Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Youngblood for October 11, 2006... thanks to

By Cecile Adrias
Last updated 01:08am (Mla time) 10/10/2006

Published on page A11 of the October 10, 2006 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

THE Ilonggo [native of Iloilo, Guimaras and Negros provinces] has suddenly found himself on national TV and in the newspapers almost every day since Aug. 11. Unlike “Starstruck” survivors, however, the Ilonggo is dumbstruck. He does not know what hit him yet, although it has been weeks since tragedy struck.

I must admit that for about a week after I heard about the oil spill in Guimaras province Iloilo, I was indifferent to it. I knew it was something grave, having read about Exxon Valdez when I was still in high school, but the reality did not sink in quickly.

My first impulse was to text a friend who has an abalone farm in Guisi, one of the beaches near the site of the spill. I asked her if the oil slick had reached her farm, and she told me it had not. A week later, she sadly told me that the slick had finally reached the farm and that her husband doubted whether the business he had built, the first commercial abalone hatchery in the Philippines, would survive.

That was when I became concerned about the problem. I had gone snorkeling at the farm a year ago. I spent endless hours with Dory and Nemo and their friends in their colorful world. In fact I had been nagging my friend to invite me there again. We sighed and regretted that we could not find the time to return. I had planned to snorkel there with my kids someday. But that dream is no more, and not only because I have no boyfriend but because of that blasted oil spill. Gad danggit!

The first thing I had to do as a teacher, aside from correcting the pronunciation (spil -- short i, not the grinning i in speel), was to discuss its implications. I felt like I was Demosthenes, with the wisdom of Al Gore and the passion of a Greenpeace warrior. Heck, I even quoted Michael Jackson (you know, “Heal the World”). We were at a loss about what we could do. I could not ask my students to just pray, right? (I am not Cory Aquino).

But with awareness came analysis and then proposed action. We thought that cutting our lustrous locks was out of the question. We wanted to do something but we did not know exactly what. Thankfully, the very next week, the school launched a campaign to gather as many empty mineral water bottles to make improvised spill boom. The students worked themselves into frenzy. They combed every restaurant, mall, “tiangge” [flea market], school, public market and hospital in the city to look for plastic bottles. And at the end of four days, they had gathered enough bottles to fill five dump trucks! The staff of the mayor of Jordan, to whom we turned over the bottles, could only shake their heads. Had they known, they said, they would not have spent P50,000 buying bottles from junk shops.

I could not gloat over this feat for long because just days later I saw for myself the damage wrought by the oils spill when I visited Barangay Losaran. “Oh, there is just so much work that needs to be done!” I thought to myself. I was at a loss for words to describe what I saw and heard.

What struck me most was the sight of fisherman in full cleanup gear, supposedly (mask, galoshes, long sleeves, gloves) raking leaves that had been washed to the shore and then stuffing them into a sack. “For processing,” one of them explained. He said he was being paid P300 a day. But I wondered for how long he would be doing it.

It is frustrating for me to watch people there go about their task as if in Zen-like trance. Just raking. Just stuffing the leaves into the sack. Just going on with their lives, hopefully until everything returned to normal.

A doctor who interviewed the victims confirmed this seeming indifference among the residents of the affected areas. There was no hint of anger when they related their stories. Did they realize that they and their children had just been raped? The social, ecological and economic stain caused by the spill cannot be willed to vanish by spraying chemicals.

I was not amused to hear the mayor of Nueva Valencia say that there was now a new kind of tourism in Guimaras: “calamity tourism.” He noted that he had never seen so many people visiting their town in the past.

But I agreed with him when he said the tanker should be pulled up from the depths. He cited conflicting “expert opinions” about what needed to be done to the tanker.

What we are doing now is applying short-term solutions to a long-term problem. Already there is the endangered family of manatees/dugongs which like to feed on two different species of sea grass off Bala-an Bukid on the other side of Guimaras. Recently a whale got beached and did not survive. Whoever said this disaster is a ticking time bomb is correct. There is no time for politicking and speaking endlessly before TV cameras and flashbulbs. I do not want to hear again my least favorite Ilonggo, Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez (who likes to dangle and misplace modifiers in his “wise” sayings plastered on the walls of our city’s useless overpasses), absolve the oil firm Petron Corp. of any liability for the disaster. There is no other day but today for Ilonggos -- and Filipinos -- to do what needs to be done to save Guimaras.

Consider this: Ilonggos cannot take leisurely Sunday lunches at Villa Beach anymore if the slick reaches our shores. We will have to pay more for the fresh “tuloy” or “tanguige” figh that we crave. We will have to go all the way to Boracay or Antique to enjoy the beach. That is if we don’t help ourselves now.

The cynics may sniff and scoff, but an oil spill is an oil spill. The cleanup of the Semirara oil spill has not been finished until now. And that happened five years ago!

Guimaras can overcome this tragedy if the “bayanihan” [communal self-help] spirit guides our people. There will always be people who are willing to help. The Filipinos, and especially the Ilonggos, must be there for Guimaras. While some have snapped out of their stupor, the ordinary Ilonggos have not. In my frustration, sometimes I think of whacking their lazy butts and shouting into their ears “Hoy, bugtaw!” [“Hey, wake up!”] Sooner than they realize it, they will feel the effects of the disaster. And then they will know that they are part of the web of life.

Cecile Adrias, 27, teaches in Assumption-Iloilo.

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