ALP students’ human experience in Bendum

Bendum youth show ALP students how weeding is done

Mariel de Jesus

Last April, Sitio Bendum was the busiest I’ve ever seen it. While I have had the privilege of being in Bendum during Tapok, the indigenous youth gathering for peace, this was definitely my first experience of Bendum hosting an international group, the students of the Asia Leaders Program (ALP) of the University for Peace.

ALP students working towards their Masters degrees in various development-related fields had one week of intensive lectures in Ateneo de Manila University and were in Bendum for, perhaps, an even more intense week of field engagement: learning about natural resource use and management, the dynamics of conflict and peace, and experiencing everyday life with the Pulangiyen.

More importantly, it was an opportunity for them to come face to face with the realities of their chosen field of work. Many came to Bendum with the idea that their eight months of study equipped them for just this purpose: to assess a community, determine its social problems, and formulate approaches to foster greater development and social progress. They came – as many do – with preconceived plans and big ideas. But Bendum has a way of getting in the way of what you know and what you plan.  It has a way of tweaking your perspective.

Speaking from my own experience, visiting Bendum is less about what I can do or what I know. In fact, rather than focus on what I can do for Bendum, I found out that what is more valuable for me is to simply be there and be with the people. The reason is simple: I don’t have the answers to the development questions that a community like Bendum raises. In all honesty, I think the people of Bendum are struggling to articulate the answers for themselves, and that is perhaps just how it should be.

The students struggled with many things in their five-day field engagement. They learned to do without many of the conveniences and comforts to which they are accustomed. Internet access and mobile phone reception are limited, as is personal space; many of the students shared rooms, not just with one classmate, but with four or five!

Still, perhaps what was most difficult for them was realizing that many of the concepts they learned from their studies could not simply be applied, as is, in an area or community like Bendum.

Our ideas of development are often based on our own experiences, and our own understanding of what it takes to make a better life. Often, we fall into the trap of thinking about what people should have, not necessarily what they need or want. We bring with us concepts like “land ownership,” “education,” “resource management,” and feel that these are automatically applicable in community areas – when in reality, people have their own experience and understanding which may or may not be aligned with current development approaches.

Our limited vocabulary and terminology has us speaking about “projects.” This is another one of those concepts that students and development professionals have come to rely on. We often go into areas thinking about objectives and goals, and envisioning the output and outcomes that we would like to see.  We often go into areas of conflict and poverty with ideas of how to “fix” these problems and we design “projects” that will help us achieve these solutions. However, if we remain tied to these ideas in our work, we run the risk of seeing people as simply variables in a development experiment.

As a science and research institute, ESSC develops its work programs through projects, and there are ongoing programs of activities in Bendum. But we are aware that these projects never take precedence over the people. Projects often have fixed time frames. The reality is, however, that change does not happen within these pre-defined time frames. Change happens within people, and the pace of change cannot be predicted. Rather than be caught up in project parameters, the focus should really be on the people. The danger of falling into a “project” mode of operation is that we become preoccupied with getting things done and checking off activity milestones, and we forget that we are dealing with people.

Ultimately, more than any output or outcome, we seek to build relationships that will last beyond a project’s time frame. ESSC’s engagement in Bendum, which is now going on 20 years, is incomprehensible for those who remain locked in a development project mindset. But the point is exactly that: Bendum is not a project.

Twenty years of reforestation show that a project that focuses simply on planting trees will never lead to forest regeneration. The result is simply, trees – and often tree species that are specified by the project.  The problem is that these are trees without a relationship to the land, or to the life of people. When reforestation projects end, people often don’t bother maintaining what was planted because no relationship was nurtured.

Over the years, ESSC has sought to accompany people, to understand how they live their life, to build relationships, and to explore how best to respond to the many needs in the area. There are many things the community needs – and wants. But if we write a project simply to respond to a community’s needs, without building a relationship with people and internalizing the change that is needed with them, these projects will very likely fail.

At the beginning of the five-day engagement, the ALP students were encouraged to forget about their ideas of “development” and “sustainability” and simply take the time to relish their experience of life within the community. They were encouraged to move their focus away from “doing” and to shift towards “living.” For many, the five days gave them an opportunity to remember their own experiences of being one with nature. For one student, Bendum was a reminder to appreciate her own identity as a member of an indigenous community. Over the days, it was interesting to watch how people coped with the challenges of being in the field. It was interesting to see them grapple with what they knew, and to see them struggle with what they did not know, or what they could not understand.

Often, we like to think we have all the answers, and realizing that we do not have the answers is not an easy or comfortable experience. But it is necessary for those who are entering into this complicated arena of development work to learn the necessary humility that will allow them to see people as human beings, and not simply as “project beneficiaries.” Rather than being a development experience, Bendum provided an opportunity for a human experience.

This article was originally published in ESSC.

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