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Give it a Face

Linda Pracejus

Only two percent of old-growth Philippine forests are left. Thousands of squatters will be displaced and lose their homes. Typhoons destroy thousands of houses. Logging destroys millions of hectares in the Amazonian rain forests. Increasing carbon dioxide emissions threaten the global climate. Every six seconds, a child dies of hunger. Every week, another endangered species vanishes.

Sounds horrible, doesn’t it? But does it really touch you? Do you really feel what these numbers mean? These must be huge, but these seem to be random facts which are hard to imagine or to connect to real life.

At least, that is what happens to me. Whenever I hear facts about climate change or news like “200 people in Afghanistan died because of an earthquake,” a part of me feels sorry. Still, if I don’t put a lot of effort in imagining what that could mean, it is no more than just numbers far away from my daily life here in Manila.

The same happened to me when I heard about the “squatters.” Although I have seen enough poor people in the street and the poor constructions they call their houses, it was something far away from me. Reading the newspaper, all I ever read about them gave me a rather negative impression: they seemed to be a dubious crowd of people, occupying places that the government needs for further “development” of Metro Manila. Just a faceless crowd without any individual thoughts, not even to mention feelings.

When I heard that some thousands of those squatters were going to be displaced, a moral part of me said that this is very bad and I felt sorry. But, because of having no personal relations, for me it was just bad news about this anonymous, alien mass of faceless people.

That totally changed when Ryan took me to Barangay Pinahan, one of those “squatter” communities which face the threat of being dislocated, torn away from the home where they grew up, where they saw their children growing up. Suddenly, these odd crowds were no longer just faceless strangers. They were very friendly people, inviting me into their houses, talking to me about their lives, their fears—sharing what little they had with me and making me really feel welcome. Every time I read about them now, it’s no longer just a mass of strangers that I see in my imagination, but it’s people I really like.

Needless to say, I have already been against the dislocation program before. But now that I have a connection these people, it touches me a lot more. My will to fight for their rights has multiplied tenfold. Sure, I’d also have fought without ever meeting them, just because I am generally against injustice. But now I’m sure my efforts will be a lot stronger, motivated by the feelings I have for these people, who I now call my friends.

To see how my feelings changed after the “squatters“ became my friends made me think about how urban people feel for nature. I grew up in the countryside and nature has always been a huge part of my life, so helping to conserve the environment seemed to me to be as natural as cleaning the teeth in the evening. Talking to people who didn’t care always left me with this huge question mark above my head how ignorance and heartlessness could somehow be possible.

But now I begin to understand. It’s a totally different thing fighting for something that you know by heart or some injustice that you think is really bad, but you have no direct connection to. Many of the people we think are cold and don’t care about the world might actually have a very good morality – they just never had the possibility to really feel the need for a change.

If we want to encourage people to join our struggle for equitable living conditions and against climate change, we have to give them the possibility to really feel the need for a change. Take them to the “squatters”, of which they have only heard bad things in the news, and let them see that they are people like you and me. Take them to the forest, let them breathe the fresh air, hear the river flowing, listen to the birds singing, and feel the value of undamaged nature. What should they care about a random, unimaginable number of some trees far away from them if they have never had any good “tree-experience.” Give the squatters a face, let the people feel the forest and many more people will be motivated to fight for justice and a healthy environment. It’s all about awareness.

Linda Pracejus is finishing a BS degree in Management of biological and environmental resources at the University of Vienna. She is in the Philippines as a CEC intern and volunteer through the AIESEC Development Traineeship Program.