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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

entry arrow4:09 PM | Under Ground, It's Too Late to Think of Trees

A grotesquely untoward thing happened in the aftermath of the Guinsaugon mudslide over the weekend, and the Zamboanga parallel that occurred right after. First, there was the outpouring of genuine shock, concern, and dread which zapped through every Filipino's heart, all over the world. The Wily Filipino, for example, reacted to the headlines that rendered our Saturday mornings fraught with a new taste of tragedy: "Nothing more chilling than the words 'No survivors had been found'," he wrote. Nothing more chilling, indeed.

Barely were we finished commiserating over the "Wowowee" Ultra stampede tragedy, when we had this on our hands again. The frustration that soon comes is an earthquake of mind-numbing questions: Will we Filipinos ever be free of constant, unrelenting tragedy? What attracts the fates to our islands to play such gruesome tricks on us?

Of course, there was sorrowful pity from all of us. There was dread, most of all.

And then, just as suddenly, there was the avalanche of apathy. No, not exactly apathy, for that would make us a cruel people. It was a sense of being unsurprised, one might suppose. It was a feeling that came with these words: "Here we go again," almost as if we were admitting that tragedy was our middle name, and its death-hold our home. Had we become so inured from this constancy of death and destruction, that all we could muster now was a show of brief grief, and then a shucking of the shoulders?

I was chatting over MSN Messenger with my Sydney-based best friend Kristyn, for example. Below is the transcript of part of that conversation:

KRISTYN: Am I heartless to not be surprised, and almost not care, about the mudslide in Leyte? I mean, people here [in Australia] seems to be shocked by it -- but for me, it's just another Pilipinas nature-shock that has been repeated over the years.

ME: Ay, tell them nobody is shocked in the Philippines. This is so Ormoc all over again. If you don't take care of your own environment, bad things really happen to you. Now, if that was a volcanic eruption, I would have felt something.

KRISTYN: I know! It was weird when I just went "Oh, yeah, okay," and they were all surprised. Even mama [who is currently in Australia] wasn't that fussed.

ME: Tell them we eat tragedies for breakfast.

KRISTYN: Yeah, but I think they know that already. [Yesterday], you know, when I was online? Justin's [her husband] mum said she thought I was checking the news about the mudslide online. I was almost going to say, "What for?"

ME: Ahahaha! I bet she thinks we are such a heartless people.

KRISTYN: Mao gyud, hehehe.

Forgive Kristyn and I our "irreverence," if you can call it that. Something bordering "flippancy" may be another description. Deaths, we know, are not something to joke about. Tragedies much more so. And yet -- there is certainly that undeniable welling of resigned knowingness that seems to be everywhere.

The tales to tell are certainly macabre, but we cannot seem to help ourselves to mixing everything with irony. Sketches of the Village Idiot Savant has this to say: "The news carried stories of a schoolteacher buried in the mudslide sending text messages calling for help. The messages finally stopped at Friday 7PM. It's a poignant story, but I'm wondering: is it possible? I would have thought that under all that mud, about 30 feet of it, you couldn't get a signal. Just thinking."

But of course, there is also an informed, frustrated anger. ExpectoRants gives up: "This blog is on leave for at least two days, or one week at most. I am in mourning, mourning the death of hundreds or thousands. (Isn't big-scale logging through the years to blame in the landslides in Leyte? It's clear as day to me. It's not overpopulation, it's not the rain or La Nina, it's not the minor earthquake, it's not the arrangement of the stars. It's wanton logging, legal or illegal.)"

All I can do is nod to all of that.

Perhaps because we have seen this happen before, in the very same province no less, that to have a another tragedy coming from the said thread just strikes most of us as bizarre, and even stupid. On 5 November 1991, if you care to remember, a flash flood struck Ormoc City in Leyte, killing approximately 8,000 people and leaving an additional 50,000 homeless. The number of people who died -- a larger number than those who perished in the World Trade Center in September 11 -- was so huge that bulldozers had to be used to fill the mass graves.

The picture above -- of drowned bodies gripped in fatal panic -- is a testament to that senseless catastrophe. (More here, if you can take it.) In 1991, we did mourn. And we did promise that these things will never ever happen again: we knew, from the flood of postmortem analyses made, that the waters rose because there were no trees to stop the gush, to absorb the danger. The environment must be cared for, we vowed.

But our tragedy as Filipinos is that we are a forgetful lot -- and a largely uncaring one, too. Our promises soon faded, and one hundred years after the fact of Spanish colonization, we have reduced the rainforest that was the blanket we call our country to a bald-headed archipelago. According to the Center for International Forestry Research, the remaining forest cover in the Philippines is a shadow of its former self. It has steadily decreased, from 34% in the 1970s to 22% in 1987 -- and what remains is concentrated around Palawan, Mindanao, and the uplands of Luzon. The Visayas is a virtual desert devoid of green. And finally, according to the CIFR, the greatest danger lies in severe erosion problems that spring from "vegetation removal."

Most Filipinos do not care about the environment. That's why we should never ever be surprised if the environment strikes back to kill, or maim, us.

In Dumaguete, for example, you can only rant silently as you witness countless tricycles and cars emitting noxious black smoke into the air. Sometimes you wish the DENR, or even perhaps the LTO (or City Hall!), has a cellphone number you can report the plate numbers of these toxic vehicles to. But then again government people are rather notorious for just sitting on their asses and wait for the official day to finish so that they can go home to their stupid telenovelas. (If you are a government bureaucrat, and you are offended by this generalization -- shouldn't it be time you to do something in the name of the people?)

In Dumaguete, stores and restaurants are still fond of wrapping everything in plastic or styrofoam, rather than paper bags or other perishable materials. For the longest time, I always take it as a duty to decline having my newly-bought goods wrapped in plastic bags (in VideoCity, for example). But I don't see anybody doing the same thing. If you go to the local landfill, you will see that the mountains of trash over there are largely a freaky collection of Lee Super Plaza shopping bags. That should make you think. In Manila, it must be the same: their mountains of trash the blue color of SM bags.

In Dumaguete, it's not a surprise to note that most people have forgotten there is a river called Banica dying from the city's refuse and squatters.

In Dumaguete, the corners are littered with unbelievable amounts of trash from people (like you) who think they're just giving MetroAides the opportunity to sweep the streets. Sometimes, you want to shout to these ignoramuses: "Baga mo ug nawong!" But, of course, you don't.

In Dumaguete, the night streets are home to swarms of cockroaches and unbelievably fat rats, subtly telling us that underneath our pavements and feet, the city's sewers have become breeding grounds for untold diseases.

In Dumaguete, it is too easy to build a stupid overpass over a street where it's easier to cross the normal way than to climb the steep path of the new infrastructure project. And worse still: the sacrifice of an old acacia tree for such a white elephant. They're still finishing the construction now, but every time I see that overpass over Hibbard Avenue, it becomes my paragon for the stupidity of people. Trust me, if ever they do the usual political game of painting politicians' names on the newly-painted walls of that overpass, I know some good people who can earnestly throw buckets of red paint.

I will repeat what I told Kristyn in our chat: if you don't take care of your own environment, bad things really happen to you. Guinsaugon is not a freak accident. Guinsaugon can be us. Guinsaugon is us.

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