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Katrin Hartmann
From an island paradise into the Eberswalde Forest

University of the Philippines-Diliman student Gino Carlo Garcia
University of the Philippines-Diliman student Gino Carlo Garcia | Photo (detail): © Jeffrey Hernaez

Gino Carlo Garcia doesn’t stand out in Manila. He has pinned his deep black hair backwards with a hair clip and his white teeth flash with every smile. At the University of the Philippines Diliman in Quezon City in the metropolitan area of Manila, he resembles every other student. And yet, many things are different for the 33-year-old.

By Katrin Hartmann

It's the first time he's seen his home in two years. “It's funny to be here again”, he says in accent-free German. “A lot has happened in the past 24 months”, says the student, who is studying “Global Change Management” at the University for Sustainable Development in Eberswalde (HNEE) and has just finished collecting data for his thesis in Manila. For example, for the first time in his life he was able to touch snow. “I was scared”, he says, but then laughs. “I had only seen snow in blockbuster movies. Snow - for me, it always entailed a storm or another catastrophe. It's uncanny how this image shaped me”. He also suffered a small culture shock after his arrival in Germany. Suddenly, he was faced with only white faces, plenty of rain, cold weather and not much rice. However, the warmth returned quickly, thanks to a sincere welcome in Eberswalde. “I wasn't the only one who was new at the HNEE. It was very easy to find friends and a shared room”, says the Masters student. A sponsorship program at the university helped him overcome the bureaucratic hurdles of everyday life and to understand public transport.

things were rumbling in his homeland

At the same time things were rumbling on the other side of the globe in his homeland - particularly, close to his birthplace of Iligan City on Mindanao, the most southern island region of the archipelago in the South China Sea. The images from Marawi, a predominantly Muslim city, are still deeply engraved in the memory of many Filipinos today: Bombs, gunfire, deaths, injuries, hostages, destroyed buildings, people without shelter or belongings.

Following an attack by government troops on - according to media reports - 100 Islamist rebels, President Rodrigo Duterte imposed martial law in Marawi City in May 2017. The fundamentalist rebels took prisoners, occupied parts of the inner city and raised the “Islamic State” (IS) flag. Shortly thereafter, the military began its counterattack with air strikes.

As reported by the Foreign Office, President Duterte originally pursued a peace process with the Muslim and Communist rebels. A ceasefire agreement now exists with the Moro Islamic Liberation Fighters (MILF). However, according to the Foreign Office, negotiations with the communist insurgents of the New People's Army (NPA) have developed in a different direction. After experiencing ongoing attacks by NPA forces on the Philippine army, the government ended negotiations.

Gino Garcia can still remember this negotiation process very well. He was also involved in peace-building himself via a project initiated by the President's Office. On several occasions, he travelled to the conflict region on Mindanao on behalf of the Philippine government. Together with other project workers Gino logged violent incidents and destruction and sent assessments back to Manila. “It's sad, but the conflict became normal for me”, he says. He was hardly allowed to take a single step without a military escort. One experience allowed him to profoundly grasp the harsh reality of the conflict. “The mayor of one of the affected cities was killed by rebels”, he says. “A short while later I met his widowed wife. The whole situation upset and angered me deeply”, he recalls. “Everything is political somehow”.

Since the end of 2017, President Duterte has officially declared the NPA and the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) as terrorist organisations. In his announcement, he spoke of an “all out war”, a war that would be waged against the separatists by all means necessary. Gino Garcia still carries the memory of this event. For the time being, as the second Philippine student at the HNE Eberswalde, he is concentrating on his degree.

A dream came true

After helping to clean up Taifun Washi on behalf of the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ), which cost the lives of more than 1000 people in his hometown Iligan and injured around 2000 in 2011, he met his predecessor Kay Kristine Alave. “Kay told me about the degree course. I couldn’t let go of the thought. Even in the jungles of Mindanao, I was constantly thinking about how to get to Eberswalde”. Especially after the impact of the typhoon, he was inspired by the idea of learning at a school that focused on the environment and sustainability. With a scholarship from the Heinrich Böll Foundation, his dream finally became a reality. “My family is very proud. It's a very special thing for Filipinos to study in Germany”.

Around 40 percent of the students enrolled on his course come from other countries, 60 percent from Germany. “A great mix”, he says. Some of the environmental issues raised during his studies have left him feeling disillusioned. “Certain topics are frustrating. It's frightening how many people in the world have no knowledge of environmental problems”. To change that, Gino and other students publish a Vlog on YouTube interviewing experts in the Berlin S-Bahn – a train line that circles around the German capital. The aim is to create more awareness for environmental issues and change in that matter. 

At that thought, he also considers metropolitan Manila's biggest problem: traffic. One scene is repeated on the streets everyday. Bumper to bumper, cars, buses, scooters, trucks and other vehicles are crawling across the main traffic routes at a snail's pace, wrapped in a thick cloud of exhaust fumes.

Therefore, in his final thesis, the Master's student will also address the introduction of an environmental tax in the Philippines - a tax on carbon, plastics, waste and others. Is it feasible? Gino Garcia isn't sure yet. “I'm not the first person to have ideas about this topic. Ultimately, a lot depends on political processes”, he says. If he could import anything from Germany to the Philippines he’d choose the public transport system and cycling culture. “I've already convinced two of my friends in Manila to ride their bikes every day”, he says.

Gino still isn’t sure what will happen after he graduates. However, he intends to make the most of the visa, which will allow him to stay in Germany for a further 18 months. One thing that’s certain is: Environmental issues will continue to concern him - perhaps for Gino they will become a gateway between the island paradise and the Eberswalde forest? With his background, he certainly has the best prospects to achieve this.