Stewards of the environment
(First of two parts)
LAST May 24, the encyclical letter Laudato si that Pope Francis wrote on the environmental issue was published. It was hailed as a monumental document to address and give moral guidance on the “ecological crisis.”
Earlier on May 2, I was invited to speak about the environment to the delegates of the National Convention of the Catholic Women’s League in Puerto Princesa City.
Since the specific issue was left to my discretion, I decided to delve on the topic that is the title of this article. Encouraged by what Pope Francis said in the encyclical, I decided to publish the piece that I delivered during the event.
Here are excerpts from that speech:
“I would like to structure my presentation in four parts:
First, a general appreciation on the issue of the environment. Second, I shall give more focus to an industry that I am more familiar with and how it is affecting the environment. Third, I shall share with you an initiative to address such issues. And fourth is a call to action.
So let me tackle the first part.
In the Book of Genesis, we read that God created the whole of the material universe in five days and on the sixth day, He brought forth the living creatures of all kinds. Last of all, He created man to his image and likeness. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. Then on the seventh day God ended his work and he rested”.
We know the man and woman by the names Adam and Eve. God gave them dominion over all living creatures. He gave them the task of naming the plants and animals. By doing so, God gave man the power to be the master of the universe.
The work of tilling and subduing the earth continues to this day as if God is telling us that we have to cooperate with Him in perfecting his work of creation. I think this is one aspect of how we human beings share in God’s image and likeness by giving us the power to make better, not to destroy, what God has given us.
Unfortunately, the contrary seems to be the case if one looks at what is happening to our environment today. We are destroying our forests, polluting our air and water, and poisoning our seas with chemicals leached from mining and industrial operations, irresponsible disposal of wastes, and use of non-biodegradable materials.
Pope Francis in the first encyclical that he published entitled Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) made a reference to this sad state of affairs in our environment. “We human beings are not only the beneficiaries but also the stewards of other creatures. Thanks to our bodies, God has joined us so closely to the world around us that we can feel the desertification of the soil almost as a physical ailment, and the extinction of species as a painful disfigurement. Let us not leave in our wake a swath of destruction and death which will affect our own lives and those of future generations.”
Here I would make my own the touching and prophetic lament voiced some years ago by the bishops of the Philippines: “An incredible variety of insects live in the forest and were busy with all kinds of tasks… Birds flew through the air, their bright plumes and varying calls adding color and song to the green of the forests… God intended this land for us, his special creatures, but not so that we might destroy it and turn it into a wasteland… After a single night’s rain, look at the chocolate brown rivers in your locality and remember that they are carrying the life blood of the land into the sea… How can fish swim in sewers like the Pasig and so many more rivers which we have polluted? Who has turned the wonderworld of the seas into the underwater cemeteries bereft of color and life?” (ref. no. 215).
I would now tackle the second part.
Here I would focus my presentation on something that I am more familiar with lest I may tread on grounds that I may not be competent in. For the past nine years, I have devoted my professional life to something I have been wanting to do since 1981.
I came to Manila that year to pursue my graduate studies fresh out of college. I thought I was saying goodbye to agriculture, the course that I took in Silliman University, when I enrolled in the Center for Research and Communication (now University of Asia and the Pacific) for my Master of Science in Industrial Economics.
Within a month after I started my masters, I got invited to a study center in Malate. I remember I was given an informative bulletin of then Servant of God, now St. Josemaria Escriva, the Founder of Opus Dei. I went though it quickly and I got attracted to an article of a visit he made to an agricultural school in Mexico.
That school provided education to children of campesinos, our equivalent of the sacadas in sugar farms. After reading the article a thought came to my mind—I want to see something like this in the Philippines. That was the start of my dream for farm schools.
Two years after, I finished my graduate studies. My training in economics taught me that for a country like the Philippines to grow economically, we need to develop agriculture.
But unfortunately, this did not happen in our country till now. It is one of the reasons why we have been left behind by our neighbors in Asia.
Today, we have one of the highest poverty incidences among the Asean countries. And the poorest of the poor are the farmers and fisherfolk. When I say farmers, I include the millions in the upland areas eking out a living by kaingin.
So you may be wondering, what’s the connection here with the environment issue? The biggest source of carbon emissions, the cause of so-called greenhouse effect, as reported by the UN and other scientific studies is the energy sector (vehicles included) that makes use, largely, of fossil fuels to supply our electricity and power requirements. But maybe not known to many, the second largest contributor to carbon emissions is agriculture. Here we include the burning of forests to give way to plantations for oil palm, rubber, soybeans, sugar, etc. We also include the use of chemical fertilizers usually petro-based, pesticides, fungicides, and weedicides that are the causes of infertile soils now devoid of organic matter and beneficial microorganisms.
If farmers continue to do such practices, then the world’s food security is in peril. In the Philippines, we are now seeing the costs of these abuses in our environment. Aside from unproductive lands, our farmers’ health are also compromised because of the use of these chemicals. Now we’re realizing that the Green Revolution is not at all that beneficial.
But there is hope.
The problem of the degradation of the environment is closely linked to the other problem, poverty. In the book that I wrote entitled 4Es: Pathways Out of Poverty published by the University of Asia and the Pacific in 2013, I said: “In situations where people are desperate to make a living, the first casualty is usually the environment. Cases like slash and burn agriculture (kaingin), destruction of coral areas due to dynamite fishing, conversion of mangrove forests to fishponds are just examples of how such unsustainable practices damage fragile environments.”
Environmental problems, however, present a host of opportunities for entrepreneurs willing to take the challenge of solving these problems.
The answer to these challenges faced by our agriculture sector is the shift from conventional farming to organic and natural farming. It is not at all true that productivity goes down with organic farming. As to the problem of the low incomes of our farmers, the answer is the shift from monocropping to diversified and integrated farming systems. Given the small farm sizes, farmers will always be poor, even if they double their productivity, if they are only involved with our traditional crops like rice, corn, coconut, or sugar. I have met and seen farmers who are millionaires with one or two hectares.
(To be concluded)
(The author is a member of the MAP Agribusiness and Countryside Development Committee, the Program Manager for MAP’s Farm Business Schools Programs and the President of the Foundations for People Development. Feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com. For previous articles, please visit www.map.org.ph.)
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