara noted they do not only help them make income but also empowers them to continue protecting the Philippines “LAST ECOLOGICAL FRONTIER.”
Her love affair with the Batak dwellers started when a couple of years ago, she and her friends set out to establish a yoga center in the municipality of Roxas.
“Back then, we had workers who, I noticed, were so hard-working in what they were doing for us. I didn’t know they were Batak villagers until they told us. After a while, when I got to know them, I made a research about them and that’s when I discovered that they’re actually now a vanishing tribe,” Frayre said.
With just a motorcycle, their bags and food supplies, her team sought out the six most populated Batak settlements on a three-week adventure, which included trekking for hours across multiple river bends, going to and from each community in Puerto Princesa and nearby Roxas town.
“We chose to focus on the Batak village in Langogan because aside from being most accessible, their community remains purely Bataks,” she explained.
Once a year, she returns to the community once or twice to help them in basket-weaving and accessories-making.
Lara added they also target to provide “a product refinement training programme for the tribe, so that they can eventually take ownership of every aspect of the product to the market value chain.
The Batak (Mountain People)
The Batak indigenous peoples are commonly found in the northeastern portions of Palawan, and there are only about 450 remaining, claimed a 1990 census.
I’m not sure if that number is still true today because according to Survival International, their number has dwindled from 1,900 to just around 300 now.
There are now fewer than 300 Batak, down from about 700 in 1900. Land seizure, logging and exposure to disease are great dangers.
Severe undernourishment has made them more vulnerable to diseases such as malaria, measles and tuberculosis.
They also suffer from high infant mortality and low birth rates. The small Batak population means young people often have to marry outside the tribe.
The Bataks are small in height, that’s why anthropologists think they are closely related to the Aetas of Central Luzon. They are also dark-skinned and have kinky hairs, which are traits common to the Negritos.
Noel Jagmis, in an article for the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), wrote that among the interesting traditional rituals are lambay and sagkat.
Lambay is a honey festival marking the season when the Bataks can gather the non-timber forest product again and to call for rain, while sagkat is a ritual conducted prior to clearing lands for the practice of kaingin or slash-and-burn farming.
Their social laws include alyog, where a Batak man undergoes the process of asking if his parents agree to his marriage to a chosen girl; and liwag, the tradition of imposing a fine to a disobeying son-in-law.
Anyone who wishes to help may go to visit their website at www.batakcraft.org, where the products made by the Batak villagers are on display.
NOTE: Many photos that appear in this blog are owned by Lara Frayre and her website.