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An interview with ESSC on Reconciling with Creation

30 March 2015
ESSC staff during a planning workshop in Bendum in Bukidnon. Photo credits: A Ignacio, ESSC

ESSC staff during a planning workshop in Bendum in Bukidnon. Photo credits: A Ignacio, ESSC

Scholastic Patrick Nogoy, SJ interviewing Sylvia Miclat

Care for the environment is popularly promoted today in various programs, documentaries, films, and advocacies, with endorsements from political leaders and celebrities like Al Gore and Leonardo di Caprio; however, translating this care into effective strategies and actions which have meaningful impact remains a challenge. The 35th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus identifies reconciliation with creation as an urgent and critical component of its mission.

There is intense global attention to environmental concerns as the impact of climate change is experienced, analyzed, and discussed, but there also appears to be a feeling among many that the actions and responses are slow. These initiatives seemingly are not keeping pace with the frequency and intensity of the global changes taking place. However, there are groups who continue to work, often in the background, in this ministry of reconciliation with creation; they seek to create social change through the use of both science and faith. One of these groups is the Environmental Science for Social Change (ESSC).

Browsing through their website, one discovers that this Jesuit research institute’s strategy in promoting environmental sustainability and social justice is by integrating scientific methodologies and social processes. It is part of their mission to collaborate with partners for the appropriate management of the environment for human development. Science is a basis for engendering environmental care, a care that makes an impact in people’s lives and development. Leafing through their featured articles, I saw projects on managing watersheds in collaboration with communities, strengthening local disaster risk reduction and management capacity in urban poor areas such as Payatas in Quezon City, and collaborating with local and international organizations for resilient low-cost housing, among other initiatives. Their thrusts and programs widened my understanding on the scope of this ministry and raised my interest in this Jesuit apostolate composed mainly of professional lay men and women and a Jesuit research director.

Having met her during the recent Philippine Province Forum in Cagayan de Oro, I had the chance to talk with Sylvia Miclat, ESSC’s executive director, about her experience working in this ministry. Sylvia has been working for more than ten years with Father Pedro Walpole, ESSC’s Chair of the Board of Trustees and Director of Research. Sylvia’s involvement is interesting for somebody with a degree in communications from the University of the Philippines and long-time human rights advocate. I posed a wide variety of questions to which Sylvia graciously responded.

Sylvia Miclat, ESSC Executive Director and Pedro Walpole, ESSC Research Director, during the International Conference on Transformative Land and Water Governance (http://transformativegovernance.essc.org.ph/) in Malaybalay, Bukidnon that ESSC organized in May 2014. Photo credits: A Ignacio, ESSC

Sylvia Miclat, ESSC Executive Director and Pedro Walpole, ESSC Research Director, during the International Conference on Transformative Land and Water Governance (http://transformativegovernance.essc.org.ph/) in Malaybalay, Bukidnon that ESSC organized in May 2014.
Photo credits: A Ignacio, ESSC

Q: Working for the environment is commonly understood through activities like planting trees or garbage segregation. In your exposure in ESSC, what does “work for the environment” mean and what unique role does ESSC perform in such ministry?

You are correct. Usually when you hear the phrase “work for the environment,” the usual response is that one must be planting trees or segregating waste. Those are important and necessary as individual actions and attitudes, and perhaps these types of activities are the starting points for many of us. But “working for the environment” involves a broader relationship beyond our homes and backyards. It involves management and planning, knowledge and understanding of the social, economic, political, and cultural environments, as well as other contexts. It is a broad concern that cuts across our daily personal and professional lives and thus must necessarily connect with people. Essentially, what we want to achieve when we “work for the environment” is the integration of sustainability in the development we want for ourselves and for the next generations. During the 1970s when environmental movements were starting to emerge more visibly, conservation and protected areas were strategies to restore fragile and threatened natural habitats, especially for biodiversity; they did not necessarily involve people who also live in these areas. Strategies have shifted since then and people are increasingly part of the response. In ESSC, we have always worked with people as we work for the environment, understanding their concerns and integrating these in developing appropriate and sustainable responses. In ESSC, our platform is the environment and we use science in order to contribute to social change, which is where the impact of our scientific work should be manifested.

Q: Looking at our country today, what is the most pressing need, concern, issue, or problem in terms of working for the environment? Is any specific program in ESSC addressing this?

It is easy to cite poverty, corruption, weak governance as pressing concerns, and they are that. But in our discussions here at the Institute and in our engagements with government, national and local, and with communities and other assisting organizations, we are learning that what we seem to have is a lack of effective systems and limited capacities to ensure effective implementation.

These systems should include provision of regular and updated baseline information on themes such as forest cover, soil, water, land use, biodiversity, protected areas, and ancestral domains. From ESSC’s experience in engaging with government, there are also limited systems for effectively monitoring implementation of projects, for reviewing and assessing implemented programs and projects, and for securing accountability. Individual government agencies and specific units may be doing fantastic work and providing good service to people, but a system of coordination and communication with other government agencies is often lacking resulting in redundancy, overlapping functions, and generally ineffective service. ESSC’s current work in disaster risk reduction involves site assessments of low-cost and socialized housing in post-disaster areas and other hazard-prone areas. The systems in government for securing permits and documents are very complex and seem to be established not to assist people, causing much delay in the housing development.

Another concern that challenges our work at ESSC is the limited capacity among local government staff to enable them effectively plan and implement, and therefore deliver the critical services that communities need. To assist in land use planning and watershed management for example, ESSC developed training modules for local government staff in the use of free and open source software for their geographic information system (GIS) needs. But, this is just one aspect of the capacities that local governments need. They need architects, engineers, geologists, urban and rural development planners, sustainable agriculture practitioners, among other competencies; unfortunately, most perhaps prefer working for the private sector.

The challenge is to draw people in and have them work together to help local government units. There are good and bright people in many government offices who can be trained further and strengthened in their work functions; we need to focus on this aspect if we want to develop sustainable and effective governance and management at the local level, promoting the environment and the quality human development that we want.

Father Provincial Tony Moreno speaking with the youth training participants in Bendum who are building their carpentry workroom, part of the skills training and leadership program that ESSC is undertaking with young adults in Upper Pulangi. Photo credits: S Miclat, ESSC

Father Provincial Tony Moreno speaking with the youth training participants in Bendum who are building their carpentry workroom, part of the skills training and leadership program that ESSC is undertaking with young adults in Upper Pulangi.
Photo credits: S Miclat, ESSC

Q: It is interesting to note that some of your programs not only affect the environment but also benefit communities in the area. Can you describe your experience in partnership with those communities and how have they benefitted from your programs?

Partnership is integral to ESSC’s work. The basis for responding is the request for assistance, thereby establishing “stakeholder” relationship at the onset with our partners. We join with local government units, non-government organizations, community groups, and even dioceses.

In previous engagements with the dioceses of Cotabato, Butuan, Ipil, and Malaybalay, we were asked to assist the ecology desks, social action centers, or Indigenous Peoples apostolates in developing an ecological agenda. The intention was to use this material in their planning of activities and in responding to the environmental and social concerns in the parishes. There are very specific contexts for each diocese. These include Lake Lanao, flooding, and working with tri-people (Muslims, Christians, and Indigenous Peoples) in Cotabato, logging in Butuan, mining in Ipil, and the impact of agricultural plantations in Bukidnon. For the latter, we developed a map that located parishes in the diocese, with the vegetation cover disaggregated into different types, along with administrative boundaries. Accompanying the map, we provided an analysis of the resources identified and the emerging concerns. This type of information enables the development of an ecological work agenda, providing information to “forecast” scenarios by giving a context of where parishes are located, the potential concerns of parishioners who work in the plantations, the type of resources they have, the proper authorities to be approached, and what problems to prioritize. As this work was exploratory, we understood that this initial engagement would need much review and that its success would depend on the commitment of people who wish to sustain the work.

Q: What significant learning or experience have you gained in the ministry that somehow fuses science and faith? What is the important contribution of faith in this work?

I am increasingly discovering that I have a better appreciation of my faith as I engage in this line of work. The elements of care and compassion are felt especially in our collaboration with communities. ESSC’s approach is to start from where the people are, listen to their concerns, and develop and adapt the response from there. There are tremendous areas for innovation and exploration. ESSC’s work also allows the application of a sustainable science where research is problem-driven; therefore ESSC can make a greater and more meaningful contribution in improving the lives of people. We in ESSC are asked to develop an analysis that requires a personal reflection, answering the question: “So what?” For example, if the research analysis shows that the rainfall in Cavite is higher than in Manila during a monsoon, so what? How does that impact on people’s lives or the communities’ capacities to respond and prepare?

You ask about the difference my work makes to my prayers; I can share that my prayers are broadened, going beyond my personal concerns. Given this line of work, my prayer becomes “incarnated” in the people we work with, as you put it. The fusion of faith and science seems to flow naturally in our work. Pedro, who is the only Jesuit on the staff, undertakes spiritual activities with us, with a lot of adaptations as we have a diversity of religious backgrounds. There is respect for faith in the workplace. In his Masses, he opens the homily for others to share and connects the readings of the day to present ecological concerns.

Q: Do you find any significant challenging area in the work for the environment, any challenging partnership?

The slow pace or progress of things can be very frustrating. Environmental awareness is high but the response is slow. Do we need to give people tools or use new ways of thinking? We face the challenge of transmitting innovation into practical action so that people can integrate it in their daily lives. At the same time, the global changes taking place cannot be ignored, and the planetary boundaries need to be integrated with Sustainable Development Goals, emerging from the Millennium Development Goals that will reach their deadlines in 2015. Economic and growth models can no longer be defined without the environmental impact.

Q: Can you describe ESSC ‘s voice in social platforms like social media, government, and civic society? How strong or weak is this voice? How do you get people to listen to you?

ESSC is not an advocacy group, but we do develop the analysis that can inform and be used by advocacy groups. It is not for us to say whether our voice is strong or weak. I think it is more important that our work remains relevant and responsive, and that the individuals and organizations who value the work we do can use ESSC’s work results and learnings to move their work forward as well. We facilitate Philippine Working Group meetings that gather professionals, government, non-government, business, academe, community organizations to discuss and develop action points for specific contemporary environmental agendas. Disaster risk resilience and “building back better” are work themes that generate great interest; an increasing number of people and organizations do want to improve upon the current situation. Recently, we engaged media to discuss drought and the impact of El Niño on both water and food security, especially for communities in the uplands.

Q: Are there any emerging areas of potential partnership, science, or philosophy that you feel would be helpful in the work for the environment?

As we speak, the initial stages of the Stockholm Dialogue on sustainability science and values are being pursued in Namur, Belgium. This is an exploration of a global conversation that the Global Ignatian Advocacy Network-Ecology is spearheading with religious and the scientific communities. One emerging principle is the emphasis on values that are based on attitudes we have for the environment and resources, for our neighbor, and for ourselves. It is not enough that research is undertaken or ideas developed and implemented. People’s attitudes have to be transformed, shaping values that engender care, compassion, and action.

An ESSC team with visiting scientists listening to economic, environmental and social concerns of an upland community. Photo credits: A Ignacio, ESSC

An ESSC team with visiting scientists listening to economic, environmental and social concerns of an upland community. Photo credits: A Ignacio, ESSC

Q: How is it working with an interesting and varied mix of people coming from different sectors – scientists to government to religious? How do you manage consensus?

It is not necessarily consensus that we seek, but that we maintain communication at all levels so that there is a healthy exchange of ideas and points of view; thus, creativity and adaptation are encouraged and supported. There is no pro-forma response or a “one-size-fits-all” answer.

Q: Can you describe one or two significant joys or consolations in your involvement in ESSC?

As a mother and a parent, I am happy to be part of an effort that contributes to a better future for the next generation. I am also discovering that I have a deeper appreciation and understanding of my faith, which I did not consider important before. I have a feeling that my faith is deepened and strengthened by the work I am part of, and I am grateful for this opportunity.

Q: Do you have any hopes for the future in this ministry of reconciliation with creation?

I am hopeful that some shifting of minds and hearts can occur as we work and collaborate at both global and local levels in the pursuit of integrating ecology and sustainability in development efforts. The international linkages in our work, and those occasions where we learn from experiences of various communities in regions across the world, are very affirming. The online exchange platform that Ecology and Jesuits in Communication (or Ecojesuit) provides is contributing to this broadening. The youth are also a source of hope; that sector is where we must invest capacity, education, and broader livelihood options. They will be in charge of a planet that is vastly different from the one we had before and we have now; they need all our support and accompaniment.

This interview story was originally published in Tinig Loyola, the student publication of Loyola School of Theology, Volume 16:1-2, School Year 2014-2015 and Ecojesuit was given permission to reprint this article.

Scholastic Patrick Nogoy, SJ is with the Theologians Subcommunity at the Loyola House of Studies and is also the Assistant Director of the Arvisu House Jesuit Candidacy, under the Philippine Province of the Society of Jesus.

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