WRAPPED comfortably inside my sleeping bag, I woke up to the noise of water splashes splashing and cheerful screams outside our hut. It was 2011, and the Philippine Eagle Foundation (PEF) team was at Sitio Macati, Barangay Ganatan of Arakan town in North Cotabato to assist the Indigenous Manobo Tinananon village with their rural development planning.

A small village of no more than twenty households, Macati agreed to take care of the forests and watch over a family of Philippine eagles, a “critically endangered” species and the country’s national bird, nesting within their ancestral domain.

In return, PEF helped them plan and achieve rural livelihood aspirations with support from the Foundation for Philippine Environment and other benefactors.

It was not even 5 a.m. but children, ages 7 to 12 years old, were already outside bathing near a communal tub filled with icy-cold water from a spring at nearby Mt. Mahuson.

But why are they up so early? I then realized that for a student of a mountain village, school meant hiking downhill for two hours towards the elementary school of Barangay Ganatan. The kids had to leave very early or they’ll miss the flag ceremony. Avoiding teacher reprimand is enough incentive to brave the colds. While I sip warm coffee in the comfort of my thick sweaters, the kids were already in their usual shirt and shorts.

I saw them ran-off; some had nearly worn-out knapsacks on their backs while most carried only plastic bags. From where I stood, I can make out notebooks, pencils, and school uniforms through the cellophane.

The hike included plodding through tall grasses soaked in morning dew, and a river-crossing. It is reasonable therefore not to wear school uniform until they reach school.

I can also imagine angry mothers if the kids stain their uniforms. Parents earn no more than two dollars a day, and being poor meant children having only a set or two of the prescribed school attire.

But all these changed beginning 2012, younger kids were spared from the ordeal of icy-cold outdoor baths, daily hikes, and the river crossing.

PLDT generously responded to our call for help. The company funded the village’s top aspiration – an elementary school right at Macati.

A room was built for kindergarten students, and then Grades 1 and 2 followed. PLDT also provided travel and food allowances to four volunteer teachers. In turn, the Department of Education (Deped) and the local government of Arakan matched PLDT’s support.

When the village completed their five-year community development plan (CDP) in 2011, the PEF brokered community access to outside support, apart from the elementary school funded primarily by PLDT.

Since then, a string of assistance to Sitio Macati from various organizations followed.

The CDP also listed other development needs, such as a potable water system, reforestation and agroforestry projects to reclaim unproductive, “cogonal” (grass) lands, a decent farm-to-market road, and foot patrols against outsiders poaching timber and wildlife inside the ancestral domain, among others.

PLDT’s sponsorship of a pilot school was the top village accomplishment under the CDP. In 2016, PLDT added a Grade III school-building. Recently, former Vice President Noli de Castro funded the construction of a Grade IV building. PLDT will fund the Grade V classroom this year.

To consolidate these supports, Deped intends to designate the school in Macati as a full-pledged annex of the Ganatan Elementary School. At the very least, an annex status would mean regular Deped funding, fully licensed and salaried teachers, and further infrastructure investments.

As a model of how primary education in remote Indigenous villages can be achieved, The ABS CBN’s TV Patrol featured Macati in 2016 not only once, but twice in its Kabayan Special Patrol segment. Household income has also increased since the CDP was implemented, particularly because of better health, improved agricultural productivity from farms and agroforests and transport of produce, sale of handicrafts, and financial incentives from doing reforestation.

While some men earn extra income from doing forest patrols, women have their own share of supplemental income from making bracelets out of beads and mat-weaving. A few hand-sewn eagle plush toys, which the PEF purchases and sells at its souvenir shop in Davao City and in other Davao-based hotels and shops. Together with women from another village, these Manobo Tinananon women of Arakan are part of the Conservation Sewmates, a network of women from several communities in the Visayas and Mindanao who hand-sew plush toys depicting endangered wildlife.

Some more support that came from kind-hearted organizations include solar lamps, modest funds for backyard farming and livestock, expansion of the water system to nearby hamlets, and training to build local skills and capacities forin managing natural resources and organizational affairs.

Datu Sebyo Catihan, Manobo Tinananon Elder and Village Chieftain, commented in the local dialect that life for them is better now than 10 years ago, when their only livelihood source wais subsistence farming and occasional manual labor in plantations and migrant “bisaya” farms.

“We are very happy that our kids can go to school, and that we are getting help from kind-hearted organizations and private individuals. In the past, only a few knows that our village exist,” said Julie Namansila in the Bisaya language. Namansila is one of Macati’s forty Indigenous “Bantay Kalikasan” (nature guards).

He is also the Chairman of the Panuangdig Lumadnong Panaghiusa or Palupa, Macati’s people’s organization. But a lot more needs to be done to help the Manobo Tinananon families to be permanently out of the poverty trap. Fortunately, PLDT and a few more partners are committed to support Palupa’s education and other livelihood goals.

“Each child has great potentials for nation building. They’re like seeds that will grow into productive plants only if nourished in fertile soils. Our support to the education of Macati’s childrenkids and their parents’ livelihood are our lasting contribution to their wellbeing” said Evelyn del Rosario, head consultant of PLDT’s Community Relations Division and Public Affairs.

“Conservation and rural development need not be mutually exclusive” said PEF Executive Director Dennis Salvador.

“The case of Macati is an example of how private and public sectors can work together to ensure that preserving biodiversity also results to a better life for upland communities” he added.