Searching for the mystery vines of the Aetas in the uplands of Miag-ao
Jonathan R. Matias
Sulu Garden, Miagao, Iloilo 5023
with Araceli Q. Adrias, Norman Posecion, Jacob A. Lorella, Arjun P. Palmos,
Jaleel A. Lorella and Kian A. Lorella
Parts I and II of this documentary described details of Miag-ao’s salt-making tradition called budbudan [1,2]. The salt is called budbud, meaning to sprinkle in Kinaray-a. And, the salt farmers call themselves for fun as the Asinderos de Miagao.
The most intriguing part of the budbudan salt-making process is the mixing of a vine extract with the supersaturated salt water they call ‘tuma.’ The vine does not grow in the lowlands, at least not anymore, but can still be found in the mountains. In the olden days, according to the Asinderos, the Aeta pygmies from the mountains come down during the summer season to trade pieces of vines for a sack of salt. I suppose it is a fair trade if one does not know where to find it and definitely fair considering one has to go climb up the mountains to go looking for it.
To be honest, I was skeptical about the need for this vine to make the budbud salt. The only way to know for sure is to run an experiment. Actually, when I mentioned that I intended to do such an experiment, the Asinderos just laughed because they knew the answer already.
We sun dried in half-cut bamboo just the supersaturated salt and separately supersaturated salt mixed with vine. I was really surprised with the results! Without the vine extract, the salt did not form as the rock salt we expected as budbud. See the difference between budbud with and without the vine extract in the side by side photos. The vine extracts seemed to be very important to aggregate the salt into the bigger particles. The Asinderos say that the vine makes it dissolve better for cooking and gives budbud salt its special taste.
Origins of the vine?
Identifying the species of any organism requires more than just the indigenous names. The common names vary so much not only from island to island, but also from people to people. This is true in the case of this mystery vine. The first two salt farmers we talked to said it is called ‘salinguki.’ Also known as ‘gugo’ in other islands, salinguki (Albizia saponaria) is used for a whole range of medicinal purposes, including practical ones, such as native alternative for shampoo . Growing up in Cavite Province (Luzon Island), I remember the time when I had to go into the forested area of Imus to gather the bark of gugo for my grandmother, whose hair grew all the way down to the ground. She would only use gugo and never soap for her hair. Now, the forested areas of Imus are all converted to housing subdivisions. The dreaded, dark, scary forest of my youth was long gone when I returned 30 years later.
But salinguki is a 3 to 4 meter high tree. The vines we saw used by the Asinderos were not the bark of a tree. So, we were back to square one again.
The more we talked with the Asinderos, the more we learn. The others call it balunos; sometimes balagnos. The Aetas have stopped coming down from the mountain for at least a decade. Being nomadic, the Aetas move around the island of Panay and now rarely seen in the highlands of Miag-ao. But the Asinderos managed a new relationship with the farming folks of Barangay Cavite (uncanny coincidence how it is spelled just like the province of my birth) in the highlands. And, that they previously used the mature trunk of the vine, thus killing the vine in the process. They discovered later that the roots of balunos are even more effective and they only need one small piece of the extensive root system of the vine, keeping the balunos alive for next year’s bubudan farming season.
What is balunos?
The Asinderos have not seen what a living one looked like. Now that we have taken salinguki out as a possibility, we had started on a detective work to find out more about balunos and what it should look like before we go out searching for them in Barangay Cavite.
We were lucky to find a link to a 1921 report by William H. Brown entitled “Minor Products of Philippine Forests.” Brown was the Chief of Investigation of the Bureau of Forestry of the US Department of Agriculture and National Resources and a professor of botany at University of the Philippines . The report was very important because it gave indigenous names to native plants of minor commercial importance. And, there was an entry for the word balunos as a vine belonging to the species Securidaca philippinensis found in low and medium elevation forests throughout the archipelago. S. philippinensis is also locally referred to as balogo and used as soap substitute, similar in function to gugo in local usage. Surprisingly, though printed in Manila during the American Colonial Period, this book was likely among those innumerable books destroyed during the Battle of Manila in World War II. This copy might have survived because it was kept in the archives of Cornel University (USA) as a gift.
Here is the entry in Brown’s report:
58 MINOR PRODUCTS OF PHILIPPINE FORESTS
This species has been reported from Luzon, Mindoro, and Negros.
SECURIDACA PH ILIPPINENSIS Chodat Balunos. Local names: Baldgon, balunos (Sorsogon).
This vine has a thick, white bark containing saponin. The bark is used locally in certain regions as a soap substitute.
Securidaca phippinensis is a large, woody vine. The leaves are bluntly pointed at the base and taper to a rather sharp point at the tip. The flowers are small and borne on compound inflorescences. The fruits are oval and slightly over a centimeter in length. At one end there is a long wing about 7 or more centimeters in length, resembling that of a maple fruit.
This species is distributed from southern Luzon to Mindanao.
GANOPHYLLUM FALGATUM Blume. Arangen.
This plant contains saponins, which are glycoside molecules (steroidal compounds bonded to a sugar side chain) and often referred to as natural detergents due to its foaming action when mixed with water. This property makes it useful for a wide range of applications, such as soap, as foaming agents in fire extinguishers, toothpaste, beer, etc. .
Is the saponin the key ingredient in making budbud salt? Or, is there another chemical in balunos more important than saponin? I suppose that’s something we can leave for a future PhD candidate to ponder as a thesis.
Searching online for Securidaca phippinensis did not yield any images of the plant or the leaves and there was only one entry found useful to reconfirm William Brown’s report . Without a photograph of the plant, even if we go up the mountains we would not know for sure what to look for.
Into the Mountains
No other way to identify balunos except going up the highland and search for the plant ourselves with a local guide who knows how the plant looked like. The barangay captain and the tanods (watchmen) were very helpful when we arrived in Barangay Cavite. The barangay is accessible by tricycle and also by 4-wheel drive vehicle through rough roads. I can only imagine what it would be like during the rainy season. But we were told that we arrived too late in the day to go up the hills. It gets dark much faster up the hills as the setting sun is blocked by the mountains making it dangerous to come back down along the footpaths.
We did come back another time, but arrived mid-morning. Mostly my fault, because I can’t really wake up early enough for the suggested hike to start at 7 am. Arriving in Barangay Cavite, we started on the path uphill about 10:00 AM under the summer sun. The highlanders say, “It’s just half hour hike, just beyond the first mountain.” I just smiled to myself. I heard that statement before on a previous upland hike. For the highlander, the 30-minute walk translates to about a 2 hour torture for us lowlanders. Sure enough, it was high noon before we got to the top of Mt. Iwag.
The path up, not sure you could call most of the places we walked through as paths, took us slowly up the hills, occasionally passing open fields and then under forest canopies, over terraced fields and through narrow, well-worn paths hewn by decades of erosion and carabao tracks.
Sweat was flowing profusely under the mid-day sun. By the time I reached the balunos grove, I was wishing I had a bigger breakfast and wore a hat. I am sure that same feeling went with the rest of the team.
The guide showed us where they typically harvest the balunos roots. The vine was quite big, reaching up to the top of the trees, perhaps 10 meters at least, and we could barely see the leaves of the balunos mixed with the rest of the forest canopy. A branch had a few leaves close enough for me to see the pointed leaf described in the botanical reports to reconfirm the identification.
The guide also dug up the ground to show us the roots, cut out one section for us to take back down the mountain.
We were not really in shape to do the next painful trip back down so we just slept for an hour under a bamboo covered rest shack overlooking the town of Miagao and the sea below. It was quite an idyllic site for a mountain retreat under better circumstances.
The future of balunos and budbudan
The folks in Barangay Cavite only harvest a small section of the balunos root system. That means that the vines will be preserved and remain a sustainable resource for the years to come. The budbudan’s long term fate as a viable enterprise remains to be seen. The pressures of modern living and the ever encroaching sea might spell doom to this maritime fisher folk tradition in the very near future. As the younger generations find better, easier ways to create income, it is likely that the elder generation will not be able to hold the younger ones to the salt farm.
Why spend the time to document budbudan salt-farming?
Like all countries that had experienced colonial rule, wars and invasions, the Philippines adapted to the traumatics experience, adopted foreign ways and survived through each traumatic event in our history. What is sacrificed along each period of being ‘a conquered people’ was our indigenous ways; each period of assimilation saw more and more traditions lost by force, especially during the Spanish era. Our modern era is no different; we continue to lose these indigenous ways simply by sheer indifference, lack of foresight and sometimes lack of political will.
Our indigenous traditions link us to our pre-colonial past. These traditions are part of the ‘soul’ of being a Filipino, our only true identity. Without them, we continue to be among the lost generations of our time, not knowing our place in our own history.
Sadly, so much of our remaining traditions are eroding from disuse or simply ignored as we plow through the modernity of fast foods, packaged goods, electronics and media hypes. I asked a few teenagers, “Who is the local town hero. “ None knew, except one who said correctly Tan Pedro Monteclaro. I thought there was at least hope that someone young knew enough, but disappointed with the answer when I asked how he became a hero of the town. His answer was that Tan Pedro fought in World War II. (For those among us in town, who is similarly historically challenged, Tan Pedro fought the Spanish during the Revolution and the Americans during the Philippine-American War; then became the first municipal mayor during the American Colonial Period and wrote a controversial book called “Maragtas”).
Maybe I asked the wrong crowd? I tried it a few times more and the answers were similarly disappointing. What more if I asked about a small group of farmers by the sea making salt using antiquated ways? The older ones know; the younger ones simply did not care. But ask them about a comedian on TV, a popular movie star or the latest foreign movie or what is trending in Facebook and surely will get a detailed answer.
I also realized that it is not always the responsibility of the young to know, it is our responsibility to teach them. And part of this responsibility is to make local knowledge accessible, more known to them. Hence, it is our responsibility to make it easier for the future generation to know a lot more about our old local traditions. They simply won’t likely do it themselves and these articles on the Asinderos hopefully may become a tool to make that awareness happen. At least for now preserve the knowledge for the future when they are ready to care.
I wanted to write about the process of budbudan in detail because someone has to do it before it is all lost from our collective memory and become just pictures in our future municipal museum; pictures that no one in town goes to see except tourists.
Budbudan is an elegant way to make salt. More elaborate than the salt pans dating back to the ancient Chinese and Roman periods, more elegant that the traditional salt-making of Bali (Indonesia) or the women salt-makers of Dodoma (Tanzania) [7,8 ].
And most important, there is none like it in the world and it is a living tradition found ONLY IN MIAGAO.
Let’s keep the tradition alive, somehow. I know it will be worth all the effort!
Mankind can live without gold…but not without Salt
– -CASSIODORUS] Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus, Roman Senator (c. AD 490 – 585), a statesman and writer who devoted the rest of his life to prayer and the dissemination of learning.
(For comments or suggestions, please send email to email@example.com; subject heading ‘Asinderos.’)
Special thanks to:
1. Ms. Coleen P. Sucgang for research on identification of balunos and for managing the blog pages of Sulu Garden.
2. The barangay captain, tanods and the people of Barangay Cavite, Miagao.
Asinderos de Miag-ao: Part I. A fisher folk salt-making tradition doomed to extinction. https://sulugarden.com/articles/blog/asinderos-de-miag-ao-part-1/
Asinderos de Miag-ao: Part II. The Art of Farming Budbud Salt. https://sulugarden.com/articles/blog/asinderos-de-miag-ao-part-2/
ASEAN Tropical Plant Database http://126.96.36.199/tropicalplant/html/search01_view.jsp?rno=400&fno=&page=2&all=1
Philippine Woods : Principal Uses, Distribution & Equivalent Woods in Asia Pacific (A. B. Ella, A. L. Tongacan, R. P. Escobin & F. C. Pitargue, Jr.)
William H. Brown (1921). Minor Products of Philippine Forests,Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources Bureau of Forestry. Bulletin No. 22, Volume III, Bureau of Printing, Manila http://www.archive.org/stream/cu31924009599329/cu31924009599329_djvu.txt
Triterpenoidal saponins: a review. Personal Care Magazine. May 2010 http://www.personalcaremagazine.com/Print.aspx?Story=6599