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Sanctuary in a Damaged Land 2012

(Here, we share an article, about how Maryknoll center in the Philippines leads visitors through Earth’s evolutionary story. Written by Brian Roewe, the story was first published in National Catholic Reporter, Apr 13 - 26, 2012.) The story of the Maryknoll sisters in Baguio City, the Philippines, can remind one of Dr. Seuss’ classic story The Lorax https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lorax. Like the short-statured creature of the title, the sisters have resided in their environment for a long time, arriving in the northern Luzon region in 1928 and quickly establishing a school, one that welcomed generations of students until a 1990 earthquake split its foundation in two.

The quake disrupted not only the foundation of the Maryknollers’ buildings, but the very purpose of their mission in the Filipino city. When Maryknoll Sr. Ann Braudis and others reflect on the earthquake, they see it as a “mind quake,” that, like the Lorax, stirred in them to speak out and be a voice for not only the trees, but for the entire planet.

“What my companions (and I) became deeply aware of was how devastated the Earth had been in the Baguio area prior to the earthquake,” said Braudis, a Massachusetts native who arrived with other sisters shortly after the quake.

Recognizing the damaging effects gold mining and commercial growth had had on the region, the sisters reoriented their mission, choosing not to rebuild their schoolhouse, but instead construct a center for a broader audience and a larger purpose - teaching about the Earth.

In 1991, the sisters broke ground on the Maryknoll Sisters Center for Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation - popularly known as the Maryknoll Ecological Sanctuary - and opened it to the public in 1999 as a haven for the planet and a path toward a better understanding of the Earth’s journey.

“It serves as a great educational project,” said Braudis, the center’s first director, serving in that role until leaving in 2006 after 15 years in the Philippines.

Situated near the center of the city, the sanctuary covers four hectares (9.9 acres) of land in the Cordillera Central mountain range. The former Maryknoll house is now a bio-shelter, powered by solar panels, it houses an art gallery and serves as a retreat center, with a biodynamic vegetable garden nearby. Education continues through the Sunbeams daycare program, where preschoolers are introduced to environmentally conscious ideas.

Current center director Maryknoll Sr. Cathy Encarnacion sees the sanctuary as embodying the order’s deep commitment to the promotion, protection and rehabilitation of the Earth, and offering a way to invite people into a greater concern for creation.

“Being a haven of spirituality, justice, peace and integrity of creation, (the sanctuary) impacts tourists in various ways, both small and big,” said Ivee Bongosia, a volunteer at the center from 2009 to 2011.

For many, the first steps toward conservation education take place on what’s known as the “cosmic journey” - a stations-of-the-cross-esque nature trail that climbs and winds across the Maryknoll grounds and through time, chronicling the changes of the planet.

“It has to do with the overall evolutionary story of the Earth, but it is focused from a Filipino and northern Filipino perspective,” explained Braudis, who holds a doctoral degree in applied cosmic anthropology earned while in the Philippines.

Either on their own or with a guide, guests trek through the ground’s hilly, pined woods to 14 stations depicting signature moments in the Earth’s development, arriving first at the emergence of the universe - illustrated by a fire display amid primitive stone altars.

Other stations depict the creation of the oceans, with a majestic view of the South China Sea; the cave era, with replica dwelling and burial caves; and the hunting and gathering era, by crossing a replica of an ancient hanging bamboo bridge.

“The bridge sort of gives you a sense of spanning time and space and eras,” Braudis said.

At the end of the trail, guests return to the modern era, represented through a silo-shaped chapel in the bio-shelter. Braudis describes the era as “the awakening of humanity to the reality of our evolutionary story moving forward and … the dawning on humanity of the responsibility to collaborate and bring forth the future in a sustainable way.”

Local artists and engineers collaborated with Maryknoll in constructing each station and catering them toward the local culture.

“The people had a natural sense of earth literacy,” Braudis said.

“All of these steps were taken in conjunction with the people. We chose points in the whole mysterious unfolding of the universe, starting 13 and a half billion years ago, with pieces of that story that could be best represented and best understood there in Baguio.”

‘City of Pines’

For years, Baguio has been a popular tourist destination for the people of the Philippines. Sitting nearly a mile above sea level the “City of Pines” offers a cool, pleasant climate (80 degrees) to visitors seeking refuge from oppressive heat (100 degrees and up) elsewhere in the country during the summer season, which lasts from through May. For the world’s third-largest Catholic country, Holy Week in Baguio is a huge event, with tourists often inflating the city’s population threefold.

While most descriptions of Baguio will present a tropical paradise, the scene was quite different on Jul 16, 1990. At 4:26 p.m., a magnitude 7.8 earthquake shook the city for 45 seconds. Across the northern Luzon region, 1,621 people died.

In the aftermath, the Maryknoll sisters recognized how large-scale gold mining had left the ecosystem fragile and vulnerable to future natural disasters. At the time, the Baguio Mining District was viewed as he most important mining area in the country. For years before the quake, companies used bulk mining - removing large quantities of low-grade ore in order to separate the high-grade portions - to extract the gold, creating large tunnels underground but leaving the surface intact.

“When the earthquake happened, the surface of the land had already been very weakened,” Braudis explained. “It just seemed to myself and to the other Maryknoll sisters at the time that that mining practice, as well as other very destructive Earth practices like deforestation, needed to be brought into question.”

While the city is largely restored from the 1990 quake, it remains ecologically endangered. Located on an active tectonic zone and in the heart of the country’s typhoon belt, Baguio receives more rainfall than other Filipino cities and is vulnerable to flooding and landslides, disasters compounded by the area’s unstable ground.

In Aug, Typhoon Nanmadol triggered a series of landslides and flooded parts of town, killing eight people. In Nov the World Wildlife Fund for Nature-Philippines released a study naming Baguio as the Filipino city most vulnerable to climate change.

“The environmental problem overall just keeps getting worse and worse,”Braudis said. “And that’s basically because of unbridled for-profit corporations.” After the quake, miners switched to open-pit mining, which devastated the land’s surface, destroying the water table, as well as streams and lagoons. By 1999, the area was mostly mined out, with gold left only in more difficult-to-mine – and thus more expensive – areas. What remained was a destabilized surface and deforested area, leaving it vulnerable to landslides and future tremors.

Keeping vigilant

“What’s happening now is a consequence of all these big mistakes in the past, so I keep hoping that we’re at a turning point at the present time,” Braudis said.

Encarnacion, a native Filipina, said the sisters are active in preventing further damage. She said her order attends community consultations when mining companies and other businesses seek to alter the environment. A current campaign has the sisters joined in a fight to save hundreds of trees in downtown Baguio from giving way to a parking lot for a popular mall. But the ecological effort also requires reminding the region of its roots. Encarnacion said the sisters are working with indigenous Ibaloi people in “calling them back to reclaim their sensitivity and oneness with creation.” She said that for some, their concern for creation has submerged into their subconscious amid the city’s fast-paced modernization and development. To rekindle that spirit, the center’s Cordillera Cosmology project has begun documenting the rituals and practices of indigenous peoples through oral histories and translations.

While Encarnacion and her fellow Maryknoll sisters continue their vigilance in Baguio, Braudis has taken the cause to the United Nations, where she serves as Maryknoll’s main nongovernmental representative. There, she says the concern has shifted from a human-centered understanding of justice to one focused on the Earth.

“The movement and the thrust at the United Nations at this time is Earth rights, that that’s more fundamental than the human, and that human rights extend to us from the Earth itself,” she said.

It’s a message the Maryknoll sisters, like the Lorax, intend to continue sounding to the people of Baguio, amid continuing growth and modernization at the expense of the land’s well-being. However, unlike the Lorax, they don’t see themselves disappearing anytime soon. There’s still much to be done.