A House Divided

“A house divided against itself cannot stand. ”
-Abraham Lincoln

From the Bible, Matthew 12:25 (King James Version):

“And Jesus knew their thoughts, and said unto them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand”.

I wonder how many tour guides association Sagada has now.  We have SEGA, SAGGAS, SETGO, one in the south and another in north, or is this one in the north (NORSAGA or NORSEGA?) different from this conglomerate of guide associations of northern barangays I have recently seen in a post? An incident in the past has sparked discussions regarding guides associations in Sagada which led to suggestions like having an umbrella organization to unite all these guide groups and have a unified system wherein codes and policies would be centralized while implementing streamlined operations. But it seems that some establishments or individuals would rather want autonomy and manage a group of guides on their own, annexing them to their business. Apparently, the lack of a unified group of tour guide associations poses a possibility of a widening gap between these guide organizations and an opportunity for exploitation by tour operators. In order to earn, tour operators could just basically talk it out with guide groups or a guide their terms that are sometimes neglectful of the rules and could compromise the safety of both tourists and the guide among other things, and in exchange, guaranteeing them of providing clients to them steadily.

Other barangays forming their own tour guide associations and strictly implementing their policy of hiring their own local tour guides show how tourism is finally making its way to the other barangays of Sagada. In the near future, it is inevitable for these villages to completely open up to tourism, as seen in a trend which has started recently, a trend wherein new tourist spots, establishments, businesses, and accommodations emerge in the outskirts of the poblacion as tourists are more interested in getting a taste of the pristine Sagada (the Shangri-la) that they can no longer find in the center. And in the long run,  when the points of interest will shift outside of poblacion, leaving the center high and dry, what will happen now to the tour guides in poblacion or to poblacion itself? Are we going to turn into hyenas, scavenging for what’s left of Sagada, after other animals have gorged on it?

The trend as I see it would be, mass tourism will keep the business going in poblacion for a while, since poblacion is seemingly not so keen in taking hold of the beast that is mass tourism. So mass tourism stays in the sentro, it will keep on catering to hit and run tours or bullet tours and day trippers. And eventually we will be at the beck and call of tour operators or anyone who would offer a boost in tourism, to the point that we will lose the value of things ( the value of our land, our sense of pride, culture, identity, the value of ourselves as people or specifically as indigenous people) to money, because the rooms have to be filled in and tour operators or any opportunistic soul  could very well make use of that need to their own advantage. True or not, I have heard of instances wherein accommodation establishments pit against one another in giving the lowest price to tour operators just so the rooms would be filled in.

Moreover, coupled with unabated development, lack of zoning, and building policies (it may sound repetitive but will not get tired  of calling for the LGU to look into these), by and by, the poblacion will become defaced and ugly that a new generation of tourists will look for something more that Sagada could offer, something that is still unspoiled. How long the poblacion would be able to hold mass tourism longer is the question. Mass tourism is never sustainable and unfailingly destructive, think not only of a spoiled landscape, it is just the tip of the iceberg. If it could deface Sagada physically, think of how it will also erode the and ruin  the social, cultural, and environmental life of Sagada.

One thing’s for sure, these tour operators who have succeeded in taking control of the poblacion and the dynamics of its society, will also eventually take control of the other barangays or find new places to exploit. And not only that, even the locals could find themselves entertaining the idea of expanding their business in the outlying villages, because that is the trend and that is where money is. And the lure of money which could turn into greed can come in. Those who would not be able to start a business of their own might want to just sell their land to whoever will be up for it, be it a local or an outsider. Anyway it could just boil down to whoever bids the highest, or they could be offered with shares as a bait etc. So with this formula and the progression of things, much is at stake for Sagada and its people, lands could be lost and along with it the people, their identity, culture, traditions, sense of pride and ownership among others. Things that money cannot buy. I hope that the other barangays would learn from Poblacion Sagada,  it is vital that they have to come up with a tourism plan first if they really wish to embrace tourism.

And what will then become of poblacion or of the entire Sagada? Please think about it. What will Sagada be like five to ten years from now?  Amidst all these things that are pulling Sagada down, I still believe that Sagada is not yet past its tipping point and that we can do something about it. I just hope we would be more mindful of our actions and  decisions especially when we think of cashing in on the trend of tourism and capitalizing on Sagada as a travel destination. How will it affect the people around us,  nature, and culture etc.? The gist is, if we keep having this “to each his own” mindset, we will just be nothing but a playground for opportunists like these tour operators who milk Sagada to the last drop for their own benefit, for indeed  a house divided against itself cannot stand. And once we reach that very last drop, who would suffer? If not us during our lifetime, please think about your children, our children,  the children of Sagada.


Saving Begnas


Commodification with its new scope and power has encroached almost every aspect of life.  With the core of the character of life these days becoming more consumeristic and commercial, goods in shelves of stores are not the only commodities anymore. For many years, indigenous communities in particular have been pristine without any intrusion from tourism activities, but these communities in the last decades have not been spared from tourism ventures. Sagada in particular, having kept its pristine environment and culture and traditions intact for many years, has thought of cashing in on the trend of a variant of tourism called eco-tourism. And due to this trend, being unprepared with no plan still up to now, mass tourism has found its way in every nook and cranny of Sagada even into its people’s psyche, thus resulting to its culture and heritage to face a foreboding threat of being exploited.

In a World Tourism Update in the late 1990s, Sagada is already one of the examples cited, wherein other than its environmental degradation, its traditions and practices have also been disrupted due to the arrival of tourists. Man’s curiosity though it is natural, it is still  unavoidable for the presence of curious tourists to affect the solemnity and sacredness of the rituals in Sagada such as the Begnas. Not only the rituals but places deemed to be sacred such as burial caves have not been spared from graffiti and vandalism, worse, cases of the ancestors’ bones being stolen have also been reported.


Women and children on their way to Demang to attend the Begnas. 2015

The recently concluded Begnas has sparked discussions regarding  the rules that were imposed on both tourists and locals. Would you like to observe the Sagada Begnas?  It is good in a way that concerns about it have been coming up which pose the immediacy to address it. I checked it again the following day with a barangay official of Dagdag, who said that the rules have been reviewed and confirmed by Lakay Jaime Dugao before they were posted around Sagada. And yes, the rules are meant to be followed by both locals and tourists. NO ONE IS EXEMPTED.

People are aware that traditions and practices in Sagada have been fading away.Young people when asked about Begnas would reply with an ashamed look or a grunt. Some people say, the elders are getting old and we will be in dire need of replacements in the future and practices like the lablabi are not being practiced the way it was before. I completely understand and empathize with these sentiments but to say that taking of pictures of the ritual should not be questioned with the premise that by doing so it helps in the “preservation of culture”, it doesn’t kill culture, is disturbing. It is problematic especially nowadays because what these people claim as “acts of documentation” have become acts of reflex, bereft of conscious thoughts in this age of smart phones and Instagram or Facebook.How does it help in the preservation, when most of the time there is no comprehension of what’s going on? We tend to forget that tourists by definition are consumers, sometimes devoid of commitment and real knowledge of what he is looking at, a recreational outsider who by the pressure of the social media needs to get as many pictures as possible and take that perfect selfie shot. And what is even more problematic in allowing such intrusion of tourists is that it  poses risks of culture being commoditized as some people could see the whole process of the ritual to be a great economic opportunity. For all we know, tour agencies could have already been including Begnas in their tour packages.

So they ask, why was it not regulated before? Why only now? Tourists in the past were allowed to wear the wanes and  join the men in Patpatayan anyway. Culture won’t be destroyed by just taking pictures as long as they do not obstruct the ceremony. It is a way of promoting the culture we are proud of  so it won’t die away.  But why did Begnas become the subject of preservation efforts of the community? May we all be aware that the rules have been implemented since the last Begnas before this latest one because the community has felt the need to do so. Some say that this whole thing of prohibiting cameras during the ceremony and not allowing tourists to participate in the Tuling  were just merely concoctions of several individuals who do not know what they are talking about. I am sorry but it is a collective effort of a proactive and vigilant community to prevent the encroachment of mass and irresponsible tourism into the deeper recesses of life in Sagada as well as to ward off further desecration of its culture and traditions. This reaction of the community  is inevitable since it is natural for  campaigns to preserve and protect culture to arise when there is already a sense of danger of losing it.

Every Begnas, I would hear complaints most especially from women about how uncomfortable they feel with tourists shoving the cameras into their faces, stealthily taking a selfie shot with them in the background, and aggressively finding their way through the throng of locals just to get a shot of what’s going on in the dap-ay. I think instead of being critical about the rules imposed, we should be happy and appreciative instead of the efforts of the community in finally taking control of tourism in their own terms and not just only by those who are engaged in tourism who always see great economic opportunities in this industry. We have to understand that although mass tourism has engulfed this town, there are still people who live here who would want to carry on with their lives free from the shackles of tourism and perform spiritual obligations with reverence. Let’s give it to them.


Tapey as offering

Imposing those rules is not a matter of being selfish, it is a matter of preventing the culture from being abused. The community is becoming more aware of the necessity to protect its ownership of its heritage while it does the preventive measures to mitigate the impacts of mass tourism. If tourists wish to pledge their love for the culture of Sagada, they can do so by respecting and learning more about it and not just by donning the traditional garb or joining the men in Patpatayan or dap-ay. Grab a book about Sagada, research about Begnas, yes, come and observe the begnas but please follow the rules set by the community. We have already opened the burial caves for adventure among many other points of interests here in Sagada, let us keep other sacred things left to ourselves.  A ritual is a ritual and this is not a cultural show or a plain festival. Begnas is NOT A FORM OF ENTERTAINMENT or even something that should be a part of packaged tours.Let us remember that it has spiritual obligations and even a timetable to follow, respectful of the agricultural cycle of the land. As people of Sagada, let us be one in keeping the heritage alive not for tourists but for the next generations to come. The journey is long but we are already having a good start. Let us keep educating most especially the young people about Sagada’s  culture and traditions. This is one of the many ways to show how proud we are of our culture and by doing so it can help in preventing the culture and pracitices from completely ebbing away. May we keep the flame alive. Kudos and more power to the umili! Matago-tago kayo am-in!