Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Clearing our waterways -- Bued's Success Story

A week after Typhoon Ondoy, with 400 people killed and billions of pesos worth of damage and loss, people are beginning to realize that all these could have been minimized, or even avoided, IF we did not allow our waterways to be a free-for-all dumping site. Now there is an urgent call to unclog our drainage, clear our creeks and rivers, and instill proper waste management. Local executives are even threated to land in jail if they refuse to cooperate. If only local ordinances, the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000 (RA 9003) and the Clean Water Act of 2004 (RA 9275) were enforced and properly inculcated right after they were enacted long time ago then we could have had a lesser burden now. The thought reminds me of my MA thesis which is an ethnographic report about a flood-prone village in a peri-urban area in the Northern Philippines. Through persistent efforts of their local leaders, they were able to clean and revive their biologically dead river and inculcate proper waste management practices in every household. Below are excerpts from that study which is entitled "The Greening of a Local Community."

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Barangay Bued is located in Calasiao, Pangasinan. It is a town known for its puto (rice cupcake), a favorite “pasalubong” (take home gift) among travelers in the area and tourists from other parts of the country. The main road by the plaza has a long line of commercial stalls displaying huge mounds of its own brand of rice cupcake. This native treat is characteristically small, about half the size of a ping-pong ball. It comes in white or amber with a soft and chewy texture, a bit sticky, and sweet. It is worth the detour—something that motorists have to do to buy some since the town plaza is not along the main highway. During an extremely heavy downpour, however, motorists would think twice before passing by the area since it is prone to severe flooding.

The town lies on a major route that connects the three cities in the province. Due to the town’s flat topography, it is often among the worst hit when flood submerges the province. The town’s 24 barangays are usually subjected to moderate flooding and, occasionally, severe flooding. And severe means floodwater reaches the rooftop. The same record states that that flooding is due to two nearby hydropower plants, known to release water during a heavy rainfall (Land Use Plan, 2000). And another hydropower plant—considered Asia’s largest—has just been constructed in close proximity.

Barangay Bued is geographically located at the central region of the province. The town lies on a major earthquake fault line, the San Manuel fault line. Its relatively flat terrain makes it favorable to urban development. Hence, though its land use is still predominantly agricultural, there has been a trend of using former agricultural lands for urban land purposes to accommodate the spill over of robust commercial activities from the nearby business and educational centers of neighboring cities. (Land Use Plan, 2000).

The barangay has an area of 158.3 hectares and a population of 5,500 as of 2000. According to an estimate, by year 2010, the population would reach 7,123 with a density of 45 individuals per hectare (Barangay Bued Experience, 2004). Though it occupies only 2.9% of the total land area of the municipality, Barangay Bued is known to be the third most populated and fourth densest barangay. It is linguistically homogenous since 94.8% of its population speaks the local language (Land Use Plan, 2000).

There are two main streets in the village and they are lined with tightly clustered houses. Landmarks in the community include an elementary and a high school, several printing presses, a large hotel-restaurant, and several small shops. Perpendicular to the major thoroughfares are some tiny alleys that lead to some more houses. As one walks deeper into the alleys, he would find a river and at the other side, some vast farm lots.

One prominent structure in the community is a multinational beverage plant. Going north, it stands at the left side of the road, a few meters from the Barangay’s boundary. The plant displays two giant beverage can models, about the same height as the building adjacent to it. For travelers, the plant signals that one has reached Barangay Bued. Previously, a traveler need not peep through his vehicle’s window to know that he has reached Barangay Bued. One just had to sniff the air.

Getting Rid of its Signature Smell
The journey of Barangay Bued into environmental care began with a dream to revive a dying river. The Parongking River, a tributary of the Sinocalan River System that traverses the village was once classified as a dying river, a victim of pollution from factories, agricultural run-off, and household wastes from the residents. It was a well-known joke among travelers that even in pitch darkness or with eyes closed, they knew they were passing by Barangay Bued because of the foul smell emitted by the river. A resident called it as the Barangay’s signature smell. A newspaper article reported, “Even those aboard air-conditioned vehicles still complained of the odor that emanated from the river” (Fuertes, 2000e).

In early 1997, a woman journalist and a resident near Barangay Bued approached the incumbent barangay captain of Bued to present a complaint about the river. With the barangay chairman’s approval, she tapped the help of the Women in Development Foundation and organized the first meeting for the revival of Parongking River in February 1997 at a local restaurant. Earlier, the Foundation scored a victory by stopping a cement factory from putting up a plant in another town in the province.
The meeting to revive the river was attended by officials and residents of Barangay Bued and an adjacent barangay, representatives from factories along the riverbanks, concerned agencies, and environmentalist groups. Foremost in its agenda was the presentation of a laboratory result of a water test undertaken by a nearby state university. The test confirmed their suspicion that the river water was silted with toxic elements. An earlier test taken by the DENR did not show anything unusual, that is why they decided to bring samples to another institution. A series of meetings followed during which proposals to revive Parongking were presented.

While the meetings were ongoing, Kapitan Dion (the newly elected barangay chairman at that time) brought some barangay officers to start the manual cleaning of the river. They used their bare hands, some crude implements like rakes, shovels, and sticks. The cleaning process continued and some people stood at the side and watched. After two months of manual cleaning, the barangay leaders realized that they were moving slowly and so they decided to write a letter to the governor requesting for a backhoe. Their request was granted and the backhoe was provided for a month to lighten their load and hasten the dredging process. After three months, the first phase of the major cleaning and dredging project of the river was completed. Overall, 250 linear meters were dredged and 500 meters were cleared to widen the river (Fuertes, 2000a).

Kapitan Dion said in an interview that he believed that the river would flow once more; that the water will be clear and fishes will come back. He also expressed that their initiative to clean the river by themselves was because they got tired of waiting for the government to act on their previous request to revive their water. They hoped that their move “will open the eyes and hearts of apathetic government officials” (Fuertes, 1997). Joining Kapitan Carlito Dion were Yolly Fuertes, a journalist, and Janet Albano, a high school science teacher. Members of the barangay council, the principals of three schools in the Barangay, religious associations, NGOs, and community-based organizations also took part. They formed a local organization called Eco-Care Management Group.

As the community was quietly cleaning their river, some government and NGO officials took notice. Other community-based organizations would sometimes come over to help. Excitement began to build up as local residents unpretentiously worked to clean the river. As a result, the group that met with the aim to revive the river decided to formalize their organization, calling themselves Kalikasang Vigilantes. A series of awareness building and community education programs were conceptualized and implemented. Other activities included a symposium on Environment Stakeholders, a motorcade on Earth Day, and a showing of the movie Puerto Princesa, which depicted the preservation of Palawan’s environment. The day also included the launching of the River Revival Project at the Parongking River. KVP evolved into a foundation and the group adopted the name Kalikasang Vigilantes—Save the Parongking River Ecosystem Foundation Inc (KVP-SPARE). It was a loose coalition of initial members that include 13 heads of LGUs, four national government agencies, private institutions, and concerned individuals all committed to Parongking’s revival.

Wala Kayong Laban Diyan (You are not Qualified to Fight)
A few months after cleaning the river, the water was again full of sludge that reportedly came from untreated wastewater of the beverage plant. Kapitan Dion and his team suspected that a major culprit to the river’s degraded condition was the Plant. They observed that the pipes coming from the plant flushed out bluish, greasy, and smelly liquid waste. Kapitan Dion and some residents by the riverside would keep vigil at night to wait for the plant to flush out its waste. They would collect some samples and observe them for days. To make the matter worse, a regional official of the DENR discouraged the group in their effort to put a stop to the plant’s environmentally harmful practices by saying that they were up against a giant company.” Wala kayong laban diyan the official said. But Kapitan Dion replied, “We are not discouraged. We will fight for our right for a clean environment even if it means fighting against a giant company” (Fuertes, 2000a).

Bued’s leaders stood their ground and explored other means. They released press reports in some local papers and later presented their case to the Senate Committee on Environment. The senator who headed the committee heeded their appeal and issued an official warning that was published on paper that he would initiate an investigation. Barangay Bued residents were also being prepared to stage protest actions in front of the plant. A DENR official gave an ultimatum that the plant could pack up if they refuse to comply. Finally, the plant’s management acceded and built a 37 million pesos waste treatment facility, their largest and most expensive waste treatment facility in the country.

Three years after the first major river clean up, life began to creep into the river. Continuous cleaning is done by the Barangay Bued Integrated Farmers Association. The farmers also planted mahogany trees along the banks to protect the river from erosion. A local newspaper reported:
It’s summer, that time of the year when Parongking would be at its ripest. But nobody is complaining now. Reason: the river has been cleared and cleaned of pungent debris. Its water is clear now, although not as clear as we would have wanted it to be because of lack of headwater. There are fish there now (Fuertes, 2000b).


Let’s Segregate!
Right after the first major river clean up, the barangay council passed a resolution prohibiting the dumping of household waste into the river. Since the people did not know where to dispose their trash, the barangay council decided to collect the garbage from each household. They found a possible dumpsite in Barangay Banaoang in a neighboring town. They signed a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with the Mayor and agreed to pay a certain fee. However, the moment the garbage truck entered the premises of Barangay Banaoang, the residents saw “Bued” on truck and they immediately blocked the truck from coming in.

As recourse, Barangay Bued’s leaders chose to use one of their farm-to-market roads to serve as their dumpsite. They were stunned to discover that in little time the space would be filled up so quickly. They requested fuel donation from the nearby beverage company and started burning the garbage heap. Some waste debris would be blown into the rice fields and farmers began to complain. Kapitan Dion said, “I was not happy with our process. After much thinking, I said, let’s segregate!” In year 2000, they mobilized their homegrown organization Eco-Care Management Group to teach residents how to segregate their waste. Unable to gather enough people to attend organized meetings, Eco-Care officers went house-to-house, like itinerant preachers. Bringing with them samples of waste materials, they demonstrated to residents how to segregate waste. The barangay council made a resolution that unsegregated waste will not be collected by the garbage collectors of the Barangay. They required that every household segregate its waste before putting them out for collection. Every Monday, plastic and bottles were collected, on Wednesday tin cans and on Friday, wrappers and cartons were collected. The recyclable materials were sold and the money went to the wages of the garbage collectors.

At first, they asked residents to dig a compost pit at their backyard for their biodegradable waste. Only the non-biodegradable trash would be collected by the garbage collector. However, some households did not have a space for a compost pit so that the barangay garbage collectors had to take the biodegradable waste too. Another reason that backyard composting did not work out was because the area was prone to flooding. The beverage plant donated 250 segregators and a pick-up truck to be used in garbage collection. Five garbage collectors were hired and were called “Bio-Men.” A waste processing center called “Bued Recycling Center” was put up. Collected waste was segregated further and recyclable materials were brought to junkyards. A crude and simple backyard composting system was applied for the biodegradable waste.

Every event in the Barangay was used to preach segregation and environmental-care values. Recycling became a permanent theme of barangay fiestas. One time, when such fiesta was featured in a national newspaper, a private waste management enterprise took notice and they went to present their products to the Barangay. Kapitan Dion and his team went to visit the company’s showroom at Tarlac and saw how waste was processed using hammermills, composting drums and enzymes. “This would work!” thought the group and after obtaining an appropriation of 125,000 pesos from the mayor, they purchased a five horsepower electric operated hammer-mill (used to grind biodegradable waste to expedite composting process), several composting drums, and their initial supply of the enzyme that accelerate decomposition. In the previous method of crude backyard composting, biodegradable waste would be spread on the ground and would be mixed manually. It would take 1 ½ months to complete the composting process, while newly collected waste materials continued to pile up. Now, with the composting drums and composting enzyme, compost was produced in just seven days. The enzyme also removes the stench and keeps the flies away. Equipped with new waste processing technology, Barangay Bued’s Recycling Center was relocated to the farm lot of Kapitan Dion, which was more accessible to the barangay center. Soon, officials from DENR began to take notice. News about the recycling center began to be known and visitors from other places, as far as Zamboanga City began to come regularly to check on the Barangay’s waste management practices. A shed to accommodate meetings and training sessions was set up at the waste-recycling center.

Rescuing the Municipality from Garbage Crisis
There came a time in 2001 when Barangay Bued rescued the entire municipality from its own garbage crisis. It happened when right after the former mayor lost the re-election, the municipal dumpsite was closed without prior announcement. It was because the lot owner of the dumpsite was a relative of the defeated mayor. Men were placed to bar garbage trucks from coming in. Even after some pleadings, the dumpsite’s operation was not extended even for a single day. As a result, garbage piled up, especially at the market. It was alleged that the move to close the dumpsite was meant to embarrass the newly elected mayor. It so happened that the new mayor came from Barangay Bued, a friend and former classmate of Kapitan Dion. He immediately called the Eco-Care Management Group to set in place intermediate measures to avert the looming garbage crisis in the municipality. Tents were set up at the market to segregate and process the waste. They scouted for a permanent waste processing center and found a space at Barangay Malabago. Barangay Bued’s waste processing facilities were transferred to the center. Giant composting drums and other machines were purchased through a bank loan to accommodate the municipal waste. High school students who are members of the Earth Savers Club along with their adviser, Janet Albano, were regularly fielded to several poblacion barangays to teach people how to segregate their waste. Kapitan Dion became the Project Director of the municipality’s solid waste management program. Eco-Care officers were tapped by the municipality to spend a few hours a day to do community work on waste management that includes giving orientation and lectures to visitors in the waste processing center.

Kapitan Dion and his team began to be invited to various meetings organized by DENR. In many instances, they served as resource persons to other barangays and municipalities. In the process of their interfaces with DENR, they learned to conform to some standardized practices. At that time, the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000 was just being introduced. The waste-processing center, formerly called “recycling and composting center”, was renamed as Materials Recovery Facility, the official and standard name for such facility. In late 2003, the Barangay submitted an entry for the Nationwide Search for Model Barangay for Eco Waste Management System. The contest provides the standard of an ideal waste management system for a barangay and it was these contest criteria that compelled Kapitan Dion and his team to modify some of their waste management practices. They stopped using the municipal MRF and built their own. They changed their collection system to conform to the requirements of the contest. Kapitan Dion and his team had difficulty in compiling data for their entry and they realized that much of what they did were undocumented. They reasoned that they did not do so because joining a contest or getting recognition was far in their mind. At the end, Barangay Bued bagged the fourth place and received a prize of 100,000 pesos.