(For personal safety reasons all identifying details have been omitted)
Ekaf Eman is a forestry student like me. He attends university (Mindanao State University, Philippines) and like me has to contend with handing in assignments on time, balancing study/life commitments and contending with what his future will hold. However there are a few differences.
His home town is the outlet of the immediate watershed and was known as the “timber city of the south but now it is experiencing the adverse effects of unsustainable logging”. It now floods from January to February, a result he believes is from illegal logging. The resulting siltation level is high and the water colour looks like chocolate. When it floods (think Monsoon season) the logs that have been illegally harvested rush downstream destroying everything along the way including buildings, roads, bridges and lives.
His region has numerous check-points for law enforcement. Illegal logging trucks go through them with the toss of a few pesos. This has become business as usual. When stationed at a checkpoint all he has is a pen, paper and stamp. The people he is trying to stop have guns.
Conflict in Mindanao is primarily a result of Christians being given land by the government in the early 1970’s without community consultation with in the Muslim dominated island. The 40 year civil war continues to this day.
The whole island of Mindanao is listed as ‘do not travel’ under the Australian Governments Smartraveller website. This despite danger hot spots only being truly present in Lanao del Sur and the island of Sulu where even Ekaf will not travel. The ironic benefit of this has meant that timber companies have not gained access. This has reduced large-scale native timber harvesting but biodiversity loss still occurs.
Internet speeds are slower than dial-up (“Facebook takes 30minutes to load”) and limit the ability to collaborate on conservation issues and gather external content to enhance capacity. I can stream in real time.
Ekaf’s university is located in the mountains and is close to conflict zones. Last year an armed car drove into his campus and emptied a few rounds. The school closed down for two weeks to let it calm down.
In his university some people carry guns. When there is a problem the gun speaks. Thankfully Ekaf has not been injured. I only worry about basketball injuries and RSI.
Females are very vulnerable. When there are robbers in the dorms and they see women it is common for them to be violated. Despite this female enrolments are still high.
“They fight for their education. They have no choice”.
Ekaf’s class practical involved engaging in community based education seminars aimed at assisting poor people to improve biodiversity conservation outcomes. Illegal poaching by villagers is common as a means of survival. Despite the prospect of arriving unannounced to a hostile village, Ekaf, his fellow students and lecturer (imagine leading that one Phil, Nicki and tutors) must do so to attempt to gather evidence of illegal activity. Even if evidence is found they cannot really prosecute the person because the fine can’t be paid and imprisonments will more than likely result in the primary provider being taken away. The obvious consequence being hardship for young children.
Mining vs. Indigenous People
Indigenous people have been granted ancestral claims and they own the land (Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (1997)).
“This acknowledges their presence since time immemorial”.
As a legal requirement mining companies must get ‘free prior informed consent’ from the tribal leader. Most leaders do not allow this because they know that the majority of profits will go to the mining company. To overcome this many companies displace tribes through intimidation. Consequently some are killed, and some kill.
Ekaf and his fellow students try to engage with this issue through supporting rallies. They take a multi-sectoral approach including NGO’s and government agencies. I just sign online petitions and click send.
After meeting Ekaf I feel even more privileged to come from a developed country. His stature is small but his courage is large. He is the result of an interfaith youth engagement program between Muslim and Christian teenagers. He tells me that “change is just around the corner”. I wonder if after he has dealt with the challenges of biodiversity conservation from illegal activities that he will then have to deal with the challenges of biodiversity conservation from legal activities.