Yesterday, I had the chance to revisit my old hometown, Las Pinas. I now live in Molino, Bacoor Cavite, literally a stone’s throw away or should I say a river’s throw away from neighboring Las Pinas but it has been years since I last explored the place and took notice of the many changes that happened here.
I grew up in Baranggay Manuyo, the first district of Las Pinas that would welcome you if you are coming from Paranaque. It is the home of the famous Bamboo Organ Church. I had a memorable childhood in Las Pinas. My lolo used to take us to the “beach” near Villa Manila every morning when I was a child. This was actually a portion of Manila Bay before it was reclaimed and made into Coastal Road. I remember that we used to gather clams and swim there. I also have a good recollection of afternoons spent playing at our family’s Irasan (salt bed) which had been the primary source of living of my dad’s family. The river back then was healthy and teeming with aquatic life. My family even owned a small fishpond too where fresh supply of sugpo and tilapia can be harvested.
Everything changed though when development came and they started reclaiming the “beach” to construct Coastal Road. Flooding grew worst in Manuyo. Businesses started cropping up everywhere and people started setting up homes there as well. Uncontrolled dumping of garbage in the river eventually caused it to die and down came with it our Irasan and our fishpond. As much as we hate leaving the place that we love so much, we knew that moving to a less crowded place like Molino was inevitable. Summer of 1995, after graduating high school from St. Joseph’s Academy, we made the move to Cavite but I guess you could say that I left my heart in Las Pinas. Six years after we left the place, I came back to march and meet my groom at the altar of St. Joseph’s Church while the sweet melody of the Bamboo Organ was playing in the background. Yes, I got married in the church where I was baptized and confirmed. In my hometown that I love so much.
But then life happened. Though I can say that I never totally forgot about Las Pinas, it was easy to take for granted this place especially when you need not pass the route leading to Old Town Las Pinas where I grew up and just conveniently head straight to Coastal Road to go to Manila or to Daang Hari and SLEX to go to Makati. I was aware of the developments and changes happening in the city but I wasn’t too keen on learning more about it until the other day.
In line with The Villar Foundation’s 20th Anniversary, I was invited by the group of Mrs. Cynthia Villar to visit the sites of the different Green Social Enterprises of the foundation as well as learn more about the different Solid Waste Management Practices that the city has been conducting. The Villar Foundation’s Social Enterprises aimed to: (a) reduce proverty, (b) manage the city’s garbage problem, and (c) preserve and conserve the community’s natural resources.
It all started with Mrs. Cynthia Villar’s fond recollection of a clean and healthy river from her childhood too. When she won the 2001 election as the lone congressional representative of Las Pinas, she vowed to clean up the Las Pinas-Zapote River. Amidst negative predictions and speculations that the project won’t see its completion, she bravely took the plunged and launched the Sagip Ilog Program under The Villar Foundation. Supported by a team of engineering experts headed by Engr. Dexter Gonzales and strong financial backing from Senator Manny Villar, Sagip Ilog was set into action. Mrs. Cythia Villar recalled that, “Nung umpisa kinausap ko ang mga tao ko, sabi ko kaya ba natin to, ayaw ko naman na sa bandang huli magiging ningas-cogon lang kami. Kaya tinutukan ko talaga ito hanggang matapos. Iba iba ang standard ng tao e kung minsan yung sinasabi nilang okay na, ayos na, sa akin hindi pa kaya ako mismo binantayan ko ito.”
10 years after, the historical Las Pinas-Zapote River whom others considered dead and beyond hope, lives again. Through the concerted efforts of concerned residents and through viable engineering solutions, the clean up was completed. Up until now the residents continue to live up to the challenge of preserving and conserving the river long after after the clean up ended for they have successfully shed the uncaring attitude and have taken it upon themselves to look after this community resource.
Just like how the river served as the backbone of early communities before, the birth of The Villar Foundation’s Green Social Enterprises and Solid Waste Management can also be traced back to their efforts to revive and sustain the Las Pinas-Zapote River while at the same time providing livelihood assistance to the marginally poor sectors in their district.
The Coconut Coir and Peat Enterprise
Engr. Dexter Gonzales shared that, “Nung nililinis namin yung ilog natuklasan namin na isa sa duming naipon sa baba ng ilog ay ito mga coconut husks na ito.” Coconut fruit has been popular among city dwellers and these accounts for the pile of coconut husks that inevitably found its way to the river bed and later became garbage that clogged the river.
At around that time also, soil erosion along the river banks has alarmed The Villar Foundation. Mrs. Cynthia Villar fortunately learned about former dean of Bicol University, Dr. Justino Arboleda’s work on coco nets, a low cost biodegradable netting material that arrest soil erosion. After seeking him out and getting his commitment to share his knowledge, The Villar Foundation set the motion for the establishment of The Las Pinas Coco Coir Enterprise. Instead of utilizing it only as a means to deload the river from coco nut husks garbage and to build coco nets that would address the problem of soil erosion in the river, they decided to make it a livelihood project as well. They made it a venue where underpriviledged families in the community can have the opportunity to earn money.
The Villar Foundation trained families in the branggay with the skills necessary to twine and weave coco nets. To date, there is one Coconet Weaving Center in each of Las Pinas’ 20 baranggays where housewives and their family members can go to and weave nets. The Coconet Weaving Centers are strategically placed in the heart of each baranggay so mothers who want to work can simply walk going there anytime it is convenient for them. A family can earn a minimum of 3, 300 pesos per week by twining and weaving coconets alone. When we were there, several mothers with their children in tow were working. I asked one mother how she felt about working there and she shared that, “Gusto ko po dito kasi malapit at tsaka di ko na poproblemahin yung magaaalaga sa anak ko kasi open naman sila dito sa mga bata, puede din sila tumulong dito.” The coco nets are preventive measures against soil erosion. They are used to hold the soil down. Plants are grown on the eyelet spaces to establish a root system that would hold the soil further.
The Villar Foundation’s Coconut Coir and Peat Enterprise has successfully woven the perfect economic and ecological solution that would provide livelihood opportunities to housewives and their families. At the same time, it presents the perfect rehabilitation solution that would sustain the river in the years to come.
The Water Hyacinth Fiber Enterprise
One of the problems that the group encountered while cleaning up the river was the presence of water hyacinths there. These have impeded the clean up efforts as they have prevented barges from moving and collecting trash easily. Though a beautiful sight, these water hyacinths, which are commonly known as water lilies, have long been considered a pest. Since they are virtually indestructible, they trapped garbage and clogged the river. They also served as breeding places for the dreaded dengue mosquitoes.
The idea of using water hyacinths to make baskets and other things came from Mrs. Ophelia So, an exporter of hand woven baskets. When Mrs. Cynthia Villar learned that there is a market for hand woven baskets made of water hyacinth, she set out to form a skills training program in weaving dried water hyacinth stalks for women who live near the center and didn’t have a steady source of income. Townfolks who concentrated their efforts in harvesting and drying the water hyacinths to supply the Las Pinas Basket Weaving Center were also paid for their efforts. To date the women and men who chose to stay in the program cite water hyacinth weaving as their families’ main source of income.
Though there are no water hyacinth to harvest anymore since the river has long been cleared out of these pests, The Villar Foundation’s Water Hyacinth Weaving Enterprise still sourced out water hyacinths from the nearby Laguna Lake to sustain this thriving livelihood. This has manged to turn what once was considered an environmental pest into a medium where housewives’ excellent artistry and craftsmanship and love for their community resources come together.
The Handloom Blanket Weaving Enterprise
To revive the dying Filipino tradition of weaving fabrics and to help out a group of women who were earnest in their desire to learn the handloom weaving skill in order to earn a living that would augment their families’ expenses, The Villar Foundation, put up the Handloom Blanket Weaving Enterprise. Currently the blankets are not for sale and are distributed as part of relief operations for people rendered homeless by a typhoon. The money that is supposed to be used by the office of Senator Villar to purchase mats for relief operations is being used to buy the thread that will make these handloom blankets. The surplus income from the Coco Coir Enterprise is used to pay for the blankets made. Mrs. Roda Rodronio, project coordinator of the Handloom Blanket Weaving Enterprise shared that, “A weaver can make 3 handloom blankets a day and she is paid 165 pesos for every handloom blanket she makes.”
Through the Handloom Blanket Weaving Enterprises, The Villar Foudation has not only given these women a chance to earn money but the satisfaction in knowing that they can be productive members of the community as well. It has managed to uplift the quality of life of these women by arming them with the necessary skills needed to succeed in this enterprise. These women clearly are hanging on a thread where their futures seem to be pretty much laid down like a blanket of big possibilities. They have indeed proven that with their perseverance and diligence, they can weave a bright future for their families.
Solid Waste Management City Wide Practices
As part of their desire to come up with sustainable solution to the mounting garbage problem of Las Pinas, Mrs. Cynthia Villar through The Villar Foundation during her term as Congresswoman of Las Pinas, enjoined households to segregate their trash properly. Undaunted by the strong resistance from the people, she continued to mobilize this project with the help of priests, baranggay captains, and other concerned groups who set out to educate the residents of their moral and civic responsibilities to the environment. House to house education campaigns by different association were done. The plan was to turn the biodegradable into compost.
Bio-digesters were placed in each barangay. To provide livelihood assistance, each baranggay hired “bio-men” who will collect kitchen wastes from Monday to Saturday, starting at 7 o’clock in the morning. The wet garbage collected are then brought to the Bio-digester where they are processed and mixed with coco peat (coconut dust gathered from the coconut husk) and trichoderma enzymes to create organic fertilizers that condition the soil to become healthy. Part of the compost generated is used for the regreening and tree-planting programs in Las Pinas while the rest are bought by farmers from far provinces like Nueva Ecija to produce organic vegetables. The income derived from the sale of the composts are awarded to the barangay or subdivision housing association to support their environmental activities. Residual wastes such as those that cannot be recycled, reused or composted are manufactured and turned into construction materials like hollow blocks and pavers that the city government itself uses to beautify the whole of Las Pinas.
As what Barangay Captain Robert Villalon said, “Dito sa Las Pinas we use ecologically sound practices to manage our garbage. All our projects are designed to protect the environment.” From the looks of it, the residents of Las Pinas through the efforts of The Villar Foundation have indeed mastered the art of segregating sound environmental practices from those that are not thereby making Las Pinas not only a clean and green city but an Environmentally Friendly one at that too.
The Villar Foundation has indeed come a long way since its establishment in 1992 but for Mrs. Cynthia Villar, the work is far from over, she still has big dreams for Las Pinas and the Zapote River, “Pangarap ko magkaron ng sort of like River Cruise ang Zapote River. We plan make it a top tourist attraction. We will create a road along the river and eventually restaurants para maging river park sya. This would also generate more income opportunities for people. Gusto ko magkaron ng mga cultural presentations din like the one in Loboc River but something different something unique, something that we would really call our own.” As for advice on how to make a project a success, she has this to say, “Kailangan pasensyosa ka. Projects take time to complete, hindi mo dapat madaliin. You should have a clear vision and a plan on how to go about it and kailangan ikaw mismo tumututok sa project mo.”
The Villar Foundation, now on its 20th year, has successfully managed to transform the community and the lives of its people by creating various interpendent social enterprises that are specifically designed to empower them to live a life of economic independence while striking a balance between successful urban development and strong ecological management. Through the sound leadership of its Managing Director, Cynthia Villar, it has indeed proven that sustainable living right in the middle of the city is possible and that sustainable development can be achieved through the concerted efforts of each individual.