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Muslim Filipinos Series: Sulu’s tri-dimensional economy

THE POPULATION of the Sulu archipelago is primarily dependent on marine resources. Deep-sea fishing is an existing large-scale industry.

Throughout the archipelago, fishing is practiced, particularly in those area inhabited by the Samals and the Badjaos such as in the major fishing grounds of Jolo, Tawi-Tawi and Sitangkai. In the Sulu sea area which is considered the most fertile fishing ground in the country, about 3,075,101 kilograms of total fish production was recorded in 1972. Other marine products found in the area include pearls, shells and black coral.

A variety of fishing techniques is used. Rattan fish traps are utilised in the shallow coral reefs and the old reliable hook-and-line is widely used. Fish poisons extracted from local plants are often used in shallow waters to stun fish. This is different from another fishing methods using home-made dynamite. Women and children sometimes engage in fishing, but mainly after small fish and molluscs. Large nets  are also used by some full-time fishermen who have the money to invest. Some have ventured into trade that extends beyond the territorial waters of the Philippines to Indonesia and Borneo.

Coastal dwellers

The Samals being mainly coastal dwellers and seafaring people live in foreshore areas. Fishing is a mode of subsistence but some Samals, particularly those living in the eastern part of Sulu, also engage in agriculture to supplement their livelihood. The Samals are the real fishermen of Sulu. They play major part in the economy of the archipelago. The Tausugs do not consider themselves good fishermen and for this reason their fish requirements are often supplied by the Samals. They in turn provide the forest products and crops that the Samals and coastal dwellers need.

Althoujgh tied lup with the sea, the Samals have not improved their lot much. They do not concentrate on a single occupational specialisation. Their subsistence is derived from food gathering, fishing, and, recently, farming and doing manual labor.

Pearl divers

They are good at pearl diving. Communal fishing is very popular among the Badjaos.  Some of them engage in commercial fishing. A night catch is salted in gallon cans and tins and sold to Chinese middlemen. Shark fishing is  done in deeper waters of the archipelago. Their women are expert mat weavers using geometric lines for decorative design.

In agriculture the major crops of most farmers of Sulu are cassava, rice, corn, coconut, banana and abaca. Few tropical fruits are cultivated as much as abaca and coconut which are produced in a commercial scale.

Shifting cultivation or non-irrigation farming is practiced. Most of the arable lands are planted to rice or coconut. Because of certain religious beliefs, rice farming techniques among the Tausugs are conservative. In addition to rice and cassava as main crops, early maturing cereals such as corn, sorghum and sesame are also cultivated. Yams and peanuts are likewise grown. Influenced by contemporary needs, rice farming is slowly being displaced by coconut cultivation and as a consequence rice as a major staple food has to be imported. Copra is the main end product of coconut cultivators.

Colonial changes

Traditional farming among the ethnic communities in the country was affected when Spanish Governor General Don Sebastian Hurtado de Corcuera ordered in 1642 the com-pulsory planting of coconut throughout the Philippines. The uma, which is a small cultivated farm, was common among both Tausug and Samal communities. So was the kabbun which was a plantation type of farming usually devoted to cash crops. The cash-crop orientation of economic activities has actually altered the traditional patterns of ethnic societies in the region.

The Samals and Yakans

The Samals also engage in sea trade, mainly to obtain products or goods which could be sold or bartered for needs or for cash. In this sense, they served as intermediaries between hinterland producers and coastal merchants.

The Yakans have a semi-sedentary economy. They practice a certain amount of dry agriculture and live chiefly on root crops. Hunting which was once a profitable endeavour has given way to trade with lowland villagers.

The main source of food is agriculture with upland rice as the most important crop. There is no irrigation system and harvest is done once a year. Almost all Yakans grow rice but not enough for their requirements. Root crops such as sweet potatoes are planted in the field between planting seasons. Vegetables and tropical fruits are equally important in farming. Coconut palm is becoming a valuable as in other parts of the Philippines. The trunk of the coconut tree is used a sugarcane squeezer while the leaves are for basket making. Brooms are made from the ribs. Coconut oil which is as valuable as rice in everyday life is produced in sufficient quantity. Moreover, due to the importance given to copra production, coconut is now grown to a larger extent, approximating the situation in the Bicol and Quezon provinces where it is widely cultivated.

Although coast dwellers, not themselves sailors, the sedentary Yakans are good boat builders. The build better outrigger boats for the coastal  people than other ethnic groups.

groups. Ironically, though most of the islands re heavily forested, forest industries development has not made a headway.

Industries are based on fishing and agricultural activities such as rice milling, copra processing, abaca production, and semi-finished fish and shell materials manu-facturing. Cottage industries are encouraged and supported. Textile weaving, boat building, tools and weapons making, production of decorative goodsfrom brass, bronze, goldand silver combined with coral and shell products, are some of the secondary industries.

Among the Filipino Muslims of the Sulu archipelago, the Tausugos are considered not only as a politically dominant group but also as an economically stable people. Trade and commerce are the main sources of income for those living in the urban areas with barter trading as their favourite route towards well-off status. Hunting, logging, shipping, metal craft and other related industries are some of the minor areas of activity.

To be continued