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THE EPIC OF SAN FERNANDO
Amado Picardal
 

We are poor peasants,
living as small Christian communities
in a remote valley of San Fernando, Bukidnon.
We have lived amidst violence - the violence of poverty,
of a guerrilla war, of the destruction of our environment,
and the violence of the military.
But we have walked the way of peace - the way of the cross,
and have experienced its liberating power.

This is our story.

There was a time
when the mountains were green
and the river was blue.
The heavy rains did not flood our farms.

Nor did the long hot summer parch the land.
That was before the logging companies came.
They were owned by the politicians and protected by soldiers.
We watched helplessly as the trucks passed by
carrying away the logs to be shipped to foreign lands.
We signed petitions asking the government
to stop the loggers from turning our land into a desert
and our river into a highway.
But we never got any response.

Then the Redemptorist Mission Team came.
Priests, brothers, sisters and lay missionaries.
They lived among us and worked with us
to build Christian communities.
In our nipa huts late at night,
and
in our bamboo chapels on Sundays

we came together to listen to the Word
and to listen to each other's words.

We realized that to be true Christians
it was not enough to worship and to read the Bible.
We have to care for others and care for the earth.
We have to defend the forest - which is our home,
the home of our neighbors - the native Dumagats and Subanons,
the home of the birds, the animals and the wild plants.

We heard that the guerrillas -
who called themselves the people's army
wanted to help us with their guns.
But we preferred to struggle in our own way -
the way of the cross.
We were prepared to give up our life
but we would never take the life of another.

The day came when we gathered
on the road where the logging trucks pass.
There were several hundred of us -
men, women, children and old people.
We barricaded the road with our bodies
and the logging trucks could no longer pass.
It was like a fiesta. We sang and danced,
we shared our food with one another
and with the loggers who were stranded.
It was a real communion.

The priests, the brothers, sisters
and lay missionaries were with us.
Even the Bishop came one night to pray with us.
They listened to us when we shared with them our stories
and our reflections on the Word of God
and on the unfolding event.
It was our turn to proclaim and witness the Gospel.

Those who did not join us taunted us.
They said that we will never succeed.
We were poor, powerless and few
and we were up against rich businessmen
and powerful politicians
who were protected by the military
and who could bribe the corrupt judges.

On the thirteenth day in the barricade
while celebrating the Eucharist with our parish priest
a truckload of soldiers came carrying an order from
the judge to disperse us.
They beat us without mercy.
They did not spare the old people and the pregnant women.
They even beat the statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
We did not resist them. We turned the other cheek.
While they kept on beating us, we sang the "Our Father"
with tears in our eyes.

When they brought our parish priest to the camp
we also went with him.
We told the soldiers that if they will imprison him
they will also have to imprison all of us.
They finally told all of us to go home with our priest.

We went back to the side of the road that we used to barricade
and watched helplessly as the logging trucks passed by.
We prayed and cried. We were defeated.
It was our Good Friday. The sky darkened
and the heavens wept with us unceasingly.

It rained day and night for a couple of weeks.
And the river rose and the overflowing waters dashed against
the bridge where all the logging trucks pass.
And the bridge collapsed.
And the road leading up to the logging camp was blocked by a landslide.
The logging operations were stopped.
Nature continued the barricade for us.
When we gathered the following night to pray
on the side of the road where the logging trucks used to pass.
we all praised and thanked God who has not abandoned us.

A few weeks later we were ordered to appear in court
before the corrupt judge.
We filled the courtroom - men, women, children, old people.
We were not afraid even if we were poor and powerless
because we believed that God's Spirit was with us.
We were charged with violating the law
and causing the logging companies huge loss of profits.
They wanted twelve million pesos for damages.
The judge scolded us as if we were naughty children
and set the date for our trial.
We knew that the judge was on the side of the loggers.
Our main worry was where to get that huge amount of money
to pay the loggers if we lose the case.

Meanwhile, the newspapers, the TV and radio
begun to report our story.
Suddenly the conscience of many all over the country was awakened.
They realized that our problem was also their problem.
Many began to show their support.
And there were even others in different parts of the country
who followed our example.
Our voice was beginning to be heard
and finally, the President of the Philippines
ordered a stop to the logging operations in San Fernando.

When we heard the good news
our tears of sorrow became tears of joy.
Our suffering had not been in vain.
We thanked God by celebrating the Eucharist
and by having an instant fiesta.
It was our Easter Sunday.
When we went back to the courtroom
The judge reluctantly dropped all charges against us.

A few months later a pastoral letter of the Bishops' Conference
was read in all the catholic Churches
and chapels all over the archipelago.
It spoke about the ecological crisis in our country.
And it mentioned the struggle of the people of San Fernando
as a sign of hope and as an example for all.
We could not believe that we in our insignificance
and powerlessness can make a difference.

Our story and our struggle should have ended then.
But it did not.
One year later we discovered
that while the logging had stopped in San Fernando
it continued in the neighboring mountains.
We realized that even if it happened in other places
we would be affected because we were all connected.
And so we found ourselves once again in the barricade
far away from home - in the provincial capital.
This time we were more numerous
because the people from the neighboring areas joined us.
We wanted the logging to be stopped
in the entire province of Bukidnon.

At first we pitched our tents outside the office
of the Department of Natural Resources.
They just ignored us.
And on the fifth day we transferred to the checkpoint
in the national highway where all the logging trucks
usually stop for inspection.
We took over the place and set up a human barricade.
And all the logging trucks could no longer get through.
The soldiers came and they could not disperse us.
The truck drivers tried to drive through the barricade.
Some of us placed some spikes on the road
and when one truck tried to run us down
the tires were punctured and the truck with the logs
almost turned over.
We were filled with remorse realizing that
the driver could have been hurt or killed.

Once again the newspapers, radio and TV
reported our story.
Finally, the President's cabinet member
who was the head of the Department of Natural Resources
heeded our request for a dialogue.
He came all the way from the national capital
Riding on a helicopter to meet with us.
After listening to us he granted most of our demands.
He told us the logging in the neighboring mountains and
towns would be stopped
He asked us to help in the greening of the brown mountains
And to help guard the forest.
We went home rejoicing and thanking God once again
for not abandoning us.
The Eucharist became a victory celebration.

Now the logging companies have disappeared from San Fernando
and from the neighboring mountains of Bukidnon.
The trees that we have planted are growing.
When our children grow up they will see green mountains
and they can swim and fish in the blue river without fear.
The heavy rains will not flood their farms
Nor the long hot summers parch the land.
They will remember us for what we did for them.
And they will remember the wonderful things God has done for us.