La Flora, or, A Year in 3 Photos

A few years back I was fortunate enough to be able to visit the vast expanse of the Agusan Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary several times, bringing back with me hundreds of photos. I’ll be sharing some of them in this blog, as well as the experiences that came with them.

A few kilometers southwest of the town of Talacogon, in Agusan Del Sur, down a long gravel road that connects the town to La Paz, Loreto, Veruela, and eventually Santa Josefa, lies the barangay of La Flora, a humble cluster of houses on the banks of the Agusan River. Aside from the ubiquity of houses on tall stilts, one does not notice anything significantly different that might set it apart from other rural villages. People are going about their business, there are children playing in the streets and in the local elementary school, and some youths are playing basketball in the local covered court. On the river is a boat landing, an affair made of logs strung with cables and moored to the bank, with a narrow bamboo staircase that leads down onto it from the riverbank, next to a dozen or so floating houses also moored to the bank by thick ropes.

Let me lead you back to the tall houses, and why this barangay is unique. La Flora is one of the major entry points into the Agusan Marsh, and sees a significant amount of people going in and coming out from the interior. As such, it is at the periphery of the marsh, and is subject to it’s yearly rhythm. If one looks closer at the barangay, one can see a series of lines etched onto the stilts of the houses, and at the thick wooden posts that hold up the barangay’s covered court; a yearly record of the seasonal floods that inundate the barangay. La Flora, in typical marshland fashion, gets flooded every year, and is transformed into a small rural Venice; with its residents trading walking for moving around on dugout canoes. For La Flora, life literally moves 10 feet up and down every year.

It was this effect that we set out to capture in photos. In the context of our intent, La Flora was in a unique position since it had rigid human-built structures, was easily accessible, and was regularly inundated with high water. The rest of the marsh’s humanity in the interior barangays moved around. Houses were shifted along with the rise and fall of the river. As I’m illiterate with code and HTML, a simple 3-photo slideshow will have to do. It’d have been better to have had an overlaid swipe-to-compare plugin, to better see the effect. Anyway, here’s the result of a year’s gap:

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The photos were taken a little over 13 months apart, as we waited for the peak of the yearly floods to take another panorama. La Flora’s barangay hall was the chosen vantage point. The rest entailed taking the panorama handheld, with stitching and matching done in post. Not the best option, I know, but our options were limited at the time. The pace of life is evident in the photos; in the months that spanned the three panoramas, houses got finished, a bamboo grove in the background was harvested, some more houses added structures. The sari-sari stores of some households got moved to the second floor as well, awaiting patrons on board dugout canoes, while the dry season sari-sari store lies underwater, tended by fish.

I’ve always gotten the same reaction from fellow outsiders upon hearing tell of the marsh’s communities: that such a life for them was hard to imagine, let alone contemplate living, having to be constantly surrounded by water, with little ground to plant or gather food from for half the year. I agree. life in these communities is hard. There’s no way to dress it up, having to be subject to the ebb and flow of the water, and to a certain extent, the present-day caprices of mother nature (with climate change having upset the cycles somewhat); with what to eat for the day a very real concern for most of its inhabitants.

Yet taking a different perspective, one can also say that these communities are more in tune with nature, working with and reliant on her seasonal rhythms. One can say that we on solid ground have largely lost this connection, surrounded as we are with the trappings of human comfort, a clear boundary between the domestic and the feral, living in a long-enforced illusion of dominion over nature.

I have a few more marsh-related photos and stories to share. Until then.

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