It’s not God’s Fault

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 37, Pentecost 2006
Shay Cullen

To feel the pain and terrible evil that the corruption of government and the greed of the rich loggers inflict upon the poor of the Philippines, just try to imagine a million tons of rocks and mud burying you or your family in an instant. One minute you are at home or at school. Then you are plunged into a dark dungeon of death.

The sound of the roof crashing and collapsing around you is terrifying. There are cries and screams, then silence. The weak moans of a few begging for help from the darkness tells you some are still alive. Only moments remain before you are to be crushed to death by a hundred tonnes of rocks and dirt.

All you have is your mobile phone. Its weak light shows there is still a signal but your plight is impossible. You weep uncontrollably and punch out a last text message, a plea for help, a faint hope and send it as you lie dying with the oxygen running out. Begging to be saved, you die. Don’t blame God and nature. Instead hold accountable those who have cut down the trees and planted coconuts.

This is the situation of the vanished village of Guinsagon outside the town of Leyte in the Philippines after a mudslide on 17 February this year. Hundreds were buried alive and no one could reach them.

Rescue teams rushed to this remote place and they were astounded by what they saw. Half the mountain had avalanched down to bury an entire population. There were several hundred children and their teachers in school when the earth moved. The land had nothing to hold it back. Deep-rooted trees had long been logged. Nature had been abused and left vulnerable. To typhoons and torrential rain that is the climate of this central part of the archipelago.

Without nature’s network of roots and rocks, disaster was inevitable. The almost rootless coconut trees planted by wealthy families to exploit the denuded earth were no match for the massive rainfall, the weight of soil and rock and the pull of gravity.

The coconut trees were sitting on what was, after three weeks of rain, a soaked sponge. Then the rotation of the earth and the massive pull of gravity brought down the land in a great avalanche of death and destruction. It was nature unleashed. But not by any act of God but clearly from the inevitable acts of avarice and greed, human plunder and the pernicious abuse of power.

The local people who rushed to the scene saw nothing but a sea of mud and rocks into which the mud sucked and dragged them down with every step. Only a few were pulled free, faint-hearted with fright.

The mountain that partially collapsed burying Guinsaugon village left 990 officially missing and presumed dead, 248 being school children and their teachers who were inside a school that is no longer visible. At the time of writing, more that 3000 people in eight other villages remain threatened by further landslides.

Dozens of landslides kill hundreds of people every year all over the Philippines, but most are never reported. They are the direct result of rampant logging and mining activities.

Don’t blame an act of nature, a climatic event or the hand of God. Officials from the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and politicians support the issue of logging permits and licences to their friends. And relatives. They have to answer for the death of many.

Fr Shay Cullen is a Columban priest working in the Philippines. This article was originally published in The Far East, May 2006.

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