Hard Lessons

Till now, we’re still numbed over Natonin, a sleepy town at Mountain Province just a few hours away from Baguio. Lives have been snuffed out in a matter of minutes in that far-off community — at last count about 8, with at most 22 others still trapped when landslide of no mean proportions occurred during Rosita’s day-long sweep of the Cordilleras just this week. Latest updates indicate that Ground Zero, where the DPWH building once stood, may no longer be where bodies may be retrieved this late in the day.

Coming at a time when we’re paying traditional homage to our dear departed, it’s sad that our region has to bear the brunt of another weather aberration less than a month after Ompong’s onslaught left us with its own trail of devastation — landslides in Itogon, flooding of downtown Baguio, damaged infrastructure, agricultural losses. Far too long have we been watching with horror how landslides of huge geologic proportions have taken place north and south of the country, in Itogon, Benguet and in Naga City, Cebu, taking human lives like no other in recent memory.

And now, Natonin has just been catapulted to household consciousness, many of us inescapably glued to ongoing scenes of rescue and retrieval that cannot but wrench pitying hearts. These earth-shaking events were not just run-of-the-mill incidents of the here and now, but are palpably indicative how vulnerable human life has become, so vulnerable when mountain soil gets loosened up from too much water saturating too loose a soil traction that would have held on had forest cover — trees, most of all — been there. Clearly, the landslides now taking place wherever within our region would have become commonplace, given our mountainous terrain. Surely, they must have been expected even more so in recent years, given how our forest cover had been so badly dislodged, how our trees have been so recklessly felled in the name of habitation. Clearly, these are simply an environmental occurrence just waiting to happen.

And, lest we forget, as early as 2010, government geologists have long identified the vulnerable places where landslides occur as unmistakable danger zones. Why nothing preventive by way of engineering interventions have been done is characteristic of government bureaucratic reactive thinking. Just coasting along despite the risks to human habitation, just praying that the heavens would look more kindly on places nearest the skies, just won’t work. Alerting, that’s what the government can only do, given the fact that livelihood was at stake in the case of small-scale miners long entrenched in their quest for gold. Local officials can only look the other way, as in fact they have done, even asserting in all pomposity that livelihood couldn’t just be blocked, as it mattered much to poverty-stricken communities.

This is not to exculpate anyone from the usual blame game. After all, when there’s clear culpability, by reason of neglect most of all, let the book of laws be thrown their way. When disaster strikes, as it did, shouldn’t we take some hard lessons to prevent similar tragedies? Year in and year out, storms will be coming our way, landslides will be among the incidents that will take place.

Can we not be resolved to manage our environmental resources, enough to sustain whatever blessings can come from economic concerns? Can we not apportion a good part of government money to regenerate our mountains for their forest stands to grow anew, for their vegetative cover to regenerate? If as early as 2010 the Itogon stricken sites have become vulnerable to mountain soil instability, why have not engineering intervening technology been applied, why have not reforesting efforts been done, why have not the on-surface portals leading into abandoned underground tunnels been permanently shut down? If as early as then, the local officials have been accordingly informed, why have not the small miners been induced to take up alternative livelihood generating activities, enough for them to abandon the glitter of gold and be out of harm’s way?

Bless us for God’s mercy, not many of us may be feeling the landslide experience of those nearest the sites — though just recently we’ve had our share of landslide tragedy which took 5 lives needlessly. Sure, we may be thousands of miles away to be front and center of so catastrophic an experience. We may be beyond that in terms of being there, but in more ways than one, we know how a tragedy grows in us, simply because we’ve been through it. After all, anyone’s death is just one death too many to a nation that tolls much of it, year after year.

Lest we forget, it’s really all about climate change. Sadly, we’re just not doing enough to abate human suffering as a result of weather aberrations that cause flooding, landslides, life and property lost in unimaginable proportions. In the wake of the super storms that develop from the Atlantic Ocean, it’s always best to get ourselves prepared should similar weather extremities occur in our midst, from the Pacific Ocean which has bred much of the typhoons that have come our way, themselves huge and consequential.

In troubled times, we definitely are, regardless where we are — whether out there in places whiplashed by the Atlantic Ocean or out here by the Pacific Ocean. The oceans will continue to be heating up, because global pollution goes on unabated, because economic activities continue to cause global warming, because our effort has been globally without much significance, because we’d rather react than pro-act, until the next tragedy.

One thing stands out that needs to be instilled in the hearts and minds of leaders and people. If we don’t take care of nature, it won’t take care of us, all of us. If we don’t work to manage our future, knowing what it holds for us by our inaction, singly and collectively, nobody else will. Even our inheritors will never forgive us for surrendering that future in the hands of those who refuse to see, feel and experience what has become too obvious: we either live and survive as one in the only planetary home that’s Earth, or perish as one in palpably catastrophic if separate ways.

Doing the only right thing in our lifetime — that’s what we ought to be doing now, not later, now not soon. Because it’s the biggest right thing we can do. Life is giving us shining examples of hard lessons that can only be of worth when taken to heart. It is for us to strive even harder in ensuring that we learn from the hard lessons Mother Nature is giving us.

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