Contents - Previous - Next

Part III. Assessing natural food sources of Vitamin A in the community

4. The Philippines: The Aetas Canawan during wet and dry seasons
5. Community assessment of natural food sources of Vitamin A in Niger: The hausas of Filingué
6. China: The people of Doumen Village, Kai Feng Municipality, Henan Province
7. Peru: The rural community of Chamis and the urban suburb of San Vicente in Cajamarca
8. India: The rural community of Sheriguda in Andhra Pradesh

4. The Philippines: The Aetas Canawan during wet and dry seasons

Cecelia Santos-Acuin, A. Troy Gepte IV and M. Justiniana Dedace

The Vitamin A problem in the Philippines
The Aetas of Canawan, Morong
The Aeta's way of life
Concepts of food and deficiency
Factors affecting food intake
A typical meal
Suggested dietary modifications

The Vitamin A problem in the Philippines

Vitamin A continues to be a leading cause of micronutrient deficiency, blindness, and eye disorders in the Philippines. Among children six months to six years of age, the prevalence of nightblindness is 0.7% and of Bitot's spots 0.2% (UNICEF, 1992). Certain communities (remote rural barangays or villages, urban slums) and population groups (children from large families, with poorly educated mothers, from unlanded farms or small/hired fishing households) are considered at higher risk than others. The Aetas possess a number of these factors and their children are considered at high risk for vitamin A deficiency.

The current management strategy of the Department of Health is to provide 200,000 IU of vitamin A in a capsule every six months to children suffering from or at high risk of developing the deficiency (those who are mildly, moderately, or severely malnourished; those with chronic diarrhea or recent measles). However, this policy is more curative in approach, seeking to correct the deficiency when it already exists. Recently, a campaign was launched to administer vitamin A capsules to all children and pregnant women, with or without the deficiency. As in other interventions of this nature, problems of supply and distribution influence its effective implementation. Moreover, administration of large doses of vitamin A must be adequately supervised because of the danger of toxicity.

The Aetas of Canawan, Morong

Geography of Canawan, Morong, Bataan

Morong is a municipality in the province of Bataan, about 150 kilometers northwest of Manila (Map 2). It lies at the foot of the tail end of the Zambales mountain range that extends from the north of the province of Zambales down the western side of the island of Luzon to end in Bataan. Morong has a population of about 19,000 living in five barangays or villages. It is bounded on the north by the Subic Naval Base forest (that was an American territory until 1992), on the west by the Subic Bay (that opens into the South China Sea), on the south by the municipality of Bagac, and on the east by Mt. Natib (a dormant volcano). Morong's barangays are laid out so that a portion of each lies along the coast and flat land, with larger areas at the foothills or mountain slopes. This is typical of many coastal towns in the country.

Canawan (also Kanawan) is a sitio or hamlet of barangay Binaritan, about eight kilometers from the town proper at approximately 200 meters above sea level, along a mountain slope denuded of forest cover. Its nearest neighbor is the Philippine Refugee Processing Center (PRPC).

MAP 2. The FES Protocol was Tested in Canawan, Morong, the Philippines

A single dirt road leads from the PRPC to a hanging bridge about thirty to forty meters in length spanning the Batalan River. This road and foot bridge serve as the only link between Canawan and the lowlands. From the bridge, a trail of caked mud and loose stones slopes upward (the average slope is forty-five degrees), leveling off on a grassy plateau where the Aetas have built most of their houses. The entire climb from the hanging bridge takes about thirty minutes. Other houses, that are situated in the hulo or in places farther from the center of the sitio or village, are built near the fields they cultivate. To get to the hulo requires another thirty to sixty minutes of hiking through rolling hills.

There are no official census records, but unofficial estimates place about thirty families living in Canawan that are of Aeta origin and five families from intermarriages between Aetas and lowlander Tagalogs.


Canawan's climate is typical of a tropical forest fringe with temperatures from 25C to 350 C. There are roughly two seasons, dry and wet, although some would add a cold season (December to February), called taglamig by the Tagalogs, when temperatures may drop to the high teens. In terms of food availability, however, this cold season does not vary considerably from the dry season and is considered part of the latter in this discussion.

The dry season is from March to May or June and is characterized by a warm, humid climate with temperatures reaching as high as 38C to 40 C. Since many plants that are not cultivated in irrigated fields die, food can become scarce. These months are considered taghirap (times of difficulty or hardship). This is the time when young men of the village go into the forest to look for game or honey.

Once the rains come in June or July, it rains heavily almost daily, usually from mid-morning to late afternoon and evening. All of Canawan becomes covered by clouds and travel is difficult. Vegetables and tubers are plentiful at this time. This is the rice planting season so that this staple becomes scarce. Harvest will not take place for another six months or so given the elementary agricultural skills of the Aetas.


It is believed that the Aetas were the first people to live in the hills of Morong, and were there before the Spaniards arrived in 1521 (Rahmann, 1963). Living independently by hunting wild animals and a slash and burn method of land cultivation, the Aetas occupied the valleys, knolls, and dense rainforests of Bataan. The Aeta settlements gradually receded to the more remote reaches of Morong, driven by the progress of lowlander civilization and abetted by their own destructive techniques of farming (personal communication, E. Mendoza, Jr., 1992).

At the behest of a local chieftain, Pablo Sulangi, in the 1930s, the Aetas dispersed throughout Morong and resettled together in one hillside community by the Morong River. They remained there until 1942 when they were forced to hide from the Japanese invaders during World War II. Unable to practice their slash and burn method of farming (kaingin) for fear of being found and captured, the Aetas suffered hunger and deprivation.

The Hukbalahap uprising, a local rebellion in the mountain and plains of Central Luzon, prevented the Aetas from completely retaking their prewar settlement until the late 1950s. In the late 1970s, they were forced to relocate again because the government claimed their land for construction of the PRPC'.

The Aetas chose Canawan, a piece of land situated a few kilometers from the site of PRPC. Eventually, the government, through the issuance of Proclamation #192, allotted 165 hectares of land from the Bataan National Park Reservation for the creation of the Canawan Negritos Reservation Area. It ordered the exclusive use of this land for the benefit of the Negritos (the racial group to which the Aetas belong) living within the area. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the Office of the Northern Cultural Communities (ONCC) administer and manage the land.

The Aeta way of life is considered the most primitive among the various ethnic groups existing in the Philippines. With the objective of exploring indigenous vitamin A-rich foods, they were deemed ideal for this qualitative research because of their closeness to nature and their remoteness from the existing healthcare delivery system.

The Aeta's way of life

The life of the Aetas of Canawan revolves around the extended family. Aeta families freely intermarry so that almost all members of the tribe are related in some way and often share the same family names (e.g., Malunik, Quitain, Cayetano, Alejo). Community members are thus closely knit and mutually supportive.

Most traditional Aeta culture (agriculture, working tools, manner of dress, decorative ornaments), has been influenced by the lowland Tagalogs. The Aetas' capacity to selectively accept change, cherishing some aspects of their culture while abandoning others, has been influenced largely by their interactions with the Tagalog unat (meaning straight-haired, in contrast to the Aetas who are called kulot or curly-haired).


The Aetas have practiced slash and burn agriculture (kaingin or gasak) for many generations. Produce is mainly root crops (mostly sweet potatoes or kamote), bananas, and a variety of vegetables. Rice is not planted extensively and is usually bought to supplement their insufficient stores. Planting starts in May when the rains come. The vegetable harvest takes place after four to five months; the harvest of rice four months later. The bounty of produce depends on adequate rain since there is no irrigation system, and on vigilant protection from rats and other wild animals. With better tools, rice stock, and field management, lowlanders have managed to plant and harvest two to three rice crops a year. The Aetas barely manage one crop per year.

The Aetas do not seem to practice any system of crop rotation. Most of their produce is sold through a cooperative market in the town. Like all other co-op members, they supply certain kinds of vegetables or fruits predetermined by an agreement with the traders in the cooperative and the market. Most of the foods they consume are bought from the same market with the money earned from selling their produce.

With the ban on gasak farming, in order to preserve the few remaining trees in the already denuded forests of Morong, the Aetas have been forced to make do with whatever cultivable lands have been allotted to them. This increases the intensity of land use and heightens the urgency to improve methods of cultivation to maximize production.

Hunting and Gathering

Unlike the Aetas (a related racial and ethnic group also found in Luzon), the Aetas of Canawan seldom hunt for wild deer, pigs, monkeys, and lizards, as they did previously. Likewise gathering is rare and usually limited to honey. The honey-gathering process, (namumukyutan or namumuay) is generally done on dry, non-windy days. The bees are driven away by smoking the hive and the whole hive is obtained. The honey is collected and sold for about 1000 Phillipine Pesos ($40 US dollars) per gallon. The Aetas regard this as one way to generate income, especially during the difficult dry season. This and other traditional skills in procuring wild food are gradually being neglected as forest resources dwindle, and the Aetas rely more and more on the market for their needs.

The Tagalogs regard the hunting and gathering way of life as evidence that the Aetas tend to be lazy and resistant to change. True or not, the Aetas have remained remarkably isolated from improvements in farming technology that have been of immense benefit to the lowland Tagalogs.

Water, Sanitation' and Hygiene

The recent installation of a water system (steel pipes, rubber hoses, and faucets) through the assistance of the World Relief Corporation (WRC) has facilitated the delivery of water from a nearby spring to the center of the village. Although the Aetas now have running water to use for bathing and laundry, it has not changed the way they maintain personal hygiene. They change their clothes only after several days of wear. Children are allowed to play on the ground barefoot and clad only in dirty shirts. Food is handled without handwashing, and soap is rarely used.

The few material possessions of the Aeta family consist of some clothing, cookware, utensils, plates, and homemade furniture, such as benches and tables. Their trash usually consists of organic wastes from food preparation. Cigarette cartons and candy wrappers are seldom found in the trash because these items are beyond the reach of most members of the community. Since the Aetas have a minimal amount of waste, garbage disposal is not much of a problem.

Toilets are nonexistent in Canawan. Aetas defecate and bury their stools in nearby fields. Remarkably, there have been no reported major outbreaks of diarrhea! diseases in the area, the local perception being that they have become immune to diarrhea-causing germs. As one Tagalog remarked, "Sanay na ang mga iyan sa marumi!" (They are used to being dirty!)

Health Status and Practices

The Aetas believe that evil spirits are the usual cause of illness. They still practice a ritual called kagon, a form of spirit healing performed with dance, song, and guitar music to exorcise the dimonyo from ailing individuals. It is customary to wear a necklace of stringed pieces of sticks to ward off bad spirits like lamang-lupa, inhabitants of the earth believed to enter the body and cause disease.

When an illness persists, the Aetas seek medical help at the local clinic built by the WRC, an evangelical organization based in the United States, in the Canawan Village. Other health facilities include the PRPC hospital and the Rural Health Unit (RHU) in the town proper. Generic drugs are given free of charge at the clinic by a nurse who comes once a week. A weighing and feeding program for the underweight and malnourished is also undertaken by the WRC. However, lack of resources and appropriate health education hinder effective delivery of healthcare to the Aetas. The RHU staff come to Canawan about once a year, usually on a vaccination campaign. They claim that the remoteness of the village precludes more frequent visits with the limited available resources and manpower.

Malnutrition is a problem, particularly among children. It is common to find reddish or yellowish hair, a sign of protein deficiency, among children three to eight years old. In fact, this is considered karaniwan or normal by the Aetas. This age group is no longer breastfed, but they are unable to successfully forage for their own food. Readily available sources of animal protein are scarce. Except for a few chickens, no other livestock is raised, and they seldom hunt for animals such as wild deer and pigs. As a result, the Aetas are dependent on plant protein sources.

Cases of diseases related to malnutrition (diarrhea, measles, pneumonia) have been reported occasionally. Proximity to the forest has also led to outbreaks of malaria. In the course of our fieldwork during the dry season, there was one month in particular when almost every household had a member sick with malaria. During the wet season, a wave of upper respiratory infections swept through the community.

Although there are records of patients consulting at the RHU for eye symptoms, no signs indicative of vitamin A deficiency were documented.

Concepts of food and deficiency

We asked the oldest man in the village, (Mang Aquino Malunik, estimated to be about ninety years old, but appeared thirty years younger) what he wanted to eat. He replied, "Kung ano man ang ipagkaloob ng Diyos" ("Whatever God provides.") The response captures the entire attitude that most Aetas have toward food. They eat to survive and will take whatever is available. According to Mang Aquino, this attitude enables them to survive during difficult times. Another belief that influences food consumption is that of "makasanayan ang isang bagay" ("getting used to something"). Aetas are afraid to eat too much food or partake of what they consider to be "rich" foods, like meat, because they do not want to get used to them to the extent that they will "pine" for them.

These concepts regarding food availability affect the consumption of vitamin A-rich food as well as other food. A number of Aeta fruit and vegetable crops are rich in vitamin A and are available throughout the year. The problem the study team identified is not an inadequate intake of vitamin A-rich food, but what appears to be deficient vitamin A absorption and storage in the body. A review of actual intakes from food frequency tables and 24-hour recalls shows that the Aeta diet does not have a regular source of fat, whether animal or plant-based. As a result, those who have increased needs, such as pregnant and lactating women or children with illness (measles or diarrhea), may develop vitamin A deficiency.

From key-informant interviews, nigh/blindness appears to affect women only when they are pregnant, and the only memory they had of a person who manifested what may be Bitot's spots involved a young child who had other signs of malnutrition as well, and subsequently succumbed to infection.

Contents - Previous - Next