“Even if I can’t find answers to my questions about Filipino identity, or resolve these social, political, and global conflicts I have, I can commit to action.”
A McDonald’s grilled chicken sandwich has never looked so beautiful as it did in the red glow of a highway sunrise on Saturday, May 26. As two vans packed with 19 staff and members of the Haribon Foundation zoomed away from Manila, Albert Balbutin Jr., the foundation’s graphic artist, dug into his breakfast and shared his approach to social impact, environmentalism, and national identity, somehow thoughtfully articulate even at 4 a.m. I’d sent him an email a few weeks prior as a friend-of-a-friend, connected by my coworker in San Francisco. Now we sat smooshed in a van cruising toward the farming village of San Pablo, a few hours outside of Manila.
(I wrote about the volunteering trip for the Haribon website. Read it here.)
“This environmental work is my entry point. It’s how I can channel my conflict about my Filipino identity, my fears for the stability of the country and the global community,” Albert explained, finishing his coffee while three teenagers snored in the backseat.
“Haribon is where I get to act on my longing to make life better for people in the Philippines so that people like my mom don’t have to leave it. I can channel my desire to make a difference into something tangible.”
[Like many Filipinos, Albert’s family moved to the United States, which is where he grew up. Unlike many Filipino-Americans (or “dash Americans” of any international background), Albert moved back to create a life for himself in the very country his family had chosen to leave. Instead of snagging a few more vital hours of sleep on the way to Mount San Cristobal, Albert and I geeked out about culture, race, heritage, and religion. Did you know: whether a dash-Am of Pinoy or Lebanese descent, the self-posed questions of identity are essentially the same?]
Today, the tangible difference is to plant tree seedlings at the native tree nursery of the San Cristobal Farmer’s Association. Today, with sleeves rolled up and fingernails caked in mud, we have a literal hand in strengthening the country.
Though Haribon conservation work is backed up by extensive research and conducted by skilled and educated professionals, many staff members, like Albert, are not exclusively “career environmentalists”, so to speak. Most of them come to environmental work from other fields, formerly working in education, tech start-ups, and sex-trafficking prevention.
What draws this diverse group of Filipinos together is not conservation in a vacuum, but conservation as the intersection between community empowerment, cultural exchange, and preservation of the natural treasures and public health of the Philippines.
I’m in a van with seasoned warriors who have the scars to prove their lifetimes of service to saving people’s lives. And there comes a time when the next logical step to save lives is to dig the world’s most vulnerable populations out from under suffocating pollution. Or at least to try to stop people from trying to layer on more.
At the base of Mount San Cristobal, enswathed in greenery and removed from the main thoroughfare, the farming community of San Pablo is a haven of fertile soil, shaded livestock, and the hospitality and humor of residents who devote themselves to the conservation of their mountainside, its plant and animal life decimated by years of extractionary practices.
I had blonde hair. They asked me if I was traveling by myself. They asked me if I had heard what was happening in Mindanao. They asked me if I was scared. I said no. I was honest.
The goal for that day was for visiting volunteers to plant 1,000 seedlings of indigenous trees to “rainforest” Mount San Cristobal—to rehabilitate indigenous plant species that are specifically suited for the ecosystem long-term.
(This, rather than having a foreign species planted under the guise of “reforestation” but with the intent to cut down those same trees for lumber in years to come.)
By the end of the day, more than 1,300 seedlings had been prepared, and set in the shade to grow until mature enough for the farmers to plant them on the mountainside, hopefully in August.
And while we had been jamming our thumbs into damp dirt, the village had been preparing a massive “boodle fight” for their visiting volunteers: a heap of food piled onto banana leaves spread over the community picnic table. We used our hands to dig into inihaw na tulingan (grilled tuna), pako (fern salad), langka (jackfruit), tinola (chicken and ginger soup), rice, and buko (fresh coconut).
Rolling back into Manila after 11 p.m., the van was quiet with sleep, and alight with the headlights of passing cars.
At midnight, in the arid A/C of my hostel dormitory, I bought a 5:15 a.m. flight to Legazpi. I missed it.