Indigenous Communities Are Already Living the Climate Crisis We’re Anxiously Preparing For

Where some of us would feel inconvenience at worst, they’ve had to stake their lives year after year to the rapidly changing climate.

13 October 2021, 3:37am

This story is part of the VICE Creators Summit, a series of panels and workshops to co-create futures for a habitable planet. Find out more here.

I have a vivid memory of visiting a Filipino Indigenous community, when heavy rain started to pour unexpectedly. The tribe’s chieftain suddenly made urgent plans for us to leave, preparing long coils of heavy duty rope and anticipating the need to brace ourselves while crossing the rivers along the way, now swollen and overrun by strong currents.

What was normally a very relaxed walk from the village seemed to be a dangerous hike fully exposed to the elements—not just strong rain and flood currents, but the uprooted trees and debris it carried as well. It felt longer and more arduous than usual, each hurried step heavy with rainwater. Finally getting to the utility vehicle that was waiting for us near town signaled the end of our brush with danger. But for our companions, the Aetas of Yangil village, this was just the beginning. This sudden storm was only one of many they endured that year, and in the years that followed

The path to Yangil, where the river is almost completely dry. Photo: Andrea Legaspi

I met the Aetas of Yangil—an Indigenous tribe in Zambales, a province north of Manila in the Philippines—when I became a community developer for a sustainable tourism company in 2017. Forming a close relationship with them over the years, I’ve become more aware of how oppressive climate injustices could be for those who live closest to nature. Where some of us would feel inconvenience at worst, the Aetas have had to stake their lives year after year to the rapidly changing climate. 

Jessima of the Aeta tribe. Photo: Raf Dionisio

Devastated by the 1991 Mount Pinatubo eruption that destroyed the village, the 3,000-hectare ancestral land Yangil sits on has yet to fully recover 30 years later. Once lush with hardy trees and abundant farmland, the area is now mostly volcanic ash and tall grass. The lack of protective forest and healthy soil has made this community’s experience of typhoons exponentially more difficult. In instances like the one I experienced, the community would have no choice but to stay in their village, cut off from work, school, and provisions the nearby town—an 11-kilometer walk away—provides them. They would rely on root crops and sparse home gardens to see them through a week, a fortnight, sometimes even a whole month.

Time stuck in their village is the least of their worries, however. Rayhanna, a teenager from the tribe, recalls being caught in heavy rain walking back from school one evening. A whole group of them struggled with the strong flood current, nearly drowned, and had to be rescued by adults who were, luckily, near the area. Rayhanna may have very well not lived to tell me this story if the adults did not happen to be there. 

But human lives are not the only ones at risk when storms roll around Yangil. A few days of heavy rainfall can wipe out the crops and saplings that the tribe spend months planting—earnest prayers for a more stable future, crushed in an increasingly gloomy present.

On a video call with Rayhanna and Princess Joy of the Aeta tribe. Photo: Andrea Legaspi

Since I had these experiences and heard these stories, there has been no safe space in my mind to hide from the anxiety of impending natural disaster. My fears are compounded with the understanding that it’s not myself or my loved ones who are faced with real peril, but the people who don’t have the means to prepare for it even if they wanted to. 

The thing about the climate crisis is that there are clear winners and losers. It might not seem like there’s any winning in such a fraught situation, but seeing this crisis as anything but a real and present danger separates one greatly from those who do. 

Seeing this crisis as anything but a real and present danger separates one greatly from those who do.”

The Aetas’ experience with weather is so vastly different from that of other Filipinos who live in towns or cities. More so, it’s a world away from developed countries—those fortunate in their geography and privileged in economy and infrastructure. I’ve been living outside the Philippines for the last 10 months, eight of which I spent in safe-and-sound England, where my eco-anxiety dissipated for the first time since I started having it. There, people joked about the weather constantly. I took this as an amusing sign that it was anything but threatening. Rain was simply an inconvenience to bemoan, an easy way to start a conversation with a stranger. The climate crisis felt so far away with the abundance of green spaces, plant-based consumer choices, transportation options, and secondhand marketplaces. So far away that it almost felt, for a while, like it wasn’t a pressing problem at all. 

Me in England, on a rare sunny day. Photo: Courtesy of Andrea Legaspi

Behind these alternative, eco-friendly options, however, seems to be a rapidly progressing way of life that is characterized by same-day deliveries, frequent and inexpensive international travel, and globally-sourced fresh produce, to name a few. It’s the kind of progress that developing countries like the Philippines aspire to, dream about, and destroy massive forests for. It’s the kind of ease in lifestyle that congested megacities like Metro Manila are build, build, building their way towards. 

And then there are communities like Yangil that have almost carbon-neutral lifestyles by virtue of circumstance, living well within their means—not a lot, to begin with. They grow most of their food, buy secondhand, eat relatively plant-based food, walk everywhere, and take good care of their forests. There is great, cruel irony in how the ones who contribute the least to the climate crisis suffer the most from its wrath.

“There is great, cruel irony in how the ones who contribute the least to the climate crisis suffer most from its wrath.”

There is even greater irony in how we, from developed cities—be it London or Manila—try so desperately to get our carbon-offsetting-low-emission-plastic-free lifestyles right, with very little understanding of how it actually plays out in real, human lives. To me, the heart of the climate crisis is no longer the fast-paced lifestyles that we who live so far away from nature have had all our lives. The heart of the climate crisis is the disconnect between those who think they’re trying to fight it and those who actually live through it everyday. It’s the big divide between us and them.

I used to wonder if communities like the Aetas of Yangil have eco-anxiety, too. But I realize now that to them, the imminent threat of disaster and demise is a daily constant—getting through the rainy season, just another year of surviving. 

Nowadays, I have a better grasp of my own eco-anxiety. It has become less a manifestation of fear as it is of dissonance, of trying to make sense of a complex world that cannot be slowed down. It comes with the sobered understanding that changing my lifestyle, even hundreds of people’s lifestyles, is simply not enough to make the lives of communities like Yangil significantly safer and more worry-free. Systems have to be uprooted, governments need to be changed, and ultimately, we need to be fighting this crisis as if it’s already here, right now—it might not yet be for you and me, not really, but it is for many around the world, and it has been for years. 

Follow Andrea Legaspi on Instagram.


Indigenous, climate change, Identity, Vice creators summit

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