Lorenzo Batak stands about five feet tall, and wears the traditional loin cloth, made from bark. At fifty-four years of age he is one of the most respected tribal elders. His face is lined. His curly black hair has gone completely gray, and his teeth are disappearing, making him look much older than he really is. Of late, he has been plagued by a constant cough and shortness of breath. Lung infections are rampant among the tribal people, living in their jungle community. The homes are lean-tos composed of leaves and bamboo, centered around a fire pit. The makeshift dwellings are suitable for the Batak, a nomadic people, accustomed to abandoning their village, and relocating.  In the past, their relocations were conducted in a rhythm with the natural ecosystem. They would move, so as not to deplete the forest resources, which have sustained their people for centuries. Lately, most of their relocations have been a reaction to forced incursions by lowlanders.

Today, the entire community has turned out to greet the outreach mission from Tag Balay, an NGO, lead by Marifi Nitor-Pablico of Tag Balay Foundation. Lorenzo recognizes me from a previous visit to another Batak village and he smiles broadly, slapping me on the chest. The tribe is much more excited to see Marifi and her team of volunteers who are bringing food and medicine. Perhaps the most important member of the team is Dr. Richard LaGuardia, an American Filipino doctor, living in Puerto Princesa, who donated his time and medical assistance. The young students from Palwan State University follow behind, carrying crates of donated medicines.

Batak women, wearing sarongs, bare-breasted squat in a line, at the long tribal drums, made from hollowed out tree trunks. They pound out a joyful rhythm with heavy club-like drum sticks.

The Batak, believed to be the oldest inhabitants of the Philippines, are one of three principal tribes, located in Puerto Princesa City, on Palawan Island. In the far south of the island is the Palawan tribe, who still live as cave dwellers, hunting in the forest with blowguns. Inside the limits of Puerto Princesa City are the Batak and Tagbanua. The Tagbanua are by far the largest of the Palawan tribes. Population estimates range from 15-25,000 persons. The Tagbanua are largely integrated, living in communities, raising rice crops, and sending their children to church and school, much as their Filipino neighbors. (Note: all tribes in the Philippines are more or less indigenous and are entitled to Philippine citizenship. The term Filipino here refers to the modern, non-tribal, majority of Filipinos.) The Batak still live largely as they have for centuries, as semi-nomadic hunter gatherers. They are by far the smallest tribe, both in stature and in numbers. The average Batak man barely stands five feet tall. The tribal population is estimated at 360 members.

The Batak are a negrito people, with kinky (curly) hair and dark skin. Their mother-tongue is called Binatak and is related to other regional languages of Malayic origin. While thePalawan and the Tagbanua tribes developed a unique alphabet, the Batak have never had a writing system. Anthropologists believe the Batak to be related to the Aeta people, found in other parts of the Philippines. The Batak also bear a resemblance to the Semang and Sakai tribes of the Malay Peninsula. As the Batak do not have a written history, much of the explanation of their origin is based on guess work. Dr. Carlos Fernandez, a retired professor of anthropology in Puerto Princesa and a leading authority on thePalawan tribes, explained that a commonly held theory is that Borneo was once connected to Palawan by a land bridge. The Batak and other tribes are believed to have migrated from Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, centuries ago. The theory goes on to suggest that the ultimate origin of these tribes may be from Madagascar.

In her book on the tribe, Bakas (an ethnographic documentation of the Batak indigenous people in Sitio Kayasan, Barangay Tagabenit, Puerto Princesa City, Palawan, Philippines), Marifi Nitor-Pablico recounts the legend which the Batak use to explain their own origin.

Long ago while a mother was sleeping, her four sons came in the house. The eldest son lifted her skirt and laughed at his mother’s nakedness. The second son also laughed but not as much. The third son did not laugh at all. The fourth son covered his mother with cloth. The father stepped in the room, and told the children this had been a test, and they had each won an award. To the oldest son he gave a stick used to beat bark for making cloth. To the second son, he gave a piece of torn cloth. To the third son he gave a piece of new cloth. And to the youngest he gave a piece of iron. From the oldest son came the Batak people. From the second, the Tagbanua. From  the third, the Moro (rich Muslim traders). And from the fourth came the Spaniards.

Binatak, the dialect of the Batak, is classified as an Austronesian Malayo-Polynesian Meso-Philippine Palawano language. Due to contact with outsiders the Batak language has become the recipient of many loan words from Tagbanua, Tagalog/Filipino, Spanish, and English. Although illiteracy is extremely high, nearly 100% of Batak speak Filipino, the lingua-franca of the Philippines. The distance to the primary school is identified as primary reason why illiteracy can’t be combated among the Batak.

“Violence is not part of their code of ethos.” Explained Dr. Fernandez. “They deal with conflict by running away. They avoided contact with foreigners. Historically, their only means of defense was moving deeper in to the forest.”

Aside from the fact that it was historically easy for lowlanders to steal Batak land, simply by driving them into the jungle, Marifi explained that as the Batak push deeper and deeper into inaccessible jungle, they move further and further away from schools and medical aid stations. Even if they lived closer to a school, however, Batak families are extremely poor and would be unable to pay tuition fees.

Unlike tribal people in other countries, Batak enjoy full rights of citizenship, including land ownership. Under the Ancestral Domain Sustainable Development and Protection Plan (ADSDPP) the Batak are gaining land rights. But they are still extremely shy about dealing with outsiders and run from confrontation. As a result, sending them medical supplies, teaching them agriculture, or giving them land rights are nearly ineffective in helping to preserve this vanishing race of people.

Lack of access to doctors adds to their staggering rate of infant mortality. Several Batak women confirmed that the average number of babies born per family was eight, but normally only two would live.

The Batak are hunter gatherers, so their diet consisted largely of forest products and meat. In the last thirty years, the forest cover of the Philippines has decreased from 70% to 3%. Only three percent of the Philippine Islands are covered in old growth forest. Thanks to the efforts of the environmentally minded Mayor Edward Hagedorn, Puerto Princesa City, with 49% old growth forest coverage, is referred to as “the cleanest and greenest” city in the Philippines, and possibly in the world. Even with the protectionist measures, the environment of the Batak is shrinking. Today, there is very little large game left on Palawan Island. The largest animal they could hope to kill in the forest is a wild pig, and they are now becoming rare.

The Batak have made some changes to their diet, adapting the eating of rice to supplement the diminishing forest products. They buy additional foods from lowlanders when they have money. This has forced them into a market economy which they have very little understanding of. Batak are often cheated by the middlemen, whether they be Muslim, Chinese, or Filipino. They sell their products to local buyer at a fraction of their fair market value, because they have no direct access to the end-user markets in the city.