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Family remembers PDI man act of kindness

It has been 20 years since Mount Pinatubo reawakened from its long sleep in June 1991 with a series of big bangs to become one of the most dramatic ecological “awakening” in our lifetime.

The cataclysmic eruptions have dramatically changed the face of Central Luzon and that of its population. And so have the way we looked at our relationship with the environment.

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When the volcano’s first spectacular blast came auspiciously on Independence Day, the Baesa family was one of those who failed to heed the call of the government to evacuate from their village in Botolan town in Zambales, 30 kilometers away from the epicenter.

Maybe they were too detached from the danger that government volcanologists, then led by the eminent Raymundo Punongbayan, knew was developing into a big bang, for them to flee the only home a kaminero (street sweeper) father could give his large brood.

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Not until three days later when the volcano exploded violently, ejecting an ash cloud rising 35 km into the air that fell on their rooftop, were the Baesas forced to flee.

Because it took some time to gather a family of 11, what with a baby in tow, the family missed boarding the trucks sent by the government to take them to the evacuation centers.

An Inquirer crew was then covering that climactic day when it chanced upon the last evacuees out of Botolan.

After a harrowing escape away from a 25 km-high monster cloud of ash, intrepid Inquirer photographer Boy Cabrido decided to head back to Botolan looking for news and more photographs.

It was getting dark when the crew spotted the children and two adults fleeing on foot under the acid rain and sulfuric ashfall, exacerbated by the simultaneous arrival of Typhoon “Diding.”

Cabrido found the father leading his nine children, whose ages ranged from 6 months to 14 years, a 12-year-old girl carrying her 5-year-old brother on her back, others tugging at an older sister’s skirt, and their mother carrying a sick infant weakened by ashfall inhalation.

It was the 12-year-old Edanili Baesa who vividly remembered being saved by the Inquirer from the ravages of the volcanic eruption and put on the Inquirer pickup to safety.

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The newspaper’s life-saving role was etched in her childhood memory so that in a serendipitous encounter 20 years later, it was a grateful 32-year-old Edanili Baesa-Domiquel whom the Inquirer found resettled in the model resettlement community of Eco Village in Iba town in Zambales as a top productive livelihood earner.

Ecological game-changer

Pinatubo provided the ecological game-changer that would awaken people—from scientists to victims, from environmental advocates to food consumers, to the farmers who till the earth.

It is not by accident that the word Pinatubo literally means “made to grow” in Tagalog and Sambal. To the indigenous Aeta, Pinatubo might instead mean culturing grounds after having fled the lowlands to escape persecution by the Spaniards in colonial times.

This may have been in the mind of Gina Lopez when she returned to the country right smack into a volcanic eruption and into a role cut out for her. In response to the disaster, the returning Lopez daughter had the ABS-CBN Foundation purchase a 24-hectare piece of land untouched by lahar on the bank of the Cabatuhan River.

It would serve as resettlement site on which families could start their lives anew.

But it was going to be different from the resettlement sites put up by the government in the mountains or hilly areas far from the main road, where the refugees had problems with lack of access to water, no land for farming, no access to health care, employment and livelihood opportunities.

Standing on the Tambac bridge and looking at the land covered with cogon, the grass so high and thick that they could not enter the site, Gina and her then husband, Sona Roy, envisioned a universal place—a paradise on earth with trees, a clean river, organic farm, housing for human settlement, children, plants, birds and animals all living together in harmony.

They named it Eco Village.

Current camp director Roy, who had maintained a working relationship with the mother of his two sons, retraces the village’s beginnings:

“We got a grader to make our pathways in order to build initially 50 houses for Mt. Pinatubo victims in 1993. Then we started planting bamboos and other trees from the riverbank to stop soil erosion and started organic farming to provide food security and herbal gardens for natural healing.”

In what was once barren ash-covered land were planted mango orchards and forest trees, and a fishpond was set up.

Roy continues: “In 1994, we put up a school building. My vision was to put up Shantiniketan School [in the model of the one] founded by [the Indian Nobel laureate poet] Rabindranath Tagore in 1901 in the rural hinterland of Bolpure in West Bengal, India.”

It is a vision which stems from the successful involvement of the Roy family members in the school’s administration for generations.

It was a previous work experience along the same line in his 12 years in Africa that gave Roy the confidence to implement the Eco Camp project in 2004—a humanistic education program for schoolchildren to awaken their consciousness and instill service to humanity.

Self- reliant community

What started in 1993 as a resettlement project for 50 families of Pinatubo victims is now an Eco Camp model of a self-reliant farming community where students of ecology and the environment “learn by doing.” There is a meeting not only of minds, but of spirit in the ecological community as well.

Project manager Antonio de Castro, an organic farmer in the vermiculture method whom villagers defer to as Sir Bulate, designs sustainable natural farming methods to make idle lands productive.

A community development specialist-psychologist Elizabeth de Castro, known to the residents as Ma’am Beth, communicates the ecological vision to a community that has grown to 70 families.

A natural doctor, Engine Domondon, whom they call “Doctora,” comes on weekends to teach the community how to treat their ailments with what is the available food around them as medicine.

Not only are the settlers given a home to build and an initial loan which they repay easily, they are given access to adjoining empty lots to plant their food or set up a means of livelihood and make the land productive.

New families, like those of Niño and Edanili Domiquel, leave the parental abode to build their own sustainable homes and livelihood.

The village settlers find income-generating jobs through farming, harvesting produce, construction work and even selling their own backyard garden crops. They grow their own food with more respect for nature than ever before. There is a sense of community in the air that visitors witness.

During Eco Camp, visitors from Manila schools learn hands-on about organic farming, how to produce healthy food through natural farming methods practiced by a farming community, whether the Japanese Shumei way or the Philippine vermiculture way.

The students experience how to feed cows, plant a tree, pick tomatoes and test the soil. There are also fun activities for them in kayaking and swimming in the crystal clear waters with pockets of hot springs underneath the Cabatuhan River bordering Iba and Botolan and draining toward the South China Sea.

Students also get into an immersion experience with Eco Village residents who are indigenous Aetas and learn survival techniques from the former forest dwellers.

Change we want

With confidence in their divine-inspired vision, the Eco Village community of social responsible technocrats, teachers and settlers work together to produce the change all want: economic sustainability, family harmony, quality of life, and a certain level of inner peace.

Even as there is still much to achieve, dreams to attain, learning continues in a sustained way with high hopes matched by the energy level of those who teach and those who are taught. After all, maintaining the Earth’s ecological balance is a continuing work in progress.

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TAGS: Eco Village, Mount Pinatubo, Philippine Daily Inquirer, photographer Boy Cabrido
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