COMMERCIALIZATION IN THE CORDILLERA
Souvenirs are probably the best ways to show family and friends that you have been to a particular place. These are little tidbits to remind you of how your ignorance got the better of you during your first visit. And finally on the last day you got the hang of it and you can finally brag to you friends and even people who don’t know you that you had step foot in the city of blah blah blah…
You proudly wear your T-shirts screaming you’ve been to Laoag, Banaue, Cebu, New York and even Pluto. Durian from Davao, strawberries from Baguio and even dates from Saudi Arabia fill your fruit bowls. Carvings and antiques from god-knows-where decorate your house. When people visit, you parade these prizes as if they are the reason for the visit, when in truth, you don’t even know what they are and you only bought them because they seemed cute at the time. Or that you just wanted to flaunt to the world that you have the money to afford such.
But kidding aside, there really are people who buy value souvenirs for the fact that they are souvenirs, a reminder of the places they have been. But why do we buy souvenirs? Aside from being a reminder, we buy souvenirs for the main reason that they are unique, weird, different and the pride of a particular place. These are things exclusive only to that place.
In Baguio City, where tourism is being pushed by the local city government as a way to boost the city’s economy, souvenir shops are have sprouted like mushrooms. Bul-uls (the “granary god” of the Ifugaos) can be bought as necklaces for 35 pesos. The tapis (cloth of the Igorots that is used as a skirt) can be bought for a few hundreds and it even has a mini skirt version. Tourists can have “Kodak moments” with real Igorots for only 5 bucks.
There are shops in malls that offer all kinds of ethnic wears and pieces to anyone who can afford the prices. You can even have an ethnic furniture piece, carving or material custom made for the right price. Even foreigners can avail of these Cordilleran products via internet or through international trade fairs.
But with the success of tourism in the Cordilleras, the issue of bastardization and commercialization of culture has risen. Many progressive groups, like the Dapayan Ti Kultura Ti Kordiyera (DKK), have voiced out their outright objection to the commercialization of culture in the region.
So what is commercialization of culture in the first place? Is just a business related endeavor wherein the trade of Cordilleran products or culture is involved? If an Igorot sells his bul-ul carving to local and foreign tourists, is it considered as commercialization of culture? If Igorots are asked to give cultural dances in Manila to foreign delagates, is it commercialization of culture? Or if the you pass by Mines View Park and have some picture taking moments with the old Igorots in the area for a fee of 5 pesos, is it commercialization of culture?
The issue of commercialization of culture is an issue of subjectivity. It is a matter of personal perception and understanding. The selling and buying of Cordilleran products and display of cultures maybe considered as commercialization by some people but not by others.
Pictures for Bread
Let us take the situation of the old Igorots posing for pictures in the Botanical Garden of Baguio City.
The Botanical Garden is also known as the “Igorot Village”. It features native huts of the Cordillerans amidst the flora and fauna that thrive in the cool climate of Baguio City. Tourists can usually take pictures with the Igorots dressed in their ethnic attires of tapis for women and bahag/g-string for men. There are also souvenir shops in the area that sell handicrafts and other Cordilleran products.
I learned from a friend, who conducted interviews with the old folks of the area, that the Igorots posing for pictures came from the provinces of Ifugao and Mt. Province. Others said that they were from the “ili” a generic term for "province", probably to spare their “kai-lian” from stereotypes and other derogatory remarks about them and their place of origin.
When they were asked why they came to Baguio, they all answered the same thing, it was due to poverty. Agriculture is the livelihood of most people of the provinces in the Cordilleras. True as it may seem that they can afford to eat three times a day, it cannot be denied that they too need money to buy other basic needs like clothing, medicine, and to pay for travel fares and their debts. During this time wherein prices are literally soaring high, a hundred pesos to them is already a big amount.
The Igorots at present are facing so many issues regarding their ancestral domains. The effects of dams, mining and logging in the Cordillera have lead to the displacement and loss of livelihood of the IPs of the place. Non security of resources, food and safety have caused some of the old folks of the “ili” to come to Baguio. They want to find ways to improve their living condition and basically survive.
They pose for pictures with tourists in order to earn money. They are paid five pesos per person for each shot. During ordinary days, they make at least 10-20 pesos per day and at least 50 pesos on most weekends. They said that they make higher pays on holidays especially on the Lenten Season and during the Christmas vacation.
The money is just enough to feed them for a day and take them home to rest their weary bones. Looking closely, “just enough” for them is their way of saying “I can still work tomorrow.” In short, they depend on the influx of tourists for their survival.
After waiting all day, sitting on the ground and enduring the heat of the sun or the cold wind, they go home to their small houses/"kubo-kubo" as they call it, in Dreamland, Baguio City. Ironic as it may seem, but after all the hardships of the day, they go home to a place called "Dreamland", dreaming of a better land and life, ignoring the dilapidated houses where they stay in.
When asked if they have families, they all said yes. They left their families in the provinces and they came to Baguio to earn their own living. Their families have families of their own and they do not want to be a burden to them since life is already a battle for them.
Going back to the earlier question, are these people then commercializing culture?
Commercialization and the Academic View
Another way of viewing the issue of commercialization is through the lens of education. A friend mine said that some of the elders of their village do not view the display of their dances and songs and the selling of material cultures as a form of commercialization or bastardization. Some are actually happy that they are able to share to the world their unique heritage.
If an Ifugao carver mass produces the bul-ul and sells, is it commercilization of culture? If he did it for the sake of money alone, then I say yes, it is commercilization of culture. But if he knew the essence of the bul-ul and his intention was for survival and for the knowledge of o thers who might take interest in the bul-ul, then it becomes another story.
If a business man buys and sell a tapis and a bahag for the sake that it makes greater money since it appeals to foreigners, then yes, he is commercializing culture. But if the foreigner who bought the tapis or the bahag bought it out of curiosity that lead him to learn and understand something about the culture of the Igorots, then the commercialization has resulted in an academic purpose.
Sometimes, ethnic products are bought for this very purpose-academic learning. A bul-ul is bought because it is unique and is exclusive to the Ifugaos alone. It is the rice granary god of the Ifugaos. It is a part of the Ifugao people's rich culture, a part of their lifestyle. This commercialization then leads to the learning of the Ifugao culture. This can lead to the understanding of cultures and traditions. This then helps destroy the misconception that the Igorots, like the Ifugaos, are barbaric.
Commercialization and bastardization of culture are very powerful words. But as mentioned earlier, it is a matter of personal discretion. Yes, commercialization of culture exists in the Cordilleras. But it is more often than not driven by economic reasons. But even in this context, there are always two ways of viewing the matter.
On the negative side, yes, people like the old Igorot folks posing in the Botanical Garden are being exploited. They were driven out of their place due to economic and socio-political reasons, and are worked in an underground economy. They are exploited and reduced to mere things and objects for the pleasure of visitors and foreigners' eyes.
But who can blame these people for doing what they do? Where will they look for food in the first place? When it comes to this situation, will commercialization matter if it meant their survival?
On the other hand, commercialization of culture can be seen in a positive light. It can bring about learning and education to the curious and interested. This is provided that the portrayal of the culture is right. If it is otherwise, like using a tapis in a mini skirt version in a beauty pageant, it only brings about misconception and reinforcement of negative stereotypes of the Igorots.
Commercialization is inevitable since culture is always changing in order to adapt to the changing times.Thus, care must be taken when culture is presented.