The documentary Delikado, Filipino for “risky” or “dangerous,” opens in prayer: “Take care of us, Lord. Please provide us protection, your Holy Spirit. I pray, Lord, our enemy’s plans will not succeed. Instead, the Lord shall prevail. You know, Lord, we are fighting for the environment. We know, Lord, you expect us to take care of it. This is our prayer, in Jesus’s name, Amen.” After a quiet meal of rice, a small team of men, some walking barefoot, advance on their target: a chainsaw. The machine’s operator has vanished into the jungle, leaving the prize sitting on an illegally-felled tree.
The men work for Palawan NGO Network Inc. (PNNI), an organization seeking to protect the forests of Palawan Island, the “last ecological frontier” of the Philippines. The island is rife with natural resources—as well as greed and corruption. Delikado follows the efforts of those trying to stop the exploitation of the island’s paradise. The newly-claimed chainsaw is but one of over 700 that PNNI has confiscated through “citizen arrest” raids. A chainsaw tower greets visitors at the NGO’s informal museum.
The opening prayer of the documentary sets the tone for the rest of the film, and we see many instances of faith in action. This is not the norm for PBS, where the film recently made its television debut on the documentary series POV. Later that evening, Amanpour & Company presented the more typical fare—championing women’s rights in Iran, tossing softball questions to a new leftist leader in Chile, and covering abortion through a decidedly pro-choice lens. Yet, the authentic stories of faithful black and brown activists can still escape the network’s typically jaundiced eye toward Christianity. To their credit, the filmmakers here actually document what they see and do not scrub the religious content.
Attorney Bobby Chan, the leader of PNNI, describes how his father started out as a shoeshine boy for the local priests and received a Jesuit university education, a legacy that he passed on to his sons. “Our motto is to be men for others,” Chan recalls, “because Jesus Christ served.” Amid a backdrop of the unspoiled forest, Chan says, “I would like to believe that God is pushing us to do this work. When you try to save his creation, you get a glimpse and a feeling of something that’s divine. It’s indescribable.”
Elsewhere, we see Chan signing a letter to the provincial governor, “Yours in Christ,” and reading his well-marked Bible (where a special note highlights Christ’s call to love our enemies). He also attends Mass; church is one of the few places Chan will still openly go to in the face of death threats.
We also meet Nieves Rosento, mayor of El Nido and an ally of Chan, wearing a “Pick Jesus” T-shirt. We see her turn to prayer moments after President Rodrigo Duterte publicly announces her inclusion on his dubious “narco list” in the run-up to her re-election bid. On a dark night, as she returns from campaign events and is menaced by potentially corrupt police, Rosento sings, “By the power of your Name, I am redeemed.”
As Chan is shown working with local landowners pressured to sell-out to coconut plantations and tourist developments, I was reminded of the fortitude required in uttering that small but powerful word, “No.” Chan’s meeting opens in prayer, and an elderly woman speaks with simple passion of “our land,” asking what can be done to protect it.
In July, I attended a reunion of West Virginians who had banded together to save a place called Kayford Mountain from the kind of coal strip-mining that leaves nothing in its wake. The efforts against mountaintop removal mining at times attracted celebrities and cameras, but at their core were local people seeing a home worth saving rather than a sacrifice zone that must bow to visions of profit and progress.
Almost a decade before, I had worked with some of those local people, including the late Larry Gibson and Allen Johnson of Christians for the Mountains, to clear a path to three crosses on a high point that had long been a place of prayer for Gibson’s ancestors. Because Gibson and his family refused to sell their land despite great financial and social pressures, those crosses and the mountain underneath them still stand today. The neighboring ridges they once looked up to have been obliterated.
As Christians, we often forget that the world is not a human possession but a conditional gift with responsibilities: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein” (Ps. 24). We are called to be stewards of the earth. But as the documentary’s title implies, the work is not without risk. “I miss my friend,” Chan says through tears as he looks at a photo of one of the fallen, a father who wanted to pass on a natural inheritance to his children but was shot during an investigation of an illegal logging site. One can only marvel at the faithful perseverance of those who fight to protect God’s creation from the greedy and powerful.
Figures like Chan, Rosento, Gibson, and Johnson are not detached secular elites who speak from places of power and wealth; rather, they are rooted and spiritual locals working on shoestring budgets. Delikado chronicles the struggles of such people in the Philippines, but the stories are emblematic of many more around the globe.
John Murdock is an attorney who writes from Boise.
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Image by Vyacheslav Argenberg licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.