By Delfin Mallari Jr.
Philippine Daily Inquirer
LUCENA CITY, Philippines—For Franciscan priest Pedro Montallana, the vast Sierra Madre mountain ranges in Luzon is his revered cathedral where he communes with God in fulfilling his advocacy to protect Mother Earth.
“I have yet to reach that ‘mystical experience’ where I will feel a heavenly connection with nature. But I always experience a different blissful joy when I’m deep in the bosom of Sierra Madre. God is really kind,” Montallana says.
The journey of the 61-year-old Bicolano—popularly known as “Fr. Pete” in the circle of environmental protectors—to the inner sanctum of the Sierra Madre to spread the word of God among the Agta-Dumagat tribes is a destiny designed by his early exposure to the works of Franciscan missionaries in his hometown in Camalig town in Albay.
“The desire to serve God and especially the poor sustained my desire to be a Franciscan priest. The embrace of St. Francis of actual poverty and the poor continues to attract me until now,” the priest confesses.
He recalls that in 1994, he and two other Franciscan priests asked Bishop Julio Labayen, then head of the Prelature of Infanta that has jurisdiction over northern Quezon and Aurora, to allow them to work with the indigenous peoples in the Sierra Madre instead of ministering to a parish church.
“We came with the new concept of mission of the Catholic Church. We go to mission to ‘evangelize’ and ‘to be evangelized’ by the poor,” he narrates.
Montallana considers the Sierra Madre tribes the “poorest of the poor” among indigenous peoples in the country. “Hence, the choice to be with them. They were so marginalized, that if they were not empowered, they would simply become extinct due to sickness and poverty.”
Montallana remembers Labayen’s fondness for the unadulterated communal way of living of the mountain natives.
“He (Labayen) has articulated many times that despite their marginalization, the Agta-Dumagat possesses a culture that is an antidote to our profit-oriented and consumerist society. This is expressed very well in their natural culture that when they catch a wild boar, they would automatically divide the catch into the number of families around, including those who were not part of the hunting party,” he explains.
In his quest to prepare the tribesmen to face the harsh world of lowlanders, the priest helped strengthen the “Sentrong Paaralan ng mga Agta,” an alternative school of learning in Barangay Catablingan in General Nakar town.
“We want that young Agtas are equipped to face the future,” Montallana says.
Ramcy Astoveza, a young tribal leader, speaks highly of Montallana’s contribution to his people and recalls how the priest helped change the prevailing primitive mind-set of Sierra Madre folk.
“Tribesmen are naturally timid and most of us possess low self-esteem perhaps brought by our long years of vilification from lowlanders. But Father Pete helped us to erase the negative attitude,” Astoveza says in Filipino.
The missionary, he reveals, prepared and strengthened the socialization skills of tribe leaders, especially the young and made the people proud of their culture and tradition.
“Because of Father Pete, we have regained our lost confidence and again made us proud that we are Agta-Dumagat tribesmen from Sierra Madre,” says Astoveza, now the director of Tribal Center for Development Foundation Inc. based in Infanta town. Montallana used to head the facility.
As he immersed in the community, Montallana learned to wear the G-string to emphasize to the natives that they have their own culture to be proud of. He wore it for the first time in 1999 during the parade of tribesmen in Infanta.
“I noticed that the Agta men were shy to wear their natural costume perhaps because they had already been used to wearing shorts or pants due to constant heckling from lowlanders. So I went to my room and came back wearing a G-string to show to them that they had nothing to be ashamed of. That they should be proud of their own culture,” he said.
The natives—mostly men in red G-string—and religious people joined the parade to celebrate and trumpet their call for respect of their rights.
“I was a little bit shy because lowlanders were calling me a mestisong katutubo behind my back,” Montallana recalls. “But I just ignored the brickbats and continued to walk with my head up high. I also want to experience what the natives had been going through.”
Later, he called on the townsfolk to respect the culture of the Sierra Madre tribes. “I also urged the natives to fight to keep their own culture because that is an inherent part of who they are.”
With fervor burning
To preserve his parishioners’ simple and communal way of living, Montallana got involved in the protection of their natural habitat, the Sierra Madre, even if it meant risking his own life.
With a high-profile advocacy, the priest has faced threats from illegal logging syndicates and their coddlers in the government, and even from communist rebels.
In 1995, Montallana drew the ire of New People’s Army (NPA) guerrillas after he accused them of protecting a logging company. The rebels, he says, were influencing the mountain natives to accept money from the loggers in exchange for a right to cut trees in their ancestral land.
“I later received a warning that we should never set foot again in the Sierra Madre. That our bodies will just float in the Umiray River if we would not heed the order. I was able to confirm that that threat came from the NPA rebels,” Montallana said.
But then, soldiers are also protecting the illegal loggers, the priest reveals. He notes that Army troopers have long been posted in Barangay Umiray in General Nakar at the foot of the Sierra Madre where most hot logs from the mountain end up after floating downstream in the Umiray River.
“Don’t tell me that the military was unaware on the presence of voluminous number of timbers and charcoals in the area?” he asks.
Patriot on Facebook
Bishop Rolando Tria-Tirona, Montallana’s superior in the Prelature, says he always reminds the priest to take care of himself in the face of growing threats against his security.
To the prelate, Montallana is a patriot. “Father Pete is committed in serving the poor and especially the indigenous. He is firm in his beliefs and truly a man of prayer and simplicity,” Tirona says.
Wanting to use modern technology in his war against environmental criminals, Montallana opened his own account on Facebook, a popular social networking site.
His online photos on floating hot logs in the Umiray River which were about to be tugged toward Mauban, Quezon, a popular transshipment point of illegal forest products from Sierra Madre, provided valuable information to personnel of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) operatives.
Eventually, this led to the seizure of more than 400 pieces of hot logs abandoned in the town coastline.
But even as he blamed corruption in the DENR as one of the causes of the continued destruction of the Sierra Madre, Montallana is still respected by DENR officials due to his untainted conviction to save his cathedral of nature.
“Father Montallana can effectively mobilize different sectors in his advocacy of environmental protection, issues and agenda through innovative actions and concepts,” says Nilo Tamoria, DENR-Calabarzon chief.
Montallana, as chair of Save Sierra Madre Network, welcomes with a mixture of skepticism and enthusiasm the recent declaration of President Aquino imposing a log ban to save the country’s remaining forests.
“Quezon province had been through a total log ban but logging—legal and illegal—never stopped. But under President Aquino this time, we’re willing to give him a chance to save Sierra Madre and the country’s remaining forest before it’s too late.”