[PHOTO AT LEFT - Mountain climbers admire the scenic farming village of Lower Lubo embedded amid the rice terraces in this picture taken May 26. ­­— Photo by AFP]

MOUNT LUBO, JUNE 16, 2007 (STAR) Climbers bearing gifts of school supplies paused as they reached the ridgetop, mesmerized by the postcard-perfect vista of giant emerald staircases.

Lower Lubo, the object of their charity, is a hamlet of some 100 families in one of the most remote corners of the Philippines, where amid terraced rice farms, locals for whom notebooks and raincoats are luxuries eke out a living on the slopes of Mount Lubo.

“How can such poverty come out appealingly picturesque?” Jhoana Pimentel, a Manila-based marketing assistant for a US law firm said as her team of 67 completed the last leg of the 18-hour journey on foot.

“When they don’t have notebooks, they stop coming to school,” said Francisca Adaggan, sixth grade teacher of Lubo Elementary School.

The school is marooned whenever the nearby Tanudan River overflows, and a row of waterfalls separating the campus from the village unleashes boulders during typhoons or heavy rain, further compounding absenteeism.

Fusing leisure, adventure and social responsibility, the volunteer ambassadors of the “Big Brother, Big Sister” outreach program bring education to the country’s backwoods.

Mostly young professionals based in the capital Manila, they solicit from friends and relatives to pay for candy-colored packs filled with school materials. Each of the 500 packs they carried this year is worth P300 ($6.52).

They then paid their own way to carry the supplies to mountain communities – by bus and in trucks, cheek and jowl with livestock and sacks of rice, and finally on foot as the road ends and is replaced by forest trails.

Tabuk, the city nearest Lower Lubo, is a two-day hike away.

“We climb every so often and we meet the people living in the communities near those mountains. Despite their hand-to-mouth existence, we have often been recipients of their generosity in terms of providing us guidance, water, food, coffee and other simple comforts,” said Anj Tan, the team leader.

“We launched this program as a way of giving back to the communities the kindness that we received,” said Tan, who conceived the outreach project together with several mountaineering clubs in Manila in 2005.

“I’m eating three meals a day, sleeping on a bed inside a bedroom with walls and a roof whereas the recipients hardly have three meals, they’re sleeping on a wooden plank or a piece of cardboard on a cold floor, with plastic sheets as walls and roof.”

Tan said about a third of the volunteers were climbing their first mountain. She expects some of them to climb more mountains later as a result of this exposure.

Joyce Morrison, a volunteer who has visited the area previously, said: “Not all the houses have a toilet and bath. They don’t have water taps, their water comes from the mountains. They don’t have electricity.”

But, she added: “The children are beautiful. It is my pleasure to be part of a project that would hopefully make them happy.”

Lower Lubo, Gaang and Dacalan, the target communities this year, are deep in the Cordillera range, one of the poorest areas of the Philippines.

Two weeks before the start of the school year, more than 500 students showed up, many of them barefoot and wearing shabby clothes, to get their free school kits.

Addagan, the school teacher, said that out of the 300 or so school children in Lower Lubo, only 200 were likely to go on to high school. Only 100 could be expected to complete high school, and an even smaller number would proceed to college.

The Philippines spends the equivalent of just 3.3 percent of its gross domestic product on investment in education, and one in 10 young Filipinos is a grade school dropout, according to government data.

More than half of all high school graduates do not have the necessary skills and aptitude to enter university, according to a 2006 education department study.

“The donations are a big help, because otherwise the students would just drop out,” said the village chief Alfredo Pasado. “Then they would be consigned to work in the farm.”

Pasado said the terraced farms yield only a ton of rice per hectare (2.47 acres) and so can only support local families two-thirds of the year.

As in most rural communities in the Philippines, the families here are large, with 10 or more children each.

“Children are a poor man’s riches,” reads a poster in a classroom.

The village chief said the locals supplement their income by burning down forests on the upper slopes of Mount Lubo to carve out more farmland. — AFP

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved