I’m in the Philippines building a Permaculture Aid project that will end up as a poverty eradication model that can be duplicated and up-scaled in the future.
The last 7 weeks have been some very hard weeks indeed. The first few months of any project of this type are always the most difficult. It was around the end of February that Mirror Living, Steve Grist, our Australian volunteers and myself set up our tents on the Juanites farm in Mablad. Just 3 tents on a vacant farm with fierce hot winds in a baking, typhoon ravaged, valley. In my minds eye I could see a full-scale training center for permaculture aid. I can see a large field school kitchen, barracks, a training hall and a diverse poly-culture farmscape rolling down the valley before me. In the now-reality ants are biting me, I’m dehydrated and I’m the only person with this grand vision in my head… maybe I’m a nut case.
Two of our team, Britt and Wombat decide to leave the project. They choose the day we are having a community celebration to inform the people living in our valley who we are and what we are planning. This is an important step in any community development process. Food has been prepared. There are tables with cool drinks, fruit salads and local snack foods. The moon is full and the energy is high. 80 people have gathered under the shade of a mango tree at the Juanites family house next door.
Being dedicated vegans, Britt and Wombat finally realised being in an omnivorous country, they were on a project that involved raising animals for consumption. Vegans and meat don’t mix. A lot of Permaculture is about raising the food you eat and here, that includes animals. Convincing Filipinos to become vegans is like asking sharks or dolphins to give up eating fish. I watched them ride off and wondered to myself if there is a country out there for vegans where nothing eats anything and everyone is at one with nature… I hope they find it.
The result of our full moon celebration? The community loves our project, full support from all sectors, we are told. I tell the people at our gathering we are building a permaculture aid field school in the middle of their community. We are going to teach the local people permaculture as well as train international students in the techniques and strategies of permaculture aid. Here in this part of the Philippines most people come from families that own land. The simple answer to poverty is “the people will make the land rich and the land will make the people rich”.
When we came here last November after the Typhoon, I realised pretty quickly that many of the problems we were witnessing are a direct result of chronic poverty. The typhoon was just the cherry on the cake! Our initial project design was a bit ambitious without a great wad of funding so I revised the vision so the field school becomes the basecamp project for many future projects. Students studying Permaculture Aid can complete each future project under guidance. Funds or no funds, I have faith that myself, our team, the people of Mablad and the Juanites family, can make this a project a reality. Without waiting for a large fund injection, our best way forward is to use, wherever possible, local resources. This means the field school will be made from bamboo and palm leaf thatching.
The local Barangay Capitan (village chief) has nominated 3 men to be my builders for our first infrastructure project, the school kitchen and nutrition center. It’s a bamboo building 8 meters by 6 meters with a 45 degree pitched roof and an earth floor. There’s a loft bedroom taking up half the ceiling cavity that will double as my room for a time. Somehow I have to make this structure as typhoon-proof as possible. I come up with a design using some of the local methods and some of the international best practices for bamboo construction. I get busy with pencil and paper. Soon, I get the builders together with a translator. My drawings entertain the local builders and after a lengthy meeting with the translator they get my design and agree to build it.
The design involves using large tapered wooden pegs instead of nails or bolts. The bamboo pegs are tapped into the joint until they are snug. As the bamboo shrinks over time, the pegs can be tapped further into the joint. I watch the builders arrive on the first day with a bag of very suspect tools. From previous aid work experience I know that drilling the holes for the pegs is going to be a time consuming process. I ask Lot-Lot, the chief of the team to show me his drill. It’s a 1-inch wide hand auger, painfully slow and a bit rough on the bamboo. Their handsaws look like they were made 120 years ago with extremely worn teeth. It’s going to take a long time to saw through anything with that, I think to myself.
Luckily I preempted the tool problem. I hand the builders 2 Australian handsaws Steve Grist brought me from Cairns. They try the saws out and are totally gob-smacked at their sharpness and the ability to cut through the largest bamboo log easily with them. The next surprise for the builders is… A NEW BETTERY POWERED HAND DRILL! Holy cow! When I demonstrate the drill, Lot’s face splits into a grin that never leaves his face for the rest of the day. It’s a quantum leap from hand auger to Ryobi space-age hand drill for these guys! Once the posts are cut and dug into the ground I hear that drill all day every day. I reckon it speeds up the project by 10 times if you take into account how many hundreds of peg joints we must drill. The handsaws are also a huge force-multiplier.
At our current camp we are still in the Stone Age. We sleep in small tents. The temporary kitchen is a gas burner sheltered by a fallen tree trunk, next to a shady mango tree. Slowly, over the weeks, we make a practical bush camp including a pit toilet and shower. Steve3 Grist and I manage to hook up an intermittent water supply from a concrete tank on our farm fed by a mountain spring a kilometer away. Unfortunately it runs dry often so we keep our 3 buckets and washtub full at all times. We share the bush kitchen with ants, toads, lizards, feral dogs and marauding chickens from neighbouring farms.
At night I sit and watch the stars and think up new aspects of the project. Mirror and I are dreaming of the day when the kitchen is operating. It will have the capacity to cook for over 100 people when it is fully completed. We will also train local people on the importance of nutrition in their health. The food eaten here isn’t the best for the human body by far!
The people here are some of the most polite and friendly human beings I’ve ever met. Lucy Juanites and her entire family have welcomed this project onto their land with open arms. With their local contacts I’ve been able to gather good people and excellent materials to build our field school. Lucy and I have become close allies making this project take form. Many times our cultural differences have caused a lot of laughter as we combine our abilities to get our field school up and running. Lucy’s house is next to the farm and she shares her home with us for some of our meals and meetings. Many times Lucy will also come and share our camp meal and watch the stars with us telling us stories of the land we now inhabit.
The children of our neighboring farms have formed their own Junior Green Warrior chapter and now that it’s school holidays they are at the farm most days helping in one-way or another. These kids rarely see TV or movies and spend most of their lives outdoors making them sharp and industrious when given a task. I have nominated 4 of them as team leaders for the JGWs and they will attend the first Permaculture Design Certificate course coming up on May 19th. I mostly hear kids laughing on any given day on our project site which is a good thing, I reckon.
The extended family unit is the norm here and the fallback for poverty. Families support each other when food or money is scarce so sharing is automatic. Western countries could learn a lot from the true community spirit I’m seeing here.
Two more women volunteers show up to help out. Ruby Wells from Australia and Rebecca Lombardi from the USA come at the right time to help Mirror and I give our camp an upgrade. The food quality jumps as Ruby and Ray (as we call Rebecca) make sure our meals are tasty and healthy. Ray is the right person to help me devise a nutrition strategy for the training courses. For Mirror and I on the really hot days, sometimes we just didn’t have the energy left to cook a good meal but with the new crew, I land in food heaven. Step by step, as our bamboo kitchen takes shape so does our camp and cuisine.
The only downer comes to in the form of an insect bite on the back of my neck. It’s a bit itchy so I scratch it… it gets inflamed… infected and begins to swell over the period of a week. It becomes a boil! Boilzilla!
I should write a book, “How not to treat a boil” I reckon. The girls, including Lucy who is a trained nurse, all reckon we should squeeze that boil. Ok… I’m a tough guy so go for it. With one lady squeezing and the other 3 offering encouragement I grit my teeth as my boil is squeezed… BLOODY HELL!!!! It hurts like a bunch of scorpions are being inserted under my skin. I cry, they laugh. It’s interesting how girls giggle as they are torturing a man… It didn’t work. The following day the pain in my neck is worse!
Next we try the old hot/cold bottle trick. A heated bottle is placed with the opening over the boil. A cool wet towel is wrapped around the bottle making the pressure drop inside the bottle creating suction from the bottle. Blood and some yucky puss come out but the alien core remains embedded in my neck. Now it’s really angry! Pain increases, smiles decrease.
Take 3… one of the ladies tries to cut it out with an almost sterilized box cutter. The pain is so intense I feel like a swarm of wasps is stinging my wound continuously for eternity… well for about an hour. No luck, the boil is growing and my tough guy act is shrinking under the pain. The pain is near my brain and it’s causing a life force drain! I’m going insane! I’m getting a migraine!
Finally I end up in a Filipino hospital emergency room getting my boil cut out with 5 people holding me down because the local anesethic doesn’t work on the boil’s core. I writhe and curse as I feel the hornets under my skin burn and sting. I’m pretty sure I bent the legs on the operating table as I held on while they cut it out.
I arrive back on the farm with a large hole in my neck, a soggy bandage and a pocket full of antibiotics (which I haven’t had to take for many years). This is serious stuff; I’m taking no more chances.
Each day, Lucy or one of the girls is kind enough to dress my puss-filled wound. I can’t believe how much puss this wound can produce. To cut this story short, it gets worse and I end up getting a second operation to scrape the dead flesh out of the wound. Lucy and her sister Betty (also a nurse), escort me to the San Jose hospital and get me the right people and medicines for treatment. Hopefully I will survive, actually I’m healing up ok now but it was a big lesson to me on how fast wounds can go bad in the tropics. I’ll know next time what to do and what not to do!
The kitchen structure is almost complete and I’ve moved out of a tent into a bamboo loft. We now also have electricity with a …wait for it… FRIDGE! Yes, it’s a big milestone, being able to store food for more than a day as well as having cold water available on a hot day!
We have less than 3 weeks to go before the first Green Warrior Permaculture Design Certificate course is held here in the Philippines. The student list includes people from al sectors of local society including farmers, police, school teachers, government agriculture workers, local organic farming enthusiasts and selected youth leaders. I’ll mix these with a few international students for a very interesting and dynamic hands-on course. From this course will come the pioneer permaculture people of this area that will form a network and begin the changes that must happen to pull this place out of poverty and restore the land to paradise once more. It’s a step-by-step process and it’s worked in other countries before and it will work here. The pressure is on, the team is excited, lots to do.
If you have ever wanted to do a Permaculture Design Certificate course, this course will be lots of fun and very interesting as we blend all the known permaculture best practices in the field with a great diversity of students. We have a 10-hectare site, a local fast running river, a waterfall, some caves and the sea. What a great place for an adventure!