Jul 2, 2020

Helping how we help

It dawned on us that the ecological problem was partly caused by human waste cycles and we weren’t about to give away white rice, instant noodles, and canned goods packed and shipped away in plastic bags that flew from far-away places.

I was about to travel with family and friends to Northern Mindanao in 2011 when Tropical Storm Washi, so aptly named, awashed the populated areas adjacent to the powerful Cagayan de Oro river. As flash floods tore through the low-lying parts of CDO, Washi claimed more than a thousand lives, devastating countless homes and farm areas.

As we made our way from Bukidnon to deeply-affected Misamis Oriental, we listened to the traumas of the mountaineers who drove us through the region, they who just days past, were pulling people from out of muddy riverbanks, sometimes alive, sometimes lifeless.

Touched by the tragedy, we decided to give aid to one of the city’s busiest evacuation centers where displaced families are tightly clustered like sardines in those stacks of tin empathically shipped by concerned citizens from across the Philippine archipelago.

It dawned on us that the ecological problem was partly caused by human waste cycles and we weren’t about to give away white rice, instant noodles, and canned goods packed and shipped away in plastic bags that flew from far-away places. Mindanao, after all, is resource-rich, self-sustained by its own robust agriculture. In such a domain, there is no excuse to enact solutions that eventually add to the very problems we are seeking to circumvent.

Instead of adding to the tons of processed foods that government agencies and companies doled out to the people, we gave away fifteen blenders and an array of homegrown green vegetables and fresh fruits after conducting some general workshops on how to make enzyme-rich fresh smoothies to complement their emergency rations. Evacuation centers, after all, might double as places where preventive healing happens.

In the aftermath of typhoon Washi, I had a chance to experience four more important crises. In 2012, I witnessed the birth of the global ecobrick movement in the Mountain Province as the region suffered through a solid waste management crisis. In 2013 and 2014, friends and I helped to initiate the Philippine Windship Project in Leyte in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, even as we were still thinking up the ways to help Cebu recover from the 2013 Visayas earthquake. I was then asked to visit Kathmandu and its many surrounding villages to consider ecovillage responses towards the great 2015 Gorkha earthquake that hit Nepal.

In disasters, our socio-economic systems undergo sudden alterations. Whether it be ways to recycle plastic and water waste, how to build houses from the soil and recyclable materials, to organize communities through a participatory process, to grow food enhanced by the principles of the forest, or how to heal sickness and trauma through natural means, crisis harbors ways to erase old patterns as new perceptions and habits emerge from previous ones.

In mid-March 2020, we began food aid at the onset of Luzon’s COVID-19 lockdown that affected Palawan province, whose distant lands are isolated from the rest of the Philippine archipelago. In giving away sacks of rice to the puroks surrounding our Earth Village in Barangay Bacungan, we initially asked that villagers give back ecobricks that recycled plastic trash, later to be the building blocks for common structures that can enhance Purok Maranat Tres’ sense of solidarity.

As we extended the help to Puroks Maranat Dos, Nagtabon, and Maranat Uno, we began to value more productive exchanges. A kilo of rice was traded for either a sack of manure, seaweed, carbonized coconut husk, or chopped banana trunks, all of which are deposited into the compost layers in our ecovillage. This highly enriched “super soil” is then sold as fertilizer in Puerto Princesa City to support the municipality’s urgent backyard gardening initiatives.

The proceeds from the compost then purchase more rice plus valuable seeds, seedling bags, fertilizing soap amendments, and other materials that enable the farmers of Bacungan to conduct their own food production activities in the months during and after the Luzon lockdown.

To date, after raising the funds through our network of friends around the world, we have given away almost 300 sacks of rice to a greater part of one of the largest Barangays in the Philippines. Families here have accessed food supply while they help in accelerating the regenerative healing processes soil systems must undergo as we enter the next crucial months when planting season begins anew.

In partnership with Barangay Captain Gina, Bacungan’s kagawads and purok presidents, many thousands of sacks of compost elements have been collected, like important meetings were conducted so that local barter systems are agreed upon to organize this community-wide barter system. Trading carbonized coconut husks is especially important, as villagers realize that they can earn more easily from charcoaled husks rather than slow-burning illegally-felled trees.

Through the help of our many volunteers that help to process compost in the countryside and sell Palawan Super Soil in the city (Yamang Bukid, Organics Palawan, Bahay Kalipay), a beautiful compost simultaneously helps urban and rural Palawan. We decided to call this movement, Heart and Soil, in lieu of the natural economy that circulates between humanity and the earth it lives on.

On these last days of Palawan’s quarantine period, we take away insights following an extremely exhausting yet rewarding seven weeks here in Barangay Bacungan.

One is that during crises, solutions must address the symptoms of our deep concerns, even as we consider the fundamental roots of our many problems. Short-term thinking ought to be guided by long-range visioning centered on the principles and rhythms of forest systems. The systems of helping people can complement the systems that also help the earth.

In my experiences of crises, gardeners, doctors, teachers, architects, entrepreneurs, nutritionists bond naturally in a sort of dream time. When large sections of society are given openings to shift anew, minds collectively turn to fresh beginnings.

Here in the quiet outskirts of Puerto Princesa City, simple ways of living comprise the “old normal.” Within the many compost mounds contributed by hundreds of villagers, old notions undergo decomposition, as fertile conditions for growth bring a sense of hope and greater possibilities.

Pi Villaraza is the founder of Maia Earth Village and with Daniw Arrazola, is the co-founder of Bahay Kalipay in Puerto Princesa City. Aside from helping initiate various wellness communities around the world, he participated as the Philippine ambassador and an active board member of the Global Ecovillage Network in Asia for many years. He served as the CEO of the Self-Health Empowerment Movement in Cebu City. He has written two well-received books and has facilitated hundreds of workshops in more than ten countries in the last eleven years.

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