Amat-Amat: Baby Steps and Continuing Work with FARMCs

Woah, I’ve been in the Philippines for 9 months today! (That was true when I started this post a few days ago at least.) That means, as a fellow volunteer pointed out, that my 27 month service is 1/3 over. It also follows that I have a year and a half left. Depending on the day, that seems either really near or really far away.

I’m happy to share, I’ve been fairly busy lately. Not everything is going smoothly, but things are certainly going. The main activity on my plate right now is a massive re-organization of both the Barangay and Municipal Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Councils (BFARMC and MFARMCs, respectively).

Over six months ago, I wrote a post about FARMCs. As a quick review, they’re basically organizations of fisherfolk for every level of government, from the smallest (barangay) to the largest (national). In my last post, I talked about how in a perfect world these organizations would create local fisheries management, created by fisherfolk, for fisherfolk (with a little help from local government, NGOs and national agencies).

My municipality and our FARMCs are not there yet. And we have a ways to go. But, now we’re working in the right direction. To get things started, we enlisted the help of the provincial BFAR (Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources) director. He agreed to join in a meeting with all of the barangay captains (local leaders) to and share our plans to organize the fisherfolk in their barangays.

Next, my filipino work partners and I visited all 10 barangay and held information sessions and elections. Basically, we’re now the proud parents of 10 newly-born fisherfolk organizations. Some of these infant organizations are better off than others with strong leadership, vocal members, and supportive barangay officials. The rest might take some extra TLC…

Now, with most of these new groups deciding to have monthly meetings, my schedule is filling up. The goal is for each group to be self sufficient where they are able to set their own agendas and goals, have their own funds and budget. However, right now, I’ll be happy if the meetings simply happen.

So far, the regular meetings are off to a bumpy start. Of the four originally scheduled for the first week of April, all but one was postponed. The one that went on as scheduled started almost 2 hours late and had 15 participants out of about 140 potential fishfolk members…

But as they say in Hiligaynon, amat-amat… or as I’d say, baby steps. It isn’t easy to get busy fisherfolk and fishworks to come together in an organized way once a month. On top of having hectic work schedules, many have second sources of incomes and families to take care of. Further, most organizational efforts have proved ineffective and teetered out in the past for all sorts of reasons. And, starting from scratch, we have very few resources (or pesos for snacks) to work with. This is likely to be an up hill battle.

Over the next 18 months, I’ll continue to attend meetings. I hope to help these organizations gain recognition and find support in their communities. This month, I also plan to have an orientation meeting for a the municipal level FARMC and get that up and running as well. I’ll be sure to post another update down the road.

Wish me luck!

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Let’s Talk Trash

We have a trash problem in my municipality. In fact, the Philippines has a trash problem in general, as 3rd highest global producer of plastic waste into the world’s oceans (behind China and Indonesia). Like most problems of this scale, there is not an easy solution or group of people to blame. It’s a vicious and self-perpetuating cycle.

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First, there’s a huge production of residual waste- waste that can be neither recycled nor composted- things like plastic shopping bags, candy wrappers, styrofoam containers, and single-use sachets. The single-use sachets are everywhere! Everything from laundry detergent, to shampoo, coffee, and MSG seasoning packets comes from these evil little guys. They are often preferred to buying in larger quantities because they’re cheap (trash is often the worst in the most impoverished areas). But, bahala na! Sachets and other residual waste wouldn’t be such a problem but…

Waste disposal is difficult. According RA 9003, the republic act of the Philippines dealing with solid waste management, it is the responsibility of the municipality to deal with their residual trash. However, dealing with anything biodegradable or recyclable falls on the shoulders of the barangays (the smallest unit of government).

In a perfect world, individual households would segregate their trash into recyclable, biodegradable and residual. Then, the barangay would collect the segregated waste- processing the biodegradable waste into fertilizer and selling the recyclables to junk shops. Next, the municipal (next level of government) would coordinate the pick up of the left over residuals and send it to a dumpsite.

There are a few problems with this. People don’t often segregate. (We’ll get back to this). But, even if they did, municipalities and especially barangays rarely have the necessary equipment to pick up trash, or, if they did, they wouldn’t be able to make it down the narrow paths to densely populated housing common in rural areas. Then, if somehow all of the trash could be collected, it’s rare they have the capacity to store and process it properly.

So, without a mechanism to pick up trash, people don’t bother to segregate. And, why should they? But, they have to do something. So, they bury, burn and dump. Trash dusts the streets like tumbleweed then makes its way to the streams and ocean. Now, with all the trash ever present, people adjust; they get used to it. So, what’s another piece of litter on top?

Burning is an issue of its own. Technically, again according to RA 9003, it’s illegal. Still, it’s rampant, over 80 percent of households in my town admitted to burning their garbage regularly. And again, it’s tough to blame many of them with so much trash and nowhere to put it. Also, are mosquitoes a problem? (Hint: Always.) Burn some plastic! They’ll be gone in a heartbeat!  However, the practice is extremely harmful, not only to the environment but to people’s health.

I have always had an environmental soft spot. Overuse of plastic has been a concern of mine since childhood. Reduce! Reuse! Recycle! and all that. But, I wasn’t an extremist. I didn’t stress about candy wrappers and double bagging groceries (even if I did have a set of reusable bags I perpetually forgot in my trunk).

Now, I see my privilege, one I shared most all Americans. Here in the Philippines, the waste produced doesn’t just disappear. But, it doesn’t actually disappear in the US either. A candy wrapper takes hundreds of years to break down no matter where its goodness was consumed.

Although the problem of trash that doesn’t go away is mostly accompanied by environmental, health, and economic problems- it also comes with awareness and creative solutions. Many people have built their livelihoods literally out of trash and many more will continue to do so as the country continues on this uphill battle.

So, what does all this have to do with my service? I’m a coastal resource management volunteer. I should be snorkeling in our coral reefs, hanging out with fisherman! Solid waste management isn’t even an issue covered by office.

Obviously, it still has everything to do with my service. Improper solid waste management, even far from the coast, has an effect on our shorelines and fisherfolk. However, since it isn’t part of the duties of the office of municipal agriculture, I’ve had to venture a bit further away from the comfort of my desk.

Recently, I’ve been working more with our recently-appointed MENRO (Municipal Environment and Natural Resources Officer). She has stepped into a huge job, tasked with a lot more than just dealing with solid waste management, and she’s asked my help.

In the past week, I’ve met with barangay captains (like small-town mayors), teachers, students, parents, and participants of government programs to talk trash. As you might expect, sometimes the conversations are bleak and difficult. (What is a busy mother supposed to do with diapers piling up and no one to collect them? How can you stop a neighbor whose garbage spills into your yard?) And there are some blame games. (It’s the students littering!  It’s the fault of the government for not collecting! The trash on the beach comes from boats and other municipalities…) Fortunately, there’s also a lot good from these talks. People want a solution. They show they’re willing to work, make sacrifices, and pass along knowledge to their communities.

And though change is slow, I’m already seeing progress!  Last month, I bought two extra buckets for my office so we could practice proper segregation. Since then, I’ve seen our carefully sorted trash, remixed again and again upon collection. But, not today! For the first day the trash outside of my municipal building was properly segregated!

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Next week, I’ll be heading back to the high school where I met with 30+ awesome high school students who are willing to work with me to re-form an environmental club on campus. Teachers have agreed to assist in the construction of an MRF (material recovery facility, used to larger scale trash segregation). And, we’re looking into applying for grants to assist in future projects.

Also, working within the local government unit I have the opportunity to work on this issue at multiple levels, even the legal level in helping to update the municipality’s solid waste management ordinance.

That’s enough for now. As always, feel free to comment with questions and thanks for reading!

Cara