A Brief History of Baao

By Orlando “Orly” Olaño

According to one oral tradition, the town of Baao got its name from the local term, bao-o, or freshwater turtles. These reptiles were said to be once abundant in the wetlands surrounding the pre-Hispanic settlements of neighboring Binanuaanan, Layuan and Binabaloy and may have used the higher and drier lands of these settlements as nesting sites.

Located on fair-sized bacolods or mounds roughly in the shape of turtle carapaces and higher than the marshes, swamps and lakes of the southern Bicol River valley, these three early Baao settlements may have been generically known as kaba-o-o-wan; or in the present contracted word form, kaba-awan.

Early Peoples

The pre-Hispanic Baao peoples belong to two different ethno-linguistic groups, the Agtas and the Indo-Malays. It is believed that the semi-nomadic Agta (also known as Itom or Tabangnon) of Negroid stock were the first people who roamed the hinterlands of Baao. Basically hunter-gatherers, the Agtas lived-off the bounty of the forests in the hills of west Baao. These people are now limited to small settlements in the barangays of Caranday, Tapul, Iyagan, Nababarera and Antipolo.

The second wave of migrants belonging to the Indo-Malayan stock with their sedentary riverine culture settled on the fertile lowlands along the banks of the Bicol River and its tributaries. These sea-faring people may have come inland the Bicol River valley by following the river’s course from its mouth in the San Migual Bay-Libmanan-Cabusao area and by leap-frogs settled the open dry lands along the riverbanks. Following the seasonal cycle of the Baao area, these people fished when floodwaters cover most of the lowlands and cultivated rice when low water level during summers permit them to plant. Most native Baaoeños today draw their ancestry from these people.

Archeological evidence and oral history tells of commerce flourishing in these early settlements as Baaoeños traded among themselves and with other people from foreign lands. Agtas bartered forest products such as honey, rattan and wild boar meat for the lowlanders’ rice, salt, cooking pots and pieces of clothing. Porcelain pottery shards found in Binanuaanan of 14th to 18th century mainland Chinese origin may indicate contacts with foreign peoples or the extent of trade long before the coming of the Spaniards.

The Spanish Occupation Era

When the Spaniards conquered the Philippines in the 16th century, they found these settlements already existing in their original areas with people living a way of life different from their Western culture. Viewing the native culture as a strange mumbo-jumbo and with the flair of a cocky fanatic, the Spaniards launched a campaign to convert the once animist Baaoeños to Catholicism. Indigenous beliefs were suppressed and branded as satanic. Written records in native script and native artworks were burned as the Spanish friars and their cohorts blinded the Baaoeños with fear of fire and brimstone in hell while robbing them of their lands.

In the 17th century, the Baao settlement was considered by the Spaniards merely as a barrio of

Early Baao settlement as depicted by the bodyguard of Dr. Jose Rizal, Jose Taviel de Andrade, when he visited the area in the early 1800s
the town of Bula. It is only in the early part of the 1700’s that Baao was separated from Bula as a different parish and administrative territory.

Since politico-administrative power rested on the parish priest in the early part of the Spanish rule, the Baaoeños literally lived at the mercy of the friars on both the temporal and spiritual matters. But the curates did not have to be physically cruel to these people to make them easily governable. Exploiting the natural religiosity of the Baaoeños, which until now is very apparent, the friars’ sermons left the people enthralled with the Judeo-Christian beliefs and the promise of a heavenly afterlife after a lifetime of suffering.

Thus, when the friars told them to move the town center (i.e. the Catholic church) to higher and less flood-prone grounds, the Baaoeños did unflinchingly, twice.

More of the illustration depicted above with sitting figures in the foreground and a hut on stilts on the background.
First moving to the confluence of Bay and Langday Creeks in the present day San Francisco in early 1700’s and then to the present town center in 1731. Later, when the Baaoeños were told by the Spaniards to have surnames beginning with the letter “B”, they did.

The livelihood of the Baao people during this era was still very much alike as before. Fishing and rice farming according to the season; only on a much larger scale as the municipality struggled to provide enough food to a growing population

Deforestation of Baao foothills may have also accelerated in this era especially after the transfer of the town center to its present location as more people cleared land and felled trees for their homes and farms. Coconut and abaca plantations were established to supply the increased demand for cooking and fuel oil and fiber for clothing.

The American Occupation Era

When the Spaniards left the Philippines for good after loosing the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Revolution of 1898, the Americans came to colonize the Philippines. They were under the guise of “benevolent occupation to civilize their little brown Filipino brothers” including the Baaoeños, as if we are all still running naked in the boondocks of Caranday.

Civilization came in the form of the Krag rifle to kill the “insurrectos” and “bandidos” (names the American colonizers gave to the nationalist Filipinos who fought against them in the Filipino-American War ), the first public school system and the English language. But they also found good business exploiting the lumber, copra and abaca from Baao for export back to their homeland.

The Japanese Occupation Era

The Japanese briefly occupied Baao from 1942 to 1945 during the outbreak of the Second World War in the Pacific. Many townspeople evacuated to the hinterlands to avoid their new colonizers. Guerilla forces composed of Baaoeños, mostly loyal to the Americans, were organized especially when the war tides are turning against the Japanese forces, not to defend the country against all colonizers but to ensure the protection of American interests.

The Japanese forces committed atrocities, especially when they found themselves on the loosing end of the war. Among these is the infamous Agdangan massacre where more than two dozen Baaeños from Agdangan lost their lives. The municipal hall was also burned down during these years of turmoil.

The town’s economy ground to standstill as agricultural production fell. Famine and epidemics broke-out. People were sometimes forced to eat namo, a poisonous wild yam, just to survive. Monetary inflation rose sky-high that buying a ganta of rice would need a basketful of Japanese money.

The Post War Era

The Second World War left the town and its people in shambles. Early in the post-war years, the Baaoeños spent most of their time rebuilding the town and its economy. The War Reparations Act provided some of the funds to finance reconstruction of destroyed and damaged infrastructure.

Undistracted by war, agricultural productivity started to recover. Coconuts were again being processed into copra. Abaca or Manila hemp was being exported again. Logging in the remaining forests of Baao resumed.

Massive titling of public lands also occurred especially during the post-war Commonwealth government. The timberlands of Baao were not spared. Lowlanders started settling in the uplands.

The indigenous mountain people of Baao, the Agtas, were crowded out of the more productive uplands leaving them to subsist on small marginal areas. Timid and illiterate, they were not able to stem the massive land grabbing of their ancestral lands by lowlanders. The influence of lowland culture also took its toll on their way of life. Alcoholism, mendicancy and indolence became rife. The once proud hunter-warriors of the Baao hills were reduced to pitiful and scraggly group of people trying to preserve their culture and their very lives.

In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, a series of territorial disputes arose between Baao and the municipalities of Bula and Ocampo and the city of Iriga. Portions of Lake Baao, the Union Agricula y Pecuaria and parts of San Rafael, Agdangan and Sta. Teresita and San Francisco were being claimed by Bula. Ocampo claimed portions of Tapul, Iyagan and Santa Isabel. Meanwhile, Iriga City was also claiming parts of Pugay and Nababarera. There came even a time when police forces from the two disputing towns of Baao and Bula exchanged volleys of gunfire. All these disputes were said to be under litigation during previous administrations but the townspeople are yet to see concrete gains from these efforts.

The Marcos Era

In the early years of the Marcos presidency, Baao was a relatively peaceful town. It may have not been as progressive as its neighboring towns but the people were content to live life in simple drudgery. Farming and fishing were still the people’s main livelihoods. National and local politics was one of their major sources of amusement.

But already the veneer of peacefulness of Baao is slowly being broken in the late 1960’s as it was in Manila. Unemployment was running high. Politics was getting dirtier; governance, more corrupt and inept; national and local economy, on a slump. Lawlessness was becoming the rule of the day. Poverty was everywhere except in Malacañang and the home of the oligarchs. Already some Baao youths were agitating for change. A social volcano was about to erupt.

Compounding these problems was the series of disastrous typhoons that hit the Bicol provinces in the early 1970’s. The most destructive typhoon to hit Baao, Sening, destroyed most of what was left of Baao’s second growth forests, its abaca plantations, many of its people’s homes and caused massive flooding on the lowlands in 1971.

But all was not lost for the Baao economy. As resilient as the bamboo reeds, the Baaoeños had always found ways to recover from the vagaries of their environment since time immemorial. Crops were replanted. Houses were repaired. Life continued.

It was also during those trying times, when some enterprising people started raising chickens for eggs. Their humble beginnings did not forebode of anything about Baao becoming the “Egg Basket of the Bicol Region” in the 1990’s. But snowball, the industry did.

When Martial Law was declared in 1972, the Baao economy was stagnating. Then came the sugar boom. Sugar prices in the United States was high and Philippines was being given preferential treatments over other sugar producing countries. With the opening of the Bicol Sugar Development Corporation (BISUDECO) mills in the neighboring town of Pili, many landowners and upland occupants turned to planting sugar cane hoping to earn from this new cash crop

New roads, called “sugar roads”, criss-crossed the upland barangays of San Rafael, Sta. Isabel, Lourdes, Iyagan, Caranday and Cristo Rey. Built to provide access to trucks carrying harvested canes from the farms to the mill, these roads further encouraged upland migration.

When sugar prices crashed in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, many cane planters discontinued production as they cannot cope with the cost vis-a-vis the profit. But already the land has suffered. Secondary forests and scrublands were obliterated. The topsoil washed away into the creeks, rivers and lake. Springs dried up. Whole montane ecosystem gone.

It was also during this period when the problem of insurgency in Baao grew to alarming proportion. Drawn to the side of rebellion, many people saw this as the only solution to the abusive, dictatorial, corrupt and kleptocratic Marcos regime and the pervading poverty in their midst.

When opposition leader, Benigno Aquino, was assassinated in 1983, investor confidence in the Philippine government and economy fell to all-time low. Economic growth was zero to negative. The Baao economy suffered likewise.

But the resiliency of Baaoeños against all odds stands strong. As the Chinese are wont to say, “One man’s adversity is another man’s opportunity.” In fact, the twilight years of Marcos dictatorship saw another pioneering agricultural industry being established in Baao.

As the technology for freshwater aquaculture became available, the need for large numbers of tilapia fingerlings and fry rose. Agri-businessmen from Baao started to establish tilapia hatcheries in ponds that were once rice paddies. Now, the industry has grown to an extent that the town is the major supplier of tilapia fry and fingerlings to fish cage operators in Lakes Bato and Buhi in Camarines Sur. They also supply some of the needs of the operators in Laguna de Bay in Laguna and Lake Taal in Batangas.

The Post EDSA Revolt

The overthrow of Marcos during the EDSA revolt put the Philippine economy back into track. Slowly the investors gained confidence in the government institutions to steer the nation and ultimately the town of Baao into the next millenium.

But enormous g await the Baaoeños in their struggle to attain a development that is sustainable and democratic. Its population is growing fast while its territory is not expanding. Pollution sources are multiplying. Its ravaged uplands and lowlands need rehabilitation. Agricultural productivity needs boosting. Its people needing awareness and skills on how to wisely use its resources out of need not of greed.

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