Rising from the Ashes: The Ayta’s struggle to preserve their heritage

Rising from the Ashes, teh Ayta struggle to keep their traditions alive
Rising from the Ashes, the Ayta struggle to keep their traditions alive

This weekend, Tropical Storm Ketsana triggered the worst flooding in decades in the Philippine capital Manila and nearby provinces.

The Philippines, an archipelago nation comprising some 7,000 islands, is one of the world’s most disaster-prone countries. It leads a World Bank list of nations most in danger of facing frequent and more intense storms because of climate change. In 2008, it was one of three countries that experienced the most disasters, according to the Brussels-based Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters.

Apart from the typhoons that blow in from the Pacific Ocean, the Philippines also sits on the Pacific Rim of Fire where periodic earthquakes occur, and active volcanoes are found.

Disasters not only kill or injure people and cause property damage; they also disrupt livelihoods and cultural practices. That’s what happened when the volcanic Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991, its lava and ashes destroyed many surrounding villages – including the traditional homeland of the Ayta, indigenous people descending from the first inhabitants of the Philippines. They had fled to the hills from the lowlands during the protracted Spanish conquest of the Philippines which first commenced in 1565.

Today, resettled elsewhere on Luzon island, the Ayta are trying to preserve their traditional culture and community integrity through education and theatre. These efforts are supported by the Ayta organisation PBAZ, part of the Education for Life Foundation. Going back to the abandoned village is one way of keeping memories alive.

This is the story of Rising from the Ashes, one film in Saving the Planet, TVE Asia Pacific’s new regional TV series showcasing Asian communities thinking globally and acting locally.

Passing the buck or passing the planet? Saving the Planet is everybody’s business!

Passing the buck? Cartoon by W R Wijesoma
Passing the buck? Cartoon by W R Wijesoma
This was one of the most memorable cartoons drawn by W.R. Wijesoma, Sri Lanka’s pre-eminent political cartoonist (and my one-time colleague). If I remember right, it first appeared sometime in the late 1980s in ‘Mihikatha’, Sri Lanka’s first all-environmental newspaper.

Alas, both Mihikatha and Wijesoma are no more among us. But the message in this cartoon is more timely than ever before.

“Is this what we are going to hand over to our future generations? Please……no!” was the emphatic message from Yugratna Srivastava, a 13-year-old Indian girl who addressed over 100 world leaders gathered at the United Nations headquarters on 22 September 2009 for the historic Summit on Climate Change.

Passing the ball – or buck – is something that governments are good at. Most governments are so narrowly focused on the now and here, and sometimes rightfully so, that they have neither the time nor interest for medium to long term scenarios. As I wrote earlier this week, “it’s going to take many more meetings, bickering and hard bargaining before the leaders begin to think in terms of the next generation.”

This is where citizen action comes in. Governments are not going to save this planet from environmental catastrophes; if at all, it would be the ordinary people. This is the premise of TVE Asia Pacific’s latest Asian TV series, Saving the Planet.

Where does the buck stop?
Where does the buck stop?

Governments, experts and big corporations alone cannot solve all these problems. Real change requires changing how each and every human being lives and works. Education becomes the biggest key to achieving environmentally sustainable development at local and global levels.

Filmed in six countries in South and Southeast Asia, Saving the Planet profiles groups working quietly and relentlessly to spread knowledge, understanding and attitudes that inspire action that will help humans to live in harmony with the planet. They often work without external funding and beyond the media spotlight. They have persisted with clarity of vision, sincerity of purpose and sheer determination. Their stories inspire many others to pursue grassroots action for a cleaner and safer planet.

We tried out a creative idea for the series opening sequence (20 seconds), an extended version of which became the series trailer (see below). It was planned and filmed in all the six countries where the stories came from — Cambodia, India, Laos, Nepal, the Philippines and Thailand. In each country, our roving director-producers filmed different individuals – young and old, men and women, in all their Asian diversity – passing around an inflated ball made to look like planet Earth.

I know my colleagues had fun filming these sequences, and back in our studio, it was also great fun to mix and match these various shots to create the apparently seamless passing around of our planet in peril. (Who said planet saving cannot be fun?)

Watch Saving the Planet trailer (1 minute):

Now it can be revealed: our original inspiration came from an unexpected source: the world’s largest media corporation, Google! In one brainstorming, our then production coordinator Buddhini Ekanayake remembered an open challenge that Google had made online just before introducing their email service, GMail. Google asked people to “imagine how an email message travels around the world” using a video camera.

In all, Google received over 1,100 clips from fans in more than 65 countries around the world — each one of them a different creative idea, playing with the iconic Gmail M-velope.

“The clips you submitted were amazing and it was hard to choose selections for the final video,” Google said when releasing the outcome of this collaborative video project.

See Gmail: Behind the Scenes (Final Cut)

Read more about the GMail collaborative video on Google’s blog

Watch all submissions Google received for its GMail promo video.

As Oscar Wilde once said, “Talent borrows. Genius steals.” You can decide which of these we have done!

Next Election or Next Generation? World leaders, time to choose is NOW!

Yugratna Srivastava: Lend me your ears...
Yugratna Srivastava: Lend me your ears...
This week saw the UN’s invisible man hosting mostly indifferent leaders at a Summit on one of the world’s most pressing challenges: climate change.

Nearly 100 world leaders accepted UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s invitation to participate in an historic Summit on Climate Change in New York on 22 September to mobilise political will and strengthen momentum for a fair, effective and ambitious climate deal in Copenhagen this December.

The call for action at the summit did not just come from world leaders – many of who simply can’t see beyond their next election – but also from the next generation who stand the most to lose if climate talks fail.

On their behalf, Yugratna Srivastava, a 13-year-old Indian girl, spoke forcefully at the podium, sending a wake-up call to those assembled. “We received a clean and healthy planet from our ancestors and we are gifting a damaged one to our successors. What sort of justice is this?,” she said.

She added: “The Himalayas are melting, polar bears are dying, 2 of every 5 people don’t have access to clean drinking water, earth’s temperature is increasing, we are losing the untapped information and potential of plant species, Pacific’s water level has risen,Is this what we are going to hand over to our future generations? Please……no!”

She said the three billion young people in the world need them to take action now to protect the planet for future generations.

Watch part of her speech in this TV news story:

Read full text of her speech

Read Indian TV news channel IBN’s interview with Yugratna Srivastava just after delivering her speech.

Read Ban Ki-Moon’s summary of the Summit, delivered at its end

All this news coverage reminded me of another passionate young girl who similarly addressed – and challenged – the world leaders 17 years ago at the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Her name was Severn Cullis-Suzuki, and she was a young Canadian environmental activist. Then 12-year-old Severn closed a Plenary Session with a powerful speech that received a standing ovation.

Raised in Vancouver and Toronto, Severn Cullis-Suzuki is the daughter of writer Tara Elizabeth Cullis and environmental activist and TV personality David Suzuki. When she was 9, she started the Environmental Children’s Organization (ECO), a small group of children committed to learning and teaching other kids about environmental issues. They were successful in many projects before 1992, when they raised enough money to go to the UN’s Earth Summit in Rio. Their aim was to remind the decision-makers of who their actions or inactions would ultimately affect.

Listen to the memorable speech at the Earth Summit by Severn Cullis-Suzuki:

Severn was every bit as sincere, concerned and passionate about the global environment as Yugratna Srivastava was this week. Seventeen years later, notwithstanding the lofty pledges at the Earth Summit and later gatherings, the environmental crises have multiplied and worsened.

Very few of the world leaders who assembled in Rio are still in office — and that underlines part of the problem. Governments have far shorter time horizons than what many of today’s global challenges demand. I am constantly reminded of what the eminent Indian scientist Dr M S Swaminathan told me in my first interview with him in 1990 (yes, even before the Earth Summit): “In democracies, rulers think in terms of the next election. In dictatorships, about the next coup d’état. Nobody is thinking in terms of the next generation!”

It was no small feat for the UN’s Invisible Man to bring 100 heads of state or heads of government together on such a long-term issue. But it’s going to take many more meetings, bickering and hard bargaining before the leaders begin to think in terms of the next generation.

Read my June 2008 comment: Message to the UN on World Environment Day: Kick your own CO2 habit!

Timeless Gandhian advice: Be the change you wish to see in the world…

Biggest gap: between rhetoric and practice!
Biggest gap: between rhetoric and practice!
It happened a decade ago, but I still remember the incident.

I was visiting London while the British Isles were having their typically limited experience with summer. My then colleague and I had gone for a business meeting, and were returning by Tube, or the London underground railway. Being the afternoon rush hour, the trains were packed to capacity.

My colleague didn’t say much on the journey, but I noticed her look of dismay. As we emerged from the tube station, she finally spoke: “Gosh, it’s another world down there, isn’t it? I didn’t know people smell so much!”

The warm and sweaty summer would surely have added to the experience, but as Londoners know well, the tube is the best mode of transport to get around quickly and inexpensively in that metropolis. It was only then that I realised my liberal, bleeding-heart colleague was not a regular user of public transport. She either uses taxis or drives around in her own Volvo car. She doesn’t normally commute with the Great Unwashed…

Yet, the same snooty ex-colleague speaks and writes so passionately on the virtues of public transport and mass transit systems as a means to better manage urban challenges in the developing world. Listening to her, one could hardly imagine her disdain for using public transport in her own city.

Practise what you preach. That’s a simple yet profound piece of advice for everyone promoting public interest causes in development, conservation or anything else. Or, as Mahatma Gandhi put it: you must be the change you wish to see in the world.

Saving the Planet: Living the Change
Saving the Planet: Living the Change

‘Living the change’ is also the title, and underlying message, of one film in Saving the Planet, TVE Asia Pacific’s new regional TV series showcasing communities thinking globally and acting locally.

The series features outstanding efforts in education for sustainable development (ESD) in South and Southeast Asia. It goes in search of answers to these key questions:
• What can ordinary people do for our planet, now under siege from multiple environmental crises?
• How can we change attitudes and lifestyles to consume less and generate less waste?

Here’s the synopsis of the India story:

For people in Dindigul in India’s Tamil Nadu state, waste isn’t really a problem – it’s just a resource in the wrong place. School children and housewives have been at the forefront in collecting household and market waste to turn them into compost. They have not only cleaned up the streets, but also persuaded people to grow organic food. As the word spreads, more towns and villages are emulating this example set by CLEAN India project and Gandhigram Trust.

Watch Saving the Planet: Living the Change

Read more information on this effort on Saving the Planet website.

Full credits and acknowledgements here

Radio Sagarmatha: Voice of a Valley and Hope of a nation

Location filming Saving the Planet in Nepal
Location filming Saving the Planet in Nepal

I have written more than once in this blog about Radio Sagarmatha of Nepal, the first independent community broadcasting station in South Asia.

In May 2007, on the occasion of their 10th anniversary, I called it Kathmandu Valley’s beacon of hope. I have known and admired the Nepali friends who are running the award-winning, public-spirited radio station.

I’m delighted, therefore, to be able to make a short film about one facet of Radio Sagarmatha: their contribution to education for sustainable development, ESD for short.

Radio Sagarmatha’s path-breaking work in the resort town of Nagarkot is the story in one film of Saving the Planet, TVE Asia Pacific’s new regional TV series showcasing communities thinking globally and acting locally.

The six-episode series, which was 18 months in the making, features outstanding efforts in education for sustainable development in South and Southeast Asia.

It goes in search of answers to these key questions: Can ordinary people help save our planet under siege from multiple environmental crises? How can everyone change attitudes and lifestyles to consume less and generate less waste?

Here’s the official synopsis of the Nepal story, titled Voice of a Valley:

Tourism generates incomes, jobs and markets for the people of Nagarkot, a popular resort close to the Nepali capital Kathmandu. But it had a bumpy start when hoteliers initially bypassed local communities. These tensions were diffused by Radio Sagarmatha, the country’s first independent public radio station, which brought all interested parties together on the air. This example shows how media can do more than just report. By inspiring discussion and debate, media can help communities to find the best solutions or compromises for their development needs.

Watch Saving the Planet: Voice of a Valley

Many thanks to friends at the Nepal Forum of Environmental Journalists (NEFEJ), for their help in making this short film about one of their most outstanding efforts.

Find the full credits of the film here

RSF: Who will protect journalists fighting for a better planet?

RSF: We must defend journalists who fight for the planet
RSF: We must defend journalists who fight for the planet
In November 2007, I wrote a blog post calling for greater protection for local journalists who cover social and environmental justice issues risking their life and limbs.

I quoted the Filipino academic and social activist Professor Walden Bello, as saying: “Things are pretty savage at the grassroots level in some of our countries. Journalists who investigate and uncover the truth take enormous personal risks – the vested interests hire killers to eliminate such journalists.”

Bello, executive director of the Focus on the Global South, further said: “Journalists living in the provinces and reporting from the grassroots are more vulnerable than those based in the cities. This is precisely why local journalists need greater support and protection to continue their good work.”

Last week, Reporters Without Borders echoed this call, saying: “We must defend journalists who expose attacks on the environment”.

The press freedom activist group released a new report titled “The dangers for journalists who expose environmental issues.” It highlights the indifference – and even complicity – of some governments and local authorities that make little attempt to protect journalists who take risks to investigate attacks on the environment.

The report looks at 13 cases of journalists and bloggers who have been killed, physically attacked, jailed, threatened or censored for reporting on the environment, and highlights the need for a free press to tackle ecological challenges.

In countries such as Russia, Cambodia, Brazil or even Bulgaria, in Europe, journalists run considerable risks when they try to alert the world about the misdeeds of those who prey on the environment.

Read the full report online

Read my June 2007 tribute to Joey Lozano, a courageous Filipino journalist who risked his life to fight for environmental and social justice issues

Animating and singing our way to a Low Carbon Future…

Low Carbon, High Priority
Low Carbon, High Priority
Some 100 world leaders are due to gather at the United Nations headquarters in New York this week for the highest level summit meeting on climate change ever convened.

As the New York Times reported: “In convening the meeting, the United Nations is hoping that collectively the leaders can summon the will to overcome narrow nationalinterests and give the negotiators the marching orders needed to cut at least the outline of a deal.”

Recognising climate change as one of the greatest social, economic, political and environmental challenges facing our generation, the British Council has launched the Low Carbon Futures project. It has focus on mitigating the effects of climate change in an urban environment. It is part of the British Council’s major global climate security project and India is, along with China, one of the top two priority countries for this work. Sri Lanka, with less than 2% of India’s population and correspondingly lower carbon emissions, is a lower priority.

One strand in the Low Carbon Futures project is to engage communications professionals – journalists, writers and film makers to help them better understand the issues around mitigation and get across key messages to readers/viewers more effectively.

As part of this project, the British Council collaborated with Music Television (MTV) to produce a music video and two viral video animations on climate friendly, low-carbon lifestyles.

British Council’s first Music Video on Climate Change produced by MTV features VJ Cyrus Sahukar. Combining animation, lyrics and melody, the video talks about how small individual actions can help conserve natural resources and save the climate. MTV VJs have a cult following and the video ends with Cyrus Sahukar, MTV’s face in India, encouraging young people to take that first step. The video was launched in New Delhi on 1 June 2009 in the presence of 50 International Climate Champions from across India & Sri Lanka.

According to the British Council India website, “The video has created a flutter and there is growing demand to screen the video on various institutional networks across India and even outside fulfilling higher level objectives of impacting young urban aspirants. Young Indians are an emerging generation who are ambitious and internationally minded with the potential to be future leaders. The MTV video aims to influence this influential group.”

The Low Carbon Futures project has also released two short, powerful, animated messages that are ‘tongue-in-cheek’- making use of everyday events with a touch of humour. “We are hoping that the messages will be seen as creative, funny and innovative to tempt the recipient to forward it to their peer group. As the virus spreads, so will the message. The British High Commission and the The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) are also promoting these virals to spread the message amongst the staff members and their external audiences,” says the project website.

The first viral video animation is called Green Journey, and shows a little known benefit of car pooling. Its blurb reads, simply: Meet 3 Mr Rights on the wrong side of the road!

The second viral video animation is called Play Cupid, and gives us one more reason to plant more trees! Blurb: Lets leave the young couples in peace and solitude of nature!

Watch out for more interesting videos from British Council India’s YouTube channel.

My War – My Love (1975): A Polish movie on World War II that changed my life

My War - My Love (1975) movie poster
My War - My Love (1975) movie poster

Memory is a curious phenomenon. Sometimes memories of our personal past are evoked in the most unexpected manner, reviving nostalgia for days that are forever lost in the sands of time.

I have never visited Poland, but it’s been on my mind in recent days. 1 September 2009 marked the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the Second World War – which was sparked off by Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland.

That’s also the day when the Anglo-American poet W H Auden wrote his deeply evocative poem, September 1, 1939. He wrote it sitting in a New York bar and distraught by the clouds of hatred gathering over Europe. I’ve been reading and re-reading it this year as the war Sri Lanka – which lasted almost five times longer – officially ended in May 2009.

As I wrote at the time: “Almost 70 years later, at the end of my own 30-year-long war, I have been reading and re-reading September 1, 1939. I’m trying to make sense of what is happening around me. The near hysterical mass euphoria on one side, and bewildered dejection on the other.”

I have only just remembered that Poland in September 1939 holds another significance for me. It has to do with the Polish film Moja Wojna – Moja Milosc (My War-My Love, 1975), which I saw in the summer of 1979 at a Colombo cinema as a 13-year-old school boy.

Not only did I see the film, but I also wrote an essay reviewing it and entered it into a competition organised by the Embassy of Poland. Growing up in a country that didn’t have broadcast television until that very year, I had only seen a handful of movies up to that time. I was no movie critic, but my views on the film and its resonance with my own times must have struck a chord with the judges. For I won the second prize in the Sinhala essay competition.

Being runner-up was no big deal by itself, but this was the first time that my writing was competitively judged and ranked by anyone outside my immediate circles. My prize included a fountain pen, white polyester cloth for school uniforms, and an LP record of Polish music (yes, LPs were still in use, but on their way out at the time!).

From My War - My Love
From My War - My Love
I would go on to win many essay competitions during my teens, and one day earn an honest living as a wordsmith. But that movie review – long since lost in the mists of time – was my first success. My career in literary crime was thus forged…thanks to a Polish movie!

From the little that I can still remember, 30 summers later, My War-My Love wasn’t a pretty film. It is set during the week of the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. Daring 17-year-old schoolboy Marek (Piotry Lyjak), inspired by the example of the Sobieski cadets during 1831 insurrection, vows to take on Germans single-handedly. He devotes most of his energy to protecting a young girl who lost her mother during the invasion.

As one reviewer wrote, “My War-My Love could not, by its very nature, end altogether happily, but the film can be regarded as life-affirming.”

War has no place for innocence - then or now...
War has no place for innocence - then or now...
That film was my first visual introduction to the horrors of war, a topic that was to dominate my own future for the next 30 years to come. In that Sri Lankan war, child soldiers several years younger than the film’s character Marek would play a prominent role.

At a far more personal level, I had never been in love when I saw My War-My Love. In the three decades to follow, I would fall in love three times — and lose out every time, though for very different reasons (none of which involved ‘my’ war). I must now carry the pain of these lost loves for the rest of my time. But that is another story…

Thanks to the wonders of Google, I’ve been able to track down some specifics about the film. It was directed by Janusz Nasfeter (1920 – 1998), a versatile Polish film maker whose career in writing and directing films spanned from the late 1940s to the early 1980s. He was 19 when the Germans came marching in.

It was one of many films that have used the Second World War as its backdrop. There have been several other Polish films that looked back on the Polish resistance, Poland Holocaust and Warsaw uprising of 1944 and other key events that left an indelible mark on the country. In fact, as this listing in Wikipedia shows, when Janusz Nasfeter made My War-My Love, the theme was pretty much covered by different Polish film makers in numerous ways.

I haven’t seen any of these other Polish films, and even My War-My Love is now only a distant memory. But as a moving image creation that moved my life in a certain direction, it would always have a special place in my heart.

XYZ Show controversy: Kenyan politicians forgetting ‘Hakuna matata’?

Politics no longer a laughing matter?
Politics no longer a laughing matter?

“The trouble with political jokes is that they keep getting elected!”

Ayesha, a regular reader of this blog, left that one-liner comment in response to my blog post of 13 August 2009 on an interesting experiment in political satire on Kenyan television that ended its first season on 9 August 2009.

It’s a show called the XYZ Show, broadcast weekly on Kenya’s Citizen TV. Started in mid May 2009, the first season introduced Kenyan viewers to a new form of satire television, with life-sized puppets made to resemble famous persons, mostly politicians.

Now comes the report that the show has riled some Kenyan politicians – surprise, surprise! I have only just come across this Citizen TV news report, broadcast a couple of weeks ago:

Controversy Over The XYZ Show

The satirical puppet show XYZ on Citizen Television every Sunday night, has attracted the attention of non other than the Public Service Minister Dalmas Otieno. The Minister says the caricature show is depicting politicians in bad light. The Director of Communication Ezekiel Mutua avers that, the show is representative of just how free the media is, in Kenya.

Well, what can we say? We thought politicians in general had thicker skins. Perhaps some Kenyan politicians are in danger of forgetting that timeless piece of Swahilian advice: Hakuna matata!

Hakuna matata is a Swahili phrase that is literally translated as “There are no worries”. It is sometimes translated as “no worries”, although is more commonly used similarly to the English phrase “no problem”.