I had been to the Agusan provinces several times before, primarily to take pictures of the majestic marshlands, but in April this year, I packed my bags for something else entirely. To call it a river cruise is a stretch, although there promised to be lots of hanging around the deck and looking at the sights. But perhaps “exploratory mission” provides a better description. We were a mixed crew: Art, Lety, Robby and Majune, fellow discoverers from the Department of Tourism; Anton, river master and outfitter; Marian, a cultural studies specialist; and Ivan, field expert, extreme birdwatcher and photographer.
Our mission: to sail down the river from the town of Bunawan in Agusan del Sur to Butuan City, to discover what was available and perhaps glimpse a time when rivers were roads. We’d heard stories that the Agusan was now suffering from old age, with growing sedimentation plugging its arteries. Despite a booming population and unfettered land conversion, we wanted to know if this trip could still be done. We also wanted to document what the river was like today, learn from people along the route, witness what was changing and what remained of their little-known past, to gain new insight into the way things could be. Apparently, no one had taken this trip for many years; no one really knew the river anymore.
The adventure begins in Bunawan
It was early April, the height of the Philippine summer, and fortunately for us the river’s water levels were at their lowest, hushing its treacherous whirlpools into a seasonal hibernation. Although I’d been cautioned that this was a river of many faces, and that powerful currents plow the artery during the flood-prone monsoon season, for now we predicted no major rapids along our route. The river was sultry, almost placid.
This river basin gives wealth and life to eastern Mindanao, refreshing a belt of land that stretches almost 350km. Travelling aboard a wooden, flat-bottomed boat in the low-water season, we opted to skip the shallower and lesser-known upstream portions, and drive from Davao City to the town of Bunawan. This was where we would begin our 180km downstream adventure.
The Agusan is fuelled by the five provinces that make up eastern and central Mindanao. It starts out in the forested slopes of Maragusan and the Compostela Valley, and takes its first tentative steps through the great banana plantations of Davao. Reeling from the assaults of Monkayo’s goldmines, the waters seek temporary sanctuary, settling amid the lakes and streams of the expansive Agusan Marsh. It then glides past the old river towns — Talacogon, Esperanza and Las Nieves — after which it is replenished by the run-offs flowing down from Bukidnon’s broad plateau, propelling this mighty current northward all the way to its confluence with the Surigao Strait, at the vast delta of Butuan. The Agusan River is the longest navigable river in the Philippines.
It is said that a long time ago, when all access to Mindanao’s eastern catchment submitted to the river’s whims, Butuan was the center of trade. Back then, the glint of golden nuggets piled into boats cruising downstream from the belly of Mindanao was a common sight. Almost a century ago in 1917, a Manobo tribeswoman found the Golden Tara peeping from the muddy banks of one of the river’s tributaries. This stunning 13th-century statuette of a Hindu-Malayan deity is thought to have been crafted by local artisans, and was made from 21-karat gold.
Like many rivers of South-East Asia, Agusan was also a conveyor belt for precious tropical hardwood. But the greatest of those trees are long gone, and the river economy has changed. The Agusanon Manobo, along with a flood of migrants that settled and fished here over the last five decades, still depend on her rich waters for food. When the river vents its rage, flooding the surrounding farms (an average of seven floods are expected each year), it brings new life to the soil, and the broad expanses of corn, coconut, banana and rice spread across its banks.
From Bunawan to Talacogon
We left Bunawan at daybreak, our long, motorized boat purring through the morning mists that hung over the shallow Sumilao tributary. As the sun’s rays broke through the fringing canopy, we were now well into the mainstream and found ourselves picking up pace. Little homesteads dotted the banks, surrounded by vegetable patches and swamp trees thriving at water level. Terns, swiftlets and an occasional egret flew across our bows, foraging for breakfast.
Navigating past the openings to the lakes of Agusan Marsh, we saw the riverbanks rise as ramps of parched mud. And all the while the human footprint was a constant presence: a young boy washed pots from a bamboo raft tied to the bank; large, bell-shaped bubo (fish traps) sat high and dry, patiently waiting for the river to rise; floating river houses, attributed to the Manobo, bobbed solemnly in our wake. Toward mid-morning, the river began to change, flanked with thick greenery, cogon grass and corn farms as far as the eye could see.
Just as the first stirrings of listlessness made me wonder what we had gotten ourselves into, we pulled into Barangay Sabang-Gibong and finally got to stretch our legs. Here, the local barangay captain welcomed us into her kitchen-porch, while her husband offered us much-appreciated cups of instant coffee. They shared animated tales of the river and its people, and engaged Marian in an eye-opening discussion on their boats, houses and the nuances of the local language. Sabang-Gibong was a small community. Divorced from the national highway, they were left to their own devices, but they knew so much of the river and made the most of what it had to offer. Here, the dignified wisdom of river folk still flourished, leaving us with much to think about as we sailed on.
After lunch, we came to small oxbow lake near Talacogon called La Flora and, once again, we were happy use our legs as we marched up dry land. Ivan, our resident birdman, was quick to point out a congregation of egrets and water birds lining the water’s edge. To escape the harsh noontime sun, we crowded into a small hut with a raised bamboo floor where, fanned by a cool breeze, we all dozed off.
After our brief siesta it was time to put our life jackets back on and sail towards the town of Talacogon, where we were to spend the night. We had expected to reach the town by four in the afternoon, but the river en route was deep, and our passage was swift and unhindered. A little past two, we found ourselves on the town’s floating dock, where a surprise merienda of lechon was waiting for us.
Talacogon to Butuan
The extended El Niño summer had taken its toll. The river just past Talacogon was low, laid bare: I was unsettled by a fear of shallows, and the thought of hidden rocks wreaking havoc on our propellers. The trunks of giant trees and fallen clumps of bamboo that once lined her banks now sat midstream. This was a very different Agusan, hemmed in by tall ramparts of scoured, gnawed and retreating earth. Strands of gravel, widening with each flood, created ever-expanding shoals that transformed the smooth flow into swirling turbulence. Here and there, our boat was forced to navigate at a crawl, with boatmen using poles to pull us through in a slow, gingerly slalom. Clearly, the land was changing at a pace much faster than the river could handle.
The river was teeming with life. Kids bathed in the shallow fringes as soulful sailfin lizards slithered up the bank. Laundry women wrapped in malong, or tube skirts, chatted with one another and giggled by the water’s edge, as they must have done for many years. At almost every bend, birds of every size and shape — herons, egrets, terns, ducks — stood, stalked, living off the bounty. All around stood sago palms, in this day and age still harvested to produce starchy-sweet onaw, a favorite local treat. Herders watched as their tethered water buffaloes, seeking respite from the heat, soaked in the mud. At each of our stops, river fish defined local cuisine — tilapia, carp, haluwan (snakehead), catfish and succulent kasili (river eels). And everywhere, the corn was high.
Over two days, our motorized flatboat covered a distance that would have previously taken 10 days, perhaps more. As we approached Butuan, the clusters of riverside houses became denser, mushrooming everywhere. We were seeing more and more shreds of colored plastic hanging from the bushes and branches that lined the river’s banks. Graceful traditional dugouts, or casco, jockeyed for riverside parking with motorized “slicers” as flatboats got the choice spots. Sawmills appeared, one by one, on both sides of the river’s banks. Some were still operating. Although it is now illegal to float logs down the Agusan, it was sad to see rafts of fresh timber headed downstream. In remote areas, left behind by time and shifting trades, it seems that old habits are harder to shake off.
Mindanao has chosen to anchor its development on its river basins, and the Agusan will set the stage for the island’s future more than any of its other rivers. Although much of this basin remains steeped in the traditions of its past, the river now faces accelerating change and many new risks. But our river run showed us a sliver of hope: the luxury of remoteness has allowed this vast ecosystem to remain essentially intact.
Still shrouded in mystery, the creatures of this great river and marsh live on. Danata, the giant soft shell turtle, still survives, appearing only when she chooses; no one really knows why, or when. The endangered Philippine eagle still soars above the remaining forests. Large groups of herons still nest on expansive rafts of water hyacinth. And, lurking within the flooded forests and banks of peat, saltwater crocodiles, some mythical in size, continue to dominate the lakes and swamps that border this ancient stream. In the midst of this, the Agusanon Manobo still live in their floating houses, rising and falling with the moods of the river, bowing to space and time, and flexing with the wavering fortunes of Mindanao.
This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of Smile magazine.