“I have yet to reach that ‘mystical experience’ where I will feel a heavenly connection with nature. But I always experience a different blissful joy when I’m deep in the bosom of Sierra Madre. God is really kind,” Montallana says.
The journey of the 61-year-old Bicolano, popularly known as “Fr. Pete” in the circle of environmental protectors to the inner sanctum of the Sierra Madre to spread the word of God among the Agta-Dumagat tribes is a destiny designed by his early exposure to the works of Franciscan missionaries in his hometown in Camalig town in Albay.
“The desire to serve God and especially the poor sustained my desire to be a Franciscan priest. The embrace of St. Francis of actual poverty and the poor continues to attract me until now,” the priest confesses.
He recalls that in 1994, he and two other Franciscan priests asked Bishop Julio Labayen, then head of the Prelature of Infanta that has jurisdiction over northern Quezon and Aurora, to allow them to work with the indigenous peoples in the Sierra Madre instead of ministering to a parish church.
“We came with the new concept of mission of the Catholic Church. We go to mission to ‘evangelize’ and ‘to be evangelized’ by the poor,” he narrates.
Montallana considers the Sierra Madre tribes the ‘poorest of the poor’ among indigenous peoples in the country. “Hence, the choice to be with them. They were so marginalized, that if they were not empowered, they would simply become extinct due to sickness and poverty.”
Montallana remembers Labayen’s fondness for the unadulterated communal way of living of the mountain natives.
In his quest to prepare the tribesmen to face the harsh world of lowlanders, the priest helped strengthen the “Sentrong Paaralan ng mga Agta,” an alternative of learning in Barangay Catablingan in General Nakar town. “We want that young Agtas are equipped to face the future,” Montallana says.
Ramcy Astoveza, a young tribal leader, speaks highly of Montallana’s contribution to his people and recalls how the priest helped change the prevailing primitive mind-set of Sierra Madre folk.
“Tribesmen are naturally timid and most of us possess low self-esteem perhaps brought by our long years of vilification from lowlanders. But Father Pete helped us to erase the negative attitude,” Astoveza says in .
As he immersed in the community, Montallana learned to wear the G-string to emphasize to the natives that they have their own culture to be proud of. He wore it for the first time in 1999 during the parade of tribesmen in Infanta.
“I noticed that the Agta men were shy to wear their natural costume perhaps because they had already been used to wearing shorts or pants due to constant heckling from lowlanders. So I went to my room and came back wearing a G-string to show to them that they had nothing to be ashamed of. That they should be proud of their own culture,” he said.
“I was a little bit shy because lowlanders were calling me a mestisong katutubo behind my back,” Montallana recalls.
“But I just ignored the brickbats and continued to walk with my head up high. I also want to experience what the natives had been going through.”
Later, he called on the townsfolk to respect the culture of the Sierra Madre tribes. “I also urged the natives to fight to keep their own culture because that is an inherent part of who they are.”
With fervor burning
In 1995, Montallana drew the ire of New People’s Army (NPA) guerrillas after he accused them of protecting a logging company. The rebels, he says, were influencing the mountain natives to accept money from the loggers in exchange for a right to cut trees in their ancestral land.
“I later received a warning that we should never set foot again in the Sierra Madre. That our bodies will just float in the
But then, soldiers are also protecting the illegal loggers, the priest reveals. He notes that Army troopers have long been posted in Barangay Umiray in General Nakar at the foot of the Sierra Madre where most hot logs from the mountain end up after floating downstream in the
. Umiray River
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Bishop Rolando Tria-Tirona, Montallana’s superior in the Prelature, says he always reminds the priest to take care of himself in the face of growing threats against his security.
Wanting to use modern technology in his war against environmental criminals, Montallana opened his own account on Facebook, a popular social networking site.
His online on floating hot logs in the Umiray River which were about to be tugged toward Mauban, Quezon, a popular trans-shipment point of illegal forest products from Sierra Madre, provided valuable information to personnel of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) operatives.
Eventually, this led to the seizure of more than 400 pieces of hot logs abandoned in the town coastline.
Montallana, as chair of Save Sierra Madre Network, welcomes with a mixture of skepticism and enthusiasm the recent declaration of President Aquino imposing a log ban to save the country’s remaining forests.
“Quezon province had been through a total log ban but logging, legal and illegal, never stopped. But under President Aquino this time, we’re willing to give him a chance to save Sierra Madre and the country’s remaining forest before it’s too late.” [Delfin Mallari Jr, Philippine DailyInquirer]