The Butterfly Gang
Why Filipino prisoners have become modern ‘Papillons’.
Text & photography by Eric Pasquier
On the island of Palawan, in the Philippines, there is a penitentiary where a most improbable arrangement exists between inmates and natives. Murderers, rapists, thieves and a colourful assortment of various other professional criminals roam part of the tropical jungle here, hunting their prey with the zeal that, for many, was the merit of their profession before being put behind bars. "Iwahig" is one of the largest penal colonies in the world, and the island of Palawan is home to some of the world's rarest and most precious varieties of lepidoptera – a.k.a. butterflies.
And with over 600 species – some of which sell for up to US$ 400 – fluttering about, every Iwahig inmate has the chance to be a latter-day "Papillon".In the steamy humidity of the jungle, two men merge with the lush vegetation, motionless, waiting.
Each has a long delicate butterfly net ready. Silence. Suddenly, one of them spins around and with a snap of his wrist twists the net around his prey with surgical precision. The scene is reminiscent of the epic film " Papillon" – with Steve McQueen playing next to Dustin Hoffmann as the legendary butterfly-catching convict on the escape-proof island penitentiary.
The World's largest Penal Colony
But the "actors" in this saga are real-life convicts: Tuta, now 29, is here for a brutal double-murder, his victims' neck sliced open for whatever futile, horrific reason, committed when he was
just 18; his mate Mario, just a bit older, is a "lifer" for having decapitated his neighbour for an equally, no doubt horrific and pitiful reason as Tuta's...
But today, like every day and very likely for the rest of their lives, they are on the hunt for a different sort of victim than the ones that caused them to be here: the rare, pricey specimen of butterfly that share the lush tropical island of Pawalan with them.
Just one hour away from Manila by airplane, here, Tuta and Mario are prisoners in what is nothing less than the largest penal colony in the world.
With its 37,000 hectares of surface area in the midst of an ocean whose emerald waters are the equivalent of so many miles of impassable barbed wire, Iwahig prison could – in different circumstances and with a few improvements – have been a luxury tropical resort. Its picturesque expanses of pristine white beaches and palm trees create an illusion of paradise.
Eighty percent of the island of Pawalan is jungle, an impenetrable tropical habitat infested with mosquitoes, boa constrictors, pythons and lizards as big as rabbits...
At the entrance of the penal colony, a dubious sign reads "Welcome", expressly reserved for the tourists who come to the island on guided tours.
Western visitors and residents – there are numerous German inhabitants here – flock to the island for the priceless pleasures of its exotic beaches and excellent swimming conditions.The water remains a perfect 25ºC all year round. And the numerous American and Japanese lepidopterists – butterfly collectors/specialists – are well aware of the island's winged treasures.
"This is the only place in the world where one finds the Trogonoptera Trojana and the Lowi Zephynia!" says one confirmed butterfly-lover.
Like many of his fellow collectors, he is relatively indifferent to the presence of the island's enormous penal colony. It is called a "model prison", like many Filipino penitentiaries.
The practise of chain-ganging prisoners was eliminated in the 70s, and today the place is far from appearing like the miserable insular prison one would imagine from many years ago. The inmates here make the most of their surroundings, and their resultant good behaviour even allows them regular family visits.
Twenty kilometres from Puerto Princessa, the island's largest town, after driving along a long straight road, there appears a little hut with a sign reading "Iwahig Penal Colony. Welcome".
Inside, the guard is snoring away, but wakes to raise the barrier to the road that leads through a landscape of rice paddies and fields. On both sides of the road, men in bright orange suits can be seen, apparently working the land under the bored eyes of what appear to be prison guards. A few low watchtowers sit lazily at various points in the fields, occupied by what also appear to be equally bored guards. After a few kilometres of driving through this relaxed, low-security setting, one comes upon the gates of Iwahig proper: a military-esque encampment with bourgeois houses crafted in wood, with balconies decorated with colourful potted plants and opulent gardens. A post office, souvenir shop and bar adorn the little square that is the centre of the colony.
When they first arrive here, prisoners are held in a large building where they remain for six months. Depending on how they behave during this probation period, they will either be allowed to take part in the free life of the colony, or kept in a "real" cell. This is the fate of those prisoners deemed "incurable" (100 out of a total of 2,300). The others will be assigned tasks according to their skills and tastes, and held in one of the forty different farms of the colony, each under the leadership of a single prisoner. Like most prisons in the Philippines, Iwahig is based on a system of self-discipline enforced by the carrot and stick: trying to escape will earn a prisoner extra time in the high-security prison, while reporting an escape plan will earn the same prisoner several years off his sentence. The same applies to the capture of escaped prisoners: when a convict makes a run for it, several of his fellow convicts will often go after him to bring him back and get that much closer to an early release.
Murderers, rapists, and Butterfly-Hunters
The majority of prisoners here, however, spend their time as farmers, artisans or butterfly-catchers. In the fields, they harvest the food that will be used to feed their fellow inmates, in the workshops they produce souvenirs for the tourists and in the jungle they hunt butterflies.
This last profession is no doubt the most difficult. Working conditions in the jungle are harsh and catching the butterflies requires skill and great patience. The butterfly hunt begins with a long single-file march during which the prisoners sing and howl to boost morale for the long day ahead.
The crossing of rivers is one of the more delicate obstacles that must be negotiated. Even for Tuta, who likes to remove his sandals and walk barefoot through the jungle. The rivers abound with snakes and crocodiles. The ever-present monkeys accompany the expedition noisily. A difficult environment in which the men, well accustomed to it, can spend up to several days hunting butterflies. Especially between the months of March and May: this is the most opportune period for finding the rarest and costliest varieties of butterflies such as the Paradoxa, which can be sold for up to US$ 400 a piece.
With their hair shaved to regulation length, Tuta, Mario, Edgar and the others comprising the group head into the jungle under heavily armed escort and equipped with long nets and machetes. The latter are useful for not only chopping through the thick vegetation, but also gathering food along the way. Life in the jungle is a matter of surviving the thirsty mosquitoes and being able to unearth a lizard or a python for dinner, and especially keeping on the move. A difficult existence that the men have grown accustomed to, and they make their way through the jungle swiftly.
The group stops along the banks of a river. It is here that they have decided to go after the male carnivorous butterfly using a trap. Tuta drives a bamboo stake with a dead insect or piece of fish attached to it into the humid earth. He hides behind a tree and waits. And waits. Often for many hours.
But more than patience, the art of butterfly hunting is in the capture of the insect: swooping the net without damaging or crushing the precious prey; removing – ever so delicately – the butterfly from the net by squeezing it at the base of the wings; and finally, placing the butterfly between two sheets of tracing paper, which are then carefully put away in a metal box attached to the belt. This is the treasure trove of each butterfly hunter, where he keeps his Atrophaneura semperi melanotatus, Papilio karna irauana, Euthalia aconthea palawana and other Paradoxa with their stunningly beautiful colours and patterns.
After the hunt the group returns to the colony with their precious catch. They are examined by Marietes Labarosa, no doubt the island's most important woman as it is she who takes care of all the transactions. A member of the "Young Entomologist Society", she resells a female Singapura for more than US$ 500 dollars after buying it from a convict for US$ 50, or the equivalent of a month's salary for the average Filipino worker. Naturally, other Filipino prisoners – and no doubt even a few hopelessly poor non-criminals – dream of the life of the butterfly-catcher convict at Iwahig. Especially since a day of butterfly hunting can yield up to three times what free man earn in a month.
Every two weeks, Marietes Labarosa looks at the prisoners' catch to determine the quality of the specimen and do her buying. Three times a month, she exports the very best of the catch to Europe and Japan. After sundown (night falls early on Pawalan) the prisoners gather to share a bottle of Tanduay and talk of the future. Tuta looks forward to returning to Manila – where most of Iwahig's convicts originate from – after serving the rest of his twelve-year sentence.
The warden remarks how he could use an additional 1,000 men to help develop the colony's farming industry. "We're producing more and more copra, coffee and cashew nuts and I need more hands...".
And like all the convicts at Iwahig, the new arrivals too will have their bodies covered with tattoos: an infinite constellation of butterflies forever immortalised on their bodies, like the precious multi-coloured creatures pinned delicately into the glass cases of the world's finest collections.
Copyright © Eric Pasquier
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