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Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Walking the talk



MANY people idolize Greta Thunberg for her audacious advocacy to save the planet from the ill effects of climate change. Yet you don’t see them making any attempt to reduce their own carbon footprints. They drive their cars instead of walk or ride a bike. They continue to occupy spaces made of materials that have high carbon impacts and whose main energy source is fossil fuel.

It is given that some of the sacrifices one has to make to save the planet may no longer be tenable or even practical, unless we turn back the hands of time and decide to live in a cave. Others may be possible but at an enormous cost, like deciding to be vegetarian and be confronted with the paucity of affordable and accessible places where one can find this kind of food. Ms. Thunberg sailed across the Atlantic instead of taking a commercial jet liner, but aside from being impractical, it begs the question of how many can afford a sailboat well-equipped for a trans-Atlantic or trans-Pacific journey.

But there are small things that people can do to help save the planet. Except that these little things, if not done by a critical mass of people, would not amount to anything that would have substantial impact. If only a few people decide to minimize their carbon footprints, it may be good for some media mileage, or some feeling of personal satisfaction, but the world will remain at risk from changing climate and depleted biodiversity resources.

What is required is a social movement beyond the angry ideological platforms of opposing dams and mining operations. This has become one of the pitfalls of environmental activism, in that it has been hijacked by people with other agenda and where saving the planet has merely been appropriated as a prop. While it is true that there are corporate structures that need to be engaged, embodied in mining and energy companies bleeding our earth dry even as they cause irreversible harm to biodiversity and indigenous peoples, we also have to look into the cultural substrate of an economy that subsists on metals and fuel for its survival. It is easy to march against a mining company or a big dam project and mouth leftist slogans, but this has to be matched by an equally vigorous movement offering alternatives. It is easy to campaign to stop anything, but this should be matched by a campaign offering what should be done instead.

This is not to say that global environmental movements are not offering alternatives. But Western movements have been criticized for espousing alternatives that do not take into account the realities within which people from less developed and less industrialized economies have to contend with. It is easier to talk about biodiversity protection in countries where forests and the wilderness are not called home by millions of peoples. In the Philippines, our forest and wilderness zones are home to millions, that range from indigenous peoples claiming ancestral domain rights over them to migrant communities, which have already turned them into settlements that are even recognized by the state as legitimate barangay. Baguio City is located in land, which would have been categorized as forestland if we follow its slope characteristics.

The Western preservationist model tends to push for beauty without justice. Its main focus is to preserve nature without taking into account the dire consequences a preservationist agenda will have on people’s lives. It is also being criticized for its belief that all people are equally at fault for the destruction of the environment, despite the fact that corporate actors, in cahoots with corrupt bureaucrats, are the ones that should bear the most blame.

There is a tendency to romanticize nature, and therefore see it outside the context of its material function to the lives of millions of people who dwell in them and depend on them for their sustenance. In India, preservationists are accused of being more concerned with preserving tigers and less interested in addressing the livelihood needs of local communities.

There is also a tendency to romanticize indigenous peoples, and see them as static exhibits in a virtual cultural museum, incapable of change. People talk as if indigenous peoples are frozen in time, instead of talking about the dynamic challenges they face, and of how they can adapt to a changing world on their own terms. It is so fashionable for activists to fight anything that threatens their culture and land rights, without even bothering to know how they may deal with the challenges of modernity. Indeed, it is not debatable that projects like the Kaliwa Dam will hurt the culture and habitat of the Dumagat. But beyond demonizing the Duterte government and its Chinese partners, the challenge is to enable the Dumagat an alternative other than being used as excuses to oppose development.

It is problematic when so-called keyboard activists are stuck in the nay-saying mode, demanding to leave the Dumagat alone, but are not concerned about their survival in the modern world. Indigenous peoples may become victims of the Kaliwa Dam project. But the key is not to use them as mere props to advance certain political agenda. In the end, the greater challenge in the Kaliwa Dam is to help the indigenous peoples deal with it, to assert their legal rights, and transform themselves into progressive forces of their own development.

For our part, there is a need to address the bigger picture of the water crisis that causes all of these. This goes beyond saying no, but requires a movement towards alternative futures. We should walk the talk. It certainly is patently hypocritical for people to oppose the Kaliwa Dam project on behalf of the Dumagat, but would be totally devoid of any social agenda, preferably articulated as a social movement, to modify our own “lifescapes” and landscapes that would conserve our water resources.

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Today’s Front Page January 22, 2020

Today’s Front Page January 22, 2020