Community Engagement in the Philippines: Building a culture of sustainability

Daff Barsales Binobo, our Site Manager and expedition co-ordinator.

Daff joined the People and the Sea team as Site Manager in early 2020. With our volunteer expeditions currently suspended, it’s been an unusual time on site. But this has given him more time to get to know the community of Malapascua and take a closer look at the work we have been doing. Here, he takes time to reflect on the significance of community engagement efforts.

A good grasp on reality....

Experience has shown me that community work is one of the most rewarding career paths in terms of personal and professional growth. The reasons for moving more towards the strengthening of local communities by working hand-in-hand with them are compelling. But for any of us working in the field of community engagement, it is important to reflect not just on what we do – but why we are doing it. In understanding this, I feel we can make ourselves more effective operators.

We all have a dream job in mind. As for me, I’ve been all over the place. After studying psychology at my local university, I got a job in promotional merchandising. After gaining experience, I developed an interest in research and found work doing community research. Climbing and trekking is a big passion of mine and I found an opportunity to work as an outdoor guide and instructor. Being with the outdoor community eventually led me to work in sustainable tourism. In the end, I found myself formulating government policies and introducing new programs promoting accountability and good governance. My professional career has always been an exploration, and it brought me to the island of Malapascua.

A quote from the blog looking at community development in Philippines and the links to ocean conservation

Whatever our background is, we should find a place where we can contribute to the real world. By real world, I mean society. We spent years developing the skills that we deem to be useful for our future. Academic institutions teach us all those theories and systems and we learn them by heart. We are conditioned to believe that there is always a perfect approach to come up with a solution to a problem. That we should follow specific steps to achieve positive change. 

However, the reality is that there are things that may or may not work. It’s where we get the chance to mix things up a bit and try to be creative in our approach. It is where we learn to find the common ground between the “ideal” and the “reality”. Working at the community level won’t provide us with all the resources that we need. In the Philippines, for example, laws and government directives might be in place but the execution may not be on point. Thus, services that were supposed to assist with the people’s needs are not properly delivered and therefor are poorly accomplished. This is the part where we make do with what the current system provides and try to fill in the gaps so we can achieve our goals. 

Seeing the island for the first time was a bit of a surprise. Having been around other touristic communities, I immediately noticed the lack of some necessities that should have been in place considering how large a role tourism plays on the island. I have seen how influential tourism can be for a community with its promises of providing jobs and livelihood – it can really be a driver of positive change. But the reality is that it doesn’t always live up to this potential. I was frustrated, and surprised, to see that there were elements of this here, on Malapascua.

Our Waste Collector & Educator Team work to teach the community how to properly manage their waste
The WCE Team have sought to to teach people the link between waste management and ocean pollution in the Philippines

Driving change

People and the Sea came in as the catalyst for change. While drivers of change are always important to have in a community, it takes time to see, understand, and support their approach toward change. As a Filipino who understands the roles and responsibilities of the local government and community members, I tend to be a bit over-analytical when it comes to how a cause-oriented organisation approaches local issues and ways in which they address them. For example, one project that PepSea helped to develop, the Waste Collection and Education Program, works to further educate the community on how to segregate and properly manage their trash. The program consists of a waste collection and education team who are responsible for garbage collection and education. It also includes scheduled clean-ups that involve business establishments, tourists, and local volunteers. This type of work, while some might say is mundane, is a very basic necessity for the island (indeed, for any community). I initially thought that it’s a shame that the organisation, with all its capacity, finds itself engaged in such services that are typically provided by government structures. It led me to question why such a service was not already in place? How had it been managed previously? What were people expected to do with their waste? Who was providing the  leadership on such a key environmental issue? I couldn’t fully understand why this was happening and wanted to find a good reason to move on to a bigger cause and find a better platform.

Our environmental education classes teach the importance of the human impact on coral reefs

Then it hit me. It hit me hard. It hit me so hard that I literally slapped my forehead because I totally missed the point! I was so focused on other things that I forgot the most important concept to make this work. ENGAGEMENT. Yes, it was right in front of me! We can never move forward without educating our people. They will never have the courage to participate when they still feel excluded and powerless. The only way to move forward is to work together and get everyone on board. This is what PepSea was all about. Whatever gap the bureaucracy in the social system created, the organisation filled in by directly working with the people of the island. We were able to establish that relationship not only with the community but, importantly, with the local government. We can’t just tell people what to do, but we MUST do it with them. We are able to contribute to the government’s manpower and shortage of technical expertise, thereby gaining their trust to the point that they would invite our volunteers on some of their projects and even use our waste collection data as reference. PepSea works to create  opportunities where people, government, and organisations can work collaboratively for sustainable future.

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