“This project is serious,” Casimiro Olvida said. “It will help the community. If you do not believe me, you can kill me anytime.” He recalled saying this in 1995 to Communist rebels in Mindanao who were suspicious that his USAID-funded team was supporting the Philippine government. We have the same goals, he told them, to help the poor and protect the environment. Apparently, he was convincing. Now Watershed Protection Project Manager of the Sarangani Energy Corporation, Olvida spoke in this week’s podcast with ECSP’s Lauren Risi, at the International Conference on Environmental Peacebuilding in October 2019, describing his decades of work in forest management in the Philippines.
As Senior Natural Resources Management Consultant of the USAID-funded Philippine Environmental Governance Project (EcoGov), also known as "From Arms to Farms,” Olvida aimed to deliver tangible livelihood assistance to former combatants and their families. Another main goal, he said, was to ensure adherence to the provisions of the 1996 peace agreement of the Philippine government and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) leaders to prevent further armed struggle.
The work could be scary, Olvida said. The MILF had not yet been in negotiations with the government, and facilitating those discussions proved to be challenging. He received death threats and was pressured to expedite the process, but he refused to take shortcuts. For the former combatants, the choice was simple, said Olvida. They could either follow the rules agreed upon by EcoGov and the MILF leaders, or they could take it up with their commanders. Given the choice, they always ultimately agreed to play by the rules. This progress made the work rewarding, despite the potential dangers.
Olvida’s efforts focused on integrating community-based approaches to forest management with local governments and engaging all actors in the space—including government officials, the indigenous community, and former MILF combatants. Much of his work required him to immerse himself in the culture of the communities affected by the armed conflict in Mindanao. He stayed in the villages with key leaders to learn more about the indigenous knowledge, systems, and practices for forest management.
The first step to community organizing is to immerse yourself, Olvida said of his 16-year stint getting to know the culture, leadership, and influencers of the community from the inside. By rejecting his privilege and choosing not to stay in a hotel, he was far more successful embedding himself and his project into the community. He was able to build trust and work effectively as part of the community to develop solutions for managing the natural resources in the area.
On the other side of EcoGov’s project, the community-based approaches and development goals needed to be absorbed into the policies and procedures of local government. For Mindanao, this process was largely successful with the creation of convergence initiatives, which enabled government agencies to work together on this issue area. Olvida cited governance as “the missing link” for implementation.
However, he acknowledged that it’s difficult to make progress on a project when funding stops. When newly appointed local government personnel lack forest management experience, they return to the old ways. Without consistent funding and an implementation system set in place, Olvida said, a forest management project cannot be sustainable.