Ati tribe stories

An Ati woman uses the new water spigot in Malay, Aklan, Philippines.

This page is special to us. Especially since the Ati tribal chieftain was killed in a horrible boat crash near Boracay Island in the Philippines in 2023.

This page starts with an overview of of the projects we Earth Vagabonds did for the indigenous Ati tribe in mainland Malay, on Panay Island.

Then we cover details of on the death of the Chief.

And then, every post about our work with the Ati from our two pandemic years in the Philippines is linked from this page.

Overview of Ati projects for Kurong Village

We met our Ati friends by chance, luck, fate — whatever you want to call it — at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis.

When we learned they had a village without water and electricity, we decided to help. The Chief most wanted easier access to drinking water for his marginalized tribe. We determined that first we had to bring electricity to the village so that we could install a water pump in their water source at the bottom of a small mountain.

We also did a lot more for our Ati friends.

We keep in touch with our mainland Ati friends, and we grieve the loss of Chieftain Ernesto Coching along with our Ati brothers and sisters.

Ati Chieftain Ernesto Coching killed in boat crash

The story of the chief’s death is one for the ages.

Ellen posted about it publicly on her personal Facebook page, which follows.

Excerpt from Ellen’s Facebook post

… The driver of a speedboat with tourists bound for a luxury resort hit the Chief’s modest native fishing boat. The boat was destroyed. The Chief and his son-in-law Ricky were thrown into the water.

The speedboat driver left the scene — and took the tourists to an exclusive resort.

More than an hour later, the speedboat went back. Ricky was rescued. The Chief was gone. Divers looked for his body for two days in the sea between Boracay Island and mainland Malay. They finally found the Chief’s body today.

Police arrested the driver. The case is ongoing in Kalibo, the capital of Aklan Province.

The speedboat is owned by a multi-billion dollar hotel and resort company company — Shangri La. No public comment yet, that I’m aware of, from the luxury business about its employee’s disregard for a human life.

The formerly nomadic Ati tribe lives on Boracay and Panay islands in the Philippines. Many years ago when tourism took off, the Ati were given a tiny part of Boracay Island on the backside — away from the powdery white beaches that make it a top vacation destination. Other tribe members moved to ‘mainland’ Malay.

The mainland Malay Ati were given tough land. Much of it is steep terrain with no infrastructure. The Ati were marginalized — sort of like Native Americans.

You can see beautiful Boracay Island from the top of their small mountain ‘reservation’, a constant reminder of a lost past.

Before the pandemic, many Ati were day laborers. They loaded boats with supplies for tourists who vacationed on their ancestral land. A few men, including the Chief, drove ‘tuktuks’ – motorcycle-carts that are taxis. Jobs all dried up when the coronavirus stopped tourism.

We (me, Theo, and Mom Diane) decided to help the Ati when we were “stuck” in the Philippines during COVID. We had a team of helpers and donors: good and kind Filipinos and foreigners- some strangers, some family and friends.

First, we build a hen house at the mountain-top Kurong Village to get cash in their hands. Egg sales gave the Ati a meager profit, but at least it was something.

Next, we brought *electricity to the village. The Ati in Kurong (one of several mainland villages) were delighted over lights and music.

The third major project was to bring *drinking water to Kurong. That was the Chief’s number one wish when we met him— to get his people in Kurong running drinking water.

All supplies for all projects had to be carried up the small mountain. No roads, just trails.

There were a few other projects, too. Tree planting, typhoon shelter repair, a playground, a new foot bridge over their tough terrain. Boat repairs, fishing line, gardens, bags of rice. Medical tests, tanks of gas, weaving supplies, Christmas presents, and more.

It seems like a dream. Did we really help some of the poorest people on the planet that much? Yes—— and the Chief helped us, too. It was humbling and gratifying to be of service to marginalized people. We are members of the same team. Humanity’s team. I think of these people, and the latest gadgets and fashions seem absurd.

Chief Ernesto Coching was a good man. He was kind. He cared so deeply about his tribe. He made important decisions on all projects. I think the Chief looked happy when he accomplished things with Theo, who knew him way better than I.

I’m so angry at the injustice of this. It is such a tragic story. Indigenous man pushed off his land, given tough terrain. A cab driver and a fisherman (who fished to eat) hit by a speed boat with well-to-do tourists and then left to drown as a relative survives and witnesses utter disregard for their lives. Makes me sick.

“Shangri La” means “a remote beautiful imaginary place where life approaches perfection.”

May the Chief rest in peace in utopia.

Death update – March 2024

The Chief’s family has an attorney. They are trying to sue Shangri-La for damages.

But the Philippine court system is incredibly slow and there is no timeline on if their case might reach a settlement, or when their case might be heard.

Ati blog entries from our time in the Philippines

Below you will find every post we ever wrote involving our projects and our friends. The list starts at the beginning: how we met this beautiful indigenous tribe.

Here are all blog posts we’ve written involving our Ati friends.

We are forever changed.

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