Saturday, October 27, 2012

Noah’s Ark in the Age of Reality TV

If something similar to the great 2011 Tohoku earthquake happens in the Philippines, which is not an impossibility, the entire country will be paralyzed for 10 to 15 years. This is the dire prediction of Ed Guevara, a Swiss-Filipino farmer, eco-village advocate, and visionary. “It will take that long, IF we recover at all,” he emphasizes, “but with a government like this, where will you go?”

A dream in his heart

Guevara was born to a poor family that could not afford to send him to college. But he wanted so badly to become an oceanographer and explore the vast seas that he took on a janitorial job just to pay for a scuba diving course. Eventually, he married a Swiss national and they built a family in Geneva. Guevara studied and worked as a banker abroad and lived the good life with his wife and two children. But a thought kept nagging at him: “How could I feel comfortable when I knew that my relatives, like other families in the Philippines, were struggling to survive?”

The birth of GEO Farm and the Eco-village

While in Switzerland, Guevara visited the Health and Nutrition Solvita Exhibit where he discovered the Blue-Green Algae, the Spirulina Platensis. After studying the history and the nutritional effects of Spirulina, an idea was hatched in Guevara’s mind to use this specific type of algae to fight malnutrition in his home country. In 1992, Guevara established GEO Farm in Pangasinan and set up a small-scale Spirulina production facility within a self-sufficient farm. He was convinced that a family-based integrated farm can help countless people escape the eternal cycle of poverty and food shortage.

Tour de force

After helping families and communities by way of conducting training programs on survival, emergency and disaster response, and sustainable communities—on top of his work with the Spirulina farms—Guevara has, after two decades, come to develop his master work: The Rescue Village.

“I’m an emergency guy,” Guevara says, “When I see people doing it wrong, I am so disturbed because I know there is a way to do it better.” He hopes that people would stop depending on the government and start doing what they can on their own. This is the driving force behind his Rescue Village idea, Guevara’s personal contribution to the emergency response efforts in the Philippines.

Disaster response, Philippine style

Guevara laments the fact that in the Philippines, the safety and comfort of people during tragedies are not given enough importance. “Shelters are temporary, and usually these are set up in basketball courts, gymnasiums, or schools,” he explains. “It’s always a stop gap solution.” Classes get disrupted, there are no clean comfort rooms and clean water, and people stay in hot, cramped spaces, making them susceptible to diseases.

The rubber boats that are commonly used by our rescue forces are too expensive, aside from being too bulky for narrow streets. They are also not very sturdy as they could burst and sink easily. “Disaster response training courses don’t empower the people,” Guevara says, “They leave you with a piece of paper and some first aid techniques that are useless when you don’t even have a boat or a life vest.”

The power of media

Media becomes a very powerful tool not only during emergency situations, but also before and after disaster happens. But in the Philippines, unfortunately, mass media do not serve the interests of the masses. According to Guevara, media should know what to do during disasters, and media men should not simply go out and look for sob stories, film people in distress, highlight their tears and suffering. “They should guide the people, tell them what to do,” he says. “Instead of entertaining us, media should educate us.”

Guevara believes that this emotional devastation, which we are so used to, “is a disaster in itself, thank you to all these drama shows”. Instead of empowering people to overcome their problem, they are taught to wallow in their emotions, dragging the entire nation down with them towards helplessness and misery.

Before disaster strikes

Having observed how things are done in Switzerland, where they have supposedly prepared well-equipped relocation areas within their mountains to accommodate 48 million people, Guevara suggests the creation of a rescue village in every community. “And since we know that a typhoon will hit a few days before it actually does, we need to relocate the elderly, the children, the sick, and the pregnant women to safe places—either relatives’ homes or relocation sites—so when disaster hits, we have decreased in half the number of people needing rescue,” says Guevara.

The able-bodied men may be left behind to guard the homes and look after the family’s belongings. These people would most likely be capable of rescuing themselves in case of emergencies.

Improvised drum boat and life vest

Using plastic water drums and PVC pipes, Guevara is able to fabricate low-cost, easy-to-build drum boats that can be used for emergencies. “Ideally, every family must have one boat, since a boat can accommodate six people,” he explains. The boats are easy to maneuver using plastic oars made from the same boat material. They are also stable and durable, with each unit having gone through a wobble test for safety and stability, an overload test, and recovery/flip over test.

Guevara sells his boats for a very low price. He also conducts training sessions on how to build these boats and how to use them properly. “I will not sell a boat without teaching the buyer how to use it, and how to make more boats like it,” he confirms. This is Guevara’s way of empowering communities to rescue their own during emergencies.

Aside from teaching people how to build drum boats, Guevara also shows them how they can make life vests out of cheese cloth and empty water bottles. “With the life vest, non-swimmers could learn to swim in a matter of minutes,” Guevara claims. It is unacceptable to him that over 90% of Filipinos can’t swim, considering that the country is surrounded by bodies of water and many areas are prone to flooding. “If you don’t know how to swim, you’ll simply watch your loved ones drown before your eyes when disasters happen,” Guevara says, “So learn to swim, it will only take a day.”

Ed Guevara believes that once you leave a community with the knowledge to make their own drum boats and life vests, you are leaving them with the necessary skills for survival during deadly floods.

The Rescue Village

The most important part of his recent work in the field of disaster response is the Rescue Village. This is a temporary camp to be established in calamity zones to help in the rescue and rehabilitation of the place and its people. The heart of the village is made of 12 stations (built using 12 40-foot container vans) with each station performing specific functions. For example, one station will carry all the seeds and fertilizer needed to start a garden from scratch. This will provide nutritious food for the Rescue Village staff and the survivors in the event of destruction of all crops and the inability of food suppliers to reach the area.

“I could build a rescue village in just three months,” Guevara declares. The idea is to settle into a calamity zone, help the community on its feet by integrating them into the Rescue Village, and then build a permanent and self-sufficient Eco-village in the area before transferring the mobile Rescue Village to another disaster location. Guevara has created a complete and detailed plan of his Rescue Village project from start to finish.

Inside the rescue village, 20 volunteer experts will be working in different fields of specialization: food production, frozen food maintenance, kitchen work, housekeeping, administration, medical service, powerhouse and water system maintenance, tools safekeeping, etc. A village can accommodate 700 families and 200 staff members. Earth bag homes will be built for each family.

The Rescue Village supplies will be enough for the 700 families for a period of three months. After which, it is assumed that the villagers have been empowered enough to continue on their own. Guevara notes, “We will produce 700 rescuers and 700 rescue boats for each month that the village is in a certain location.” Those rescuers will be coming from the community itself, so when the mobile village leaves the area, the residents would have the necessary survival skills.

In just three months, the village would have rehabilitated 700 families, or 1400 families in six months, and so on. Guevara says, “No engineer is capable of building this in three months—this is nanotechnology—the beds are collapsible, designs are modular.” Guevara will be working with engineers to perfect his designs.

“Let us say a community suffers devastating floods and there are thousands of dead people, the Rescue Village comes in—preceded by bulldozers and other heavy machinery to clear a path and camp—and sets up in the cleared area,” Guevara explains. There will be a holding area where staff members will receive the first 700 families needing rescue. They will be given a warm shower, a clean change of clothes, and assigned to their quarters. “The village cannot accept more than 700 families, otherwise the quality of service will suffer and supplies will run out,” he says, “So the area will be heavily secured and guarded to protect the people inside; everyone will be taught how to defend themselves.”

Survivors and Reality TV

Media could play a great role in Ed Guevara’s Rescue Village Project as it can broadcast, reality TV style, the construction of the first ever Rescue Village. “People will be learning as they are entertained,” Guevara reasons. This, according to him, is the crucial part in the anatomy of a disaster.

“A disaster has three parts: Before, During, and After,” says Guevara. “During” lasts a few seconds or a few hours, “After” and “During” will both depend on the “Before”, or how you prepare for it. “After”, or the effects of disaster, could last for years. It could elicit unbelievable sorrow if inadequate preparation was done, he says. “If you know what you are going to do, if you have prepared for it, you will not panic,” Guevara declares.

The reality TV setup is part of “Before” or the preparation for disaster. Families nationwide will be given information on how they could save themselves and their loved ones in case of disasters. This is the important role of media.

Human dignity

Ed Guevara wishes that people will listen this time and adopt his Rescue Village idea. “Calamities will happen; it is just a matter of time,” he cautions. The system has to be in place when it is needed, and this system has to assure the survival of a good number of people.

“There is no such thing as single survival—I wouldn’t want to live if my family and friends will all perish, or if I’d live for a few days and then die because there is no food,” he shares. The rescue and rehabilitation program, therefore, has to provide survivors with decent living conditions and keep their dignity intact while providing their basic needs.

As far as Ed Guevara is concerned, survival should be complete or there should not be any effort at all. “If there is enough food, decent shelter, safe community, then I will fight to live. After all, this is what survival should be about.”


  1. A writer-friend went to the US for a Ford scholarship. All of a sudden, there was an earthquake drill. Everybody went to safe places but he did not know what to do. He was caught by surprise. He surmised that we really have some catching up to do in terms of disaster preparedness.

    1. Agree that we have A LOT of catching up to do. Sadly, no one is taking the lead to catch up :(