The experience in the field visit to Bendum, Bukidnon in the Philippines last April 2013 was not new to me, but it reminded me of many things that slipped my mind a long time ago. The touch of moist soil, the sound of a river, the vision of firefly lights, the smell of a forest, the humble and honest character of indigenous people brought back good feelings from times with other indigenous communities in the Asia-Pacific area. I would not call the time in Bendum a life-changing experience. Rather, it was a time to remember where I have walked so that I can be aware of where I am heading.
I will probably not be able to return to Bendum for a long time, probably never. I am sure, however, that I will carry the big smiles of tiny children, honest and humble voices of the youth, the vision of a trunk covered with green moss, the sound of the river, and the smell of the cool air in the early morning with me for a very, very long time, if not forever.
I will remember for a long time how I felt when Pedro Walpole explained what is happening to the people and the land on the way to Bendum. At first it looked like a peaceful countryside with beautiful rivers cutting across green hills. After learning the migrants’ situation, about why they only grow crops with a short-term plan, and understanding the scars of landslides all over the scenery, I finally understood the complexity of the issues of development. The meeting with people from the nearby village, Barangay Mapolo, deepened this realization with the faces and voices of actual people. One lady had so many different jobs and businesses to raise her children, and I felt the reality of her struggle almost with pain when I saw her eating the snacks very slowly and keeping half of the amount for home.
Each field trip was unique and full of learning, feeling, and thinking. The forest walks really pleased me. I grew up very close to forests and my mother used to teach me the name of trees and flowers and if they are edible or not. The vegetation is different but any indigenous community has the same type of knowledge and bond with nature, which always reminds me of her.
But for me the visit to the Bendum hydro station and the humble stream was the most significant. I have been, and will remain, deeply involved in the nuclear-free movement, including nuclear energy. At present, there is no way to generate electricity with absolutely no damage to the environment or people. However, Bendum showed me an alternative. If managed on a small-scale, hydro power generation can be much less destructive and more sustainable. The short distance between the power house and the community prevents electricity loss during transmission, and the people who consume the power feel responsible for looking after the power house. This is significant, especially for the youth, since they are the next leaders of the community. In this way, energy is something close to you; you don’t have to wonder where it came from or how it was produced. This excited me very much.
It also explained how Japanese people can stay so ignorant about nuclear power plants that keep being built one after another. For several years I have been researching on the energy grid plan in rural areas and the benefits and risks of sustainable energy, and observing this simple model in practice really encouraged me. For a development project to be sustainable, the people who are affected by it must be in a position where they feel confident in what it is, how it affects them, and how to manage the risks when things go wrong. This experience was very personal and subjective. I felt personally challenged by the Environmental Science for Social Change and the Bendum community saying “we could do it, so why can’t you?” A fight with nuclear energy production and use is my life-long relationship, and this humble power house will remain as an inspiration along the way.
During the week in Bendum, reflection was our major task and I truly appreciated it. I remembered why I decided to have a break from my work to spend two years studying. Bendum helped me remember who I am willing to support and for what purpose. I realize that all my efforts at the University for Peace were worthwhile, and I feel confident with my path. When I feel confused all I have to do is sit quietly and listen to myself. Most importantly, it was right that I pay attention to what my heart, rather than society, tells me, and I shall keep it that way.
It was not part of the field trip but the beauty of the Cagayan River really stunned me when we went river rafting when we got down to Cagayan de Oro City. I could not help staring at the shapes of rocks, the big beautiful trees, the way water sways, and the ray of sun light shining through the green grass on the river bank. It simply does not look like the place where thousands of people were killed by water a few years ago. Climate change is here, but is invisible when nature is calm. Nature is serene, beautiful, and scary.
Bendum has given me a lot. I see the field trip as a gift to pause, keep quiet and contemplate. After all, everything comes back to “me.” The last year was a non-stop marathon, and we all needed to breathe. It was also a very important reminder to know what the “assembly of the poor” really wants. They do not deny development; they simply want to be involved in the process of decision-making and to have choices about what affects their lives. The reality is much more complex than we think, and each case is unique. We must value the importance of going to the places affected by development projects, to listen to those affected, and to continuously review through a process of trial and error to find the best solution for everyone.
It was almost 8pm when we arrived in Manila, but it was still so hot and the air was smoggy with pollution. The crazy traffic almost wiped away all the peaceful feelings that I carried from Mindanao, but when I finally put my head on my pillow at home, I realized that I was still able to hear the sound of the small stream in Bendum in my ears.
Ms Mariko Ishii is from Japan and is a Master of Arts candidate of Media, Peace and Conflict studies at the UN-mandated University for Peace. She worked as the project coordinator, communication officer, and journalist in the nuclear-free movement. She is currently based in Yangon, Myanmar, to participate in supporting the peace process and ceasefire monitoring as an intern at a government-initiated and funded organization.