Letter to a young mountaineer, VII: The calling

You thought that the mountains will always be there, but slowly, you realise that they are not as changeless as they seem. You were told that one of the mountains you had climbed was going to be mined, and you felt pained and angered. How, you thought, can people do such a thing to a mountain?

On one hand, you say you don’t want to be involved. These, you say, are larger issues that are beyond your scope as a mountaineer. But deep within you, there is a voice telling you that you must do something. After having professed your love for the mountains, you also feel that failure to act is to let the mountains down.

Sadly, we live in a troubled world, and our environment is constantly under threat by humanity. The harmony between man and nature – sought by enlightened thinkers throughout the centuries – have eluded us, brought upon by the greed of some, and the inevitable march to “progress”. Trails have turned into roads, which have turned into highways. The humble adobe serenaded by birds has grown into a village, then a town, and then a big city: the birds have fled and gone. Change, inexorable, forces us to choose not between good and evil, but between two forms of “good”: shall we preserve the trail as it is, or shall we built the road that means jobs, education, and better health for others? To these questions there are no easy answers.The first thing you need to do is know the facts. What exactly is happening? What do the people most intimately involved with the situation feel about it? An advocate must foremost be a listener. Even if you don’t agree with what they say, you must show them respect, for respect is the cornerstone of persuasion.

Second, you need a philosophy to guide your actions. A philosophy not based on emotions alone (“I love the mountains!”) but on principles based on evidence and logic. My stand, for instance, is that promoting and protecting the mountains can go hand in hand, because to appreciate the mountains, one must have visited them first, and this appreciation is the beginning of advocacy and action. I also believe that by providing alternative jobs to those who earn their living through destructive forest practices, ecotourism can indirectly aid in the fight against deforestation. These positions inform my view that people should be allowed to enjoy and discover the mountains – provided that they do it in a responsible way.I also believe that economic development alone is not a convincing argument to justify the destruction of the environment. The mountains are a priceless resource, a sanctuary both to wildlife and the communities that live in their slopes. The poor cannot defined solely by their poverty, but by their freedom to continue their ways of life. You cannot offer them minimum-wage jobs in exchange for their homes. You cannot paint a picture of short-term economic development without showing the long-term consequences.

Do your research. Look to history, because many of the problems we face today are age-old, and we must learn from the wisdom that the past can bring us. The history of mining in the Philippines, for instance, is full of towns made desolate by mining, with perennial floods a result of the degradation of the mountains. Use that to inform your present stands. But be open to other ideas and possibilities. Do not just look to history to prove your point; allow yourself to be proven wrong – and be wiser.

Do not be a blind activist, repeating the refrain of so many without reflection. Be skeptical of people whose agenda is made up of what they oppose, without making clear what exactly they support.

Shout once and people will look at you, but keep shouting and eventually they will cover their ears. Do not diminish your ability to make people listen. Know that you can only fight so many battles at any given time.

Lend your voice to others, and allow others to lend you their voices. There is strength in numbers, and the greatest comfort of an advocate is knowing that he is not alone. Democracy, they say, is a numbers game, but all too often the majority is cowered into silence. By being a leader that represents their sentiments and feelings, you can awaken them into solidarity and action.

Others will be cynical, and say that nothing can be done. Do not mock them, or hate them for their cynicism. They too, were dreamers once, and can be dreamers once again, if you can help them open their eyes to the horizons of possibility.

Then there will be some who will disagree with you in some of your positions. Show respect for their perspectives. You can never persuade everyone to agree with you in everything. But if they truly love the mountains, you will be able to find common ground. Some people will say that only 10 hikers should hike at a time; others might say 30. Surely, both groups will agree that 50 or 100 is too much. Some people will say that “responsible mining” is possible; others say that mining in the country should no longer be allowed. Both groups will agree that irresponsible mining should be stopped, and that environmental and social impacts must be properly assessed. Of course, there will be instances when you will have to disagree with people. Even so, keep showing them respect.

Never underestimate the environmentalism of small things. There are those who heroically stand between the chainsaws and the trees, but it is equally important to spread the consciousness of leaving the environment as pristine as when we arrived. Small things like proper waste disposal – on and off the trail – can make a big difference, not just in itself but in the attitude that they build among the mountaineers, especially the youth. Surely, if you are concerned about a trail that’s dirty, then you will be even more concerned with a mountain that’s about to be destroyed or deforested.

In whatever you do, focus on the positive. Base your actions on the hope that things can be better. Look to the mountain for inspiration. Think of the beautiful views and the fascinating wildlife that have filled your heart with happy memories.

It is very easy to a upload a picture of campsite filled with trash, or rant about the state of the mountains today – it will likely gain a lot of attention, and incite people’s emotions. But a thousand Facebook posts cannot plant a single tree, or pick up a single piece of trash. To have clean mountains, we need dirty hands. Indeed, taking a leaf from Ross Perot, an activist is not the man who complains that the mountain is dirty, but the man who cleans up the mountain.There are times when we must act. To paraphrase Edmund Burke, the only thing necessary for the destruction of mountains is for the people who love them to do nothing. The mountaineer who professes his love for the mountains must choose between the easy road of acquiescence, or the difficult trail of defiance.  It is not easy. There will those who will hate you, and even threaten you. Many have died fighting for the trees, for the birds, for the forests, and for the mountains. Many have died fighting for the people who live in the mountains; and many of them who are living in the mountains have been driven away.

Then, there will also be the indifference of those you had expected to be behind you. Vocal as they may be on the Internet, very few people will back their words with actions.

Finally, there will be those who, despite your good intentions, impute in your actions ulterior motives. They will try to find something wrong, something negative, something sinister, even when you are clearly on the same side they profess to belong to. They will expose, and magnify, your imperfections even as you do your best. These are the people who can hurt you the most, and make you disillusioned about the nature of humanity.

Amid these painful truths, you have to persevere and be brave. Free yourself from the impossible task of trying to please everybody, because as an advocate, your concern is not to be popular, but to be useful. Just as oxygen is thin on high altitude, so is courage in short supply in lofty endeavours. But just as you, as a mountaineer, have inspired others to climb, surely you will also inspire others to protect the mountains, and they in turn will give you the strength that you need to press on. Remember, no matter how bleak the situation is, there will always be people who will share your cause, and if you join hands, I believe that you will be able to make a difference.
The mountains were calling, and you said you must go. Now the mountains are calling for help, and you must answer.
Gideon Lasco
Los Baños, Laguna
July 1, 2015

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