Category: Environment

Storms & Solidarity


Two years ago – as part of my  ‘tertianship’ (last year of Jesuit formation) in the Philippines, I lived for a few weeks in Navotas, one of the shanty towns in Manila.  Some of the families lived in very simple houses on stilts in Manila Bay.  We arrived during the aftermath of a strong typhoon.  Two things struck me, firstly the incredible resilience the people had in the face of these frequent storms.  Secondly, because they had so little – how quickly they were able to rebuild their lives.   We made a small video to appeal for help.

I spent a wonderful 6 month in the Philippines, fell in love with country and the people. It was also fascinating to hear how it was the Jesuits who were the first to track typhoons in Asia from the Manila Observatory (click here to read more about that).  It is very sad to hear the effects of the recent Typhoon. In a county which seems sadly used to frequent disasters, this one is at a higher level. When I was there –  I was very impressed by how the network of Jesuit education institutions coordinated disaster relief  (click here).  So when the Jesuits received a letter from the Provincial  requesting help today – I thought I would it worth posting his letter here. You have to click on the link to open the PDF.

Philippines Appeal

Link to donate online  Indicate ‘for the Philippines Appeal’ in text box


Many of the Catholic parishes in the Highlands of Scotland were also ‘crofts’ – which allowed the priest to support himself and the parish by living off the land. A croft is a small free-hold of land which allows sustainable living. As communities have got wealthier, the need for the parish to sustain a croft has diminished. However I now in many places the vestiges continue. I have had the joy the last few years to go to the Outer Hebridean island of South Uist for a few weeks supply in the summer at this parish click here.  The priest still has his own flock of sheep, real not metaphorical, and last summer I was presented with my own lamb, butchered and prepared by the parish shepherd!  Here in Arisaig  the priest keeps over 40 chickens, and ably assisted by the wonderful Winnie (left) we have a regular supply of ‘holy eggs’ which parishoners pick up and are enjoyed at breakfast. I have really enjoyed feeding the chickens with Winnie and learning about poultry-care.

Even better of course is enjoying the fruits of their labour. The parish house is equipped with a magnificent double egg-cup – first time I have seen one!  Not only does it allow you to be greedy – but also to compare tastes. Today I tried the light blue shelled egg along side a Polish chickens classic brown colour egg.  The Pole edged it slightly – with one of the richest yolks I have every enjoyed. It is true that free-range tastes much nicer.

There is a serious point – the growing movement of eating locally sourced and in-season products. Not only does it support the local economy, the food is healthier and tastier!  Scotland seems to be leading the way with this and the influential Fife Diet.  Asking local people to sign-up to eating food from the region of Fife, for a year,  and to monitor their progress and share their experience. The project has developed from a voluntary network into a funded body and in its development has changed from a small amount of people dedicated to eating ‘from Fife’ for a year, to a much larger network of people trying to re-localise more generally and to explore what sustainable food might be. It has won awards for ethical consumption.  Seeing the parishioners donate money and pick up their eggs  on Sunday was very inspiring – particularly as the younger contribute a bit more so the older folk can get their eggs very cheaply.  This could be a great idea for other parishes to take up!

Water for All – Appeal


Installing a 1000 litre rainwater harvesting tank.....

In the last year I have found myself living in three of four places where I wash out of a bucket. One thing I have noticed is that it makes you much more careful about how you use water. Every drop becomes precious, especially filtered or good drinking water.  I still remember the shanty town in Manila and the small home where I was staying. There were about fifteen buckets and tubs of water stacked around.  All possible rain water was collected and stored, a very precious commodity!  Here in India this is also the case – the newspapers are filled with stories of drought at the moment.  Officially on summer holiday, many of the government schools are staying open for lunchtime to ensure that the children receive at least one good meal a day (although my fellow Jesuits tell me that many of that money and food will make its way into the wrong hands).    In these conditions it is a really important service that the school serves by teaching the children – who will the teach their families  – about how to use, store and capture water wisely.

I am showing the science students the excellent BBC ‘Human Planet‘ series at the moment. Last week we watched an episode about living in the desert. As part of my preparation for the class, I looked at the annual rainfall figures here in Manvi and Pannur.  What is very clear is that all the regions in the district have seen a drop in average rainfall, thus bringing them into the category of semi-arid or semi-desers (anything under 500 mms a year).  This focuses the mind!

The Monsoon rains supply over 50% of India’s precipitation in 15 days so when they fail it is problematic.  Trapping and storing water is very important.  We have been teaching the children about rainwater harvesting – so that they will take this knowledge back to the villages.  Exacerbating the situation here in India is the rapid melting of Himalayan Glaciers which is depriving the great rivers the Indus and the Ganges of their summertime source, thus extending the long dry season.   Here in Karnataka the lifeline of the great river Krishna also flows through neighbouring Andrah Pradesh and also Maharashtra.  The rapid building of Dams in all states and diverting parts of the river has politicized water to such an extent that conflict can easily develop. In fact it is striking that India’s extremes of hydrology, population and poverty presents large difficulties for water management. Agreement to release dam water down stream and across state boundaries makes the front page of the newspapers.  As always it is the poorest who are hit the hardest by water politics and the corrupt water mafias.

Building pipes would help these children spend more time in school - Please help see link below. Even £10 can make a big difference.

Here in Manvi and Pannur  there are two different sources of water – surface water and ground water. Climate change is making surface water less reliable, so there is more stress on ground water. India is the biggest user of ground water in the world with over 2 million boreholes providing 60% of water for irrigation.  Ground Water is much more efficient for agriculture and cheaper pumps and electricity have changed the life of many of the farmers but the groundwater is finite – and shrinking – over exploitation means that bore holes run dry. Much of it is is also not drinkable and illness is common due to contaminated water and parasitic worms.  The result is that in Pannur the villagers have to walk 6 kms a day to get safe water from the river. It always seems to be the women and children who have to carry out this arduous task.  We have been asked to help – the villagers are proposing to lay a pipeline from the river to the village – which will have  a big impact on the peoples lives.  The land has been donated and the labour of digging and laying the pipeline will be free – what they are asking for are 960 20ft pipes (6inch diameter) and two 20-horsepower pumps.   If you are interested in helping! Please do…. check out this facebook page and also you can donate a small amount online by clicking on the link below.

Click here to make an online donation. 

Peace, Blessings and Rain


It has been a lovely experience celebrating Easter here.  I keep on pinching myself, it is great to stay here and I am savouring as much as I can.  The ceremonies were all in the local language Kannada, which is impenetrable for me, the ancient script is impossible to read as it is alphasyllabary.  There are 49 letters, 13 vowels, consonants and other letters that are part vowel-part consonant. An ancient Dravadic language – the number of written symbols is far greater than the 49 characters, as they form compound characters. Suffice to say – I cannot even attempt to read the Missal, so felt pretty useless during the celebrations!  On Easter Sunday morning – with 5 other priests –  we blessed 200 houses in the village (or so I was told).  I was surprised that quite a few houses were stuffed full with cotton – evidently the price in the local market is too low so they are keeping it in storage and waiting for a market fluctuation.  I was accompanied by a young Jesuit, who was a great help. Very politely and quietly he informed me that the word for peace was ‘shanti‘.  I had gone into the first few houses –  confidently greeting them with ‘ashanti‘. This, I was informed means ‘violence’ !  Not a good start for a house blessing.  Nevertheless I was still greeted with warm smiles and reverence!

The heat has been slowly climbing and now mid-afternoon it can climb over 40 degrees. In the villages everyone dives for the shade, and there is a lot of snoozing and resting.  Yesterday it was so hot that we had a convection storm.  It was the first rain for months and it was lovely to walk in the damp air afterwards and smell the heat and steam in the fields.  The dust briefly was gone and ground itself seemed content and sated.  I was impressed to see the rainwater harvesting in the student hostel – with that one storm filling a 500 liter barrel to overflowing.  Water – as in many places – is a precious commodity, so teaching the children to use it carefully and wisely and showing them how to collect it are useful life-skills.   There is some evidence that the water table is falling in the area, so this is something to worry about in the future.  A great initiative of Fr Eric is the large lake on site which is used for farming fish. (inspired by a trout farm in North Wales!).  Of course this lake is great for collecting the water, especially during the monsoons.  At the moment the heat is so oppressive that most of us have now taken to sleeping on the roof of the Jesuit community.  Luckily a quick-thinking scholastic saved all our matresses before the storm broke…..

“The Last Frontier”

I will be spending the next three weeks in the remote Palawan Islands in Southern Phillipines (painted blue).   In what is called our ‘elective’ experience, I will be available to help at the Jesuit Mission in Culion (one of the 1700 islands that make up the archipelago).  There are 51 chapels that are served from the parish at Culion – scattered around the islands as well as a High school and College.  Having had knee surgery a couple of weeks ago – the consultant in the hospital was somewhat relieved I am not heading back into the Mountain Province.  Having just discarded my crutches – the mangroves, beaches and coral reefs of Palawan will be much more conducive to recovery than the rice terraces and mud slides of Kalinga!  (I hope!!)  The islands of Palawan are called “The Last Frontier” because it is the last unsettled area in the Philippines. Home to many tribal groups such as the Tau Batu, the Batak, the Tagbanua, and one such Palawano tribe was just discovered as late as 1997.

I must confess that I also noticed that Palawan is rated by National Geographic Traveler magazine as the best island destination in East and Southeast Asia region in 2007, and the 13th best island in the world having “incredibly beautiful natural seascapes and landscapes.  I have been told that I will have a small boat and that maybe inbetween masses – baptisms – catechesis – there will be a chance for a spot of snorkelling or even scuba diving! Considering the famous French underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau  once described the province as having one of the most beautiful seascapes in the world – it would be rude not to take up the opportunity! However before I get too excited – I have also been told – that the islands have a large population of reptiles such as Cobras, Pythons, and Monitor Lizards which range in size from 3 ft. to 8 ft in length.  It is also home to a sub-species of the Asian Scorpion which is found nowhere else in the Philippines. This Scorpion grows to be an average length of 7 inches…….

Someone had to volunteer to make the Parish rounds....

Finally just an interesting note specifically about the history of Culion and the Jesuit Mission there.  The treaty of Paris was signed on December 10, 1898, wherein Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States for 20 million dollars. The Americans wished to establish some form of public health policy in the Philippines as part of their long-termplan. The traditional belief was that the maintenance of public health required the isolation of cases of leprosy from the rest of the public. After an investigation of a number of sites, the island of Culion was selected as a segregation colony .  The government enacted a policy of  the compulsory segregation of the lepers, and confinement and treatment in Culion. Between 1906 and 1910 they rounded up 5,303 leprosy afflicted individuals and brought them to the colony. The Jesuits accompanied them – and established the parish with its network of chapels on other islands, as well as a high school and Loyola College. You can read more about its fascinating history here.   The beautiful Jesuit church in Culion (below), was built by the lepers.   Although leprosy in Culion has been totally eradicated, it is said the stigma still remains.   I don’t know how much I will be able to update the blog the next three weeks –  so don’t be too alarmed if there is a period of ‘radio silence!’.  Once again thanks for all the interest shown and all the comments – either by email or left on the blog itself.


Solar Bottle

Last weekend I went back to stay with the family who had kindly hosted me in October in Navotas.  We had a great time singing karaoke till 3am – lots  of Beatles of course!  Navotas is a ‘squatter area’ i.e. what might be referred to as a slum area in Manila – overcrowded and under-served with utilities.  Over the years it has become better established with electricity and running water in some areas, but there are still many areas where there is none.

That is why I was very excited to find out about this Philippino initiative – called ‘a litre of light‘.   Fantastic!   Just by getting an empty plastic bottle and filling it with water and household chemicals – and placing half of it so that it catches the sun.   This ‘solar bottle’ could make a big difference to the life of many people around the world. It is also recycling waste products.  I can’t wait to see it  being installed in Navotas.  The video below shows you how it works.  You can also find more about it by clicking on their website – click here.

This wonderful project reminds me of another story i have just posted on my other storytelling blog – click here.  A wealthy Chinese businessman was now old and wanted to retire. He called his three sons too him and said to them, ‘ I have decided not to divide the business into three, but will give it to the one of you who proves himself to be the best businessman. You can prove this to me by passing a simple test.’  Each son was given $10 and instructed to use the money to purchase something that would fill a big empty room.

The first son went and bought a big tree, after cutting it down, he dragged it to the room, it filled up about half the room with its leaves and branches. The second son went and bought the kunai grass that some of the farmers were cutting in their fields, this filled up most of the room. The third son went and bought a small candle for 25 cents, and in the evening after dark, he called his father over to the large empty room. He put the small candle down in the middle of the floor and lit it. After a minute he turned to his father and said, ‘Dad can you see any corner of this little room which is not filled by the light of the candle?’.  He won the business.


English: Yellow banner depicting a blue dragon.

Happy (Chinese) New Year!  Today begins the Year of the Dragon.  It is also – for the first time in Philippino history – a national holiday here. Perhaps this is significant – a testament to the growing influence of China and Chinese ‘soft-power’ in the Pacific Rim?  The US has exported is soft-power (cultural influence) through McDonalds, Coca Cola, Denim Jeans, Hollywood all over the world …. even the UK punches above its weight particularly with Music (Adele and Jessie J are always on radios here!) Film and TV, (I was amazed to see how popular Johnnie English is here!). The success of  British historical drama and comedy is well documented, but I’m not sure we should be so proud of our new global export – reality TV formats and talent shows! China as an emerging super-power, has a growing desire to project its image and increase its influence abroad. The lack of Chinese soft power has been analysed brilliantly in the Economist – click here.  The Chinese are looking for a figurehead – Confucius or Sun Tzu?

Today millions of Chinese – and Vietnamese and Koreans –  say goodbye to the year of the rabbit and welcome the year of the dragon.  The dragon is considered to be a symbol of power from heaven. Associated with the element of Fire – confidence, passion, intensity, excitement and unpredictable nature. But don’t be alarmed if you are an introvert – I was assured this morning by a sinologist that each year is ‘qualified’ by one of the 5 chinese elements – and this is a Water Dragon year – the element of Water will temper the fire of the dragon. It opens ‘dragons’ up to listening to others, which gives them the perspective to be better leaders! Good year for a US presidential election then….The twelve animals in the zodiac calendar ensure a 12 year cycle – so it is a special year in Asia for 12, 24, 36, 48 year olds etc  Fireworks and firecrackers are purchased,  homes are cleaned and dumplings prepared. This will be a fourteen day celebration, welcoming wealth, longevity, and prosperity, and releasing any negative ‘chi’ from the past (new years resolutions!).

I predict that this year will also be a good year for Dragons in other ways – the Christmas release of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit – will introduce a new generation to Smaug the dragon.  But also the phenomenally popular George R R Martin‘s Fire and Ice series will surely grow, and with it the popularity of the great character Daenerys Taegerean – Mother of Dragons.  Perhaps this is the year to buy shares in companies that make Dragon memorabilia – you heard it here first!

Geek alert : I confess that I am already on the third book of Martin’s seven book cycle ….. one thing is true is that both Tolkien and Martin project huge cultural influence, fanatical fan bases , both entertaining, but soft power is about values and culture . ASoFaI is much bleaker than LOTR and so far I think lacks its nobility and depth – but I would still prefer it to Harry Potter (sorry!).

But all this talk of Dragons is fantasy right? it’s all myths… children’s stories in Tolkiens case or Adult stories in Martins case?  ………… Well think again.  I was riveted last night,  cradling a small glass of whisky to celebrate the Chinese New Year, as I listened to an Indonesia Jesuit tell me all about his encounters with the Komodo Dragon.  That is one scary beast ….. can grow up to 3m’s long due to the evolutionary phenomenon of Island Gigantisism  ….. is pretty fast…. has poisonous saliva (no fire breathing) …. can smell prey 6 miles away… even crocodiles are afraid of it!  The ‘pièce de résistance’ :  they seem to be Parthenogenic (i.e. can reproduce asexually) – as was demonstrated by Flora of good old Chester Zoo! (according to this Wikipedia entry!).


When I arrived in Manila in September I was carrying a precious cargo.  An album of photographs that were taken probably between the years of 1902-1906 by an English Jesuit, Fr Robert Brown (n.b. not Fr Browne – the Jesuit on the Titanic click  ).  The photos are a gold mine – taken of the different islands, different missions and different tribal people.  They contain a treasure trove of ecclesial, anthropological and environmental information – at a time when cameras were still the preserve of the enthusiast, not commonly used.  The Jesuit research institute here in Manila, ESSC (Environmental Science for Social Change), is currently making a digital archive of them, as they are particularly interested in how the pictures give a record of Environmental Degradation, and also an invaluable ethnic record of tribal life, dress,  customs.  The important lesson for me is the story of these men and how their work presents the true face of the relationship between science and religion, which is currently being distorted by fundamentalists on both sides of the argument.

Each of the men in the photograph have fascination stories to tell – and maybe if time permits we can cover them. But focusing on Fr Brown first.  Fr Brown was sent as a scholastic to the Manila Observatory to help the transition from the hands of the Spanish Jesuits ( Spain being the departing colonial power) to the arrival of the American Jesuits (the arriving colonial power).  The Manila Observatory had distinguished itself for the first accurate warning and tracking of Typhoons in Asia.  Fr Faura (not pictured) had successfully tracked and warned of a Typhoon in July 1879 that hit the North.  So when he warned of typhoon to hit Manila in November many lives and ships were saved due to his warning being heeded.   The prestige of the Observatory was so great when the Americans arrived that they turned it into a Central Bureau with 50 observatory stations.  The Jesuits received grants from the government and observations were shared amongst the Bureaus.  Fr Brown’s job in the transition was to translate the books of the impressive Fr Algue on cyclones. As well as this work and his photographs, Fr Brown took over Fr Stanton’s work on investigating insects on behalf of the Department of Agriculture. Many of these insects were ill-disposed to the local crops – so it was another example of invaluable Jesuit scientific work.  In fact Fr Brown discovered a new genus and 11 new species of Hymenoptera.  It is delightful to read in his obituary to other Jesuits that, “A member of the Society bitten by the Brownius Armatus or the Clostocerus Brownii may take comfort from the reflection that they are named after a member of the province.” 

Why do I mention all this – well I was prompted to because yesterday I was sent the  picture to the right.  It seems ironic to me that Richard Dawkins – and many of the ‘new’ Atheists – don’t even seek to understand the complex phenomenon that is religion. They use a parody of Religious Fundamentalism – and generalise from this to dismiss all forms of religion or belief in God.  Surely this is a crass methodology.  In fact surely he is guilty of the same kind of ignorance and bigotry that he (rightly) points out in some forms of religious fundamentalism.  There are many counter examples – The Jesuits and the Manila Observatory is only example.  What about the Pontifical Academy of Sciences – or the fascinating work of physicist/ priest John Polkinghhorne,  or the valuable work of the Templeton foundation.

As any good Catholic will tell you in the words of Anselm that healthy religion is about ‘faith seeking understanding’ .  Benedict XVI has made it a big theme of his papacy – the importance of the relationship between faith and reason – especially as a counter to religious terrorism.  This debate is crucial, so it is a shame that in the age of soundbites it is being dominated by the likes of Dawkins, who according to Tina Beatties excellent book ‘The New Atheists‘ presents the so called ‘new atheism’ as intellectually limited and culturally parochial. The new atheists are railing against a God created in their own image – Beattie: ‘Dawkins’ God is as much a thoroughly modern English bully as an ancient supernatural tyrant.’

I just wish that the voices of people like Polkinghorne could be heard more above the din.

Stefan with Pedro in Mindanao

Today’s post is from British Jesuit Stefan Garcia – who witnessed the destruction of the Tropical Storm first hand. His mother is English and his father is Filipino.  Before joining the British Province Stefan grew up in Cebu in the Philippines.  He studied zoology before joining the Jesuits – and has just flown to Guyana for Regency.

Home visits. For me they’re about 3 parts joy to 2 parts frustration. After ten years of “living abroad”, a trip back to the Philippines was needed to remind me of where I come from, what made me the person I am, and using a more zoological tone, what kind of environment has shaped me into the Jesuit I am. Coming home for me meant supping from love in abundance, with my family. Sadly, my body reacted not so well; immediately my childhood omnipresent dust allergies fired up.The doctor says I’ll always have this reaction to my homeland. Allergens are most violent when most familiar because your body has an overreaction to the things it has had to deal with. It’s a good metaphor for my emotional life as well. Seeing family and friends after such a long time is genuinely wonderful, but being in this country angers me quite often: the corruption, the greed, the disregard for human life. I guess that’s everywhere, but I never feel it as strongly as when it so close to my heart.

The recent floods in Mindanao were for me especially heart breaking, not only because I was actually there and saw all the devastation, but because I love so many people in those places that were worst hit. And to know that much of this damage could have been easily prevented had the cities placed effective city planning to get people out of living in the most dangerous flood areas makes my blood boil. Being back home, in the Philippines, makes me angry. But it is the right kind of anger, the kind that should propel one to action, the kind that made me say “enough is enough” and so I dedicated my life to try and help others the best way I knew how, by being a Jesuit. Seeing it on the ground in the Philippines, the work of our good Jesuit brothers has been deeply consoling. In particular, my time with Pedro Walpole SJ has shown me what can (and cannot) be done. Pedro is a pioneer in the Philippine province; he works tirelessly to improve both the education of young tribal people (and in turn providing a model that could be adopted by the Philippine education system), and he has developed our knowledge of environmental sciences in the Philippine context. For example, his organisation Environmental Science for Social Change (ESSC) will soon be publishing a textbook on landslides. His marriage of both incisive science, involvement with the people most affected, and personal prayer and reflection has shown me a “way of proceeding” that should be emulated by all our sisters and brothers in our apostolates. His team of workers at the ESSC also made me deeply hopeful, to see a group  of young, intelligent, dedicated Filipinos actively working to make their country and the world a better place, especially for those most in need.

It is old timers like Pedro that feed us young ones with the expertise and experiences we need to grow into sincere apostles. For me, the work of the ESSC has given me both the technical knowledge I need and the desire to work skillfully and realistically in what can seem like the bleakest of endeavours. But God leads them through the mire of their difficulties, and like them, I hope to be lead by Him. Through such amazing people, God energises us to do better, not to settle for what clearly is not good enough. I pray that the Lord provides me with the strength and courage that I have experienced in others so abundantly in the Philippines.

All the best in Guyana Stefan.

The website of the Jesuits in Guyana is here – clicky clicky!


The Hole-y shoes of Tanudan.....

So I am still recovering from a physically arduous Christmas.  As you can see from the photo my trusty hiking shoes couldn’t survive the Christmas – my fingers poking out in strange places.  Here in the Phillipines you can get most things fixed at a very reasonable price (not like our disposable throw away culture) – but even some things have there limits. The local cobbler just laughed at me when I presented my sorry shoes to him.  I have a sentimental connection to these boots having tramped the highlands of Scotland, the highways of India and East Africa and the mean streets of North London with them in recent years – but they met their match in the Cordilleras of the Phillipines.

But a serious point is how impressive the work of the priests and missionaries is in this area – as well as how tough the locals are.  Wherever I went I was always accompanied by catechists / and youth.  They insisted on carrying my rucksack for me – and in the end I was glad as some of the tracks were pretty precarious. I think I would have been pretty unstable on some of the steeper paths.  A Belgian priest – Fr. Leo van de Winkle had gone missing about 10 years ago.  They have found his chalice deep in the forest and it is proudly displayed in the Bishops House, but his remains are still missing – so half-jokingly the Bishop suggested we keep an eye out for them!  It seems he was abducted and killed by local communists – who he was openly very critical of – but as I was walking some of the paths with the mudslides – and the steep drops I was thinking he could have just slipped and that would be it. The wild pigs would take care of the rest!

The CICM missionaries had set up an impressive network of schools and hospitals – and the evidence was the high educational level and cultureal level of the people. Most of my homilies were translated but they didn’t need to be as they seemed to understand even Scouse English and even laughed at my jokes (something I am not used  to).  I have to confess to being scared at times – particularly walking on the rice terraces…. the small paths with stones were not designed for size 11 European feet particularly belonging to a lumbering, lobsided 6ft 2 – 95kg beast like myself. So it was scary teetering – in the rain – in slippery rocks with a 200ft drop on one side of you – I said quite a few prayers to various saints….  What was amazing was seeing our companions dance along these paths and rocks in bare feet.  Here is a taste of the journeys and the welcome we would receive when we would arrive….


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