The beauty of Palawan has piqued the interest of various international publications, from Condé Nast Traveler to Travel + Leisure. The attention it has garnered is well-deserved, given its pristine waters, towering limestone rocks, and lavish resorts. But while most flock to the more popular El Nido and Coron, there is so much more to Palawan than just idyllic beaches. Deeper south lies another side of the group of islands: a wealth of varying cultures, archeological treasures, and out-of-this world landscapes.
An exploration of this unseen side of Palawan is what led me there, fueled by my recent fondness in the local handwoven traditions of the Philippines. Being one half of WVN Home Textiles, an enterprise that co-creates modern lifestyle products with traditional weavers, I’ve been traveling around the country to understand the tradition more intimately, specifically through the eyes of the artisans—themselves being some of the most invisible but valuable workers.
This wasn’t my first time in Palawan in search of handicrafts: in 2017, I came here to learn how to weave with Rurungan sa Tubod Foundation, a non-profit organization that creates alternative livelihoods for women in Palawan’s rural areas by teaching piña weaving technology. Rurungan’s co-founder Czarina Lim and her daughter Rosal welcomed me into their center, where I spent a week understanding the entire weaving process from start to finish.
Two years later, I find myself back in Puerto Princesa, where Rosal and I travel in search of artisans and their handicrafts. Over coffee and their famous kamote bread, the husband and wife tandem of Ernie and Czarina Lim tell me about their home.
In 1997, the couple decided to move their family of eight from Lipa, Batangas to Puerto Princesa. “At that time, Palawan was already coined ‘The Last Frontier.’ That was too exciting a title to ignore,” Ernie shares. Here is where their youngest children grew up, and where most of them consider home.
The wildness is what keeps them here; Ernie recounts adventures he would take with his refigured Nissan Patrol on extremely rough roads. “Oh boy, was I everywhere,” he says with a boyish smile. His trips would usually lead him off-road and into the woods, where he would set up camp near a river and immerse in pure nature.
As the “Last Ecological Frontier” of the Philippines, Palawan is endowed with an abundance of natural resources, including the biggest forest cover in the country, making it a host to highly diverse flora and fauna. It is also no wonder that it is home to a population of various indigenous peoples, who continue to live in the bosom of nature.
Various communities of peoples living in the forests of Palawan (such as the Palaw’an, Tagbanua, and Batak ethnic groups), use kaingin, a traditional upland farming practice to clear small patches of land for food crop production, and then leave it for long periods of fallow for restoration. This has been practiced from generation to generation, that it is so intricately intertwined in their way of life, and extends to their worldview and identities. The forest’s importance in the way of life of the indigenous groups manifests prominently even in their handicrafts, which are a reflection of the culture of Palawan, as well as the symbiotic relationship between the forest and its inhabitants.
The next few days become a journey through the tabuan (marketplace) routes in search of Palawan’s handicrafts with Rosal, who leads the mini-expedition. She has been exposed to weaving since she was five years old, having grown up with the women at the center. After graduating college in Manila, she decided to return to Puerto Princesa to help steer Rurungan.
Rosal maps out our journey, which will take us around the island. No longer as remote as it was before, the south is now connected by a major highway, allowing for greater access to Puerto Princesa, which is the province’s central trading point.
On our first day, before we get to our destination, Rosal sights a family of yantok (rattan) basket weavers who live by the side of the highway. We make a stop here and talk to one of the weavers—George—who was happy to demonstrate his craft to us. It seems that we are not the only ones who stop to admire his work; his customers, mostly passing market traders or sourcers from hotels around Palawan, usually find him the same way we did.
He tells us that he learned this skill from his father, and has been weaving for two decades now. Pliable and sturdy, his baskets are made of lithe rattan stems interwoven to form a generously-sized container easy to use for transporting in big trucks that run long distances. These baskets are typically used to put agricultural produce in, and can be found in markets all over Palawan.
As we talk to George, his wife and children join us, eager to listen in on our conversation. Basket-making is a family affair: the women help by setting up the base, to make it easier for the men to make the sides, which is usually the most difficult part of the process as it requires manipulation of the material to fill out the ribs of the basket. The children look on, observing the techniques, and always curious to go with their parents to the mountain to cultivate. We stay longer than expected as the children show us around their little kingdom, pointing out their carabao to us, and eventually leading us to a nearby path just off the highway to show the rattan growing on the foothills. We linger as they detail practical uses of the plant and other surrounding flora. After dodging big trucks careening towards us along the highway, they bring us back to our car, and we say our goodbyes.
Left to Right: Weavers strip down the rattan by hand, in preparation for basket weaving Rodel Francisco from Aborlan has been making baskets for over 30 years.
The highway brings us deeper into the island as we make our way to Aborlan. We take a turn into a dirt road, which branches out to small rural villages. With the sequence of bridges as our only form of direction, we get lost for a while but eventually reach our destination, the home of Rodel & Ermingarda Francisco.
Rodel learned how to weave at a young age by observing how baskets were woven by his brother-in-law, an Ilocano who relocated to Palawan to marry his sister. He has been doing this since 1979. Throughout the years, his baskets have become an example of quality workmanship in the province, which stands out among the rest for their refinement and attention to quality. Could it be the Ilocano influence that makes his baskets distinct? Or is it the continuous fine-tuning of his work?
Rodel is not only a weaver, he is also a trainer. He and his wife have work with the local government to train other craftsmen in product development. His eldest son—his first student—is a school teacher who aspires to take over the family’s basket business one day. Rodel says that his son has mentioned that he’d rather give up his profession to be a weaver.
The next day is a longer drive to Bataraza, the southernmost municipality of mainland Palawan. Here we meet a community of Palaw’an, a group of indigenous people believed to have descended from the line of the Tabon men about 50,000 years ago. Typically living in the inland mountains, where they depend on foraging and hunting to exist, recent generations of Palaw’an have settled on the fringes of the modern world, closer to schools, employment, and other public services.
The Palaw’an use a woven basket called tingkep (meaning “covered”), made with materials like rattan and bamboo that are found in abundance in the forests. As we enter the tarukan, where they usually gather for every activity and gathering, we see varying sizes of tingkep on display. The larger ones are used to store rice and grains: they would place a big basket, called pinaadungan, in the middle of the kaingin, where they put their grains while farming. The smaller ones are used to safe-keep trinkets and amulets.
The weavers believe in a superstition about the tingkep: when a weaver is being taught how to make these, she must make at least seven baskets, or she will bring misfortune upon herself. The designs of the baskets are inspired by what they see in the forest: the hair of the wild pig, the feathers of a forest bird, or the tail of a fish.
One of the younger weavers, Emily, takes a large knife, and demonstrates how they get raw material from bamboo to make the baskets. She strikes at the stalk, and with two blows dismantles the culm, then proceeds to remove strips to start the weaving process. The speed in which she tackles the bamboo amazes us, and even more fascinating is how quickly the weavers make the small baskets while working with fine and coarse strips. In fact, they tell us that they prefer weaving in the evening, when the heat does not affect the brittleness of the material. One of the elders shows us her hands, rough from experience and a testament of her hard work.
The weavers of Palawan use locally-sourced forest materials, like rattan and pandan, in creating baskets and bags.
While they weave, they tell us stories. The Palaw’an subscribe to a communal way of living; even if this particular group moved away from the rest of their community up in the mountains, they still consider themselves one tribe. When it comes to their crafts, which are what the women depend on for livelihood, they continue to work with the rest of the community.
“Kahit mahirap, tulungan lahat,” says Emily of their interconnectedness. When it comes to decisions that affect the whole tribe, they consult with the elders and come up with a communal decision. I can’t help but admire that despite the changing times and inter-generational differences, a strong tradition lives on.
Just half an hour away, in Brooke’s Point, we visit a different group—the Jamamapun—who are Muslim mat weavers. Prior to the Spanish colonization, Palawan was under the Sultanate of Brunei for more than two centuries. Thus the Muslim influence, which is very much reflected in the brightly-colored banig mats of the Jamampun.
Unassuming from the outside, we enter one of the weavers’ houses. As we step in, we find the room decked out in handwoven splendor as warm colors of fuschia, red, green, and yellow from the banigs brighten up the room. Their work is on full display, hung on the wall and laid out on the floor, like fresh masterpieces. The amount of banigs in this one room makes my jaw drop; the variety excites my senses. The traditional banigs are similar to the patadyong with checkered patterns, but the contemporary designs are abstract, integrating elements of life, like patterns of river shrimp, boats, and nets.
We are honored that the weavers are dressed in colorful beaded attire, similar to what they wear during the celebration of Hari Raya (the end of Ramadan). They invite us to sit with them on the floor and offer their local snacks, which they prepared especially for our visit. Explaining how their mats are made, they fetch a pandan plant to show us what it looks like—its large leaves lined with prickly spikes. From the beginning of this grueling process, the weavers have to strip these barbs off one by one with a handmade knife called a jangatan. The leaves are then straightened, dried, and dyed as needed. They tell us that they make these morning until night, day after day, that it takes half a month to make a simple banig, and one month to complete an intricately designed one. This tediousness is visible in their hands, rough from years of work.
It is apparent that the weavers are very proud not only of their work, but of its ties to their heritage. Arita, who is 48 years old and learned how to weave at the age of 10, says, “Hindi pwede mawala ang banig sa amin. Pati mga bata ganito din yung pag-iisip.” It is so ingrained in their culture that their children want to continue it. This gives me so much hope in the country’s traditional crafts, but I wonder how we can replicate this preservation to other communities.
“Family first, and then weave,” is the commitment that Rurungan has had with the women.
We drive back to Puerto Princesa the next day and make a pit stop in Quezon, the closest town to the Tabon Cave, a heritage site that was proclaimed a national treasure for the discovery of one of the oldest-known human skeletal remains in the Philippines. While looking around town, we chance upon the Palawan Museum, which had a photo exhibit on display, depicting the Tau’t Batu, another ethnic group only found in Palawan. The photographs offer a rare and visceral glimpse into the lives of the “People of the Rock,” named after their use of caves during the monsoon season. They inhabit the most far-flung corners of the mountains and are completely sustained by the forest, but are now threatened by over- development and modernization.
The culmination of this trip leaves me pondering on our origin and identity as Filipinos, as well as the fluidity of culture over time. These thoughts linger until we return to Puerto Princesa.
RURUNGAN SA TUBOD FOUNDATION
Back in the city, we end the trip where we first started: the Rurungan center. Back here, Czarina tells us how she started the foundation.
When the ban on kaingin was enforced in Palawan, many environmental NGOs were worried about the practice’s effects on the forest, but Czarina was concerned about the ban’s impact on the people that depended on kaingin, as the policy forced uplanders to adopt other forms of livelihood. Seeing the need to supplement this, Czarina and her sister-in-law Adelaida started Rurungan sa Tubod Foundation in 1999 with women in communities where pineapples were wild and plentiful. They began teaching them how to extract the fiber and, with the help of the Philippine Fiber Industry Development Authority (PhilFIDA), they taught the women how to weave piña fabric.
“Family first, and then weave,” is the commitment that Rurungan has had with the women since the beginning. “That’s what Rurungan is all about. It’s not a nine-to-five job; it’s all on their own accord. The women are not marginalized. They choose to live the life they live because it makes them happy,” Czarina says. Her only promise was that, “Life will be nicer and more pleasant.” It appears that it not only applied to the weavers, but Czarina found herself living by this, too.
At noon, the heat intensifies and is followed by a haze that sets in until the mid-afternoon. Many are finishing work at the center at this time, and it is here where I catch Beth, their community organizer who started out as a weaver from the founding batches. We start the conversation light, talking about how she came into the fold. She proudly tells me that she began weaving in her early 20s, and that many things have progressed since then. As she talks about her role in Rurugan, her eyes begin to well up. After a few minutes, she catches her breath and smiles. “Hindi sayang yung pinaghirapan namin kasi nakikita ko na umaangat.”
When it comes to their crafts, which are what the women depend on for livelihood, they continue to work with the rest of the community.
Working mostly in livelihood and community development, Rurungan struggled to find a way to make sure that the skills they were teaching could become a viable form of livelihood. But the business model grew organically: over time, this organization that trained weavers expanded its resources to create a space in the market for handwoven material. Today, it supports itself. With Rurungan celebrating its 20th year in September 2019, Czarina is baffled to have hit this milestone. Of the 250 women they’ve trained throughout the years, 35 have stayed on—many coming from the original batches. These women now train others to weave. Aside from the weavers, they also have three communities devoted to extracting the pineapple fiber.
Czarina feels fulfilled when she hears stories of how weaving has impacted the lives of the women. “Nora, when she came to us, was the only one supporting her two children. Now she lets her kids come in and they also learn,” she says.“Marissa started as a knotter, she is now a trainer. Her children are all professionals now. The kids tell her that she can stop weaving since they can support her already, but she loves it so much. She wouldn’t stop.”
She hears about how it brings a palpable contentment in the household that even rubs off on the husbands, who sometimes spend quality time with their wives as they watch them weave. A smile creeps up on Czarina’s face and you can see her pride shine through. When she sees the livelihood benefitting the entire family, she knows she has fulfilled her promise.
In weaving, inter-generational succession plays an important role in continuing traditions, and this holds true for Rurungan, too. Working towards building the foundation to once unimaginable heights, Rosal has launched the Rurungan Market, a platform that supports communities specializing in different indigenous crafts like basket and banig weaving. Gathering the local ecosystem of craft communities and an intentional market in one place, Rurungan holds monthly events that connect the makers to the buyers, directly benefiting the people who need it the most and creating a space for continuous learning.
Twenty years ago, Rurungan’s seeds were planted by introducing a new industry in handwoven textiles, which proved to be a sustainable source of livelihood in Palawan. Now, their program has blossomed where their impact can pollinate other existing crafts via the Rurungan market. Through her work, Rosal has been helping the same communities we met on our trip step up their game in product development.
The Jamamapun weavers have come several times; the tingkep from Bataraza are always best sellers; her other communities in Narra are also regular participants. This endeavor has not gone unnoticed; they also work with the dedicated grassroots staff of the Department of Trade and Industry to reach these craft communities and develop their products. Furthermore, in June 2019, the Department of Foreign Affairs’ Spouses of Heads of Mission and the International Bazaar Foundation threw their support behind the program in the form of a grant.
“Palawan was already coined ‘The Last Frontier.’ That was too exciting a title to ignore.”
“It has now come full circle,” Rosal says happily. “The Rurungan Market is like a manifestation of all the work that we have been doing around Palawan. It all comes together here, where we see the artisans wanting to improve on the quality of their products, after seeing what the market wants and what their competition is offering.”
After speaking to the women of Rurungan, there was something in the foundation that moved me. I realized that real progress takes time, but it is important to see its long term gains. As someone who works in handmade textiles myself, it was inspiring to see the fruits of their labor, and how it has positively affected the lives of the women and their families.
THE LAST FRONTIER
Before leaving Puerto Princesa, I ask Ernie about what changes he’s observed in Palawan in the last two decades. He responds, “Palawan was the last frontier. Humanity is catching up to us.”
Indeed, we saw these changes while on the trip. Palawan has opened itself up to the promise of progress. The building of more roads has attracted new settlers, and has given access to those who were previously isolated both geographically and economically. Businesses in the industries of mining and palm oil are present in these areas. In fact, just along the highway were vast hectares of an oil palm plantation as far as the eye could see.
A recent development is the newly signed law that splits Palawan into three separate provinces, promising that it would speed up development and improve the quality of life. But all this begs the question: to whose benefit, and at what cost? In the face of the many social problems we have in the Philippines, one can’t help but question how we define and measure the growth of a nation. As it is, things do not seem to be working, because the gap between the haves and have-nots continues to widen, resulting in wider inequality, increasing poverty, and even the loss of biodiversity.
When it comes to sustainability, it’s easy to be skeptical, given that there are only a few examples that we can look up to. But after seeing Rurungan’s work with the craft communities in Palawan, I wondered about our prevailing business practices and policies, and finding a new path to development.
With fair trade and shared prosperity as the bedrock of Rurungan, it is one of the pioneers of ethical and sustainable fashion in the Philippines. Their handmade textiles are sustainable products because they use natural materials available in their area. It is requires low energy by using traditional looms. They use the concept of “slow fashion” here, valuing quality over quantity, organic and handmade over cheap and disposable, long term gains over short term profit. More importantly, they are able to share a livelihood with women as a tool for self-reliance, while practicing fair trade.
Rurungan teaches us what equitable growth could look like. If this is the kind of progress that prevails, one that feeds households and creates genuine personal development, a kind of development that leaves the person happy in their whole totality, then there would be no need for the destruction of the environment, and for anything in excess of what we already have.
Perhaps this is what progress can look like, and what Palawan needs.
This story was originally published in GRID Volume 08.
GRID Volume 08 is made possible by Toyota Philippines. Visit toyota.com.ph to learn more.