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Friendship and knowing: What I learned in the Philippines

Ryu Koide

Why does poverty exist? How do environmental issues become so severe? It is difficult to isolate a single cause. Is it due to globalization? Local government? Apathy among people? Are the impoverished themselves responsible?

To answer these questions, I have studied environmental engineering and development studies in both Japan and the UK. I also have joined an environmental youth group but I could not find a satisfactory answer. After these experiences, I decided to go to the Philippines to get involved in the front line of environmental issues and poverty.

In my country, Japan, most people are aware of importance of environmental issues due to serious industrial pollution incidents in the 1950's to 70's – Minamata disease, Itaiitai disease and Yokkaichi asthma, to name the most infamous. Phrases such as “save the earth” and “ecology” are frequently seen in advertising and the mass media. To me, these seem to be abstract slogans that are quite detached from the people and land suffering from environmental disasters.

In addition, some international environmental convention began to take on the aspect of North and South opposition. The COP 15 (Conference on the Parties) on Climate Change could not reach an effective conclusion due to disagreement between developing nations and industrialised nations. COP 10 on Biological Diversity targets an agreement of ABS (Access to genetic resources and Benefit-Sharing), which is the dominating issue regarding trade between 'South' countries exporting biological resources and 'North' countries importing them. I believe that nowadays, environmental issues cannot be solved without properly addressing poverty.

The famous Kuznets Curve, a graphical representation of Kuznet's environmental theory, shows environmental pollution will become most intensive during the development stage of a society. In other words, environmental stress is most serious among countries in the process of development, while it has not yet occurred in the least developed countries and is solved in developed countries. Most of environmental pollution happens when we extract and process natural resources through activities such as mining, smelting, and heavy chemicals industries. However my country, Japan, imports much of its industrial resources from other countries. Japanese companies are also transferring their production facilities to other Asian nations, such as China and South East Asia - including the Philippines. That was why I came to the Philippines; to see the actual situation firsthand.

The Philippines was a beautiful and amazing place. In my spare time during the internship, I had opportunities to enjoy the great nature of the Philippines islands. It was an unforgettable experience to see, for the first time, coral reefs, mangroves, crocodiles and a underground cave with numerous bats. The Filipino people are also friendly and helpful. It was a little bit difficult to adapt to a new lifestyle in a country so far from my homeland, but I have been helped by the genuine kindness and smiles of the Filipino people.

Despite this, what I saw in the country was a serious situation. I have visited lots of places suffering from environmental issues and poverty, such as the Payatas dumping site with impoverished recycling workers in an unhealthy environment, Rapu-rapu island suffering from a collapse of its mine tailings dam, and Mindanao island with native people struggling to adapt to a wave of modernization after recent mining projects.

At one point, I actually found myself losing hope. I could not find a solution and could not muster a passion to work anymore. The ones who gave me hope were the Filipino people. The CEC staffs are working with the issues bravely by going to deep forests and isolated islands to help the most vulnerable people. The impoverished people themselves are also tough and strong-minded, driven by a sincere hope and optimism.

I have learned two important things from my internship with CEC. One is friendship. I do not mean merely that I made friends, but the friendships made across nations and cultures gave me a real opportunity to experience issues on a more personal level. When I was in Japan, I could not vividly imagine poverty and disasters happening in distant countries. However, after experiencing life in the Philippines for two and half months, I can feel and imagine the lives, feelings, difficulties and hopes of the people. I have many friends in other countries and the issues there now became my issues as well.

The second major insight was an understanding as to what foreigners can do about issues in the other countries. As a foreign volunteer, I could not use Filipino languages and had some difficulty adapting to the culture there. Many times I wanted a truly local insight, but couldn't deny the fact I was Japanese and would always have a view somewhat tainted by being an outsider. On the other hand, I have also noticed that the issues here have an international aspect.

I understand now, that the first step to make a better world is to learn and inform; I learned lots of things that I have never heard of before or considered. Really, ignorance and indifference are the engines driving the most serious social problems.

I would like to say a very big thanks to all the Filipino people, who have made me aware of lots of precious things.

Ryu Koide (leftmost, in photo) studied Resources and Environmental Engineering at Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan . He was an exchange student in development studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies. He served as an intern for CEC-Phils in cooperation with the AIESEC Development Traineeship program. His story was published in the May-August 2010 issue of Feedback, CEC's regular newsletter