Sunday, May 01, 2005

Tribute paid to late volcanologist, Dr. Punongbayan

CITY OF SAN FERNANDO, Pampanga -- They were unschooled; he was a scientist. But when the Aeta of Zambales province reported through a nun Mount Pinatubo's initial signs of unrest in April 1991, Dr. Raymundo Punongbayan listened and trusted their indigenous mastery of their environment.

It was through that mutual faith between the Aeta tribesmen and Punongbayan that efforts to save lives began for what turned out to be the world's worst volcanic eruption in the second half of the 20th century.

In gratitude to the late former chief of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs), Aeta leaders have started preparations for a tribal offering (atang) and a tribute.
A mag-aanito (healer and spirit guide) usually presides over the ritual which, in this case, will also include prayers for the peace of the souls of the four scientists and four crew members who died with Punongbayan on Thursday in a helicopter crash in Gabaldon town, Nueva Ecija province.

Punongbayan and the others were on their way back to Manila after an aerial assessment of the threat of more landslides in Dingalan town, Aurora province, when the crash occurred.
Carlito Domulot, chair of the Lubos na Alyansa ng mga Katutubong Ayta ng Sambales (Lakas, or Negrito People's Alliance of Zambales), said community elders and members were now discussing the details of the atang to the mountain deity Apo Namalyari.
Domulot said they learned about the tragic crash from TV news reports, and were "really saddened."

He said they also planned to attend Punongbayan's wake to honor him and join his family in mourning.

The present Phivolcs chief, Dr. Renato Solidum, said the wake would be held only after the completion of the DNA tests being conducted on the remains to establish identities.
Solidum said the process would take about three weeks.

He said Phivolcs was also preparing a tribute for Punongbayan -- who was, at the time of his death, governor of the Philippine National Red Cross -- and the other scientists.

Aside from believing in the Lakas Aeta's report on Pinatubo's growing restiveness in 1991, Punongbayan and his Phivolcs team guided them to the safe evacuation areas within the initial 10-kilometer danger zone, Domulot said.

He said the Aeta had sent Sister Emma Fondivilla of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary to alert Phivolcs.

On April 3, 1991, the nun walked from the village of Yamot on Pinatubo's upper western flank to the town proper of Botolan, Zambales, where she caught a bus.

Days earlier, Domulot said, the Aeta had observed plumes of steam and earthquakes in the area. Dead fish were found floating in streams and rivers where the water had turned hot.

"Officials in Zambales did not believe what we said we saw, so we asked Sister Emma to go to the right authorities," Domulot said.

The book "Natural Disaster Management among the Negritos of Luzon" confirms the timely reporting by the Aeta and Fondivilla.

According to the book "Fire and Mud" that Punongbayan co-edited, Phivolcs installed a portable seismograph 8 km west of the volcano on April 5, 1991.

It then advised the Lakas Aeta, who were organized under the Catholic Church's tribal missions long before the eruptions, to move to the higher grounds of Barangay Poonbato in Botolan.

Domulot said that during the succeeding weeks when the danger zone was expanded to 40 km, they moved farther away from Pinatubo, their ancestral home.

He said the Lakas Aeta decided to establish a resettlement area on Barangay Bihawo, also in Botolan.

Punongbayan approved the site -- the first resettlement initiated by the Aeta -- because of the lesser risks of living there. "The information he gave, as well as his guidance, meant a lot to us," Domulot said.

The Lakas Aeta leader and Fondivilla last saw Punongbayan on June 15, 2001, the 10th anniversary of the Pinatubo eruptions.

Punongbayan credited the Aeta with helping Phivolcs monitor the volcanic activity.
"If not for them, our active monitoring of Pinatubo would not have started. They gave the alert signal," he told the Inquirer in 2001.

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