Standing at just a little over five feet tall, Manuel Abinales is an unassuming figure — especially against the backdrop of disaster risk reduction initiatives he’s spearheaded for the residents of Banaba, a district in San Mateo, Rizal, just outside metropolitan Manila.
In 1995, a year before he formally founded the people’s organization Buklod Tao, Abinales took it upon himself to organize and lead the community in fighting off a company’s plans to set up a cement factory on a farmland along the Marikina and Nangka river banks. Residents used the land to cultivate their own crops, but were threatened by a court order that allowed it to become a commercial space.
The 67-year-old is no rookie in organizing. During his years abroad, he worked to organize recreational events for company employees. But he recalled the events of 1995 put his skills and determination to the test. It was a battle that he and the community had to fight — not only in court but, literally, on the ground.
“We really engaged in combat. We barricaded the vegetable patch with trucks, threw nails to flatten the wheels of the company’s trucks,” he said in Filipino. One community member even went to the extreme of laying down a baby on the road to prevent the company from demolishing the place, he recalled.
The case lasted for about six months, but it was a battle the community won with support from different segments of society — academics, environmental lawyers and the local government of Rizal. It also sparked a realization for the community — that in order to live harmoniously, they need to take care of their environment.
“Had the construction proceeded, we would have experienced water shortage, as the project would siphon water from underground,” he said. In addition, the project threatened to bring noise, air and water pollution to the area; the company, the community feared, could dump its waste in the rivers.
A few months following their victory, Abinales formally set up Buklod Tao, recognizing the importance of being identified as a legal entity to drive action for poverty alleviation and help the flood-prone community more ably recover from frequent overflow of the two rivers flanking it.
Originally focused solely on emergency response and training of community volunteers on disaster risk management, the volunteer-run organization later began to engage in advocacy on women’s right and environmental protection, as well as livelihood programs.
Abinales was no climate expert. He’s a physical education teacher by profession whose knowledge of disaster risk reduction came in the form of a few days’ training on disaster management in 1992. It was there he learned of the impact of carbon emissions on the planet. Individuals who planned to own a car, he was told, should plant at least 10 trees to cancel out their vehicles’ carbon monoxide emissions.
But he believed it wasn’t too late to learn something new. He read about disaster preparedness and response in the local nongovernmental organization Citizens Disaster Response Center’s disaster training manual, which he borrowed and photocopied — with permission — for Buklod’s first activity: Raising awareness about the environmental hazards the community faces annually.
The effort yielded a community hazard map complete with locations of the most vulnerable in the community, as well as community assets like vehicles and livestock. It also led to training of community disaster rescue teams, the appointment of river watchers responsible for monitoring water levels and warning the community if evacuation became necessary, and the creation of Buklod Tao’s first rescue boat made of fiberglass — which Abinales said is still being used today.
The boats have become an unexpected source of income after garnering attention from several local government units in other regions as well as organizations involved in disaster response. A five-by-12-foot boat that can carry as much as 12 people is being sold for 128,000 Philippine pesos ($2,720). Thanks to a permit from the Philippine Department of Trade and Industry, a portion of the money earned goes back toward Buklod Tao’s activities. Buklod Tao has ventured into urban container gardening, organic compost mixing, and even sewing bags using recycled tetra juice packs to sell to the public — all in consideration of the planet and the environment. In making its own organic compost, for example, the organization shreds rather than burns collected leaves.
Organizations from different parts of the country as well as abroad have been inspired by Buklod Tao’s activities. Some have even asked Abinales to share their process, for example, in making own organic compost, to which Abinales obliged.
In 2013, with help of international humanitarian organization Christian Aid, the organization also secured a piece of land on higher terrain on which now stands a three-story, quake-proof building meant to be a safe space for pre-selected residents in the event of a typhoon, or the more frequent strong southwest monsoon rains. On calm days, it serves as a livelihood center.
The decision to purchase land was a result of what the organization and its community experienced in 2012, when strong monsoon rains lashed out at Banaba and kept many of its residents in crowded evacuation centers for days. Abinales said that was the year they realized that torrential rains is no longer just a 10-year cycle, but a normal occurrence that can happen more than once a year.
“In 2012, the new normal started, where there’s so much rain. It would rain, the two rivers would overflow, it would become dangerous, then people would evacuate,” Abinales said. “But they don’t realize that under the ‘new normal’ situation, the rain may stop for a while, but it will rain again. And while the rainfall may not be as heavy, the water has not yet subsided, so the rivers would again overflow. So people need to evacuate again.”
The back-and-forth of people evacuating to the centers, returning to their homes and then back again to the centers took place up to four times in 2012, according to Abinales.
The setting up of an evacuation center however is only a temporary solution. Abinales and his colleagues knew that they needed a more permanent solution, and that’s when they decided to venture into transformative urban resettlement, in which the organization actively seeks out locations where households living in areas highly prone to flooding can relocate.
But this is more than just relocating families, Abinales argued. There are several factors that need to be considered and in place to ensure families won’t feel discontented, out of place and end up going back to where they came from. This includes ensuring their location is nearby their places of work or main sources of livelihood; off-site resettlements more often than not lead families to return, given the limited job opportunities. Ensuring their proper integration in the community is another.
“There is a need for community governance, so people won’t fight each other. Some people who have moved still quarrel; they engage in robbery. That’s a clear sign that community governance was not resolved, that they have not become a transformed community,” he said.
Abinales argued it’s a difficult task. Some community members are opposed to the idea, believing their situation can still be saved by engineering solutions. Community-appointed leaders sometimes practice “ningas-kugon,” a trait Filipinos often refer to people who are only enthusiastic at the start of a project. Collecting money to finance activities such as land research is also a challenge.
But they are pushing ahead, with the help of technical experts from different institutions, such as the women-led nonprofit group Tao Pilipinas, the government’s Social Housing Finance Corp., and experts from the Department of Development Studies of the Ateneo de Manila University, Abinales said.
“These are the institutions that warm our hearts,” he said. “Without them, we may have already given up, because it’s bloody difficult, land and housing.”
Abinales is retiring soon, and he has started the process of finding a successor. He plans to continue looking after the evacuation and livelihood center though, and support activities such as the formation of a new consortium currently being formed among different Philippine-based organizations working on climate-related resilience initiatives. But he hopes that the project he has started will continue to spark conversation about importance of water conservation in climate talks and be a good model for the whole of San Mateo, if not for the whole country.
“I want to show that people have the capacity to organize themselves, do something for their own welfare, and remove themselves from danger zones and resettle in a safe place with the help of experts.”
Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex senior reporter based in Manila. Since 2011, she has covered a wide range of development and humanitarian aid issues, from leadership and policy changes at DfID to the logistical and security impediments faced by international and local aid responders in disaster-prone and conflict-affected countries in Africa and Asia. Her interests include global health and the analysis of aid challenges and trends in sub-Saharan Africa.
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