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A little town’s tale

Last Oct. 18 and 19, Typhoon “Lando” unleashed its wrath on North and Central Luzon, and the tiny town of Santa Cruz on the northernmost tip of the province of Zambales was one of the badly hit areas.

When I was a little boy I lived with my family in the outskirts of the town proper. Everything was so simple back in those days of my childhood. The townsfolk led modest lives in harmony with one another. We were blessed by an abundance of gifts from Mother Nature—sea waters teeming with fish, fields fit for plowing and tilling, and mountains thickly covered with lush trees.

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The 1995 Guinness record for the sweetest mango in the world was won by the “Sweet Elena” strain, which flourished in a barangay in our Santa Cruz.

Back then, the townsfolk took everything Mother Nature offered for granted.

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Years later, it was learned that the green mountains abounded in nickel, chromite and other minerals. This knowledge prompted various private mining firms to invade the town one by one. Soon, ominous-looking trucks were rolling down the streets, breaking the peace to which the people had been accustomed. Dirt engulfed Santa Cruz, triggering allergy and asthma attacks among the residents. The mountains were shorn of their forest cover and leveled, changing the vibrant blue and green tone of the horizon into a dull brown.

Although many ignored the changes in the environment for the sake of new job opportunities and other “benefits” that the mining operators promised, there were still a number who took notice. These concerned citizens took it upon themselves to do something, for they knew that what was happening would not be good in the long run. They knocked on the doors of government and nongovernment offices, but no one heeded their pleas. The mining operations did not stop permanently, and the people’s lives were inexorably changed.

Alas, the day of judgment came. As Geraldo Rivera once said, “Mother Nature may be forgiving this year, or next year, but eventually she’s going to come around and whack you.” It was possibly time for her to seek justice.

The whole night of Oct. 19 until the next morning, Lando’s heavy rains and strong winds battered what was once a quiet town, causing the major rivers to overflow. The floodwaters, which were unusually reddish, rose higher than chest level. Mud slid down from the mountains that had been cleared of trees whose roots would have kept the soil together. The onslaught of water and sludge weakened the foundations of one main bridge; only light vehicles were allowed to cross the ailing span, making relief efforts very difficult.

The townsfolk sought shelter in schools, which then became temporary evacuation centers. But some residents were not as lucky to flee on their feet; neither could they be reached by rescue teams. They were trapped on the roof of their respective houses, surrounded by raging waters.

Everyone agreed that it was the worst thing to happen to the once-peaceful town.

As day broke, the effects of the typhoon on Santa Cruz became evident. Scenes of misery, of desolation like never before, were everywhere.

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I was in Manila when I heard news of my hometown, and I could not help but cry upon knowing about its current glum state. Why did we have to wait for such a thing to occur? If only the mining companies and the local government listened to our petitions long ago, then this would not have happened. Now look at what greed has led to. But the blame must not be put on the mining companies alone, but also on those of us who remained ignorant, those of us who did nothing to stop the destruction of our town, those of us who believed that mining would do us good. This is the price of all the things we did and failed to do, and that we, including the innocent ones, are now obliged to pay.

My fellow citizens, until when will we disregard this pressing problem? Will we wait until our little town gets erased from the map? It is not too late to act. Together we must rise strong from this downfall to ward off that which destroys our society.

In “Laudato Si,” the second encyclical of Pope Francis, he laments “the overall decline in human life and breakdown of society” due to “the relentless exploitation and destruction of the environment,” for which he blamed “apathy, the reckless pursuit of profits, excessive faith in technology, and political shortsightedness.” Moreover, the Pontiff calls for “swift and unified global action.”

We must heed his call. We must begin with ourselves, and inspire other communities and nations to do the same.

Dear people of Santa Cruz, let us not wait until our town is swallowed by the hungry depths of the ocean. To date, 22 of our government officials, including Zambales Gov. Hermogenes Ebdane Jr., are facing complaints of graft, usurpation of duty and “environmental plunder” at the Office of the Ombudsman, in relation to the allegedly anomalous issuance of mining permits as well as their purported failure to stop the devastating effects of mining in Santa Cruz and the province of Zambales. The fight is far from over.

To all the other Filipinos out there, I am leaving this story of our town as a lesson. Don’t let such desolation befall your own communities. Care for the environment, and live in harmony with all the priceless gifts that Mother Nature bestows on you.

Next year, we will exercise our democratic right to choose the people who will lead us. As we do so, we must bear in mind the call of Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle: to vote for “green” leaders, those who have concern for our natural resources. This is not for Tagle’s sake but for ours, and for everyone who will come after us. Please, help us make possible for my little town, and our country, a “happily ever after.”

Earl Christian Perales Mantes, 20, a new graduate of the University of Santo Tomas, passed the September 2015 medical technology licensure examination. He was editor in chief of the Purple Gazette, the official student publication of the UST Faculty of Pharmacy, in 2013-2014.

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TAGS: disasters, Hermogenes Ebdane Jr., Laudato Si, Santa Cruz, Typhoon Lando, Zambales
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