Ancestral Waters

Descendants of some of the oldest people in the Philippines, the Calamian Tagbanua have adopted a sea-oriented way of life, living off the ocean and its resources. In 1998, Coron Island and its surrounding waters were declared ancestral domain for the Tagbanua, setting an empowering example for indigenous rights.

More than ten years ago, I spent time in northern Palawan during my Peace Corps days. Back then I passed a lot of my time in Coron and Busuanga doing marine surveys and I have always remembered how beautiful the islands were in this part of the country.

This time my travels brought me to Coron to photograph the Calamian Tagbanua people, one of a number of different indigenous groups found in Palawan. During the months I spent in Coron years ago I remember isolated fishing communities that harvested seaweed and octopus. I also remembered the picturesque tropical islands, especially Coron Island which stands tall above most of the others with its karst limestone cliffs.

In part, it was these memories that made me want to return and explore the area with my camera. Much has changed since the last time I was here, but even with tourism booming in the area, we were able to spend time with traditional Tagbanua communities.

Tagbanua fishermen and children in the shallow waters surrounding Coron Island.

The Tagbanua people are descendents of some of the oldest people in the Philippines. It is likely that they originally came from Borneo and historically they had strong relations with Brunei. Today there are various subgroups of the Tagbanua throughout the province of Palawan. In Coron, the Tagbanua are distinct from the Tagbanua who live on mainland Palawan — not only in the language that they speak, but also in their cultural customs and general way of life. The Calamian Tagbanua — those living on Coron Island, on mainland Coron, and the surrounding islands — have adopted a sea-oriented way of life, living off the ocean and its resources.

The majority of Tagbanua here live in two communities on Coron Island (a different island than mainland Coron). In recent years Coron Island has had an influx of visitors, both foreign and local, because of its stunning beauty. Many tourists will spend a day visiting a few of the different lakes on the island which are open to the pubic, including Kayangan and the Twin Lagoons. However, many areas of the island are still off limits to guests who do not have permits to be there.

In 1998, Coron Island and its surrounding waters were officially declared ancestral domain for the Tagbanua people and they are now able to restrict where people may visit on the island. These title deeds give them the right to manage the area and preserve its rich marine and land resources.

Non-natives are not allowed to own land or even fish within the 22,000 hectares of land and sea designated as the Tagbanua’s ancestral domain. However, there are still some outsiders who fish within the territory.

We are told that many of the most beautiful lakes on Coron Island are sacred burial grounds for the Tagbanua and only those Tagbanua who own land on the island can visit them. So although getting to the sacred lakes would not be possible, Coron Island would still serve as our starting point for meeting the Calamian Tagbanua.

A small valley and clearing were a few Tagbanua families live on Coron Island.

Following a short visit to the crowded Kayangan Lake on our first day, I noticed two small native houses very near where all the tourist boats were passing. I saw someone in the water and was curious what he was doing, knowing very well it was probably a Tagbanua man doing some type of fishing.

I asked our boat driver if it would be alright to get in the water and see what was going on. I ended up spending a few hours with Landrey watching him spearfish and we were later invited into his home. I was surprised there were two traditional Tagbanua homes this close to the most crowded and visited lake on the island.

Thanks to a lot of help from friends living in Coron town and a highly motivated boat guide, we ended up spending two days in a small community on a more remote part of Coron Island. There were about seven families in this community and they welcomed us to stay with them and photograph how they lived.

A small Tagbanua community on Coron Island in northern Palawan.

The people we stayed with had a very relaxed and low key temperament. In part, this could be due to the island mentality, but it is also likely because these Tagbanua are no longer fighting for land rights.

Today the Tagbanua communities on Coron Island collect a fee from every visitor that comes to a particular area. Generally it’s 100 Pesos per person per stop (around $2.50). Kayangan Lake is 200 Pesos per person and this money goes to the two Tagbanua barangays on the island.

With increasing numbers of tourists, and bearing in mind that this income is tax free, this can add up fast for the community. If a tourist boat stops on a small beach for lunch, each person must also pay the fee to the particular Tagbanua family who owns that land.

Although the community we stayed with did not request any payment, they may be receiving some type of supplement from the general fund. Water and food is the biggest concern for people here.

There is no water source in this particular Tagbanua community and land is scarce for growing crops. All of their water must be brought in from the mainland and the staple crop eaten here is a wild tuber called ‘kurot’.

Below you can see a Tagbanua mother, with her young son watching nearby, preparing kurot in the correct way to remove all of the toxins before it is edible. Rinsing the tuber in salt water is the final stage of preparation before it is then cooked and eaten.

Below you see two women on Coron Island who are wearing the typical dress of the Tagbanua people today. In the past, we were told that the Tagbanua’s traditional dress was fashioned from the bark of trees — the menfolk wore simple loincloths, supported by a woven rattan waistband called ambalad, while the women wore only brief wraparound skirts made from the bark after it had been washed and dried in the sun. Today, western clothes have found their way onto the islands, are now worn by all.

The Calamian Tagbanua utilize many of the ocean’s resources. At each new place we visited, it seemed that we were always running into another type of activity or harvesting method. Gathering seaweed, sea cucumbers, high-priced live fish, spearfishing, net fishing and octopus fishing were some of the ones we encountered during our stay.

The sea cucumbers are harvested and dried to be sold on the foreign market. I’m not actually sure what one would want with these, but I was told that the larger lighter colored one in the photo below would sell for around 3,500 a kilo ($83).

Here a Tagbanua man on Coron Island cooks his evening meal in his home as night falls. Many of their homes are built with native materials against the rocky cliffs or on the beach. There is no electricity in this community, so kerosene lamps are used after the sun goes down.

One of the original reasons I wanted to visit the Tagbanua people was to document them gathering swift nests. This is another item that the Chinese love for their “bird nest soup” and the Tagbanua have been selling their bird nests to traders for many generations now. The Coron Island colonies produce some of the best swift birds nest in the world and climbing caves is a part of life for the Calamian Tagbanua.

The birds make their nest high up on the cliffs and within the caves of the island. I was hoping to find a family that I could document collecting the birds’ nests (the nests are made from the birds’ saliva) but I wasn’t fortunate enough to find one. We came during the right time of the year, as the nests are only collected from December to May.

However, within this time frame the nests are only collected at certain times when they are at optimal readiness, which happens every thirty days or so. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to find a family collecting the nests during the time we were there. However, this makes a good excuse to visit again sometime in the future.

We were also able to make some shorter visits to a number of different Tagbanua communities on Coron Island. Each one had a unique feel to it and all were fairly isolated from each other. There were also some single isolated homes on the edge of the island, mostly single families who were watching and protecting there swift nest land.

After swift nest season is over these families will go back to their main community, likely in one of the two main barangays on the island. Boat travel around the island is really the only way to get around and because of the tall cliffs there are very scarce paths or routes connecting different communities. Often, the families will use bamboo rafts to get around and to transport goods for sort distances.

Navigating on a bamboo raft is a common form of transportation for the Tagbanua, especially when only traveling short distances.

Early one morning on the northern coast of mainland Coron, we met a group of Tagbanua octopus fishermen heading out further into the ocean with their balsas. These men will stay out for most of the day returning early afternoon with their catch. Below on the left, you can see a Tagbanua man selling his octopus catch to a local on mainland Coron.

On the right you also see a young Tagbanua man looking for octopus using his floating balsa. Typically, the fishermen will use a jig to lure out the octopus and eventually it will get hooked on the jig — you can see an octopus jig in the middle photograph below. This is all done while laying on the floating balsa and looking into the water with their goggles.

The Tagbanua on mainland Coron are still ocean dwellers and rely on the sea for their food. However, a lot of the seafood they catch here is packaged and sent off to Coron town where it will be sent to Manila or other cities. Here you see a Tagbanua man cleaning his shark catch.

In addition to plying the ocean waters, rice also forms a staple part of the Tagbanua diet. The Tagbanua women on the left below are pounding rice to remove the husks, and you can see one of these wooden pounders by almost all of the homes in this community. On the right, a Tagbanua women is weaving a natural mat for her home.

Here you see the path connecting two homes in the Tagbanua community we stayed with. As the terrain of Coron Island is mostly tall limestone karst rock, building paths is often somewhat of a challenge.

Below you see a Tagbanua grandmother and her grandchild taking a break while collecting cashew nuts on mainland Coron. On the right, a young Tagbanua boy is cooking octopus for his family.

There is no question that Coron Island is a beautiful place. However, I was amazed that even today there are still some very isolated Tagbanua communities, like the one we stayed with on the island. It makes me feel fortunate that we were able to visit this place, perhaps before tourism infiltrates more of the island. The tall cliffs, beautiful water, and welcoming people make it an incredible place to visit.

The time we spent on Coron Island was relatively short, and being one of the few success stories for indigenous peoples in the Philippines, we weren’t really sure what to expect from our trip there. By success story, I mean the fact that the Tagbanua now have full claim to Coron Island and the surrounding waters as ancestral domain.

And while we were there, we did encounter a lot of talk about the power struggle now going on between the Tagbanua on Coron Island. Now that the local communities have rights over their land there are conflicts over where the tourist money should go.

The Tagbanua of Coron Island have set a powerful example for indigenous rights in the Philippines, and I just hope that they will stay on course and figure out the best way to continue and improve their lives.

In the end, most of the Tagbanua people we met seemed easy going and happy with what they had. Below you can see a father and son who were having fun on their floating balsa after we photographed them harvesting seaweed beneath the ocean’s surface.


This story is part of the Katutubong Filipino Project, an initiative I founded along with my wife Nahoma, to bring about awareness of the Philippine archipelago’s indigenous peoples by visually documenting their slowly disappearing and changing cultural heritages.

You can also read about our time with the Tau’t Bato people, the ‘dwellers of the rock’, and with the Mansaka tribe from Compostela Valley as part of this series.

Curious to explore Philippines?

We'll match you with the right local expert