A big but very gentle footprint

Today, 16 September 2014, together with five other remarkable individuals with extraordinary contributions to our national life, the Ateneo de Manila University confers posthumously on Reverend Delbert Rice the 2014 Parangal Lingkod Sambayanan. The university award is in recognition of Pastor Rice’s pioneering efforts in sustainable upland development, agro-forestry, land rights protection, education for indigenous peoples, and institution building. To me, however, and to many of us who knew the good reverend up close and personal, the award is for much more than that.

I still remember the first time I met Pastor Delbert Rice sometime in 1990 in a meeting in Cebu City. I had just become a lawyer and was working with the Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center – Kasama sa Kalikasan, a group I had co-founded in 1987 with Marvic Leonen (now Supreme Court Justice), Gus Gatmaytan (anthropologist, lawyer, and currently professor at the Ateneo de Davao University, and Nonette Royo Fay (now an international lawyer based in Bali, Indonesia). We were young lawyers then, armed with legal knowledge and imbued with passion to change the Philippines and the world, committed specially to become advocates for indigenous peoples and local communities. So in that meeting in Cebu, I expected to know the most about natural resources and environmental laws. Instead, I found myself listening to this American missionary – by then he had been in the Philippines for thirty plus years, most of which was spent in Imugan, Nueva Vizcaya working with the Ikalahan, an indigenous people – sharing his insights and practical wisdom about what worked and did not.

For the next twenty years, Pastor Rice would continue to teach me, as he did with many others, He taught us about social forestry, organic farming, social entrepreneurship (before we called it that), community based natural resource management, safeguarding ancestral domain rights, challenging extractive industries like mining, and how to adapt to as well as maximize opportunities provided by climate change. I worked with him early in as a fellow indigenous peoples’ and environmental advocate; collaborated with him in the 1990s, when I was an environment undersecretary, to secure the ancestral domain rights of the Ikalahan; and lately, we worked together on mining and other sustainable development issues. But for me above all, it was how he lived his life that was the biggest lesson.

As the Ateneo citation points out, Pastor Delbert Rice arrived in the Philippines in 1956 with his wife and two very young sons (five others would be born in the Philippines; in addition, he took on the care of many wards). By 1965, he began his pastoral work with in Imugan and he never left.

Being an engineer and anthropologist, Pastor Rice applied all that he knew to help the community he was pledged to serve.  Indeed, they became his life’s work; aside from working with the Ikalahan to conserve and develop their natural resources, he also documented their language, history and music, and culture. Among others, he wrote Life in the Forest: Ikalahan Folk Stories and Ecology: Ti Urnos Ti Lubong, based on Kalahan ecology principles.

Pastor Rice also emphasized the importance of education among the Ikalahan and established the Kalahan Academy where the teachers developed a curriculum that is customized for indigenous groups. The children of Pastor Rice also studied in the academy that teaches the history of the indigenous group, skills and technologies for life in the uplands, and ecology or the relationship between people and environment.

Undoubtedly, it was his work on the environment and natural resources that Pastor Rice will be remembered most. He was instrumental in transforming the landscape of the Caraballo Mountains where the Ikalahan live and where they became a widely known example of the way livelihoods and ecological concerns can be combined.The success of this work became so well known that an earthworm, Archipheretima ricei, was named to honor Pastor Rice in 2009. For those of us who knew him as someone so close to nature and always down to earth, that honor was so appropriate.

Pastor Rice must also be remembered as an institution builder. Among others, he founded the Kalahan Educational Foundation and Philippine Association for Intercultural Development and was active in steering such influential organizations as the Non-Timber Forest Products – Exchange Programme for South and Southeast Asia, and the Civil Society Counterpart Council for Sustainable Development.

There was of course a cost to pay for the environmental advocacy work that Pastor Rice did without fear. Due to his leading role in advocating indigenous peoples’ rights, which included resisting large projects such as road construction for golf courses and mining operations, some vested interests filed over three dozen cases for his deportation from the country. Thankfully, none of these prospered and we continued to benefited from Pastor Rice presence,

Indeed, until the end of his days, Pastor Rice taught me. The last time I saw him was in Cagayan de Oro. It was sunset and we were looking down at the Cagayan river from the house of Nonette and Chip Fay, and I remember asking him: “How do you do it, Delbert; in your 80s, you are still up and about, still pushing for change, retirement seems to be not an option?” He looked at me, with that gruff smile, and said: “It’s a matter of duty, Tony.”

Surrounded by his family and friends, at 86 years old, Pastor Delbert Rice passed to eternal life on 8 May 2014 in his beloved Imugan. Immediately, when I heard the news, I posted this in Facebook:

“I could never imagine that he will one day leave us. Pastor Delbert Rice, who influenced me in so many ways I cannot count them. American but more Filipino than many of us, the most idealistic but also pragmatic to the extreme, always frank and spoke truth to power, but never unkind and violent. He was a friend of indigenous peoples, who lived among them without judgment and much love. Once, when I was a high level government official in charge of the environment of the country, he insisted that I go up the mountains with him to see the truth and breathe the good. And there I saw him with his people and how much they loved each other. And there I saw a witnessing of a faith that does justice, lives integrity and brings mercy. Borrowing the words of  Nina Galang not to grieve but to celebrate a life well-lived, with a footprint so big yet gentle, because indeed Pastor Rice was a giant who lived among us.”

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