The Garden at the End of World

Let’s Do It Philippines Young Leaders Conference and interview with Jose Travero, director of Bohol Island State University.

by Paul John Anthony Emmet

All photos by Päl Martenson

All roads lead to Cebu, or in the Philippines case, all waterways connect this sprawling metropolis of 3 million to its surrounding geography.  Cebu is the name of the island, and also of the oldest city in the Philippines. We were passing through on our way to Bohol, one of the 167 islands you can connect with. I was with Zero Waste activist Päl Mortenson, and we were going to run sessions at the Let’s Do It Philippines Young Leaders conference.

Paul Emmet

Earlier in the morning we had hotfooted from the airport, after the early morning flight from Siargao Island, to a downtown shopping centre where the immigration office was located. Päl’s visa had expired and I was extending my visit. The immigration office was on the 3rd floor of an eight story high-rise temple of tat and plastic, fast fashion outlets, a supermarket in the basement with the most enormous range of cakes and pastries. On the way in, security men were on every corner, their mock cop uniforms with tiny US style silver shields and lapels, comical almost, until you see the shiny pump action shotguns slung around their shoulders and silver automatic pistols on their hips. You don’t see many cops in Cebu but private security are everywhere.

Inside the immigration we first register, are then given a form to complete, we hand the form to one window and we are told to come back in 30 minutes. Then we get the form back and with our passport take it to another window, we are then told to come back in 30 minutes, we do and get our passports back, then take them to another window where they examine the documents and we pay. The process takes about two hours, there were dozens of bored foreigners going through the same process, others are wandering around the shopping centre killing time.

We hop into a taxi and slowly honk and jolt through multiple lanes of chain-links of traffic, our driver playing too loud pop music, a crucifix dangling from the mirror, slowly inching our way to the port. And the port is a gigantic port, dozens of piers with container ships docked and unloading and loading, thousands of containers like giant lego creating corridors down which taxis, tuk-tuks, mini-vans, cars and tracks scurry. We are at port no. 10 and when we disembark there are rows of booths there for the different ferries operating. We find our window for the next ferry, but it’s sold out. The next ferry with any space is in six hours. Do we want a ticket someone hanging around asks, of course, 600 each they ask, the official price is 500. Paul is a senior so he haggles his to 500. We pay and only have to wait 2 hours. With our tickets we also have to go to another booth and pay a tax. Then in the ferry terminal to another counter where we pay a little more. The amounts are small, but this is how jobs are created in the Philippines. The service industry has arrived, Filipino style. Security guards, administrators, receptionists, rubber stampers, ticket stampers, ticket collectors, ticket sellers, hustlers and taxi drivers. Or is it?

The ferry from Cebu to Bohol berths in Taglibaran late afternoon, as we pull in a Filipino eagle flies low overhead and shits. It’s an auspicious sign. Waiting for us is a school vehicle and we join a half dozen fellow activist who unbeknown to us were also on the ferry from Cebu. Occupying every corner of the old army vehicle we join the traffic in the port town, there is no aircon and all the windows are down. Taglibaran is pretty pungent, a mixture of petrol and diesel fumes, cooking oil, decomposing trash and an indistinct but unpleasant burning smell. Inside the bus is a mixture of soaps and deodorants, Filipinos always smell fresh and clean. It’s always the smells that first greet you in new city, when humanity is sardine tinned together and the automobile, rather than the buffalo, rules the roads.

About an hour of travel and we are on the open road and the atmosphere changes to the salt air of the Pacific and the steamy soil smell of the jungle. The contrast is palpable and vastly agreeable. We journey along winding roads, through tree-lined ravines, it’s getting darker but you can feel the real Bohol start to envelop you. A prehistoric landscape in whose jungles and waterways lurk timeless and mysterious creatures. Arriving at the college campus around 8pm we enter the gates and roll slowly down the long driveway to pull up at the college Farmers Training Center where the conference is to begin in the morning. Set in the expansive grounds of the Bohol Island State University-Bilar Campus , we are in the centre of organic farming practices and training for your agriculturalists in farming and entrepreneurship.

The line up for the conference, like the setting, is impressive and comprehensive, with speakers from the Philippines, UK, USA and Sweden. Topics included Zero Waste, Plastic in the Oceans, Gender Bias, Problem Solving & Creative Thinking. The conference was opened by the head of Let’s Do It Philippines, the effervescent Dan Diez. Refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, repair and redesign were the mantras of the event. Topics included a presentation from the Filipino government NYC (national youth commission) on their programme for engaging young people with environmental initiatives. There was an interactive session from a young marine biologist with the US Peace Corp., Stav Friedman. Stav’s experience as a diver and witnessing the increasing amounts of plastic pollution involves here in cleanup and educational activities on Bohol Island. She even opened up her toiletry bag to show and tell about everything from her bamboo toothbrush to recyclable menstrual towel. Showing that if you have the desire your can minimise your environmental impact without sacrificing looking and feeling fabulous.

Päl Martenson from Zero Waste was direct and precise in his workshop, focusing on the short sightedness of incineration, the growth of Zero Waste communities and how we can all be activists in our daily lives based on our consumption habits and the products we support with our money. I did a session based on my work with Café Style Speed Training, looking at Values, Handling Set-Backs and Problem Solving using interactive activities based on among other things the Socratic questioning technique. Ramie Valasquez Debuey from Foundation for the Philippines talked about the harnessing of the biodiversity of the islands through a community based approach.  Enabling locals to prosper from the incredible wealth of nature in a sustainable way from organic farming to reforestation. Albert Lozada from Greenpeace Philippines shared a number of case studies in environmental initiatives, in solar and waste management techniques. The day’s session was rounded off in the evening by a one and a half hour yoga session, the perfect way to stretch our joints and workout our tired butts.

Jose Travero

At 6am we had risen early to meet with the director of the National College, the sprightly and energetic and simultaneously composed  Jose Travero or Jotrav as he is fondly called, who explained how on the site are three colleges, the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, College of Education and College of Technology and Allied Sciences. The flagship programme is the agriculture programme, including environment and forestry. Today they are combining agricultural studies with entrepreneurship, trying to merge the idea of economic integration.

We passed by the fields of organic rice, which were growing much higher and thicker than the usual fields. Flying in the face of the myth that artificially treated and chemically fertilised crops grow stronger, the natural sediment and by product of the organic rice was feeding the beds leading to stronger, more natural growth. And people could collect the rice standing up as opposed to the usual squatting scene you witness. Jotrav also revealed another surprising fact, that many of the coconut trees which we had been used to seeing were not the indigineous coconut tree of the Philippines but a hybrid. One of his projects is to re-introduce and create the right conditions for local plants, insect and animal species. We were then treated to a tour of his laboratory. A private 7 hectare area where he has been free to follow his dreams of creating a garden in alignment with his personal, professional and spiritual values. As he explained:

Jotrav : So we are about to enter a Vortex a space where there is so much energy. You have energy centres in your body, the planet also has them, I had to get this land because I found out there is so much energy in this area, this is the energy garden. I called it Oikos Peace Garden, because our main product is serenity, tranquility, peace, but not rest in peace, as you enter you can feel the difference from the outside, this place is in some kind of way covered by our conscious awareness, everything is energy, I do my meditation here, everything that heals the planet, I watch the sky, looking at the bats, at six o’clock the bats from this side will go here, maybe the food is there at this time, the space is bigger, they have a home here. Why Oikos, why? Oikos means what? It mean home, that is why oikos logus, study of the habitat. Oikos Nomius, study of the rules of the house, so Oikos Garden is a learning farm from a physical point of view. But from a spiritual dimension it is where we can connect back to the inner core of the earth, it is the pathway to re-unite ourselves, our spirituality, our real self. People believe that we are bodies with spirits, but no, we are spirits with bodies, the opposite of the Christian doctrine, but that is the reality. You can see diversity of forms here but it does not matter, we are one life connected through our spiritual bodies, so welcome to Oikos.

There is a particular plant for a particular species of butterfly, those are for butterflies, this area is a butterfly garden, an open butterfly garden. You are thinking that a butterfly garden is an enclosed one for money making. Here is a butterfly garden for life, for conservation. This is our Tarsier research area, the first time I came here was because of the Tarsier, I felt the energy, I keep attracting energy that I should be in this area. The story is long but I was able to acquire it.

When you have the plants for the bees the birds will come, it will follow, so this becomes the sanctuary for birds, and so I also have to add particularly for other wildlife, we add jack fruit for other life including human life, but you will notice my jackfruit are just rotting there, sometimes I eat it, but most of the time they are just for the wildlife here. We have wildcat here, there is one researcher who put a camera here and he was able to get the images of wild cats in the evening, there are two types of wildcats here. That is why my chickens did not prosper, that’s life, no?

We continue to walk and talk, the sounds are incredible, drones, buzzes, whistles, a natural soundtrack, a musical composition where the orchestra flies, crawls and slithers, a panoramic soundscape of life. Around every corner is a lush new plant experience, the smell of soil, leaves composing, blossoms erupting, crazy yet absolutely sane and comforting in its wildness and vibrancy. At one time, all of the earth must have been like this during warmer climes, and dinosaurs tramping the paths we now trod. You can’t help but feel small and yet nurtured, an embryonic understanding of just what is out there but so often goes unperceived due to the chatter in our heads. Here the chatter is silent, and the nature does the talking.

We are close to the river and that’s another reason I had to get this property because of my love of water, you will notice that I did not follow the straight line principle, because in nature there is no straight line, I wonder what happens when you have a straight eyebrow or straight lips, look at your body, there is no such thing. All are curves, so you follow that in designing whatever you have the design of nature, we call it divine proportion, so as you come in here all are curves, sometimes you are lost following a maze.

We then came to a natural clearing, surrounded by all manner of flowering bushes and shrubs, butterflies and bees weaved through the sky on seemingly random but no doubt predetermined trajectories.

This is the meditation area. By the river we sometime grow vegetables, I am plowing it now for summer to grow vegetables. We have edible trees, that give out leaves in the summer.

And nearby was a powerful stream, its clear waters rushing over a mini-waterfall, expanding into a pool. Large rocks and hanging vines, the trees overlapping their branches brushing the water’s surface. From the corner of my eye I saw some movement, and a large lizard started to run across the open pool, its splayed feet supporting it on the water and its tail trailing out behind for stabilisation, it zigzagged for some 10 metres and disappeared into the river bank. My first sighting of the Jesus, or basilisk lizard.

Jotrav: This my Jacuzzi, in a way, a space where people can swim, relax, read or meditate. Water meditation is a very energising exercise, close your eyes and listen and then the energy of the water will penetrate in to your system with the accompanying sound of the birds and insects, its really a nature sound that vibrates. If you want to rejuvenate come to a place where there is silence or the sound of nature.

Interview questions Jose

You talk about combining farming with entrepreneurship. When your former pupils go out into the workplace, what kind of employment opportunities are they able to realise?

Upon graduation most of our graduates find themselves in private farms, in agriculture offices of the Local Government Units and as development workers in non-government organisations. Of course they excel in their own fields. But one thing we have not achieved and we are working it now is how to bring our graduates into their own farm.

The world demand for organic produce is increasing. What steps do you need to take now to have the college licensed as an organic producing farm?

We are trying to make a paradigm shift. We started by declaring our University as Green University, which we have done more than a year ago. This time we are bracing ourselves to be subjected to a third party organic certification process.

You talk about Oikos, in the context of the many millions of Filipinos who leave the Philippines and seek work abroad, what do you think needs to happen in order for the Philippines to retain it’s best and brightest, or encourage people to return home after a stint abroad?

This is our present problem. We still have the stigma of our colonial mentality that going abroad is the only way for a greener pasture. Our educational system needs to be re-engineered. We keep telling our young minds to study hard so they can find a job abroad. It is hard because for a long time this is part of our realities. But we need to change. Now we started telling our agriculture students to create a job rather than seeking a job. That is why we integrate agriculture and entrepreneurship.

You studied in Canada, what led you there and what experiences did you bring back with you that shaped who you are today?

I was then a team leader of an exchange program. It was a program to awaken our consciousness about sustainable development. We studied farming systems of my country and Canada. But we were warned that Canada doesn’t need us. It is our country who needs us. It is the very reason why I have to engage in development education in the area of agriculture. It’s my very point why I gave my life to organic agriculture as I felt it’s the way I can contribute to sustainable development.

What kind of support does the Filipino government provide for bio-diversification projects, including organic farming, reforestation, nature conservation, etc. And how much further do you think they need to go, and are prepared to go?

We got lots of support from our government but because of our being so political, we had a hard time to implement in the real sense what has been desired by our progressive-minded people. Government initiatives are just too slow. Most successful programs geared towards “green economy” are by private and non-government initiatives. Corruption must be out of Philippine politics or we can’t really savor the aroma of change we desired and if we can it is very insignificant.

Young people are exposed to smart phones, the internet, consumer culture at a younger and younger age. Have you seen a big transformation in the students who have come through your doors during your tenure? How are today’s generation compared to 10 years ago?

Information technology has changed the psychology of our young people. This is coupled with the consumerist society that we are in which is also brought by information technology. Most of our students today are mostly “out-of-focus”. They are stressed so that they no longer care for others. They are detached from themselves and are disconnected from Nature. They are corrupted by technology in that they became so knowledgeable and full of skills but have lost their sense of values, the simple good manners and right conduct.

After visiting Bohol Island State University one can’t help feel positively enthused by the scale and boldness of the venture, as well as the enormous energy generated by the charismatic and single minded director. There is a huge unrealized potential for organic food production, the land is fertile, the people hard working and the know-how is apparent. There is no doubt that the Philippines is at a critical juncture in its development. With the consumerist boom the Philippines has leapt up the table in terms of pollutants into the environment. Years of Monsanto flooding the market and dazzling the farmers with impossible yields has created great looking but nutritionally poor food, locking farmers into pesticide and seed contracts. And recently the champion of the people and environmental stalwart Gina Lopez lost her governmental position as head of the DENR (Department of Environment and National Resources). The mining companies, which were found to be the worst polluters, were shut down under her watch, but now this process is being rolled back.

Yet meeting with Jose and seeing the remarkable progress he has made, I can’t help feeling that the battle for the heart and soul of the country has only just begun. The world is looking for solutions to climate change, rising urbanization, increasing unemployment due to technological innovation and the massive income gap between the rich and poor. And it is not a foregone conclusion that people have to leave their rural idyll for a life of squalor in the cities if alternatives are created. Organic farming and connectivity to the land is an obvious and very realisable option. In the UK, city bankers burn out and retire to the country to grow their own vegetables, young families in cities rent allotments to grow and connect to nature. As consumerism in the west fails to deliver the real needs or provide fulfilment of the human potential, then activism, gardening and farming are coming back into vogue. The huge rural populations in the Philippines with the necessary stimulus can stay on the land and grow healthy high value crops which the tech savvy youth can market. Combining entrepreneurship, technology and organic farming will ensure a sustainable, healthy future, made from a conscious decision in the spirit of Oikos. The young activists and speakers at the Let’s Do It Philippines event, in combination with the remarkable setting, left me energised and hopeful for the future. Bohol Island State University is a seed that with the correct nurturing can flourish and provide a positive example for other countries in South East Asia; to embrace biodiversity and pursue a sustainable future for the economy, the people and the planet.