Professor celebrates Philippines typhoon recovery on Earth Day

Cliff Villa, an adjunct professor at Seattle University School of Law and an attorney for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, traveled to the Philippines to mark the reopening of the School of the SEA (Sea and Earth Advocates). Here is his account of the remarkable trip.

By Cliff Villa

boats in PhilippinesAbout midmorning, the fishing boats begin to arrive on the beach, wave after wave pulling up onto the white sands from all directions of the Visayan Sea. The local fisher folks, with their numbers swelling above 175 watercrafts, are coming to share in this jubilant day of celebration on Bantayan Island, the Philippines. The fisher folks are joined on the beach this glorious morning by a dizzying convergence of community leaders, family, and friends. Among the crowd gathering around me are two provincial governors along with sundry lawyers, doctors, teachers, students, architects, carpenters, cooks, ex-pats, community organizers, resort owners, and naval officers. We are here to celebrate and mark a special occasion and promise delivered: the rising of the School of the SEA (Sea and Earth Advocates) from the ravages of Typhoon Yolanda last November.

When Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan in the U.S.) made landfall in the Philippines on November 8, 2013, it struck with a fury never seen anywhere before, with record wind speeds leveling a direct hit on the Visayas Region of the Philippines, laying waste to the City of Tacloban and to countless towns, villages, homes, schools, businesses, and natural areas. With over 6,200 lives lost, it was the deadliest Philippine typhoon on record, and left vast numbers to suffer.   

As this major disaster unfolded in the Philippines, I happened to be teaching my course in Disaster Law at Seattle University School of Law. My students and I monitored the media for regular updates on the typhoon response, and Yolanda became a recurring subject of discussion in class. By the end of the semester, however, it became clear that the human impacts of Yolanda deserved more than talk in the classroom: this was a cause that demanded action. What emerged was a benefit concert hosted by the Seattle University Center for Environmental Justice and Sustainability. The benefit concert, featuring Filipino-American pop star A.J. Rafael, was held on January 16, 2014, with all proceeds going to help rebuild an extraordinary environmental education center on Bantayan Island known as the School of the SEA.

I first heard of the School of the SEA and its devastation by Yolanda in an email sent to environmental law professors five days after Yolanda made landfall. According to that first report, while everyone associated with the school survived the typhoon, five of the seven school buildings did not. The news of the school's devastation elicited support from law professors around the globe, both in contributions for reconstruction and in thoughts and prayers for the founder of the school, the renowned lawyer and law professor Tony Oposa, Jr.

Villa and Oposa"Attorney Oposa," as he is known on the island, ranks as one of the luminaries of international environmental law, known to lawyers, scholars, and jurists around the world. He is perhaps known best as the brilliant architect of Minors Oposa v. Factoran, a case in which Oposa represented his own children and 40 other children from all over the Philippines as plaintiffs concerned with the extinction of virgin forests in their country. In his great victory in that case before the Philippines Supreme Court in 1993, Oposa not only established for the children the legal standing to sue the government on behalf of future generations, he also won a ban on logging in the remaining 800,000 hectares of the Philippines' virgin forests. Moreover, and most notably, the case gave rise to the Oposa Doctrine, a new principle of law adopted by courts worldwide that allows for judicial enforcement of the concept of intergenerational responsibility. The Oposa Doctrine says, in other words, that the current generation owes a duty to our kids to protect their future world.

A series of other courtroom victories and environmental achievements followed, including another ruling by the Philippines Supreme Court in 2008 that required a timetable for the government to clean up Manila Bay. Tony Oposa also established task forces to stop illegal logging around the country and illegal fishing in the Visayan Sea. But beyond legal action, Oposa believes the best hope for the Earth lies in education, and for that reason, he established the School of the SEA on Bantayan Island in 2007. Since that time, the School of the SEA has served as a training center for children, teachers, fisher folk, ecotourism guides, and others whose lives and livelihoods depend on sustainable living. In his first report after assessing the impacts of Yolanda on the School of the SEA, Oposa acknowledged the devastation and heartache, but concluded, "You have my word: We will rise again . . . stronger and better than ever."

On April 16, 2014, I flew to the Philippines as an invited guest to see and help Tony keep his word. What followed was not so much assistance from me but my own education on the frontlines of disaster recovery. I observed the hundreds of families still living in tents provided by the UN Refugee Agency, but I also learned of one industrious nonprofit organization, Young Pioneer Disaster Response (www.ypdr.org), helping local carpenters build permanent, climate-resilient houses on the island for U.S. $700 in materials. I learned of visionary leaders such as Governor Alfredo Marañon, who supported efforts 40 years ago to restore the mangrove forests that helped protect shorelines in the Visayas region from greater damage by Yolanda. I learned about successful efforts to convert illegal fishers to fish wardens, to retrain fisher folks as eco-tour guides, and to encourage resort operators to preserve natural areas. 

Camp SEA groupOn April 21, 2014, all these people and many more, by sea and by land, converged upon the School of the SEA in celebration of its rising again from the devastation of Typhoon Yolanda. The day featured speeches, of course (including brief comments from me), but was mostly marked by hands-on demonstrations of the many activities supported by this wonderful institution. These included construction of "fish condos" using native materials to be sunk in the sea and serve as artificial reefs to help restore the native coral damaged by illegal dynamite fishing and the destructive power of the Yolanda sea surge. Activities also included tours on a glass-bottomed boat constructed with materials costing less than U.S. $1,000. (Funding from the Seattle University benefit concert, in fact, will help capitalize a micro-loan program in which local entrepreneurs can borrow money to build their own glass-bottomed boat and repay the loan with income from future ecotourism ventures.)

Finally, in addition to a great feast featuring local flora and fauna, the day of celebration included the relaunching of a boat stranded on the sands by Yolanda; with ropes, poles, and a small army of muscle, the 40-foot vessel was wrestled down the beach and back into the water, to begin a new life donated to the cause of fishing patrols.

SEA signOn the following day, Earth Day 2014, the School of the SEA was officially reopened and rechristened as "SEA Camp" to reflect the adaptability needed to survive in our changing climate. Reflecting the primary mission of SEA Camp, the Earth Day reopening featured an "eco-walk" of the school nature preserve guided by six local kids, ages 9 to 12. With shining smiles and beaming confidence, they became our teachers, presenting things they had learned about the local plants and birds, urban gardens, aquaculture, composting, water conservation, solar power, and other elements of a sustainable world. In a time and place where desperate poverty remains and future Yolandas loom, these kids - Julius, Wilman, Angel, Cris, Almero, and Jerold - may be the best hope for the Philippines, and indeed, the world.

Tony delivered on his promise that dark day last November: from the ravages of Typhoon Yolanda, SEA Camp has risen, stronger and better than ever, bringing lessons on sustainability for the children of the Visayas and offering insights on life for all the rest of us.

Cliff Villa teaches courses in disaster law and environmental law at Seattle University School of Law, represents the law school on the steering committee for the Seattle University Center for Environmental Justice and Sustainability, and serves as the faculty liaison for the Latina/o Law Students Association. In his job with the EPA, he provides legal counsel to the EPA Region 10 Emergency Management Program.  

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