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Sustainability science from the mountains: The Bendum Ecology and Culture Center in Mindanao, Philippines

31 March 2013

Cleaning up of trees in Bendum to be used for re-walling of the school and re-planting of indigenous species by the community, who is still waiting for final land use rights. Photo credits: P Walpole

Pedro Walpole, SJ

Rio+20 concluded with a loose package of commitments for action and agreement by world leaders for achieving the “future we want” – that is for all.  Civil society is called to take up a participative role in this though the process is not clear.  Many agree that sustainable development goals must be action-oriented, concise, and easy to communicate.  Knowledge from across the natural and social sciences is needed to develop a thorough understanding of global challenges.  However, this agenda needs clearer definition and process that allows for diverse responses and not just one response that fits all.

The outcome of Rio+20 emphasises the importance of including Sustainability Science in the solutions of sustainability challenges we face.  Critically, it challenges the scientific community to strengthen further its international collaboration and take the lead in providing knowledge needed for societal transformation.  The United Nations for Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is tasked to implement a sustainability programme that includes an interdisciplinary scientific approach in solving urgent global challenges.  The effort is to link academic disciplines from a comprehensive and integrated point of view towards building a sustainable future.

As part of the ongoing sustainability programme, UNESCO Jakarta, with others, organised an International Workshop on Sustainability Science: A Science Based Approach to Realize the Future We Want for All  last 4-5 April 2013 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  I was invited to participate in this event and shared the experience of the Environmental Science for Social Change  (ESSC) on Sustainability Science and its role and importance in strengthening the capacity of rural communities in Mindanao.

Sustainability Science as defined from the ground

Sustainability Science is rooted in being human and being authentic in its service to human development and environmental interaction.  ESSC approaches the work on environmental and social sustainability with a rootedness in an area’s context: the landscape, the people, and their socio-economic realities.  ESSC’s work in the Upper Pulangi and neighbouring watersheds in northern Mindanao is coming together through the Bendum Ecology and Culture Center, where the learning, the creating, and the accompanying are taking place with different partners.  These are primarily the community youth who undergo training in environmental management of their landscapes and livelihood, young professionals pursuing work and careers in human security and environmental sustainability, and the various institutions cooperating for disaster risk reduction.

Some of the poorest economies are forest-based communities where the basic economy of national development often comes from in many Asian countries and where logging, mining and hydro developments expose these areas and people to growing insecurity without sustaining their future or the ecological systems.  Sustainability Science, if it is to serve more deeply the needs of the poor, must be able to understand the context of the poor and must have the time to be in touch with the poor.  Science cannot merely refer to the poor as an amorphous sector where the research findings of the scientific community are expected to be translated into solutions to improve their lot.

Science must go back to the domain of society, not just business, and its justification drawn from those that it assists and transforms, not those who can pay for its advancement.  Sustainability Science should be transformative of all who engage.  This understanding of social transformation that embeds Sustainability Science back to society and that responds to people’s needs also requires that the self is transformed, strengthening the integrity with which one must approach the work.

As experienced at the Bendum Ecology and Culture Center, transformation occurs at many levels once the mind and the heart are engaged.  These include people in the local community, especially the youth, local governments, responsible government agencies, other assisting groups who learn how to manage their environment and resources, plan and prioritize land and water use.  There are the young professionals from various Southeast Asian countries who learn from communities and remain committed to how local knowledge is integrated as part of sustainability knowledge, a knowledge that is defined primarily from the local social need rather than from national economic development indicators.  There are the universities and researchers who visit and engage with the local community as biophysical and social research topics are pursued, again integrating local knowledge and contributing to the development of local options for environmental management and social sustainability.

Local youth forest manager, Jason Menaling, has a knowledge of the forest structure and the seven species of dipterocarps that uphold the forest. Here, he collected the seeds from germination that will be used to rehabilitate degraded storm-torn forests in Bendum after typhoon Bopha hit the area last December 2012. Photo credits: P Walpole

Mindanao, where Sustainability Science can greatly contribute

It is helpful to understand the broader area where ESSC’s work on Sustainability Science is, which is Mindanao.  While this southern region of the Philippines holds great potential for development due to the wide expanse of the land and the abundance of resources, Mindanao still remains one of the poorest regions in the Philippines.  Although a host of factors have and continue to contribute to this marginalization of Mindanao, one of the more notable, though less obvious, is that it is fragmented: in its leadership, in its cultural identity, in its socio-economic priorities, and in its land and water use.

The inadequate role of science is shown up in its inability to contribute to an overall vision and perspective in Mindanao that makes it highly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, with consequent degradation of the land.  The geopolitical boundaries in the region define the areas of development concerns.  There is limited awareness amongst local governments of the need for a more integrated view of relationships, particularly in biophysical processes that are determined by water and which have a great bearing on local development and disaster risk reduction.  This lack of foresight and holistic outlook water down the need for comprehensive assessment and regular updating of the state of its resources, including but not limited to forest, agriculture, and water.

Mindanao’s poverty has been researched extensively but programs deliver poorly, with little integration and limited catalytic effect.  The region is identified with national agro-development but is unable to respond to local food security needs.  The entry of genetically modified maize and the failure of projected maize production due to extreme weather events (typhoons that bring flooding and landslides and drought) is sinking farmers into greater depths of debt and are at the mercy of local financiers and creditors.  This situation exacerbates hunger and food insecurity in the farming sector, as there is no fallback food crop. This translates into prevalent human insecurity and instability, clearly manifested in the slow socioeconomic development of the poorest people, the lack of safety, and the insecurity of peace.

Global socio-economic dynamics are changing rapidly in the light of threats from biophysical changes induced by climate change.  There is growing concern about the worsening natural calamities caused by severe weather disturbances, previously not felt in the past decades.  In 2011 and 2012, Mindanao experienced extreme weather events that led to huge losses in lives, extensively damaged agriculture areas and infrastructure, and ruined settlements and livelihoods.

Within the scientific community, understanding how social transformation occurs is a critical learning point as this requires a reverse internalization, so that one must understand one’s self to be able to understand others.  This knowledge is crucial as it bespeaks of the ability to empathize and therefore understand the local situation from their perspective.  This understanding strengthens and informs science-based recommendations.  The use of science, in defining the strategy for change and the actions that must be taken, to care and be compassionate is at the core of what we do.

Emerging hope

Though the post-2015 UN development agenda proposes a vision for the future that rests on the core values of human rights, equality, and sustainability, many are quite apprehensive with its achievability to reach people at the ground level.  Many are still grappling with the broad idea of “sustainable development” and how it can effectively work for the poor.  A general concern in terms of for whom and by what method sustainable society is attained is being asked.  With the inclusion of social and economic development, environmental sustainability, and peace and security to the post-2015 agenda and not simply based on indices of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), some are reassured that change may happen this time.

It is interesting that many are recognising that science is not a sole solution; self-transformation is as important to sustain environmental initiatives and foster real change in society.  A much deeper sense of spirituality and personal change in attitude are also needed for people to be able to cope with growing environmental challenges and the deepening awareness of many that the human person has a living continuity and relation with all life.

Significantly, we need a set of values that enable sustainability for a “sustainable future”:

·        Respecting and caring for community life

·        Establishing a more transparent, ethical, and cost-inclusive economic development

·        Improving “quality of life” that has an economically-based perspective and degree of happiness and meaning

·        Securing “sustainability of the ecosystems”

·        Transforming of self that considers once-a-generation change of institutions and society

·        Minimising depletion of non-renewable resources

·        Keeping within the Earth’s carrying capacity

Sustainability Science needs to promote cross-disciplinary coordination, and requires a global cooperative effort to advance understanding of the dynamics of human and environment systems.

For further reading, ESSC recently developed and launched a fortnightly Web-based publication, Sustainability Science Philippines, that will share regular commentaries, stories, activities, and events that relate to developments in sustainability science work.  It is also designed as a venue for people to engage with online and for a broader sharing of learnings and experiences.

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