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FEATURE

The Story of O

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Friends fondly called her “Tita O,” “Lola O” or Odetski, while her detractors might have called her “The Green Witch,” for her stubborn defense of environmental causes. But for me and others who had visited her home, the late Odette Alcantara, founder of Earth Day Network Philippines, Inc. (EDNPI), would always be the “Green Angel,” and not just for her advocacy.

Alcantara’s home in Blue Ridge is actually an “Angel Museum,” where dozens of angels in photographs, paintings and sculptures repose serenely in every available space from her living room to her kitchen.

Angels, real or imagined, had been her obsession. And they too seemed to have kept her on their radar, friends recalled.

Binggirl Clemente, a board member of EDNPI, recounted a curious incident when she and other friends of the late green activist were on their way to the farm of Dr. Jasmin Acuña in Tanay, Rizal, where Alcantara was to be buried. There was a sudden heavy outpour and as the group approached the farm, they were confronted by a landslide and a fallen tree blocking the road. They could not move. With no rope to pull the tree away from their four-wheel drive, they got frantic. Suddenly, they heard a rushing noise behind and turned to see another landslide. They were trapped, sandwiched by two landslides. They wanted to run and leave the vehicle when, out of nowhere, a truck appeared. The driver had a rope and quickly pulled the fallen tree out of the way. The mysterious man then boarded his truck and drove off. Wanting to thank him, Clemente followed the truck in her vehicle but found to her consternation that it had vanished into thin air.

Clemente then remembered Alcantara’s words: “Everything around us is alive with spirits in many forms.”

Was she referring to angels, her friends wondered. And if she did, they realized that her angels were certainly always around her, even in death.

It wasn’t the first time that Alcantara’s angels came to her rescue.

I remember once when we were on our way to Laguna when somewhere in the vicinity of Lipa, Batangas, we got lost in heavy traffic. We asked around but nobody could help us. Then seemingly out of nowhere, this tall guy in a white outfit came up to us in his vehicle and went out to give us directions.

“See? That was my angel on the rescue,” Alcantara said.

Clemente recalled another instance when she and Alcantara attended an affair at the Manila Peninsula in Makati. It was 4:45 p.m. and they had to be at Blue Ridge in Quezon City at 5:30 p.m. for a soiree that Alcantara had organized. This was rush hour in Metro Manila and traffic was a mess. Getting from Makati to QC in less than an hour was an impossible feat. It took a while before they finally got a cab. Alcantara told the driver to step on the gas. Curiously enough, despite the rush hour, there was no traffic along their route.

The Green Witch pointed this out to Clemente: “Look behind you. If you notice, traffic is piling up. But right before us, there’s no traffic at all. My angels are at work with their silent wang-wang (sirens).”

The driver looked nervous though, so Alcantara had to ask, “Bakit, natatakot ka ba sa akin (Why, are you afraid of me)?”

The driver quipped, “Mam, mangkukulam po ba kayo (Are you a witch, ma’am)?”

His passenger simply laughed. When the cab reached her house at 5:20 p.m., the meter read P250. But Alcantara handed the nervous driver P500. From being a witch, she must have turned into an angel for him.

Sometimes, her angels rested and karma took over.

This seemed to be the case with Bayani Fernando (BF), the former chair of the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA), who then had a P14-billion project to cut 700,000 trees in Metro Manila. Cutting the trees would help widen the road and ease traffic, he said. Besides, the fallen leaves from those trees were clogging up the sewers and causing floods, the man added.

The unpopular MMDA chair succeeded in removing the trees along White Plains Ave. in Quezon City, but when he moved to Katipunan, he had to face down the angels invoked by Alcantara. The residents of nearby Xavierville had asked her for help.

Alcantara activated her wide network and sought help from her friends, the presidents of the colleges on Katipunan, and asked them to mobilize a formidable opposition force from the students of the Ateneo, Miriam and the University of the Philippines in Diliman. She also sought advice from artist-columnist and good friend Gilda Cordero-Fernando, who told her to launch an “Art Attack” in the form of weather-proof posters (or tarpaulin) that would be tacked on trees along Katipunan.

That was easy. Alcantara had an army of artist-friends who visited her regularly in her Blue Ridge home and they made short work of the task. The posters screamed, “Fernando, maawa ka (have mercy),” or “Hitler ng mga puno (of trees).”

Supporters from the Cordillera region were asked to do a ritual prayer on the trees, while Miriam College’s president then (now Commission on Higher Education chair) Patricia Licuanan called up TV networks for coverage of the poster brigade. The media played up the issue on TV and on print.

But BF was undaunted, and tore down the posters at night.

The MMDA chair waited for the media frenzy to die down, then cut down the trees on Katipunan in the dead of night. Alcantara and friend Lita Salvador sought help from then President Arroyo, who ordered BF to stop cutting down the trees.

Bent on getting rid of the trees on the center islands that he said caused traffic, BF defied the president. Sometimes, he would peel the bark off the trees to kill them without the aggravating sound of chainsaw. Nothing stopped him: not the president and certainly not the green activists who staged rallies to block the bulldozers and trucks that, detractors alleged, had the BF Construction logo.

In the end, karma took over. BF ran as vice president in the 2010 elections and lost badly.

His political career was in ruins.

For green activists, Alcantara was an avenging angel who could charm her way into changing the enemy’s point of view.

Bert Guevara, chair of the EDNPI board, recalled how Alcantara caused a paradigm shift in green advocacy. In the past, the government and the green NGOs were suspicious of each other and did not talk.

Alcantara changed all that. She approached then Environment Secretary, the late Gen. Angelo Reyes, for a discussion of environment problems, but he repeatedly ignored her. She decided to ambush him at his office, but he still refused to give her an audience.

She wouldn’t give up and resorted to her “taray mood” (a staged tantrum) until he gave up and let her in. Once in, however, Alcantara reverted to her charming self and won over the general. In the end, they became the best of friends, with Angie visiting her at home to discuss a green partnership.

The partnership between the DENR and the EDNPI flourished, with the government agency providing logistics and funds, and the NGO mobilizing its green army. The result? Less accusations and counter-accusations, and more work done, thanks to Alcantara’s initiative.

Guevara also credits Alcantara for her ability to meet crisis head on. During a conference organized by the EDNPI on the implementation of RA 9003 or the solid waste act, 1,000 delegates nationwide were expected, but 2,000 came. It was like the wedding at Cana: there was not enough food, not enough handouts, not enough chairs. The EDNPI staffers were in panic.

Alcantara drew funds from the delegate’s fees and bought a ton of Jollibee lunch packs and had 1,000 more handouts photocopied. The food was late but it came. The multiplication of food and handouts was vintage Alcantara.

For EDNPI president Volt Alferez, Tita O’s best trait was her creativity and her ability to come up with ideas that were out of the box. Alferez recalled how Alcantara conceived of a project called “100 Ramons,” in which she made beloved former President Ramon Magsaysay the icon in her tree advocacy. She invited 100 men named Ramon and brought the media to cover the affair. Her Blue Ridge home was packed with Ramons under the media’s scrutiny. It was a gimmick that in the end, got 1,000 tree seedlings planted in two hectares and served as the beginning of her “grow a forest foundation.” The 100 Ramons went on a tree-planting frenzy, and EDNPI’s Trees 4 Life project became the cornerstone of a nationwide effort for reforestation.

“Don’t give me flowers, just tree seedlings,” Alcantara had quipped to admirers.

Today, four years after Tita O passed on, people still recall and appreciate her legacy as a resilient green warrior, a creative media strategist, an angel whisperer, a mediator between warring NGOs and the government, and a lovable mysterious witch who once captivated a general.


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