Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A rainy day in pictures

My second purchase after arriving in the Philippines was a bright yellow umbrella. Like many Filipina women, most of the time I use it as a parasol to shade myself from the hot hot sun.

Today, the umbrella was put to its intended use. As you'll see from the pictures below, trying to stay dry with nothing but an umbrella in such rains is akin to plugging a crack in a dam with a pebble. These pictures were taken in the higher parts of Quezon City and don't quite capture the intensity of the rains.

Young boys embrace the rain at Philcoa (the Philippines Coconut Authority, aka the centre of the universe)
Engine-powered tricycle drivers waiting for customers

Human-powered tricycle drivers wait for passengers
Motorcycle drivers cheerfully wait out the downpour under the overpass
Business is brisk for this umbrella vendor
Jeepneys and buses are reluctant amphibious vehicles

A crowd gathers at the mall entrance waiting for the rains to let up

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My first purchase was a mobile phone.

Human rights on a rainy day

Yesterday I returned to home sweet home (in Quezon City) from a whirlwind UN mission in Nagoya, Japan. I attended part of the Tenth Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP 10) to launch some of the youth biodiversity educational materials I've been developing over the past year. While there is much I could write about, there are two key areas that are currently occupying my thoughts.

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Once again, I find myself extremely frustrated and at odds with Canada's official position in international negotiations. Briefly, Canada is obstructing the passage of an internationally binding access and benefit-sharing regime at COP 10. Canada refuses to include the text "respect the right rights of indigenous peoples" in an agreement that spells out how genetic material from plants and animals is obtained (e.g. for use in food, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, etc.) and how the benefits are shared. Much of information about the uses of biodiversity is based on the traditional knowledge (aka local knowledge or indigenous knowledge) of indigenous people, so recognizing them should be a no-brainer

Canada's position reeks of hypocrisy, given Stephen Harper's June 11, 2008 apology to Canada's Aboriginal Peoples and his pledge to prevent a recurrence of the attitudes that allowed Indian residential schools. At times like this, I am embarrassed to be Canadian.

COP 10 ends Friday. There are two short days for Canadians to write their Members of Parliament, expressing their concern for the future of life on Earth and their support to recognize the value of knowledge created, tested, revised and transmitted over generations.

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Tomorrow I visit the Morong 43It's a day I've been alternately looking forward to and dreading for weeks. It's going to be an emotional roller coaster. How do you prepare yourself for the stories of health workers arrested during a health skills training and detained for the past eight months on the grounds they are members of the New People's Army and in possession of illegal weapons and explosives?

A young man from Selda, an organization for former political prisoners, will take me to visit the women in the morning, including two women who gave birth during their imprisonment. At one pm we'll visit the men. A cautionary email sent from the head of Bayan this afternoon reads "BTW, you will be strip searched before you visit with them because it is in the male section where drug violators, the principal suspect for the Maguindanao massacre, SUSPECT and many innocent Muslims accused of being Abu Sayaff." 

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And that, in a nutshell, are two key issues swirling around in my head this rainy day in Quezon City.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Dishing on Food Sovereignty for World Food Day

This post is a modified version of a communiqué I co-wrote. If the story gets picked up by the local press, I will add the links.

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International workshop explores food sovereignty issues for World Food Day

16 October, 2010 (Quezon City)

Food is a subject very near and dear to most Filipinos. On 14 and 15 October, it was the focus of a lively and thought-provoking international workshop entitled “Southeast Asian Perspectives on Food Sovereignty,” hosted by the Third World Studies Centre (TWSC) at the University of the Philippines Diliman.

Food sovereignty is a critical economic, cultural, biological and political issue, at both the national and international levels. It is, as defined in the landmark 2007 Declaration of Nyeleni, “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations. It defends the interests and inclusion of the next generation. It offers a strategy to resist and dismantle the current corporate trade and food regime, and directions for food, farming, pastoral and fisheries systems determined by local producers.”

Thirty participants from the academe, civil society, social and farmers’ movements and local governments examined and debated pressing issues spanning agrarian reform policies, the right to food, land grabbing, biofuels and land conversion, public-private partnership, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and biotechnology, nutrition, farmer’s rights, seed savings and intellectual property rights (IPR), organic production and marketing, global food crisis and economic policies, gender and food sovereignty, and the effects of climate change on food production.

The participants explained the complex and sometimes difficult relationship of government and non-government actors in ensuring a country’s food sovereignty. They also emphasized the need for Southeast Asian countries to be self-sufficient in food production. Organic food production was also pushed for, as such will benefit farmers’ ability to independently produce and will result in healthful food. Violence against farmers and cultures by landlords and transnational companies was also highlighted. International trends and regional initiatives for food sovereignty were critiqued.

The workshop was TWSC’s contribution to the celebration of World Food Day. Each year on 16 October, people around the world observe World Food Day to highlight issues behind poverty and hunger. This year’s theme – United against hunger – recognizes the efforts made in the fight against world hunger at the national, regional and international levels. World hunger is a growing phenomenon; soaring food prices and the global financial crisis contributed to record numbers of hungry people in 2009, when the number surpassed one billion hungry people for the first time.

The event was co-organized by the TWSC, Southeast Asian Regional Initiatives for Community Empowerment (SEARICE) and Transnational Dynamics and Collective Action Research Network (REDTAC) of the University of Montreal, and funded by the University of Montreal and the International Development Research Center Canada.

The full workshop proceedings will be published as part of a special issue of Kasarinlan, the official journal of the TWSC.

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SEARICE is a regional NGO working on community-based conservation development and sustainable utilization of plant genetic resources and upholding of farmers’ rights.

The Third World Studies Center (TWSC) of the University of the Philippines is an academic research institute based at the College of Social Sciences and Philosophy (CSSP), committed to analyze and develop alternative perspectives on Philippine, regional and global issues. TWSC focuses on globalization, social movements, democratic governance, peace and human security, and culture and identity.

REDTAC is a research network based at the University of Montreal (Canada) that brings together scholars and civil society advocates interested in analyzing cross-border flows and dynamics (such as food sovereignty, migration, extractive industries, etc.) and how collective action is increasingly organized transnationally. For those of you who read French and are interested in the food crisis, food sovereignty in Quebec (and elsewhere), and related issues I recommend reading the summer 2010 edition of Possibles (REDTAC's blog).

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The sounds of Quezon City

Not understanding a language has its advantages. When the content and meaning of conversations are beyond comprehension, other aspects of the soundscape come into focus -  the tone of human voices, the natural sounds, the human-induced sounds, the everyday sounds that meld into the background over time. 

My daily soundscape in Quezon City

Soft beep-beep-beep of a travel alarm clock
Whirring, cooling, mosquito-repelling fan
Soft beep-beep-beep of a travel alarm clock
Soft beep-beep-beep of a travel alarm clock
Soft beep-beep-beep of a travel alarm clock
Cheery "good morning ma'am" en route to UP 

A thousand different ringtones interrupting meetings, conferences, presentations
Speakers blaring sappy love songs and dance music in grocery stores
Christmas carols
Clapping and singing of store staff ... always on cue

Bounce, bounce, bounce of aspiring basketball stars on barangay courts
Children's laughter from behind school gates and on city streets

Whimsical melody of the ice cream pedal-bikes
Slow deep shouts of mobile food vendors
Sizzling oil frying fish balls, quail eggs, bananas, sweet potatoes ...

Tap, tap, tap of the keyboard
"You are listening to a CBC podcast"
[musical interlude]

Constant drone of traffic
Shrill whistle blows from grocery store security men, directing traffic
Tricycle engines coughing, sputtering, revving
Gentle horns of considerate drivers alerting others of their presence
Hammer-on-the-horn-as-hard-as-you-can beeping of jeepney and taxi drivers

Inhale, exhale
Inhale ... upward-facing dog
Exhale ... downward-facing dog
Two breaths, relax 

Lively voices animate Filipino talk radio programmes
Videoke versions of American, Korean and Filipino pop music
Survivor Philippines, Taglish news, celebrity tv banter
Hair ads promising luscious, silky, straight, dandruff-free manes

Bounce, bounce, bounce of the aspiring basketball star next door, practicing his shot for the zillionth time
Pop, bang, pop POP of fireworks in the night sky

Faint pitter-patter, pitter-patter of mouse footfalls
Silent night

Sunday, October 10, 2010


The inevitable happened.

Friday morning in a crowded MRT (light rail transit). Commuters packed into transit cars like sardines. Bodies pressing up against each other, moulding into each other, squirming to create space. Hands everywhere. Some protectively covering valuables and body parts, others wandering and made invisible, masked by the mass of bodies.

Such opportunistic theft is not uncommon. While lamenting the loss over coffee at the conference, another man piped up. He'd had the same experience on his commute that same morning. These items are very rarely retrieved. It won't be another case of "kobra" (go-and-come-back) like my orange bicycle in Ghana.

It was only a phone, the cheapest, simplest, most generic Nokia available on the market. For the pick-pocket, gleefully anticipating an expensive iPhone, Blackberry or other smartphone, the prize was a disappointment. For the pick-pocketed, the event was a reminder to remain ever alert and a lucky break that it was only a phone.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Turning trash into cash

For Buklod Tao (BT), linking livelihoods to economic opportunities is key. The activities of this community organization are based on an associative business model or “pangkilikan” in which the products of one business are purchased and used for another.

There are four businesses in the pangkilikan:  1) organic compost production, 2) organic urban container gardening, 3
) tetra pot production and 4) fiberglass mesh production. The video below outlines how the system works. 

The thoughtfulness, creativity and simplicity of the approach fascinates me. A sustainability principle is built into the system, in which sustainability spans environmental, social and economic spheres. Here are selected excerpts from my discussion with Noli Abinales (more on him and Buklod Tao in the "building disaster resilient communities" post).

On composting...

The composting business is temporarily on hold, for several reasons. First, their "shredding machine" is broken. Second, the neighbours of Buklod Tao complained about the smell and the municipality has ordered them to halt operations. (similar situation unfolded in Guelph, Ontario several years ago.) BT is currently seeking land in a non-residential zone.

When the business is operational it works as follows.  Compost buckets are given to 30 participating families, along with instructions on composting do's and don'ts. Each weekday morning, BT-employed collectors pick up the organic waste. Back at the BT headquarters, t
he  waste is shredded, left to decompose in a closed container, and finally enriched with purchased powdered charcoal and chicken dung.
Compost bucket
The innovative part comes in with the integration of an alternative currency system that supports the local economy at the micro level. Points are allocated based on how much waste is in the bucket (full bucket=4 points, half-full bucket=2 points). The families receive tokens that can be exchanged for goods at selected sari-sari shops. For example, a bar of soap “costs” 12 tokens. The sari-sari owners can then bring the tokens to BT and exchange them for actual coins and bills. The scheme helps secure business for shop owners, many of whom are the beneficiaries of a post-Ondoy rehabilitation loan administered by BT. It's a small loan of P5,000, but it's enough for small-scale entrepreneurs to get started.  
The daughters of one sari-sari shop owner who received a rehabilitation loan.
This scheme achieves several goals: people sort their garbage; waste is diverted away from landfill sites (and from the river); families earn from their garbage; raw material is collected for composting and gardening businesses; urban poor gain jobs as compost collectors; local entrepreneurs gain customers and can repay their loans, et cetera. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that BT can acquire suitable land ASAP so the composting business resumes.

On organic urban container gardening...
BT has turned three vacant lots into three small urban gardens. Each garden employs one garden manager and several part-time gardeners. The garden I visit is roughly half the size of a basketball court. Not-yet-mature vegetable plants protected by a bamboo fence adorn the garden entrance. 
Entering an urban organic garden
Inside there are two shelters. One is nearly empty save several tetrapack containers stashed in a wheelbarrow. The other houses sacks of organic compost, charcoal dust, topsoil and chicken dung.
Wheelbarrow holding tetrapack containers. Note the roof of the shelter is also made of tetrapacks.
To make the most of their limited space, the gardens incorporate some permaculture techniques, including vertical gardening.  Six risers occupy most of the space. Each riser requires 10 square meters and can hold 110-120 tetrapacks. The wild colours of the tetra pots and the perky plants in various shades of green make for an attractive and cheery garden.
Riser with vegetable- and herb-filled tetra pots.
All kinds of herbs and vegetables are grown in the tetrapacks - basil, parsley, bitter gourd, tomatoes, okra, eggplant, greens and more. The produce is sold at a premium price. Some day, Noli muses to me, disaster-resilient communities will grow organic produce that is safety packaged in tetrapacks. The produce would make a welcome and healthy variation in relief kits.   

On tetra pot production...

In the Philippines, juice and fruit drinks are sold in tetrapacks. They are very popular, and kids will drink several every day. Unfortunately, many tetrapacks are carelessly discarded, littering sidewalks and clogging sewers and waterways. So the opportunity to turn this trash into something productive was a welcome one. 

Tetra pot production is not new, nor is it unique to the Philippines. In San Mateo, the initiative began several years ago when BT started collecting discarded tetrapacks from the streets, schools and conferences. They borrowed three sewing machines and began production. Some women were already making bags and other things from the tetrapacks pre-2007, but all their production equipment was lost with the Ondoy floodwaters.

Clean dry tetrapacks are sorted by colour before being sewn into various products.
Production begins with “Tetra pickers” (women, men, kids) who collect the tetrapacks, cut out the bottom flaps, snip off the tops, then clean and dry them. (Technology exists to reuse the discarded bits, but BT doesn’t have the equipment nor the technical know-how ... yet.) BT staff buy the tetrapacks for 25 centavos for a clean, standard-size tetrapack or 10 centavos for a smaller or subpar one (e.g. not cleaned properly). Last week, one woman traded in more than 3000 tetrapacks, earning herself P750 (a princely sum for an urban poor)!  
The sewing room and a pile of nearly-finished tetra pots.
Clean standard-size tetrapacks are sewed into a variety of items. The main product is the gardening container or "tetra pot", sold for P10 apiece to BT's gardening business. Sewers are paid by the piece. They receive P1.5 for the first 70 pieces per day, then P3 for each one after that. One older woman can sew 100 pieces per day and regularly earns P2,000 per week. Other tetrapack items include conference bags, roofs for tricycles, …
Tetrapack gardening containers or "tetra pots" are the main product of the tetrapack business.
News that BT buys tetrapacks has traveled to neighbouring barangays. During my visit a group of women living several villages away come by with bags full of tetrapacks. BT doesn't usually do any business on Sunday, but the women have had to pay for transportation and are very reluctant to return home without getting at least some money.

On fibreglass mesh production...
Fiberglass mesh is used for two products. The first is the fiberglass rescue boats used for the rescue operations. The boats are critical to the community's disaster risk reduction (DRR) strategy.  
Fibreglass rescue boats are key to disaster risk reduction strategies.
The second product is the fiberglass compost buckets, which are purchased by BT's organic compost production business. 
Fibreglass compost buckets
At this point in time, both business are still very small in scale because the products must be  patented, tested and certified before they can be sold to other buyers. In the foreseeable future, BT hopes to begin selling their products to the government and to other communities.

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I imagine some readers are wondering how initiatives such as these associated businesses are funded. Buklod Tao receives funding from a variety of local, national and international sources. Some funders you might recognize include Christian Aid and Save the Children. 

One of the fascinating, sometimes uplifting, sometimes heart-wrenching aspects of doing research in a developing country is the opportunity to visit many project sites. In doing so, I'm putting a face, a name, a sound, a smell, a feeling, a story to many development/aid organizations. It's one thing to leaf through the glossy brochures of an organization. It's an entirely different experience to witness activities on the ground.

If you support an organization who works with partners in the Philippines, please add it to the comments below. If I visit their offices and/or project sites, I'll make a point to blog about the experience.  Salamat po!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Pig siren

What would you do if you lived between two active fault lines at the convergence of two rivers in a known floodplain? Knowing your home would be flooded annually, what measures would you take to secure your family? your means of livelihood? your belongings? How do you construct a safety network with your neighbours? What compels you to stay? What would compel you to relocate to a safer locale?

The residents of barangay Banaba, San Mateo, Rizal live in a disaster-prone area. (A "barangay" is one of the smallest units of place in the Philippines. The broad categories, in descending order, are "region", "province", "municipality" and "barangay".) The communities were hard hit by typhoon Ondoy that flooded many areas in Metro Manila and Laguna in September 2009. The bridge connecting San Mateo to Quezon City gained international notoriety as the site where an entire family except the father drowned. The video below is a cellphone video of the horrific event - it is not an easy watch.

The village I visited fared better than most. Nobody died because of flooding, due in large part to the disaster preparedness efforts of residents and the community organization Buklod Tao. The village structures could be those of any village in the Philippines; there are few telltale signs of past floods. The usual ice cream tricycle and gaggle of children parade up and down the street. Men and women converse outside in single-sex groupings. One to two storied concrete residential houses, small sari-sari shops and makeshift basketball courts line the narrow roads. Homes have televisions, stereos and various items of furniture - not exactly the types of items that lend themselves to easy portability. There's electricity and running water.

Street view of the village on a Sunday afternoon.
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The residents have developed various strategies to first enable them to respond quickly and appropriately, and to later mitigate the damage. Some examples include setting up an early warning system (see disaster preparedness post below), daily monitoring of the water levels, posting signs with flood response strategy throughout the village, agreeing upon an evacuation site.

The old (informal) evacuation site was "under the bridge" - a site roughly 30m up from the village. It's nowhere near perfect but it has a concrete floor and a concrete roof, and is high enough to protect residents from the annual floods. The Ondoy flood was the once-in-a-century flood with waters that rose up to the road, flooding the evacuation site. People had no choice but to live on the sidewalk, waiting for floodwaters to subside. Thirty-four families now live in squalid cramped quarters "under the bridge" in this evacuation site, leaving no place for the 500 households that used to use the site during floods.

Entrance to the residential quarters under the bridge.
Water is both friend and foe. Residents watch the river closely from a safe vantage point in the evacuation site. When the waters begin to recede, people speed back to their homes to begin cleaning. There's a short window of opportunity to use the floodwaters to help clear the mud, silt and debris brought by floodwaters out of the house. Timing is critical: too soon and you could be carried off with the floodwaters, too late and you're stuck shoveling out debris for weeks.

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The post title "pig siren" is derived from a gem of local knowledge. Pigs are generally housed close to the river (to make for easy, albeit unhygienic, disposable of the innards when an animal is slaughtered). Like me, pigs, it turns out, have an aversion to wet feet. They squeal when water covers the floor of their sties. Miserable, wet-footed pigs are extremely loud and make for a very effective siren signalling an impending flood.

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The reasons that compel people to stay, despite the risk, are varied. For many, it's a case of necessity. They must be near their livelihood, be it farming, fishing, driving a tricycle or retrieving valuable items from the garbage. It's too expensive to commute to work. Safer sites are too far from good schools. Their social and safety networks are situated in these disaster-prone areas. The immediacy of putting food on the table outweighs the longer-term risk of a not-yet-materialized environmental disaster.

I started this post with a series of questions, but I do not intend to answer them here. The exercise, unfortunately, is not purely academic or hypothetical. It is a reality faced by hundreds of people in the barangay (and many more Filipinos living in other parts of the country). I'll leave you with one additional figure to ponder, courtesy of Noli Abinales (see post below): the government has slotted 700,000 families (over 3.5 million people) to be relocated because they currently reside in high-risk disaster-prone areas.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Building disaster-resilient communities

This past Sunday, I had the pleasure and honour of meeting Noli Abinales, one of the founders and current president of Buklod Tao. His slight build and kind voice belie the magnitude of change he is driving in his community. He has an uncanny ability to turn problems into creative solutions. If ever a disaster-resilient community is to be built, it will undoubtedly incorporate the ideas of Noli and Buklod Tao.
Noli and Buklod Tao's disaster preparedness equipment.
Buklod Tao is a community organization serving the communities residing near the riverbanks in barangay Banaba, San Mateo, RizalIn 1997, concerned community members created a community-based disaster management unit. They trained rescue teams, built rescue boats and developed an early warning system. 
Belen de Guzman is part of the CBDM team. Her early warning of the rising water levels was critical to saving lives during the Ondoy flooding. Her equipment consists of a headlamp and a radio.
Their efforts have paid off: unlike neighbouring communities, nobody in their community has died due to flooding. While the flood waters of last year's Typhoon Ondoy claimed many of their homes and possessions, it did not claim any lives (although three people died of flood-related diseases following the flooding).

Rules posted on the main road remind residents of the steps for disaster preparedness.
Various flood mitigation measures have been implemented over the years. Acting on the recommendation of government agencies, the community built up the riverbanks with sandbags. Most of the sandbags have been carried away in floodwaters. 
A young boy stands atop a bamboo ladder. The riverbank is shored up with degrading sandbags.
Bamboo trees were planted along the riverbank to prevent further bank erosion. Many of the seedlings were washed away with the annual flood. Of the seedlings that remained and were able to take root, few survived the raging flood waters of 2009. 
A bamboo stand protects against the erosion of the riverbank.

The military recommended they set up embankment walls made of "Gambion boxes" - essentially large wire frame boxes filled with rocks - to help prevent flooding and bank erosion. 
Man building a Gambion box.
Community members and student volunteers from De la Salle University are spending the next few Saturdays shoring up the riverbank with Gambion boxes. 

A row of Gambion boxes. The embankment wall should be extended to the riverbank (right) and up another three layers.

The current focus of Buklod Tao is on creating on-site medium-rise evacuation centres. Ondoy set a benchmark for the minimum height of evacuation centres, which should be three to four stories high. With sufficient resources, these evacuation centres can become a reality and help to protect the vulnerable population living in barangay Banaba.