Mobile Forest School

A Mobile Forest School for Indigenous Youth in the Philippines

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The initiative to start up a Mobile Forest School (MFS) is undertaken in collaboration with the more than 20,000 Negrito indigenous people in the Philippines. The Negritos have a hunter-gatherer background and represent this nation’s most ancient civilization, going back more than 50.000 years in time. They are unsurpassed in forest-based skills and knowledge, possessing an exceptionally strong orientation to the forest environment in which they live. The MFS pilot sessions were ready to start in mid-2020, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic and related travel restrictions, these had to be rescheduled and will hopefully start in the second half of 2022.

Responding to the Impact of Environmental and Cultural Change

The Mobile Forest School is a response to the impact of environmental and cultural change on traditional hunter gatherer resource management systems. The degradation of cultural practices alongside forests means the loss of literally dozens of nutritious and often medicinal traditional foods, and negative impacts on local health. As forests are destroyed or degraded, and people are drawn to towns, and spend less time in the forest, the diversity and range of species they use dramatically declines. Many forest communities would like to slow the pace of change and shore up and celebrate what they know and have, and maintain healthy, secure and diverse livelihoods.

Formal education, from grade one in primary school onward, plays a key role in the cultural assimilation of the Negrito, as schools tend to alienate the students from their communities’ heritage, while acting as powerful agents of acculturation into the often marginalized end of the mainstream. Negrito youth are further disadvantaged as they continue their journey through formal education; the curricula offered generally reflects an urban middle-class reality and is both conceptually and economically at odds with their ways of life. As a result, dropout rates are high, particularly among those youth who beat the odds and make it into high school. Vocational education at present is unsuited for the Negritos’ background and priorities, often preparing students for limited menial jobs abroad. Even if they struggle through, few find meaningful employment opportunities upon graduation.

The Mobile Forest school builds on the strength of the Negritos’ traditional knowledge and skills, while offering an alternative and culturally appropriate secondary education for Negrito youth.

A Culturally Appropriate Curriculum

The curriculum is designed with the aim of offering a comprehensive ‘holistic’ approach towards forests, based on the Negrito worldview and traditional ecological knowledge, with additional inputs to equip students with the tools for confident engagement with society at large. The school’s one-year pilot program will unfold in four different communities and is offered in the form of two-week modules: (I) Natural Resource Management (forest conservation and restoration), (II) Health and Nutrition (preparation and processing of forest foods, herbal medicine and first aid), (III) Making a Living (income generating potential of non-timber forest products) and (IV) Cultural Heritage (documentation and presentation of arts, music and dance customs, indigenous languages and sharing with communities, government and media).

Preparatory activities are still taking place: Ati constructing a multi-functional building at Sitio Tarug, Neva Valencia, Guimaras. To be used for next year’s Mobile Forest School session (October 2020).

The Teachers: Negrito Elders and Urban-Trained Professionals

Facilitating the learning program are Negrito elders who are most knowledgeable regarding the respective disciplines, assisted by urban-trained professionals, including ethnobiologists and foresters (module I); nutritionists, doctors, nurses, midwives (module II); entrepreneurs (module III); photographers, graphic designers, curators, anthropologists and artists (module IV). In all four modules, development of community organization skills and using modern communication technology (i.e. video blogging) will be incorporated.

Safeguarding Negrito Knowledge

A great, but as yet untapped, potential for capacity building lies in the fact that Negrito youth from an early age are brought up with a natural familiarity with the forest environment. Their traditional methods of hunting, fishing and gathering are grounded in generations of accumulated forest-based knowledge on the properties of soil, plant and animal species and variable weather conditions. Unlike academically trained scholars, the Negritos’ knowledge is founded in lifetimes of intimate daily observations and centuries of resource management – the lives of today’s families depending upon the expertise of generations.

As urbanization overtakes the globe and fewer and fewer humans have affinity with the natural environment, let alone the skills to live in harmony with it, the experiential knowledge of the Negritos and the model that they present becomes ever more relevant to a broad swath of society.


  1. Negrito youth: 22 highly motivated youth will be selected for the pilot learning program. This group will have acquired, firstly, increased confidence in their ability to learn and value their own experience; secondly, a range of skills, both traditional and non-traditional, with which they will stand a better chance to effectively work to the benefit of their home and other communities; thirdly, a network of resource persons and peers for autonomous exchange post-graduation. For Negrito youth not enrolled in the pilot, the work may offer them a perspective and ’sense of the possible’ on a way towards self-improvement, without having to cast away their cultural heritage and unique sense of identity.
  2. Negrito communities: these are to become less dependent on help from non-governmental organizations, politicians and other development-oriented agencies. Instead, communities will, over time, become more self-reliant and capable of running their own affairs in matters essential to their forest dependent livelihood.
  3. Educators: the program will help those involved in vocational education to open their minds to a paradigm change, which should help to secure the continuation of the program, for which the pilot template will be made available.
  4. Civil society: As a bonus, this program offers a source of inspiration to society at large, as graduates could be among those best qualified to, ‘guide us back to an understanding and appreciation of the natural environment in which we live’ (Ehrenfeld 2009).


The project will be carried out by the Negrito umbrella organization and ILED partner SPNKK.

Supported by the Rutu Foundation

The Rutu Foundation (the Netherlands) will support the project with fundraising, communication and dissemination of results through its network of Indigenous organizations in Asia and the Americas.

* David Ehrenfeld, ‘Becoming Good Ancestors; How We Balance Nature, Community and Technology’. Oxford University Press, 2009.