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An ecological justice experiment in Bendum: A conversion experience

29 February 2020
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Fr Admire with the youth in the Bendum forest

Nhika Rufaro Admire SJ

I am a Jesuit priest from Zimbabwe, belonging to the Jesuit Province of Zimbabwe/Mozambique. I came to the Philippines at the beginning of September 2019 for a six-month tertianship program organised by the Jesuit Conference of Asia Pacific.

Tertianship is officially the last stage of Jesuit formation and a preparation to full incorporation into the Society of Jesus through profession of final vows that can come any time after the completion of this program. It is a period of reflecting on one’s calling and commitment to one’s life as a Jesuit.

It comes after many years of formation and apostolic work experiences. These form the background for the Jesuit to discern on the nature of his call through a time of renewal of one’s purpose facilitated by various experiments that involve, the spiritual exercises, sapiential study of the Constitutions and General Congregations, and getting involved in some of the Jesuit apostolates.

This is all to see how the Lord is operating in an individual Jesuit as a contemplative in action in the various experiments he undergoes through responding to the Mission of the Lord.

My inclination was towards something to do with ecology as I had never been involved in it. I felt as though I was lacking something.

With much talk from Pope Francis on ecology and caring for our common home, from comments and publications by Jesuits involved in ecological justice, and also with ecology being one of the Universal Apostolic Preferences (UAPs) for the Society of Jesus, this became opportune for me to try and engage. Hence, this became a time of learning, and also of offering myself through engagement with people in the community.

In my quest to be involved in the work of ecological justice, I had a three-week stay in Bendum, a village situated in northern Mindanao, and located within the Bukidnon mission district. This was a way for me to get acquainted with what is happening on the ground and how Jesuits are undertaking this apostolate.

Before coming to Bendum, I had a brief five-day stay at Xavier University-Ateneo de Cagayan, where Jesuits are also working. I managed to get some acquaintance with the Social Development Cluster’s ecological activities, particularly in coastal areas, through the McKeough Marine Centre. However, my greater stay and involvement has been in Bendum where I shall base this reflection on.

Inspirations

My first outing to the forest of Bendum was with a group of Grade 12 students and their instructors. During this field trip, one of the students was asked the following question:

“Suppose, a big company comes with a proposal to construct a highway that links the villages to enhance development, would you accept this proposal or would you opt to let things as they are?”

The student declined the proposal, opting for the forest to be maintained without being reduced or destroyed. The reason he gave was that “this is our forest and our lives depend on it, on its resources, particularly the water which is clean water unlike that found in the towns. The forest gives us plenty of clean water alongside food and other herbs. Constructing a highway would benefit other people who will transport their produce, but that would bring a terrible cost to the water source and also, it would attract more settlements along the road which in turn will totally destroy the forest resulting in the destruction of our livelihoods. Such a move would in turn impoverish our people.”

I was impressed by the response of this student who demonstrated a strong sense of belonging and communal ownership of their forest. They belong to the forest and the forest belongs to them.

My experience in Bendum was that, to a greater extent, students and staff members I encountered have a strong devotion to their forest. It is a special love which is reciprocal, and there is a recognition and appreciation for their forest. They feel that the forest does a lot of work for them, it sustains them, and it is their duty to cherish and safeguard it. It is not some idle bush with trees and grass and some river – but something precious, beautiful, always faithful to give life and sustain them even in difficult times.

Resources from the forest are used in a sustainable way as it has benefited many generations before them, so it should continue to benefit generations after them. The forest is part of their life, it is part of their culture.

This made me see reality from a deeper perspective. A sure way of understanding how sustainable development is taking root is when it is supported by the community and the culture of the people.

There is a broader, multi-dimensional response as I sought to understand and learn about ecological justice and Bendum is an area where ecological justice is lived, not in a shallow way, but in an integral way.

There is a connectivity of ecology, agriculture, education, culture and the people. Nothing is neglected at the expense of the other. It is a symbiotic relationship of various dimensions and partners where the intrinsic value of each part is respected and not used without regard to its continuity.

Such values are passed to the young ones through the education system provided by the Apu Palamguwan Cultural Educational Center (APC) that operates an indigenous school formally recognized by the Department of Education. The APC school has a main campus in Bendum that offers Kinder to Grade 12 basic education and four connecting schools in other villages in the Upper Pulangi watershed where Bendum is located.

Around 400 students from Bendum and surrounding villages learn through the culture-based education system which adopts learning that is in line with the context that the person finds himself in. The curriculum is adapted to their way of life and the courses incorporate their environment and are embedded.

It is an education that does not distance from the indigenous students’ identity, language and culture, but assumes these, learns about them using their mother language and later on, engages with other aspects of the outside world. This allows the student not to be inward looking and without exposure to different contexts and cultures but is able to engage in a critical way the student’s culture and the one they encounter.

Students are prepared to be able to engage in dialogue with others who are different, without undermining their own identity. The response and interests of the students I experienced were very positive as I attended their classes. The material of the subjects had issues and illustrations they related with, and it was easy for them to participate and grasp various concepts.

Conversations: New lessons

Eco-agriculture

In another discussion I had with Arnel, who is in charge of the eco-agriculture farm, he shared with me the benefits of eco-farming that takes into consideration the environment.

Relating to their forest and river, he noted that in some areas not very far from them, the rivers tend to become more and more silted and the water is dirty. Such is caused by farming methods which do not take into consideration the environment like planting crops along riverbanks, resulting in siltation.

Also, there are long term benefits to organic farming compared to the use of chemical fertilisers which slowly have negative impact on the soils and also on the water underground and in the rivers. Because this happens slowly, many people tend to ignore it as chemical fertilisers do have short term monetary returns but tend to be more costly in the long run.

Inversely, organic fertilisers, like in the form of manure, are more labour-intensive in the beginning but this lessens as time goes on. They are also more beneficial to life and are sustainable. Due to quick economic benefits, people use chemical fertilisers, clear forests and thus destroy the flora and fauna of their areas.

In the long run, the benefits from the forest are depleted, forcing people to migrate to the cities to look for a better life and employment. In many cases, this though does not turn to be beneficial as they end up doing very low-paying jobs – that is if they get the jobs as cities are already overcrowded. More socio-economic problems increase as a result of that scenario.

Connectedness

I grew to learn more about how humans are intrinsically connected to their environment in ways that we may not be aware of. That is, whatever we do to our environment has an impact on us.

Biodiversity also depends on the environment they are in to blossom and give life. In fact, there are many ecosystems at various levels which support each other as they support humans. This is linked to the type of soils and the climate of the area.

Arnel pointed to me that it is not just about planting trees that is helpful, but to get to the detail of what kind of tree. Some trees tend to be harmful to the biodiversity if planted in an area that they are not meant to be. The two examples he gave are these common tree plantation species in the Philippines – falcata and mahogany. These tend to have more economic value but they are foreign to the ecosystems of the area and their presence is counterproductive to other trees and plants. The government banned logging except for these two species.

Watershed management

There is clean water to drink for the Bendum community as they manage and protect their water source.

There is clean water to drink for the Bendum community as they manage and protect their water source.

A point of encouragement is how watersheds are maintained, and how Bendum they are not disturbed.

My experience in many cities is that local governments destroy watershed areas by constructing edifices, and privatising such areas – which end up being extracted of their supply of water without any way of managing to maintain the water table. I now know that this is a consumerist attitude of looking at solely economic ends while ignoring other interlinked issues. Such moves explain the general lowering of water tables and lesser accessibility to drinking water from rivers and other water bodies.

Intergenerational justice

It is quite frightening that the present generation is on the verge of depleting resources for the next generations to survive on. Pope Francis pointed this out in Laudato Si’ and other writings, where he discusses consumerism and a wasteful culture that sees other entities as objects to be exploited.

My sense of the depth of this injustice and what we owe to ourselves and the future generations became so strong when I came to Bendum. There seems to be a general lack of awareness among many people and a great indifference in trying to think deeper and taking action.

Sign of hope

Bendum offers some hope to realise that there are some people communicating a message to the world that something can be done from an individual level, to the community, and at a national level. Unfortunately, the response is not so strong from many people and from many organisations especially in the private and public sector.

I found it encouraging to hear students from Grade 10, 11, and 12 mentioning that they wish to go to college and study forest management or to be agriculturists. It was my first time to realise that this is a vast field of scientific study that can be pursued.

With the provision of education alongside their understanding and sense of belonging, the young ones can engage with the outside world easily and still able to hold on to their culture. This is demonstrated by former graduates who are now teachers and instructors in Bendum.

Self-diagnosis

Encountering the people here and the works led me to some self-diagnosis of where I am, as an individual and also as part of the society:

One of the major setbacks is to be overwhelmed by the problems and think that what I do as an individual is too little, too late. However, this attitude negatively impacts on others who may want to do similar actions, and hence we will never find solutions in our quest. Had the people of Bendum done the same, it would be the same sad story of ecological degradation.

The second one is that there is need to change one’s lifestyle and not to focus on quick results, as ecological processes take time and are very slow to develop.

Thirdly, there is the blame game that we should stop. We may not be major players in the work of ecological justice, but this should not get us into a resigned attitude and no longer get involved. We cannot just say to ourselves that big corporations should take heed and the bigger nations with greater carbon emissions should find ways of solving the problem for everyone as they are the major culprits. While there are larger players that cause global warming or extract resources and who have to find new alternatives, concentrating on these only without doing anything will serve as a lame excuse that ignores the fact that there are micro-ecosystems that need maintenance from a lower communitarian level. It would mean that the ecological services brought about by the micro-ecosystems are lost.

Lastly, this cuts across many problems we face in the world – short-term exclusive gains at the expense of medium- to long term inclusive losses. People tend to be attracted by the short-term advantages while ignoring the long-term negative consequences. This is at the backbone of many injustices against the environment and against indigenous local communities.

Spiritual reflection

Creation communicates the love of God, as it is generous in its resources it gives to me. The awareness of the ecological services offered by the forest – living in its proximity, being part of its life, its beauty – leads one to contemplate how God silently gives life to many lives and I get life from that too.

As a co-creator, I partake in this life as I offer back, maintain it and be its beneficiary. One senses a oneness of oneself with creation through this mutual interdependence embraced in God’s love.

Such a contemplation communicates to me in an inspirational way that I can and am benefiting abundantly from nature without the need to abuse it through burning and clearing the forest through unnecessary logging. Forests are a common good, they should be managed sustainably, with the knowledge that some of its areas cannot be used for commercial ends.

This is also an inspiration towards a simplicity of life and not to acquire unnecessary things as ends in themselves.

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Planting an indigenous tree, needing care and maintenance

There is also an invitation to be in solidarity with others in doing the work, in learning from each other, in sharing ideas and in encouraging each other from wherever I am in the world.

My spirituality gives me hope. I think of the episode when Jesus tells his disciples to provide food for the masses when there were only five loaves and two fish. However small it was, Jesus multiplied and fed people to the full – 5,000 people with 12 baskets of left-overs. The little I can do is not in vain and a combination of societies doing what they may term little, when done together in solidarity, will produce much fruit.

The shared resources of the Bendum forests bring people together as they work in solidarity, not to exploit but to harvest them in a sustainable way. There is trust and assurance for themselves and for the future generations. So, the experience in Bendum has been a conversion experience.

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