EARTH DAY SPECIAL FEATURE
MARIA EASTERLUNA LUZ SANTOS CANOY
By Marivir R. Montebon
Way back in our high school days, I silently figured that she is easter moonlight, and that her parents must have been big fans of the Beatles for giving her such popular name. Easterluna Luz Canoy was among the quiet, laid back colegialas of our alma mater Colegio dela Inmaculada Concepcion in Cebu, the oldest and first exclusive girl’s school in predominantly Catholic Philippines.
Years later, I would meet Easter (fondly Chy to friends and family) again during our 25th anniversary High School reunion. School girls no more, and outside the portals of school, life itself had been our best, cruelest teacher.
She still was the quiet, unassuming person that she is. (In reckoning, Easter always has this silent mystique about her, as her name suggests).
Her chosen vocation was quite different from the rest of us. She has chosen the road less traveled, technically as executive director of the Kitanglad Integrated NGOs, Inc. (KIN), but personally and spiritually she is a citizen of the indigenous world which may seem vanishing and obsolete in this time of globalization.
She was an interesting subject for news, and my journalist mind was at it again. But in that reunion, we were fast and furious in our talk and laughter as we revisited the happy past of high school.
A few more years later, I finally got hold of Easter in an article for OSM! She was in Hanoi for the 6th Conference on Community-based Adaptation (CBA6) on climate change while she very kindly obliged this interview.
When did you start working with the tribal people? Who inspired you? What hit you? Tell me your story.
I worked for the tribal people in Bukidnon in 1985, right after graduating from AB Sociology-Anthropology at the University of San Carlos.
This was a critical year because it was the transition of our government from Marcos dictatorship to Cory Aquino government. The brave hearts, student activists like me, were like endangered species—who can be subjected to human rights abuses with the perception that activists are anti-government. I took the challenge.
My father wanted me to take up Political Science for me to proceed to Law and be the lawyer he wanted me to become. But I was drawn to Anthropology. Indigenous crafts, arts, something of the ancients—artifacts, wisdom and ways of the past, old age to new age phenomenon, all these interested me.
Anthropology promised to provide the [academic] framework to understand humanity. As I finished college, I was braving to discover what is meaningful living and living dangerously – having experienced police brutality after being dispersed in a rally organized by Bayan to demand for the return of abducted Redemptorist priest in Fr. Rudy Romano.
I chose the path to work for the mountain people—the tribe, the lumads, the indigenous peoples.
The nun-founder of the first NGO that I worked with in the Mindanao Tribal Resource Center or MINTREC told me, “When you step into tribal lands, you are entering sacred places. That means, to respect it, you have to remove your sandals, walk in bare feet to understand the kind of people they are.” I never forget Sr. Carmelita Arenas, RGS for such sincere advice.
You live in two worlds: with the tribes and with what is supposedly modern/mainstream. Describe the two and how do you fit in?
Contrast is obvious between both worlds. Their concept of wealth and spirituality is distinctive.
While we view the forests in terms of timber, shades, aesthetics, picnic groves, the tribe views the forest as their market [sources of variant foods], their pharmacy, their university, their cathedral.
For the Bukidnon people, a human being has spirit guides, and in one’s lifetime, you must discover them and know them and connect to them so that in your journey in life, you are guided.
Have you defined your mission in life? Is this work it?
At seven years old, I witnessed startling contrasts in life—sadness and happiness, homed and homeless.
I saw sadness in people’s faces as they go back home after work. I watched them sitting in a mansanitas tree near the house which was along Escario Street in Cebu City. I had a sense that life means more than what meets the eye. Instead of playing games like most kids do, I was keen on thinking and observing people around me.
Then I asked my Mama what is life, but I did not get an answer. I said if life means—growing up, you study, finish a course, work, or get married, and when old, write a book or plant a tree, I’d rather not been borne on this earth.
The influential persons in my life taught me to be “good at best, exceptionally good,” like people know how sincere you are in the things that you do. I know my talent is meant to be shared for the glory of those who have less, reinforced by the Vincentian values at CIC. I challenged myself if I can do extraordinary things—like trailblazing and if no one goes down a difficult path or calling, I will choose to go like volunteering to work in Mindanao in 1985.
My Dad was my best friend, my idol and hero who died in at 45. His hard work, efficiency and integrity root me in my NGO work for over 30 years already. And also my aunt grandmother Ate Betty who lived all of her life taking care of my Mama during WW II when the Santos family had to break for better chances to survive and not be detected by cruel Japanese soldiers. Ate Betty was my first teacher about life and its wonders, by telling tales, lots of stories of her life and childhood and how our Santos kin and elders were.
My dad’s Tatay Andres was also an interesting person. He’s a farmer from Linamon, Iligan City and sustained his five sons with such livelihood. He was a healer and people come to see him anytime of the day (mostly nighttime) to seek relief from illness especially associated with “buyag” or unexplainable symptoms. He talks to animals and even the unseen (spirits in nature) as if he is understood by them.
What is with the tribes that we modern people could learn from? Are they assimilating with us? Or is there a need to reintegrate with their value systems?
We need to learn from the tribes how to live life and deeply connected to the land—our Mother Earth. Natural resources – land and forests have specific uses and values (and not money, as investors see it). In February last year, on our way to Cortes, Surigao del Sur, we had to pass by the mining field of Taganito Mining. Don’t know how exactly large is it, but imagine for one hour you are traversing in topless and ravaged mountains wherein its bowels are unearthed and released to the sea. Inside me—my heart was torn and raging to see the “bleeding land.” Dondon, the young Mamanua tribal leader was with me and cried seeing a vast landscape of abuse against nature. It’s ironic that our government allows this to happen. Of course, they would justify mining is important for the country’s economic prosperity.
Are the tribes here to stay or will they eventually vanish and be assimilated to mainstream society? Is there any message of hope for this?
There is something humbling in the tribe’s resilience, wisdom, and tenacity as people. Although the Philippines is known to have legislated the Indigenous People’s Rights Act which established the fundamental rights of the tribe in their person, identity, culture and welfare, it’s still being challenged for its sincere implementation of financial resources and appreciating its own unique leadership contribution to nation building.
Now, the Interior and Local Government Department is re