In order to picture the hamlet of Sibug, one must first look at a map of the Philippines, leaning in to find the Luzon region to the north, then closer, tracing a path to the landlocked province of Nueva Ecija, squinting in order to make out the tiny community of Rio Chico next, and finally, finding someone familiar enough with the region to know Sibug’s location, since it fails to qualify for inclusion on most maps. Sibug is easy to miss, and nearly impossible not to overlook. If it is to stand out, it must be outstanding.
Lorena, a mother of five in Sibug, has spent her life struggling to find her place in the world. Her younger days were spent looking for work and performing it, the gaps between filled with worry. Her options were scant, and her best-case outcome was still centered around surviving on an absurdly small daily diet and coping with the physical toll her labor incurred. She performed farm work whenever her help was needed, days spent harvesting rice and tending to other plants, removing grass that affected crops’ growth, collecting seeds and grains that fell from threshing machines, and endless hours tying string beans and okra into bundles before bringing them to market to make a profit that went into someone else’s pocket.
Despite all the hours spent performing menial, backbreaking labor, the income her work generated barely met even the most basic needs at home. Any day she didn’t find work was a day when her family didn’t eat. Gnawing hunger was a snack compared to the uncertainty that ate her up inside.
Planting season provided a combined income for the couple of around $4.50 a day. This sum would be enough for a couple, but fell far short of covering the costs of her household, which sagged under the weight of the six adults and two children living under one roof, all vying for the same rations. Lorena’s son-in-law brought in some extra income, but even if everyone earned money every day, wages for their labor were so low that even when combined, it was not sufficient. During harvest season, food was easier to come by, but just barely. She and her husband earned a bag of rice a day for their effort. Lorena, like many of the women in Sibug, have a phrase to describe their lives: “We stare at nothingness.” Look long and hard enough, however, and the void is not entirely barren.
Seeds of Promise
One of the early phases in Outreach’s PHD (Participatory Human Development) process is identifying and prioritizing a community’s issues. At the top of that list in Sibug was to address the dire lack of sources of income for residents. Problems now defined, solutions were sought: Outreach Philippines (OPI) partnered with Sibug’s local community group BIKKAS to access funding for their government’s Bamboo Replanting Project along the banks of a stream in Rio Chico. Initially, the government intended the project to be contracted out to a single individual, but the community persuaded them to allow their members to implement the project as a group, dividing the labor and the dividends among themselves equitably.
Lorena and twenty-four other Sibug residents were selected to participate. Income aside, their work was a means of repairing the land on which they lived— girding their stream would keep it flowing toward their home high in the mountains, preventing it from being siphoned down to a trickle by shallow banks and distracted into diffuse tributaries along the way. Without a stream, residents had no choice but to hike two kilometers down their mountain to fetch water each day, and more severely, two kilometers back up the mountain to put it to use. Farming, cooking, bathing, and sanitation all had to wait until water arrived each day.
Along with coaxing the stream back to their doorstep, the community’s reforestation efforts had environmental benefits that were less immediately apparent, but boasted a much longer-lasting impact. Bamboo’s rigidity and explosive rate of growth reinforces the land against mudslides, its density diffuses harsh winds, its hearty nature gobbles up literally tons of carbon dioxide, and in case of flood, it can be quickly fashioned into rafts or even homes to save the lives of those responsible for nurturing it in the first place.
Called “the grass of life,” by officials, bills are currently pending in their House of Representatives which would promote the “[R]apid, steady, and continuous integrated development and growth of the Philippine bamboo industry, recognizing bamboo’s salient role as a strategic, indigenous, replenishable, and renewable source of livelihood and tool for agricultural productivity and environmental protection and management,” according to Philippine news outlet Interakyson. This could lead to a complete reversal of fortunes and brightening of horizons for every single resident of Sibug, as their need for a means of generating income intersects with a new industry’s rapid expansion and need for thousands of new hands.
The provincial government in Rio Chico intends to expand reforestation efforts to a scale that will generate at least 20,000 jobs for locals, alongside the national government’s increased efforts to implement an infrastructure for utilizing bamboo in myriad ways and build it into an entire industry.
Plants Chutes and Leaves
Members of the Sibug reforestation team planted 4,500 bamboo chutes along a 15 kilometer stretch of their stream, suffering scrapes and bruises and realizing too late that their preparation to live on-site lacked sufficient bedding or nutritious food to last the duration of their work. Lorena tripped and tumbled into a hateful patch of what locals call “devils’ grass,” skinning her knees badly enough to make them bleed. Others slipped in mud and poked their fingers with thorns, learning each day how to avoid repeating these mistakes and misfortunes while building an understanding of how to work together as a team. Their efforts were not easy nor enjoyable, but the outcome was immensely valuable. Their success was only possible because of their commitment to their task, and their partnership with one another.
The world may seem cruel, but the earth is giving. The residents of Sibug came together to put a name to their respective and collective problems. Together, they searched for a way to earn a solution. With nothing on the horizon, they looked to the ground for growth, and dug in, stitching loose earth back together with the roots of a plant that holds fast and stays put, forever changing the landscape for the better.
There is still much to do, but the remaining tasks are opportunities, not chores. Sibug is comparatively tiny contrasted against more developed communities in the Philippines; each family living on and cultivating the small plots of land they call their own. But end-to-end, when property lines are erased and the trappings of personal territory give way to a sense of shared space, it is a place resting on hearty soil which aches to sprout new life and trade brown for vibrant green. Locally, regionally, and nationally, there are endless places in the Philippines to seed and tend. Lorena reflects on the change she can see from her window. “Before, we stare at nothingness.” Now, she sees a density of promise, sunlight filtered into shade.
There is talk in government sectors of not only enormous expansion of the Bamboo Replanting Project, but to begin new initiative to involve locals in planting cacao trees as a means of further improving the environment and providing countless new jobs for those who would gladly have them. Villages near Sibug witnessed the community members’ efforts and benefit from the resulting environmental improvements, and have themselves begun making inquiries as to how they too might get involved. Bamboo is renowned for the incredible speed at which it grows, but it will never outpace hope.
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