Saturday, 29 January 2011

This Frenchman loves the Mangyans -and everything else about the Philippines

By Lito Gutierrez
Philippine Daily Inquirer

‘This country conquered me,’ says wandering blueblood and now Mindoro resident Hubert d’Aboville, who’s organizing an arts festival to benefit tribal communities

ONE OF the first things Frenchman Hubert d’Aboville (pronounced “uber daboveel”) did when he settled in the Philippines in 1981 was to acquire a sprawling piece of land at the foot of Mount Malasimbo, a few kilometers from the then-unsullied seaside resort town of Puerto Galera, Oriental Mindoro. He would develop close kinship with his neighbors, the seven Mangyan tribes who lived in the mountains of the island.

He would imbibe the natives’ customs and traditions, appreciating their craft and learning their dialect, when he was not attending to his business in Makati.

He had come to the Philippines in the early 1980s to head the office of the French global timber company Becob. Later he would put up his own Paris-Manila Technology Corp. (Pamatec), a social enterprise that seeks to bring power-generation technology to the country’s poorest communities. “I wanted to go into high-impact, eco-cultural projects,” he said.

The Mangyan, however, were not the first beneficiaries of d’Aboville’s endeavors; the Masbateños were.

Revolutionary tax

In 1999, Pamatec broke ground for a project that would bring electricity to about 120,000 residents of the poverty-stricken island. Masbate was a hotbed of communist insurgency, and the rebels did not just harass project workers, but also destroyed equipment and supplies worth hundreds of thousands of euros.

They wanted the Frenchman to pay “revolutionary tax.” In a letter, “Luz del Mar, communications officer, Jose Rapsing Command, CPP-NPA Masbate,” after citing what “she” knew of the project’s multi-million euro financing, asked d’Aboville to send as a negotiator “not technical or security personnel)... but (a) finance officer or management personnel who (can) commit to decisions.”

D’Aboville could have just thrown in the towel and pulled out. But instead, he flew to Europe to talk with Luis Jalandoni, one of the rebels’ top leaders in exile.

The Masbate insurgents backed off, and the project was finished in 2009. He would write a book, “Management of an International Project against Poverty,” about the Masbate project, an excellent guide for private sector poverty-alleviation programs.

Now d’Aboville has trained his sights and his unrelenting drive on his “native” Puerto Galera, hoping to transform the island into a top-tier “eco-cultural” travel destination.

200 feet above sea level

On Feb. 18-19, in his Villa Malasimbo, d’Aboville, now 55, is hosting a music and arts festival. The estate, 7 km from the town, is about 200 feet above sea level, overlooking the bay.

Artists will display their works, and musicians from all over the country will perform, but the centerpiece would be Mangyan art and their way of life.

With tickets at P3,900 each, he hopes that the crowd he attracts would be the sophisticated, high-end kind that would make Puerto Galera a favored destination. He shudders at the thought of Puerto Galera becoming another Boracay.

He is so devoted to the place that in the mid-1990s, he went on a personal crusade to get Puerto Galera a membership to the highly exclusive Club of the Most Beautiful Bays in the World. The club was founded in Berlin, Germany, in March 1997 as a movement to protect the environment and the development and enhancement of marine resources worldwide. It has the blessings of the Unesco.

D’Aboville’s projects in Masbate and now Puerto Galera are just two indications of his deep affection for this country and his commitment to its progress.

Slept at Luneta Park

With nary a clue about the Philippines, he first came to Manila as a backpacker, fresh from college with a business degree in 1977.

With just a few euros in his pocket, he scrounged for the cheapest fares, washed dishes and slept in parks. In Maui, he slept in a hollowed-out bush which he sometimes shared with vagrants. In Manila, the first thing he asked upon landing was where the park was.

In Luneta, he would be accosted by young hooligans, whom he must have charmed because not only did the boys stop harassing him, one of them even invited him to his shack in Tondo, which he accepted.

“I woke up the following morning with my arm as big as my leg,” he said, referring to the mosquito bites he got.

But he was astounded with the generosity and kindness.

From Manila, his meager cash and abundant sagacity would take him to such ultimate destinations as the sun-soaked beaches of Bali and the freezing, treacherous reaches of Afghanistan’s Khyber Pass.

At that time, the Afghans, led by the Taliban, were trying to kick out the Russians, and when d’Aboville reached the capital Kabul, Russian MIGs had just bombed the presidential palace. D’Aboville took pictures of the corpses and sold them, along with his story, to a journalist covering the war.

Cattle class

Once, he discovered that the ticket he bought for a boat trip was literally in cattle class; it was the cargo hold for livestock. “At the last minute, as the boat was about to set off,” he recalled, “I slipped out and went up to the captain’s lounge, where the captain was playing chess. I asked if I could play, and that’s where I was for the rest of the voyage.”

Fact is, d’Aboville could have traveled under more pleasant circumstances, instead of knocking around among the unwashed.

D’Aboville comes from French nobility. In his office at the Pamatec building in Makati hangs a photo of a palace in his native Brittany, in front of which posed a big, elegantly dressed crowd. “That is where we lived,” he said, “and those people are my family.”

But the blue blood that runs in the clan must also be streaked with a sense of high adventure. In 1980, one of his kuyas, Gerard, the fourth child of six brothers and three sisters, rowed across the Atlantic Ocean, from Cape Cod in northeast US to their native Brittany. Eleven years later, he would make a similar journey across the Pacific, from Washinton state in the US to Japan.

D’Aboville said Gerard has been to the Philippines a few times. (Their youngest brother Guillaume and a cousin Guy would also marry Filipinas and settle in the Philippines.)

In fact, he, who is eighth in the brood, and some of his brothers once got on a motorcycle to join the ultimate off-road motor sports event, the 10,000-km Paris-Dakar rally.

D’Aboville says his “personal journey... has taken me to many exotic places on this planet. I came, I saw, but I was not conquered. But the Philippines conquered me.”

He would fall under the spell of Ara Valenzuela, then working in hotel public relations and who, according to d’Aboville, “was as fascinated by France as I was fascinated with the Philippines.”

Ara, a progeny of the illustrious Dr. Pio Valenzuela, would study and work in France, and D’Aboville would plead with her to return to the Philippines to get married. They have four children.

For more information about the Malasimbo arts and music festival, check or call tel. no. 0917-818-1418.

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