If you walk the footsteps of a stranger...
Saturday morning, call time at the office is five o'clock. The group of ten people arriving is still half asleep. Like almost every weekend Kalikasan PNE, the organisation where I'm conducting my internship, organizes a field trip. Today, we will we visit one of the fisher communities in Bulakan, where the new airport of Manila is planned.
The field trips are meant to generate knowledge on the realities in which the people in Manila Bay live, who are or will be (potentially) affected by land reclamation projects as part of the government's 'Build, Build, Build' campaign. Simultaneously, the trips are designed to inform communities about the little that is known about land reclamation projects, as well as about human rights and environmental legislation according to international and national law. "This way, we empower communities to organize and mobilize against development aggression", our team leader concludes her introduction.
There seems to be no clear information or specifics of any land reclamation project including the one for the airport in Bulakan. Will the people have to move? How? When? Where to? And why, really? And if not, how will the airport affect them? These questions are left unanswered by the local governments, the national government and the companies said to execute the projects. The grassroots organizations working with the communities also don't know but recognize the similarities to previous land reclamation projects in the Bay. With the experience of mass relocation to make way for malls and casinos, and with promises of jobs for these communities unfulfilled, they set to work preparing people for the worst.
Village on poles
So, this Saturday morning we jump in a jeepney (old US jeeps, now colourfully painted over). An hour and a half later we are dropped off at a dock and clamber into a bright yellow boat, which will bring us to the village.
The village rests on bamboo stilts. The last typhoon has swallowed the island. It is now solely the foundation on which the bamboo stilts rest. The poles hold up around 80 houses, a small shop and a chapel which is where we gather with 16 people and at least as many children. The attendees are invited to share their concerns on the project and the impacts they imagine it will have on their livelihoods. "We will be as fish on dry land, gulping for air. Literally." One woman says. Discussions are alternated by presentations of the volunteers on environmental topics, human rights and opportunities for action. "Land Reclamation means seagrass and mangroves will disappear" they explain. The public nods. Communities have reported the illegal cutting of around 700 mangrove trees recently. Is the airport project already starting? Maybe. Probably.
Manila Bay, the mangrove bay
Manila is said to be named after a species of mangrove that grew all around the bay, the Nila(d). A tree with flowers of bright white and yellow that swayed in the breeze, waving at visitors coming in and going out of the bay. Manila, 'where the nila(d) is'. Now, the bay boasts a meagre population of the saltwater liking trees and the future seems bleak for this form of natural coastal defense.
After a lunch of rice and fried bangus fish, there are break-out sessions in which women and men are separated. The atmosphere is open and relaxed. Difficult topics are discussed such as rape, a risk women will face with the influx of construction workers to the area. The risk of 'loss of livelihood', is elaborately discussed. Fisherfolk communities are among the poorest of the Philippines. The catch of fishermen mostly consists of crabs which are caught by hand. The women tend to the children. Some sell candies and bread. All in all, the income of a fisherfolk family is around 10 euros per day with which they must feed five or more. Many are afraid that relocation will mean removal from fishing areas. From the age of ten years old, these people have helped their fathers catching crabs. To lose their profession is to lose their identity.
Walking the footsteps of a stranger
As I try to fall asleep at night, in the house of one of the families participating in the workshop, I listen to the seawater sloshing against the foundation of the home which makes us rock a little. If development projects claim to help these people, promising a sustainable future, addressing inequality – we should have learned by now that it is arrogant to think one knows how to improve someone else's life without ever consulting them. Us outsiders, 'we' see how fishing is providing none of these families a living wage. 'We' see women who have no way of sustaining themselves. 'We' see communities that are vulnerable to natural hazards.
But only by going there you can learn that this is a limited perspective full of judgements. Speaking to the people living in Bulakan on bamboo stilts and on the last islands secluded by mangroves, I have learned to see again what is forgotten so often: 'If you walk the footsteps of a stranger, you'll learn things you never knew, you never knew' (yes, this is a Disney lyric). I have learned how grassroots organizations, with next to no resources, are going out to ask what we expect our governments to ask: 'What is your life like? How do you think it could be improved? How can I support you with that, if at all?' Us outsiders might learn that these islands - where daily life is tough and where typhoons hit hard - are worth fighting for.
This blog post was written by Pippi van Ommen, an intern of a Kalikasan PNE (People's Network for the Environment), a grassroots organisation in the Philipines.
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