It’s Not Their Fault, Is It?
Every now and then, I move into self appointed scientist mode. I don a white coat, arm myself with a clipboard and begin my research. This was one of those moments and my subjects for experimentation was the people within my vicinity in Catigan.
This silly little experiment I conducted because for a moment I fooled myself into thinking that the people of Catigan had some ways forced upon them. I wanted to end my experiment with a theory of mine backed up.
I believed for a foolish moment, that if you gave people an opportunity to make their world a more beautiful place, that they would grasp it. Not meaning to be like someone who tells you the ending of the film before you watch it, I will say here and now I was wrong. The people failed massively and my theory was left in tatters.
It’s Only Garbage
Catigan is a beautiful place yet it was noticeable that for a community that was fairly small, there was a hell of a lot of garbage strewn around. On the walk back from the sari sari store, I would pick up endless plastic wrappers from corn chips, plastic bags in general and wrappers removed from whatever was bought from the sari sari and just thrown on the ground. This is far from unique to Catigan as I think just about everywhere I have been in the Philippines, I’ve come across the same problem whether town or country.
My first instinct was to be appalled at the disrespect they had for their own community. Everywhere I have been in the Philippines, it’s been noticeable that most people don’t care a damn about such a trivial matter such as keeping their environment free from garbage. The plastic wrappers I would collect to use as fire starters and melt them unto the wood which in turn helps to ignite it. I was fully aware that burning plastic is not good for the environment but it was better than leaving them strewn all over Catigan or at least that was my logic. Most likely they would get burnt eventually anyway if not trodden into the ground.
Yes, I hear all you first world citizens asking why I simply didn’t put them in the garbage. Well, that is the problem here as well as in many other parts of rural Philippines, there is no collection of garbage. Hence, Catigan is littered with paper, plastic and endless bottles.
Someone would call ‘round every now and then and buy certain kinds of bottles, substantial pieces of plastic and metal for a low price. Many would hang on to the materials that they could get some money back which included tin cans and gladly exchange it for cash, but as regards household garbage there was limited ways in getting rid of it. It was burn it or bury it, there was no other choice.
So a bottle that was not of the kind accepted by junk shops would end up in the ground. In Catigan, garbage disposal tragically consists of making a hole somewhere and burying it if it could not be burnt. I’m not saying it’s too obvious to the eye. Burning gets rid of much of it and the rest is buried or sold.
Being aware that there is no garbage collection, I gave people the benefit of the doubt and believed it was only that way because there was nowhere else to put it, so might as well just throw it down on the ground as it’s going to end up there anyway. Well, there was no garbage bins around that was for sure. If there were, surely they would put it in one and keep the place looking decent, wouldn’t they?
Just give them the means to clean up Catigan and keep it clean, then naturally they are going to embrace it. By the end of my little experiment, the conclusion was that they had no wish to make Catigan a more beautiful place, even given the means to do it.
It’s The Local Government’s Fault, Isn’t It?
I automatically blamed the problem of garbage on the local government for not having any garbage collection there. It’s an easy conclusion to come to until you give it deeper thought. Most places in Catigan are inaccessible to vehicles.
So realising the logistical nightmare that garbage collection would be in a terrain like this, it debatably excuses local government. I thought that some initiative by local government at barangay level could help things by supplying bins or at least nailing up some rice sacks for people to put the trash they strewn about into. Thing is even if they did, whose going to empty them and where are they going to put it.
So it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that a garbage collection of some sort could be arranged. Perhaps it could but it would be one hell of a task. Garbage would need to be taken over lengthy distances by carabao as nothing else could manage the terrain. The collected household waste would have to be taken to the road where a garbage truck could collect it. Yes, possible I’m sure but it was easy to work out why it wasn’t happening. That would mean employing people to do it and I guess the local barangay would not have a budget for that so in short, Catigan is like many other places in the Philippines, having no garbage collection.
I’m sure they could be doing something more than they are doing but it’s hard to say what, so for that reason I’m not going to blame anyone in local government entirely. It’s one of those problems like many in the Philippines that are just too difficult to organise and therefore nothing is done. It’s a problem in many places I imagine throughout rural Philippines. It’s simply too much of a complex and expensive project to undertake. It’s never as simple as it seems so therefore no garbage collections.
So still slightly deluded in the belief that people would do something about it themselves if given the encouragement and means, I began my social experiment. It was simple enough; clean up the spring where my neighbours wash clothes and themselves as well as collect drinking water and I’m sure they will want to keep it clean and beautiful. I was very, very wrong indeed.
Every time I went to the spring to wash myself, I would feel sad at how disgusting the people had made it. Water was supplied through a hose which was ran all over the community and various springs scattered around would be the washing of clothes area as well as place to wash yourself.
It was a beautiful spot surrounded by ancient bamboo trees. The spring attracted beautiful butterflies as well as various dragonflies of varying colour. I would enjoy the peace and quiet and listen to the gentle running water which made the disgusting mess the people had made of it all the more tragic.
Under this pile of garbage was more. Seemed someone’s idea of cleaning up the spring was to throw soil over the top and cover it and a new layer would be made on the surface which eventually would get covered over with soil and on and on it went.
I always found this unfortunately typical Filipino problem of environmental apathy heartbreaking. So I set out to prove that it only happens because people get no help or encouragement to make things better. I really did think that if they were shown what it could be like and to give them somewhere to dispose of their soap packets, used toothpaste tubes and worse, they would want it kept looking good and be grateful that a small part of their immediate environment would be free of garbage.
The Clean Up
I set out to clean it up. I picked up endless plastic containers, wrappers and even used diapers. I didn’t go as far as to turn over the soil and pull out the previously buried garbage as I didn’t have the tools but I picked up every piece of garbage that was on the surface and I was delighted with the end result.
We also put up some poles for hanging the washing on and hung rice sacks so that people could easily dispose of their garbage. Of course, this was all it ever needed in the first place. Just give them the means to keep their environment nice and of course, they will do the rest. Surely, it was just a lack of local organisation; of course, from now on the problem was solved and the spring would become once again a pleasant place.
Well, the theory was good but I was soon to discover that the problem with good theories and making a small difference is that it needs others to share the sentiment and wish for something better, even if it was just a matter of cleaning up one tiny part of their world. There were plenty of other springs around the purok. Most of those were used by more people than this particular spring and were far worse as regards being covered with garbage.
For the first week, I was starting to believe I was very clever and all my theories were being backed up. It just so happened to be a time of plentiful rain which meant that the spring was not having the usual people go there to do the washing.
My cleanup operation was taken well by one or two and it was said to me that “yes, it’s awful how people make such a mess”. So a week of wet weather had me fooled and I never gave it much thought that if people are not going there due to the weather, then there won’t be so much mess. However, week 2 started to present another story.
I noticed that once people started attending the spring again that garbage was being thrown around; slowly at first with just the odd soap wrapper or discarded empty shampoo packet. Rice sacks had been put in place to make it easy for people to simply put their garbage into them. Seemed actually putting anything into them was too difficult for many people in Catigan.
Each time I went down to the spring, I would dutifully pick up the new garbage that had been thrown around and put it in the rice sacks provided. It wasn’t a huge amount but this was probably because only around 10 people used that spring.
It appeared some were even hostile towards my efforts. The garbage would be placed on the floor right alongside the rice sack. It appeared like someone was trying to say something as it would have been easier to just drop it in the sack.
Word got back to me that there was some bitching because I had cleaned up the spring and I really believe some of the garbage was strategically placed right alongside the rice sacks as if to make some point.
Maybe they resented a foreigner cleaning up part of their world. I ignored the provocation and continued to pick up anything that was thrown down daily and hoped that at some point they would change their ways. It never got too bad as my daily efforts to keep it clean countered the anti social spite which some was displaying.
I concluded before I flew back to Manila that I was on the verge of a losing battle. It was kept clean purely because I was picking up what they had thrown down. I left knowing what was going to happen after I was gone. Just a few weeks after my return to Manila, I asked my sons’ mother what kind of state was the spring in. Sadly, she told me that it was back to how it was before I cleaned it up.
The Real Blame
It’s possibly being trivial to say too much about a little challenge I set people involving a little spring. It may seem harsh to make any conclusions based on the outcome. Yes it’s trivial and I’m sure some would say that people here have greater things to concern themselves other than garbage and its disposal.
I would heartily agree if it wasn’t for the fact that I’ve seen the Philippines being brought down by some Filipinos far too often. It’s not only Catigan, it’s all over the country. Filipinos too often do not respect the beauty they live in. I’ve heard endless excuses in the past and most of it revolved around not being given the tools to make a difference. This is often true but we won’t go into that here right now. In this case, I supplied the tools and incentive, but the reaction was depressing.
Although hardly scientific, my silly social experiment did echo what many say. That being, in certain matters, the Filipino is his own worst enemy. It isn’t something you can afford to get too fed up of as it takes no time for you to realise that you aren’t going to change a thing. Positive messages and guidance is scant. I always have my sons put their wrappers in a bin. If nowhere to dispose of it, I get them to hand it to someone in a sari sari store for them to dispose of. The point being that people can be educated to do the right things as it wasn’t hard with my kids with this particular issue at least.
Authorities offer no guidance or influence and it goes on because nobody anywhere is saying to do otherwise. It’s just one of so many classic Filipino dilemmas you observe daily. To take on the issue of trying to clean things up would be so very difficult. Consequently nobody will step up and begin to tackle it. Unfortunately, this is in far more aspects of life here than mere garbage. It’s a mentality which is not exactly what I would call the Filipinos strongest feature.
You can sympathize with authorities on one level as the collecting of garbage in rural areas is often a logistical nightmare. When you see how so many citizens don’t even want to see a less polluted Philippines along with no real will from media, politicians and the people themselves, then you start to experience that given up feeling. Seems people haven’t even given up, they never started.
The message and training I give my kids is not something you would hear too often from locals. Mom and Dad would most likely be throwing their garbage around so not surprisingly the kids follow suit. It must be considered though that I come from a culture where it’s quite logistically possible to collect garbage and dispose of it. Naturally, my view on this is influenced by that and I do have to think a little wider and be aware that it actually is such a mammoth task; it’s just so much easier to give up.
So the obvious conclusion is that if you give the people here in Catigan the tools to improve their world as far as keeping it beautiful at least, they won’t do a damned thing about it. It’s their right to destroy your own environment or at least that’s how some seem to see it. I was disappointed to say the least but not completely surprised either. If you are new to being in the Philippines, straight away you will notice that people don’t exactly have any conscience when it comes to simply throwing things around. We sometimes come from cultures that have such things pushed harder into us. We are told to put things in the bin by our parents when we are out and about. I don’t ever remember seeing a Filipino parent pushing that message. If Filipinos wanted to put something in the bin, it’s doubtful they would find one. Simple fact of life which is all part of the Philippines experience.
I just wanted to be proven right in my experiment. I really hoped I would see a sign that in this small spring, people would demonstrate that they can do things right. I was sadly wrong.
You see the same scene replicated in so many places. It’s too easy to give out blame. It’s more about reasons. Could it be logistics, lack of funds as well as apathy about the environment? All of them, I guess.
It seems that perhaps they have other priorities. Yes I hear all the excuses and see the difficulties and I have learnt to accept it but still, I was disappointed.