Looking back and stepping up

by Jose Costas, Philippines (ELP 2016)


As I write this blog, I see the distant lights in the Bay Area flicker from my window here at the Foothill Residence in UC Berkeley. One more week of punishing schedule and the Environmental Leadership Program (ELP) comes to a close. I am both awed and delighted by the brevity of time, and I am compelled to look back tonight and examine the past two weeks spent with mentors from UC Berkeley and environmental leaders from around the world, taking stock of the exchanges in experience and the exhilarating discovery of knowledge acquired in such a short time. My thoughts are interrupted by a bird call outside and I remember the nights in the Philippines, albeit tropical and humid, in the company of villagers where my community organizing work began.

They are debating deep into the night whether to buy old traditional village houses. The discussion sometimes turns into a lively argument, interrupted occasionally by the song of a nightjar, a dreaded bird in Philippine folklore. A flash of lightning suddenly illuminates the mangrove tree line above and the river below, followed by a distant roar of thunder on the horizon. Pretty soon, monsoon rains would come pelting the parched land. Summer would end, and so would the tourist season -- an auspicious time to fix the boardwalk and other visitor facilities. A decision was made: they have to save those old houses lest they would fall prey to the city’s unscrupulous antique dealers. The meeting adjourns and everybody bids goodbye.

In 2009 I arrived in the small village of Bojo, Aloguinsan in the central Philippine island of Cebu. The waterway snaked through a thin deforested mangrove forest; its water almost dark with algae from the water buffalos the locals used to bring down into the river to bathe after a day’s toil. The river, fed by almost a hundred springs was an oasis where the villagers congregated to wash their clothes on weekends. Fish traps dotted the water along with trash and other debris. It was dirty and in the throes of death.

But locals it seemed had the best of both worlds from farming and fishing. While waiting for the harvest season which happens twice a year, the men would venture out to the sea to fish (with dynamite in hand). Women wove grasses into mats to sell and cut mangroves for animal fodder. Kids frolicked in the postcard-perfect seascape where a few years earlier, their parents fought tooth and nail to block an oil drilling project.

Community organizing began and in about a year, the Bojo Aloguinsan Ecotourism Association (BAETAS) was formed with a new set of officers and members who underwent ecotourism capacity building before launching the river cruise.

Tourists came and BAETAS became a powerful voice in the community. The receipts gave them great leverage in local governance and politics, resource management and a significant stake in the local tourism industry.

Ecotourism became the community’s battle cry. Awards came one after another --- a National Leadership Award and a United Nations Award. The local government had an epiphany: conservation is much an obligation as it is a buzzword like sustainable development, or environmental governance.  

And tonight’s meeting discusses the future of the ecotourism venture. Will they cut down trees, or use bamboo to build another guest facility, or buy an old village house and repurpose the wood? Will they give latrines to each household? How many medical doctors are they inviting to the annual free clinic? Tonight, the village is alive and hopeful; immensely inspired by the good things happening.

I write this blog equally inspired with the ambivalent feeling of fulfillment from my community work, and the inadequacy wrought from the concepts taught at ELP. While the program has taught me a lot of things, the session on Collaborative Leadership stripped away adherence to my long-held belief that environmental leadership is all about award-winning stories and disruptive business models, attending black-tie fund-raising events and mouthing crisp soundbites about climate change or saving an endangered species on primetime news. 

Have I stood and delivered? I can truly say I have made a difference when local ordinary communities I have worked with regain control of their lives, land and other resources; their producers and consumers in the value chain internalize the externalities of deforestation and air pollution; and the government consciously crafts policies that reflect sound, science-based and political savvy decision-making. ELP pulls the plug on the trivialized concept of commodifying and gentrifying environmentalism. But it also tells me climate change, or pesticide use, is a well-justified worry. With ELP, I have barely scratched the surface.

The Bay Area lights flicker brightly. The Campanile tolls its last carillon for the evening. It is a song of inspiration.