Asinderos de Miag-ao: Part I

A fisher folk salt-making tradition doomed to extinction

by

Jonathan R. Matias Sulu Garden, Miagao, Iloilo, Philippines April 17, 2015 www.sulugarden.com

with

Araceli Q. Adrias and Coleen P. Sucgang

 

The title might seem like a story of impending disaster, like global warming. Not quite like that for now. But, the vanishing traditions of our coastal communities are tied to global warming and the inexorable advance of modernization. Doom might be a good word to describe the future of the Asinderos de Miag-ao.

I arrived in Miag-ao, a coastal town in the province of Iloilo (Philippines), in the summer of 1995 and always enjoyed the magnificent sunsets by the sea. Right in front of our marine station was a curious hub of activity by the beach – about 40+ family run farms that made salt from bamboos. These little farms stretch as far as I can see when standing at the edge of the beach, from Barangay Mambatad in the south and beyond to Barangay Guibungan in the north. It stretched for about 3 km in an almost contiguous line of bamboo structures and busy farmers.

Fig. 1.  Map showing location of Miag-ao and the salt-making areas.

Fig. 1. Map showing location of Miag-ao and the salt-making areas.

I must admit that I had taken this for granted during the period I was in Miag-ao from 1995-1999. At the time, I had assumed this was a summer activity along the coast found throughout Panay Island or even all of Philippines. It was not until 13 years later in 2012 when I returned to Miag-ao again that this salt farming business, they call budbudan (in Kinaray-a language budbud meaning to sprinkle) had shrunk from the 40+ farms to 6. Only the few in Barangay Guibungan remained. And, an active search of salt farming traditions around the world did not yield any salt farming operations quite like this.

I am now convinced that this salt farming tradition is unique only to Miag-ao and nowhere else in the world. These salt farmers jokingly refer to themselves as ‘Asinderos,’ a play on the Spanish word ‘hacienderos,’ meaning the landed owners of plantations called ‘haciendas,’ and ‘asin’ the Filipino word for salt.

The common table salt is not as common as you think. Let me digress a little here to tell you why.

Today, the common salt is a much maligned ingredient in the dining table. More than 75% of our salt intake comes from processed and restaurant foods. Over use of salt contributes to heart disease and early mortality, particularly in developing and less developed countries where there is less awareness of the hazards [1,2,3]. But, salt is essential to the body in moderation and is critical in almost all facets of human existence. Picture our world without salt: food tastes bland, no textiles or hides, food could not be preserved, forget about PVC pipes and plastics, say goodbye to soap for bathing and cleaning, rubber products cannot be produced without salt. The list goes on and on……

Fig. 2. Rows of half-cut bamboo used in drying sea water

Fig. 2. Rows of half-cut bamboo used in drying sea water

The common salt is the least exciting of all the condiments on your dining table. Not so uncommon several millennia ago. The earliest confirmed salt production was about 6,000 BC, in the salt springs of Lunca in Romania and near the Xiechi Lake in Shanxi, China. The Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, Phoenicians and many other ancient civilizations traded salt or salt products throughout the Mediterranean. The Roman Empire paid its professional soldiers with salt, called salarium (the word ‘salary’ came from this method of payment) and popularized adding salt to vegetables (the word ‘salad’ was derived from this Roman practice).

Empires and explorations were financed through taxes on salt. Wars were fought because of it. In more recent history, the city state of Venetian fought the Genoans for salt. The French Revolution happened partially because of the high salt taxes imposed on the French populace by King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Later Napoleon Bonaparte re-imposed the salt tax to finance his military campaigns. America was discovered by Christopher Columbus because of the financing of the expedition through the salt production in Southern Spain. Mahatma Gandhi’s campaign for civil disobedience against British rule in the 1930’s began with the ‘Dandi March’ in which 100,000 Indians made salt from the sea in defiance of the British salt tax [4].

So, salt is more important in world history than most of us realize.

Budbud: the Sea Salt of Miag-ao

There are dozens of sea salt mined, farmed or just simply found around the world, from the Himalayas down to the tropical and sub-tropical seashores. In Miag-ao during the dry season, the coastline is teeming with fishing activity, people bathing, having fun in the sun. Most striking of these activities is the elevated half-cut bamboo structures along the shore to dry the seawater and collect the sea salt. It was the center of activity from early morning till evening, producing what is still considered first class sea salt, most favored for cooking in Miag-ao and surrounding towns. Considering that salt-making was noted to have started in Miag-ao in 1823, the first written account of budbudan was a posting in 2007 by Archie E. National, then a 4th year college student at University of the Philippines in the Visayas [5]. Strange that few outside of Miag-ao seemed to know much about budbudan.

As each summer passed, my research associates, Coleen P. Sucgang and Araceli Q. Adrias, and I would make several visits to the salt farms in Guibungan; learn more about the process and document with pictures. The Asinderos are often cordial, say little and continue on with their grinding work. Most of the photographs here are just a few of the many taken. But, understanding how the process works is just part of the story. The better part is to understand more about the people, the tradition, how they see their work and what they think of the past and their future.

I thought that there is something more to making budbud salt than meets the eye. To have a deeper understanding means one of us must become part of the Asindero community.

Fig. 3.  The Asinderos working their farms

Fig. 3. The Asinderos working their farms

Then in 2014, Norman Posecion, a photographer from Iloilo City came for a visit to do some Cosplay photoshoots with some friends. Several visits and conversations later, I learned that he worked for a decade as fine arts instructor at Museo Iloilo and was part of the documentary work that became the book entitled “Miracles of the Santo Nino de Cebu.” Also a painter and sculptor before taking up photography, I thought Norman would be the ideal ‘volunteer’ for ‘immersion’ into the Asindero community. The summer of 2014 was an interesting time of field work for us.

After that summer, we thought that one of the photos ought to be submitted to 2nd PAGCOR (Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation) National Photo Competition, one of the most prestigious photography competitions in the country. Part of the rationale for joining PAGCOR competition was, if a photograph of the Asinderos wins, it will help create an awareness of one of the vanishing indigenous practices of the fisher folks in our country.

Here is the text of the narrative that describes the photo shown below which summarizes the sentiments and processes of budbud salt production in Miaga-ao:

“During the rains, the sea takes our sand away from us. During the summer, the sea brings it again back to us”

                --a saying from the ‘Asinderos’ de Miagao

I was exploring the southern towns of Iloilo Province last February 2014, looking for new landscapes to broaden my portfolio. At Sulu Garden, a nature-inspired garden-restaurant in the seaside town of Miag-ao, I met the owner, Jonathan R. Matias, who told me about different places to see in Miag-ao. Among the many choices, the salt farming tradition of Barangay Guibungan intrigued me because the process of salt-making he described was quite unusual. I was also told that it is only found in Miag-ao and likely nowhere else in the world. And, that there are only five salt-farmers left when it used to cover all of Miag-ao’s beaches with at least 40 farms in operation just 20 years ago.

My first visit to the beach of Brgy Guibungan convinced me that there was something unique here. It was not only the salt farming tradition, but there was also of the character of the people who persisted to continue this back-breaking tradition. Taking pictures is just part of this; learning about the people and the process that makes up this tradition was just as important. I knew it can only be done by immersing me into the community and by the fisher folks seeing me as not just another passing tourist with a camera.

This immersion was a period of three months, which involves coming a few days each week to watch the process while taking pictures, but without interrupting the salt farmer’s normal routines. After two weeks, one of the salt farmers making the salt or ‘budbud’ as it is locally known, asked, “Why do you keep coming back? Are your pictures not coming out right?” I remembered answering that I wanted to document the process of how they make the saltnikki salvacion because I thought that it might vanish as a tradition in the years to come. Ever since that first conversation, the salt farmers, who like to call themselves jokingly as ‘Asinderos,’ started to become friendlier and often show me how they work and when they work. Weeks later, I had been fortunate to meet the oldest matriarch of the Asinderos, Mrs. Nikki Salvacion. At 82, she is the oldest Asindera and had educated all her children solely from income from making budbud. With her patronage, I was introduced to everyone and truly became the ‘adopted one’ to the Asinderos. From that opportunity I learned more of the details and even the hidden ‘rituals’ of making budbud that they do not show to anyone outside of the community.

Fig. 4.  The Asindero watering the sand with seawater using large bamboo poles.  Photo by Norman Posecion which won the Grand Final in the 2nd PAGCOR National Photo Competition

Fig. 4. The Asindero watering the sand with seawater using large bamboo poles. Photo by Norman Posecion which won the Grand Final in the 2nd PAGCOR National Photo Competition

The budbud process is a complicated one and could not be fully covered in a short essay here. In brief, a long big bamboo (called a ‘bayong’ in Karay-a) that grows in the upland barangay of Wayang, is filled with seawater and carried by a man to the carefully raked sandy beach. The seawater is sprayed through a contraption at the open end of the bamboo pole onto the sand. This process is repeated many times in the morning and in the afternoon for several days, allowing the sand to become supersaturated with seawater. Then the sand is shoveled into sacks and piled up on a mound called ‘pasabakan.’ Seawater is added to the mound to wash the sand and to drain into an earthen/mud reservoir, called the lapok, situated under the mound. The ‘tuma’ or the supersaturated saltwater in the reservoir is then mixed with extracts of a vine, called ‘balunos,’ that grows in the upland hills of Barangay Cavite in Miag-ao. Years before, the Aetas would bring pieces of ‘balunos,’ to the asinderos in exchange for a sack of budbud salt; now it is traded by the upland farmers who searched for the same vine since the Aetas had moved to other parts of Panay. But, the tradition of barter trade still remains: balunos for a sack of salt. The final product-- supersaturated seawater complexed with balunos extract--is then used to fill the ‘bayong’ and carefully sprayed onto half-cut bamboos arranged in array on the beach. The hot summer sun dries up the seawater into large particles (5 times bigger than commercial salt) to become budbud salt. These are then collected only by women with specially made bamboo scrapers and sold almost entirely within Miagao.

There are rituals and some mysticism about how the sand is spread with their feet in a dance, about the timing of the bubud salt making and about songs sung as they work. The Asindero’s work is a hard one and the tradition so rare that budbud salt making should be more known and somehow preserved for future generations to appreciate as one truly made only in the Philippines. This is my inspiration for this picture.

By Norman Posecion Submitted to PAGCOR on May 2014

Norman’s photograph of the Asindero did win in the Grand Finals of the PAGCOR competition!

The complex process is time consuming but yields one of the best sea salt enjoyed almost entirely by Miagaowanons. But why is it a dying industry?

Fig. 5. Filling the bamboo with the supersaturated seawater extracted from the salted sand

Fig. 5. Filling the bamboo with the supersaturated seawater extracted from the salted sand

First, the sea is advancing each year and the shoreline has eroded by as much as 20 meters in the last decade alone. And, the sea is still advancing. Much of the shoreline is now too narrow to make ‘asin,’ except in Barangay Guibungan where the beach is still wide enough, for now.

Second, the younger generation finds the work very exhausting, the business too seasonal and the income too little. As the children of Asinderos finish college, they prefer to do other jobs that have higher pay and less back breaking work.

Third, commercial salt is more widely available and much cheaper than budbud sea salt.

The Future?

Not much can be done with the receding shoreline. Even if the sand returns many years from now, the lure of better income somewhere else and cheaper salt are hard to overcome. The LGU (Local Government Unit) of Miag-ao are working on incentives for the Asinderos to keep this tradition going, but government can only do so much. This is a market driven business and also a family issue about who continues the tradition.

Fig. 6.  Sun dried Sea salt on the bamboo ready for harvest

Fig. 6. Sun dried Sea salt on the bamboo ready for harvest

Perhaps finding higher value use of budbud salt, such as by chefs around the world, or as a major tourism attraction, would make it economically viable to maintain the existing salt farms.

There are so many maritime traditions being lost for similar reasons and we just get surprised later when it is all gone. I fell in love with Miag-ao’s sunset first and the view of the sea filled with small fishing boats with sails second. Now I am lucky to see one sail boat going out to fish. The fish near shore are gone and the sail boats replaced with motorized ones so they can go farther out to sea. That change happened slowly but surely. And, it was another surprise when I returned 13 years later.

Fig. 7.  Women harvesting the salt

Fig. 7. Women harvesting the salt

Bubudan as an enterprise may end one day without notice or fanfare. It will simply disappear if we do nothing more imaginative to change the course of destiny.

For comments, please send by email to poseidonnova@aol.com Use subject heading of “Asinderos.”

 

References:

1. FoodMinds LLC. "Worrying Rise In Sodium Intake In US Over Last Decade." Medical News Today. MediLexicon, Intl., 24 Apr. 2013. Web. 7 May. 2013. <http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/259517.php> 2. Joseph Nordqvist. "High Salt Consumption Linked To 2.3 Million Deaths In 2010." Medical News Today. MediLexicon, Intl., 23 Mar. 2013. Web. 27 Mar. 2013. <http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/258120.php 3. http://www.biosciencetechnology.com/News/2012/06/Too-Much-Salt-May-Damage-Blood-Vessels-and-Lead-to-High-Blood-Pressure/?et_cid=2705325&et_rid=84566584&linkid=http%3a%2f%2fwww.biosciencetechnology.com%2fNews%2f2012%2f06%2fToo-Much-Salt-May-Damage-Blood-Vessels-and-Lead-to-High-Blood-Pressure%2f 4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salt 5. Archie National (2007) Budbud–traditional Miagao salt, Cuisina Ilongga.

 

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