Aryada is the sort of place that’s best described as “picture postcard perfect.” An Aeta indigenous village, about a four hour drive north of Manila, in Bataan, Aryada is nestled in the midst of gently rolling hills and lush green vegetation.
When I first hiked here in January 2018 on a perfect blue sky day, my first impression of this community of 75 people was one of immense respect because it was clear they were living in perfect harmony with nature; clearly an area in which we city dwellers have a lot to learn.
Without saying a word, without even meeting anyone, I recall learning a key lesson: indegineous people and their traditional knowledge of deeply respecting nature has to be replicated at scale if we have to build a better planet and a sustainable future for our children.
That eventful day itself, I pledged to learn more from the people of Aryada. My learning, I decided, had to begin with listening.
As a first step in my journey, I got in touch with the National Commission on Indigenous People (NCIP), a national government agency, to help me formally make contact with the village’s chieftain, Ophelia Devilia.
After obtaining her consent and support, I began my meetings. Resident after resident told me they deeply valued their traditional way of life as hunters and gatherers. Furthermore, there was a deeply held community desire to protect nature. At all costs.
As the conversations progressed, villagers expressed a need for a solar powered battery-charging station. This, I learnt, would help each household charge a small battery, which they owned, so they could play music, watch DVDs on laptops and have some light after sunset.
Once we had established our mutual goals we met with the Local Government Unit (LGU) to get their blessings. At this point, we also formally signed a Memorandum of Agreement and I established contact with a renewable energy solutions provider, SolarSolutions and two of its co-founders, Raffy Concepcion and Rey Guerrero.
With their agreement, we began executing the will of the people of Aryada in earnest. SolarSolutions sent a field representative, Rick Laping, to stay in the village, gather detailed information on the residents and build a relationship with the community.
But this was more than just a fact finding mission and we all needed to be very mindful of personal safety. We were made aware of the presence of rebels (New People’s Army) in this region, who we were informed can sometimes `intervene’ if they perceive communities were being “exploited.’’
Luckily we were left to ourselves and our interactions established that our best chance of success would be to adopt a social entrepreneurship approach.
In line with this vision, we set up a 1kwp solar powered battery-charging station. We then trained two community leaders as operators. Additionally, the chieftain and treasurer were appointed as custodians of the money, which the community would contribute to the charging station.
It was mission critical for our project to have development impact. And it did. For instance, prior to the project, villagers traveled several miles to the closest town for their charging needs. Now they could charge their batteries and mobile phones in their own mountain community more conveniently and at half the cost.
All successful projects require a governance structure. As such, with the input of the community, we set up a maintenance fund. It was also agreed that the fund would be utilized for the upkeep of the equipment, repairs, and other emergency purposes. In consultation with the community, it was also decided that cash contributed to the fund was to be regularly deposited into a bank account. Another key administrative requirement was to make routine trips to the project to ensure all of the equipment and the project itself was functioning smoothly.
On some of these trips, I expected to hear that the community would be most excited about having access to electricity. However, I was thrilled to hear residents were pumped about the bank savings account. That’s when I learnt of the struggles indigenous communities endure in trying to open bank accounts. As a former banker, I was pleased to learn that the community was truly empowered by a passbook savings account. It was a humbling, yet heady moment.
Due to the extended and strict lockdown in Manila, I’ve been unable to visit the community. Despite this, my thoughts frequently wander to the community of Aryada, nestled in the beautiful Mariveles mountains with breathtaking views of Manila Bay. I know I will visit Chieftain Ophelia Devilia and her beautiful people again. Until then, I wish them good health and peace.
Dolma Bedi-Bindra is a former international banker, turned social entrepreneur who has lived and worked across North America, Africa and Asia. Dolma taught rural sustainable entrepreneurship in Western Kenya and has worked to empower women and youth in rural communities. She currently lives in Manila, Philippines where she continues to design projects to empower marginalized communities.
About the Author
Dolma Bedi-Bindra is a former international banker, turned social entrepreneur who has lived and worked across North America, Africa, and Asia. Dolma taught rural sustainable entrepreneurship in Western Kenya and has worked to empower women and youth in rural communities. She currently lives in Manila, the Philippines where she continues to design projects to empower marginalized communities. She is also a GEN Ambassador.