Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Reactions Against the Empire, Part 1: Development

I have been working on this blog post in my head and journal since my first week or so in the Philippines. The 6 weeks since then have challenged my original reflections and beliefs. My experiences continue to shape these initial reactions, and they are definitely not settled yet. I plan to explain these thoughts in a series of three posts: Development, Bananas, and ‘MURICA!! Each of these posts deals with the environment and US influences on the situations I’ve encountered so far.

I have been so impressed by how close to the land and environment is to every person we have met in our travels and experiences. Students from schools and communities have performed numerous dances and original songs dedicated to climate justice. Nearly every Sunday, I have prayed in church about humanity’s sinfulness contributing to environmental problems. The following prayer is the Prayer of Confession from Silliman United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) Church in Dumaguete from Sunday, September 28:
Merciful God, in your gracious presence we confess our sin and the sin of this world. Although Christ is risen from the grave and has shattered the power of death, we are still held captive by fear and doubt. We hold on to suspicions and jealousies that set neighbor against neighbor and nation against nation. We have neglected the poor and the hungry. In our pursuit of the “good life” we have gone along with injustice; we have ignored the cries of the oppressed. We pursue profits and pleasures that harm the land and pollute the waters. We have squandered the Earth’s gifts on technologies of destruction. Have mercy on us, O God. Help us to trust your power to change our lives and make us new, that we, and all your creatures, may know the joy of life abundant, given through Jesus Christ, the risen Lord. Amen.

Silliman Church, Dumaguete

It is with this context that I come to my first fairly radical change of stance on development. This idea blossomed as I rode on the back of a “skylab” (covered motorcycle) two hours up and then down the mountains of Compostela Valley Province heading to and from the community of Indigenous People (IP) in Panansalan. This was our very first immersion and opportunity to do life with a community of Filipin@s. It is quite fitting that I am writing this during UCCP's Indigenous Peoples Month, which also happens to overlap with Columbus Day in the US.

Rachel, Simon, Nils, and their driver squished on a skylab

Sometimes the roads were paved, often with many cracks or still under construction. Sometimes the roads were packed down rocks. Sometimes the roads were simply mud. There were few guardrails. If we fell or slipped, there would be no help to get us. It would take too long for any sort of rescue team or vehicle to get to us to take us to a hospital. That being said, it was still a beautiful and clarifying ride. The motorcycles were able to navigate most of the rocks and mud without too much of a problem, besides the occasional push or walk.

The roads that were paved were built by logging companies that completely deforested the mountains home to many indigenous populations. The companies financed the construction of the roads so that their equipment and trucks could easily navigate the terrain. After they took all of the trees and wore down the roads, the companies pulled out, leaving the local communities with roads in a terrible state and a damaged ecosystem. The trees grew for centuries. They held the fertile soil in place and provided a barrier for bad weather. Now, the mountains are still green, but the plants are mainly low brush with few tall trees that give the landscape a jagged look. The trees' root systems cannot protect against strong storms or landslides anymore.

The jagged treeline of the mountain and a particularly muddy part of the road

The Westerner in me wants to have a nicely paved road so that everyone can travel between communities with ease and in a more timely fashion, both for convenience and emergency situations. Perhaps the IP communities could sell their crops in the markets in Compostela to earn some money, rather than relying on subsistence farming to survive.

Then, I thought about the consequences of this “development.” It would take so much time, energy, and effort to fully pave all of these mountain roads. Those are resources that the government either does not have or is not willing to designate to such a purpose. In that construction, though, they must change the landscape, which would increase the chances and occurrences of landslides. The construction waste would contaminate an otherwise clean mountain stream. All of the equipment is dangerous for the motorcycles trying to cross the mountains and would lead to more accidents, not to mention the hassle of construction. By the time the roads were all paved, it would be time to do repairs on the first sections of road. In the end is it really worth it?

Yes, dirt roads still exist in the US. Yes, many roads are littered with potholes and are far overdue for repair and repaving. However, I have never experienced anything quite so vulnerable as the roads to Panansalan. I learned so much about living abundantly with so few material things from this IP community. Life was good in its self-contained simplicity. The children cooked, cleaned, farmed, and gathered spring water for themselves. They played games together. They probably didn’t care about the state of the roads leading to their community. 

They did care about the land, though. The land that they worked with their simply farming tools. The land that the government is gradually selling out from under them to mining companies eager to get the coal, gold, nickel, copper, and iron resting under the tall, jagged peaks. The land that is called ancestral lands, meaning that it does not require any titles or deeds for ownership. They care about the environment and how climate change has affected their land. Climate change, combined with the lack of tall, strong trees due to over-logging, has led to disastrous storms and landslides, as shown through Typhoon Pablo in 2012. This is the same climate change that developed nations (the US) contribute to in disproportionate amounts. In the US, we experience some of the negative consequences of our impact on the environment, but not to the extent as it is felt in the Philippines and other developing countries. The infrastructure needed to handle the bigger, faster, and stronger storms simply does not exist in most, if not all, of this country.

May May, one of the students, weeding with a simple blade

So, I ask, what net good will truly come from building roads in the mountains of Compostela Valley? If the only way to build roads is for a multinational company to finance them before exploiting the resources in the mountains, how will that benefit the people who call the mountains home? Is it just another case of trying to make “them” more like “us”? Is that what international development really is at the end of the day? In my experience, international development has such a positive connotation. It is empowering the lives of people by giving them more freedoms, capabilities, and opportunities to make choices. I am conflicted, though. Developed countries give so much in resources to developing countries in order to make them developed, to allow them to compete in the global economy. However, at the most basic level, does this not sound like we, the developed countries, are trying to make “them” more like “us”? What would we lose of the IP community’s tribal culture if it became a “developed” region? Who are we to say that “development” is what this community needs the most? Must the road to "development" be paved to give the IP community the best opportunity to do life? What even counts as the "best opportunity"? Who decides those standards? Does the IP community have a say in their own standards of living? Who knows?

These ideas are not fully fleshed out, obviously, and I welcome any respectful feedback. This idea has been challenged as I have traveled 16 hours quite uncomfortably by car on poorly paved roads damaged by Typhoon Yolanda. Perhaps this is too radical of an idea, but it is simply what has been floating around in my head these past 6 weeks. I look forward to fleshing out more ideas like this in the next two posts of the series: Bananas and 'MURICA!!

No comments:

Post a Comment