What makes us human?
I’ve heard time and time again that the intelligence of the homo sapien is what sets us apart from the rest. If not our intelligence, then it must be our conscience, our free will, our range of complex emotions, and responsibility over decisions. Yet the knowledge I’ve kept from thick books and classrooms does not sit quite right. If we really are the most intelligent creatures alive, why haven’t we figured out how to live?
Having the opportunity to travel around our country for work, I have always been baffled by the stories I am able to pick from these sites. The narratives are mainly the same: people and animals suffering from deforestation, pollution, human activities fueled by poverty, and unemployment. The world around us has made a system that’s unjust and brutal toward the most vulnerable. If it is our intelligence, our conscience, emotion, and free will that set us apart from animals, why haven’t we used these to the hilt to make sure all of us prosper?
The idea of inequality hits me each time I make my way back from the most isolated communities to the high-rises of Manila. How could there be so much and so little money at the same time, in the same country? Does a six-hour drive or a two-hour flight from the capital diminish the value of our brothers and sisters in far-flung areas?
Billionaires are in the news, and stocks and markets are skyrocketing; people have never been so rich. And as I sip a P150 cup of coffee, I remember the chieftain of an indigenous group I work with who told the story of what they had to do to survive in the mountains: deforesting their ancestral land and burning away their trees to sell sacks of charcoal almost two hours away by foot—for the same price as my drink. When people have to focus on surviving, they can’t focus on prospering. And so this group slowly lost their culture and their art, because they had to focus on feeding their kids. It’s only recently, with the efforts of MAD Travel, a youth-led social enterprise, that the indigenous community had begun singing again. Even so, we must dare to ask: How could such a discrepancy exist when the solutions around us are clear and, more importantly, affordable to the many that are sipping the same cup of coffee like me?
In my work to help reforest 3,000 hectares of this community’s ancestral lands, I realized that the solutions come in numbers, numbers that I bring back to the city and to my online platforms as I tell the stories of these tribes, these endangered animals, and their homes, in hopes that people will listen and care. And in caring, will fund the efforts to help. Sad to say, it’s not only goodwill that will ensure the future of our home. Thank goodness a lot of people have been more than generous.
Yet, with the work I do, I have to dare ask if calling ourselves the most conscious creatures on the planet should still hold true, when the way we live has made a few prosper and so many others live in misery. We’re intelligent, maybe, but are we anything else? Maybe we should take the question back to the classroom; it’s a question that all of us have to ponder on and answer.
People tell me to keep dreaming—that the optimism of a world gone right stays alive only for so long. But I dare to stay hopeful. How can I not when so many have reached out to help and to make a difference? I dare to dream of a world where articles like this don’t have to be written. A world where all, and not just some, can believe in a stable home and future.
We have so much work to do and many more questions to ask. But let’s start with what makes us human, and what that says about our humanity.
—————Issa Barte, 23, is a digital artist and founder of Fund the Forest.
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