Saturday, January 26, 2013

Estero De Paco (Last Part)

Previously on Souljacker

A short walk under the Osmena bridge carried my feet to the other side of the estero. And with the crossing came the cold and empty reality that all my notions of the estuary is but a glossed-over achievement that is still a work in progress. 

When I was planning the tour, I had this impression that the waterway is already teeming with wildlife. I imagined parts of the estuary being restocked with fish and other marine animals. I also have this romantic idea that the entire stretch had been cleared of houses. Instead, communities that were spared from the wholesale demolition try to live alongside a trash-free body of water. While families welcome the greener landscape (and the linear park that is packaged along with the return of the estero's natural habitat) it will take more than round-o-clock vigilance and strong-willed reinforcement of rules to keep the estero's pristine shape from returning to its ugly past.

Estero de Paco, January 2013

Upon reaching the other side of the bridge, the stench had already clung to my skin. Not even maggots would survive that foul-smelling water. The homes along the estuary's edge were painted green. If only the government spent the money buying more plants instead of paint, the rustic appeal would attract more visitors to the verdant riverine. And while the auburn tiles adorning the trail were made of trash, (hauled from the estero) there is a lingering feeling of superficiality. Maybe I was hoping for a more organic and lasting approach to the project.

Yet, I am well aware that one must begin somewhere before nature, at long last takes over. Dredging the estero, convincing the squatters to relocate and putting those plants that heal the soil are gargantuan tasks. A feat nobody would imagine happening before this present government oversaw the restoration. Along with the prospects of failing are the struggles which I have seen that afternoon. What is interesting is that the communities are in a crucible. Nothing forms until change finally sinks in the hearts of those who make the estero's banks part of their home.

The River Warriors: (L-R) Lady Councilor and River Warrior Babes

Roving River Warriors (with broomsticks and nets they carried behind) made sure trash no longer floats along the estero. The kids playing near the banks told me its a mortal sin to throw garbage into the slow moving water. And while homes are also transforming, (some even started growing vegetables in their small pots) resistance remains to Kapit Bisig's accomplishment.

The project is less than 3 years old. Capricious politicians acting in their interest can overturn progress with a single election. A lady councilor from a barangay near the Paco Market expressed her frustration after a barangay chairman on the opposite bank of the estero allowed some of the displaced residents to return. Habits that were ignored for many, many years continue to pose headaches for the River Warriors. The same councilor pin pointed some homes that continue to sneak out and throw their garbage directly on the estero.

The pollutants: (L-R) An open drainage. The Paco Market. Slum dwellers who were allowed to return to the estuary's edge

Community concerns aside, my knowledge of ecology management is rudimentary at best. But when I spotted an open drainage flowing directly into the stream, I asked how can the fluvial restoration begin on other creeks when the smallest veins in the city's river system is still blighted with pollution? When the metropolis gets inundated once again, (like it always does every monsoon season) trash from every nook and corner of the city will find its way back to the estero. I hope Kapit Bisig and its affiliates included these challenges in their afterthoughts.

In the end, winning the community's hearts and minds require an approach no money can buy. Not by a long shot. Schools must play their part in shaping the minds of kids living beside and around the waterway. Families that are caught throwing trash must not only be fined, they should be kicked out of their homes as well. Better to have eco-minded residents looking after the estero instead. 

Signs of returning to what was the trash-strewn Estero de Paco may happen with a blink of an eye. Displaced families return because of lack of work opportunities in their new communities. Some even have no running water in their faucets. I spotted a boy trashing some Birds of Paradise along the banks. If I didn't take his picture, the elders who were watching wouldn't give a shit.

Untouched by Civilization: A portion of the estero largely spared from slum dwellers

My eyes have seen only a glimpse of the everyday lives of the people living beside the estero. Credible news sources tell of a positive spin, a belief I am willing to embrace only because there are people, like the lady konsehala who is doing her part to protect what is, the greatest treasure of Manila. As I cover the distance from the estero's source in San Andres, to the still undeveloped portion of the water passage near UN Avenue, there remains a feeling of uncertainty if the estuary's ecosystem will prevail over the short-sighted needs of the communities along its banks.

The end of the journey: UN Avenue Bridge. Across the estuary is the Unilever Industrial Complex.

But there is hope.

As I passed by a group of kids, I stooped down to look at their activity. Laid down on the recycled tiles was a coloring book and a set of crayons. Perhaps, donated by some kind souls who wished nothing but learning for these children. As I looked at them putting color and shading to the stale pictures with greens, reds and yellows, I begin to appreciate the vision of those who made the Estero de Paco a living, breathing space for all.

For the Future: Kids and their coloring book

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