Nila Mendez, 57, who, according to her neighbors, cares for the mangroves of Baseco as if they were her children, told us she was asking God that near the end of her life He give her a small nipa hut on stilts alongside the mangroves, but out of the reach of floodwaters. There, she said, she would rise at dawn and watch her mangroves blowing in the wind and growing strong. It was such a pretty scene she described that my wife and I prayed: “Why not two houses, Lord? One for Nila and one for us?”
Meanwhile in his retirement home in Antipolo, Bishop Julio Labayen, OCD, also rises at dawn, says Mass, and then watches the acacia and fruit trees in his compound. “God is in the trees,” the bishop told us when we visited him not too long ago.
Nila spends her days tending to the mangrove trees that protect the western end of Baseco from the storms that roar in from Manila Bay. She removes the rubbish that people have thrown among the plants as well as the garbage that comes from the bay and the Pasig River. She waters the plants during hot summer days. She gets her water from a well she dug in the sandy ground near the plants. She protects the plants “because they are the children of God.”
She fights with people who don’t listen to common sense. She is there all day long, like one of the old pagan gods at the edge of the rice fields, and she does all this freely. Her son gives her food. Kabalikat, the people’s organization, gives her a little money from time to time and some food. But she is basically a volunteer.
During the habagat (monsoon) in July, a storm broke the bamboo fence protecting the plants from the garbage. A total of 259 plants died, according to Nila. She seems to know each plant. She went right away to Kabalikat to get help. She gathered an army of volunteers and repaired the fence.
Tending to mangroves in an urban-poor area is hard work, Nila told us. “Taking care of them is like taking care of human beings. I tell young people, ‘Take care of mangroves and in the future they will protect you and your families. You’ll remember me then, because I will be buried right there near the mangroves.’”
Many know of Bishop Labayen’s long struggle for justice for farmers and for the tribal people in the mountains behind Infanta, and his and his people’s heroic efforts for many years to save the forests there. Only a few know of Nila’s story. She left college in Bohol at age 17, when she became pregnant and married a man she described as a boozer, a womanizer, a violent man who beat her, and a gambler. He had all the vices, she said. She paused to reflect, and then added, with an amused shake of her head: “I know everything about men.”
Isn’t there some relative in every family who is supposed to look out for the women of the family and make sure they are treated fairly in life? I think of Sonny, Don Vito Corleone’s son, in “Godfather.”
Nila came to Baseco in 2007, but she had been in Manila long before that. She worked in factories; she scavenged; she waited on customers in shops. She worked in the “Wet and Wild Karaoke Bar” as waitress, singer, accountant and manager. She worked with a Chinese man named Yu. “Were you his girlfriend?” a woman in the group listening to us asked, and everyone laughed. She sang in different bars, she said. She must have been a pretty young woman, with her sleepy eyes.
“If the plants are happy, I am happy and God is happy,” Nila said. “I tell Papa Jesus that the plants are not so strong, so he should help them and not let the water lilies come near them.” She speaks a different theological language than Bishop Labayen, but it carries the same essential message: We are all God’s creatures. He lives in all of us.
She showed us wounds on her arms and legs. “I get wounds, but no infection from leptospirosis (rat infection). I get so wet when the storms come, I’m afraid I’ll get a fever, but Papa Jesus helps me. Papa Jesus, I trust you!”
She said she tells young people: “Respect the plants; take care of them. Some listen to me.”
Such a dedicated woman can inspire a community to plant groves of mangroves to protect the people’s homes and give life to millions of fish and a home for small birds. It seems that Nila has tapped into traditional rural values linked with the soil, plants and animals. If the ecological and environmental movements can also tap into these values and avoid all touches of elitism, our movements will have a huge, widespread success. We will have a rich, irresistible future.
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Urban agriculture is spreading in Baseco. We were told that 500 of the 700 or so full-time members of Kabalikat have urban gardens. The women listening to us told us they were each growing about P30 worth of vegetables every week. They said they were planting camote tops, pechay, tomatoes, and a long list of other vegetables.
Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (firstname.lastname@example.org).