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Mother Earth: Ode to Odette

By Volt Contreras, TJ Burgonio
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 06:16:00 09/25/2009

Filed Under: Environmental Issues, Waste Management & Pollution Control, People, Obituary

MANILA, Philippines ? In defense of trees, in campaigns for cleaner environs and zero-waste living, Odette Alcantara inspired volunteers and spurred bureaucrats into action with an art impresario?s flair and a chess master?s vision.

A nurturer of artists and a chess Olympian in the 1970s and 1980s, she channeled these passions over the last decade to color a larger canvas and play bigger gambits for the protection of Mother Earth.

Her sudden demise early this week thus came as a big shock across many spheres, but most painfully for those who had worked with her up close and marveled at her zeal. Alcantara died of an aneurysm on Tuesday, nine days short of her 69th birthday.

Nobody could have seen the tragedy coming. In the past few weeks, Alcantara had been busy planning a national conference on residual waste management for March next year.

And just last Friday, she was her usual vibrant self hosting a dinner for Gawad Kalinga community volunteers at her Quezon City residence. They were to undergo a seminar on waste recycling that ?Tita Odette? regularly conducted at her home in Blue Ridge subdivision.

?She told the volunteers: ?I can convince and cajole you, but I can also terrorize you. I?m not snooty; I?m snootiness personified,?? said former Environment Secretary Elisea ?Bebet? Gozun, a close friend who even in grief could not help but recall the scene with a chuckle.

With such wit and lightness of heart, Alcantara was always on some Earth-saving mission?from shielding trees against the chainsaw of urban planners, to lobbying Congress for the passage of environmental laws.


She organized cleanup competitions among barangays, promoted organic farming, and led tree-planting activities?often with a twist or catchy slogan for added impact.

In one of her ?gimmicks,? she marked the 100th birth anniversary of the late President Ramon Magsaysay by gathering over a hundred men named Ramon to plant trees.

As country coordinator of Earth Day Network Philippines (EDNP), Alcantara helped mount protests against the cutting of trees along Katipunan Avenue, at the Quezon City Memorial Circle, and at Arroceros Park and Intramuros area in Manila.

Founded by Alcantara, Gozun, Raul Contreras, and Delfin Ganapin, EDNP is a chief organizer of annual Earth Day celebrations in the country.

In the 1980s, when Metro Manila began to gain notoriety as one of the world?s most polluted cities, Alcantara founded the Concerned Citizens Against Pollution and led rallies against dirty fuel.

?While we?re out driving, she?d tell me to pull over. She would stop motorists spewing noxious fumes, and then lecture them,? another friend and fellow environmentalist Leonor ?Inday? Berroya told the Inquirer.

Audacious defender

In a statement, the EcoWaste Coalition hailed Alcantara as one of the ?most audacious and passionate defenders of Mother Earth.?

The group recalled how Alcantara fought to have incinerators banned under the Clean Air Act and Ecological Solid Waste Management Act, two laws her group lobbied for in the late 1990s. She also argued fiercely against ?the reckless promotion of landfills.?

Together with the Magkaisa Junk JPEPA Coalition, she campaigned against the approval of the Japan-Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement amid fears that the trade deal could be used as legal cover for the ?export? of toxic wastes to the country.

?We will always remember Odette?s environmental zeal and activism, and thank her for the many fights she fervently steered. She is already missed!? Eco-Waste said in tribute.

Alcantara turned household wastes into compost in her own backyard, and together with other Blue Ridge residents like Berroya, put up composting centers on vacant lots in the subdivision.

Spirituality in everything

?She believes that there?s spirituality in everything, and we?re all part of the universe. And if you destroy something, it destroys something of you,? Berroya said.

Outside her green activism, Alcantara was a beloved host and patron to artists, musicians, writers, intellectuals?and of course, chess players.

Before it was destroyed in a fire in 1989, her family-owned Heritage Art Gallery in Cubao (earlier located in San Juan) was a favorite watering hole for the day?s creative minds. Aside from housing a trove of artworks, it became a convenient, conducive venue for art or literary gatherings.

?She often told me that the highest form of nationalism is love for the environment,? said noted composer and choir conductor Jerry Dadap, one of the artists Alcantara supported.

?She not only loved music. She was somebody who took care genuinely of musicians,? Dadap said. ?There were times when we had no shows, she would come up with ideas and set us up for performances.?

A masterful chess player, Alcantara captained the Philippine women?s team in the 1984 Moscow Chess Olympiad. Back then, the team prepared under her watch through physical exercises and meditation, Berroya fondly recalled.

Strategy like chess

In many Inquirer interviews, Alcantara often used her favorite game as metaphor for the strategies she had devised to push her environmental agenda.

She would explain the interplay of media campaigns, government lobbying, civic action, and private sector support as though plotting movements on a chess board.

By the end of the interview, she would have grabbed a fork here or a saltshaker there, placing them on her dining table like pawns, rooks and knights closing in on the opponent?s king (which often represented a government agency that just wouldn?t budge).
Not surprisingly, she once managed to convince Grandmaster Eugene Torre to promote the ?Zero-Basura (Garbage) Olympics: A Race to Conquer Garbage in 300 Days,? a project Alcantara launched in 2008.

According to a schedule prepared by family and friends, Alcantara?s ashes will remain at the family residence for public viewing until Sept. 30. A party will be held there the next day in celebration of her 69th birth anniversary.

Her ashes will be scattered and trees will be planted in her honor at her Tanay, Rizal, farm on Oct. 3.

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