The Illume: Chaos and The Colonialist Within


Fishponds and Livelihoods of Hagonoy | PHOTO: Christopher J. Carter

Christopher J. Carter // October 19,2014

The following is a collection of visual and written reflections that emerged during studio work with municipal planning departments and barangays (communities) of Bulacan Province Philippines. As a form of reflexive practice  I hope these entries elicit thought and discussion on the positionality of international planning work and the role of planner as an interlocutor in colonial and post-colonial spaces.

June 28th

In ‘towards non-Euclidean planning’ John Friedman writes about planning professionals in a new age who, “seek specifically to connect forms of knowledge with forms of action in the public domain”, implying a collapse of the time-space continuum and departure from mere engineering. In my own perception of practice I see planners fulfilling a liminal space where technical, empathetic, inter-cultural and analytical capacities are demanded simultaneously where they must act as interlocutors of resource mobilization in action planning. Entering this planning studio focused on climate adaptation as a western, white, educated, middle-class, male Ibang Tao (outsider) I am inundated by thoughts of what it means to be a ‘planner’ in a post-colonial context. Classic International Development scenario. Can this be done better?


Makeshift Family Housing Upon Coastal and Tenure-less Government Land | PHOTO: CJ Carter

I have traveled and expelled 2 tonnes of carbon in transit to study climate adaptation and capacity building in the Philippines. This fact brings to my mind the blinding notion of my own consumption and privilege and brings critical inner-discourse that I hope complicates but does not inhibit my own capacity building for future professional work with communities and governments.

As William Easterly in The White Man’s Burden writes of ‘planners’ becoming ‘searchers’, I am eager to explore how planners become interlocutors, mobilizers of resources, technical analysis and equity in the development of human settlements amidst the pastiche of colonial layering and natural resource change. While planners can be articulate facilitators of how a future society may become through action planning today, I aim to explore how and why it is done in this context, who is engaged and my alignment within.

July 25

It’s mid July and things stop making sense. The neo-colonial instrument of planning, an imposition of progress makes its incisions, burdened by the gills, lungs, roots and benthos of ecosystem services supporting aquaculture and the nearly 130,000 people of Hagonoy. The formal exposure to more than 40 stakeholders in 9 Barangays this past month has been inspiring, troubling and grounding. The seemingly eternal raising of roads, limited retention of storm waters from aquaculture and the historical absence of planning provide discord. But people deal, claiming they have already adapted.

On the coast implementation and reinforcement of well-intended legislation such as the Fisheries Code and Clean Water Act of protected areas were immediately called into question when accounts of mangrove destruction, dynamite fishbombing and leaching of unlined dumpsites into waterways at the hands of a three separate Barangay Governments surfaced. This is where “things” and “rational planning” fall apart for me.


Boatman Amidst the Remaining Mangroves in Pugad | PHOTO: CJ Carter

As a foreigner in this context our alignment with outside solutions has surfaced, most graphically with the Barangay secretary of the exposed coastal community of Tibuguin. Over lunch he appealed if we are prepared to help his community. I am unsure if this expectation is rooted in years of embedded colonial discourse of aid or a frustration with the pace and level of support from the government.

Given IPCC projections of sea level rise these communities will not exist in 10 years without major infrastructure fortification. My response was a withered “ we will contribute nearly 300 hours of research this month to adaptation efforts with the local and provincial government planners. We aim to compile our findings and present clear policy direction for action planning”. It felt like a terribly weak response, reflecting the field of planning’s often round about and delayed effectiveness, superficial alienation from present needs.


Housing and Rising Floodwaters Along Lambongan Channel(Angat River) | PHOTO: CJ Carter

Driving past the American Embassy in Manila en route to the theatre at the cultural center of the Philippines I was struck by the oppressive language and brutality of its built form and intended services. As a citizen of the nation that has contributed to the burden of neocolonial impact, environmental state and planning system of the Philippines I could not help but feel a sort of transnational alienation. Once inside I saw an exhibition, one image struck me innately.

Rice Harvest-Zambales

Rice Harvest – Zambales, 2012 | Emmanuel Tolentino Santos

In this image an astronaut (American flag on the left arm) leads a draft animal through a field at mid harvest. A farmer contributes a load to the animal, a second farmer looks on passively. The lush highlands stand solidly beyond. The frame seems just after an exchange of gaze of the ultra “progressed” and the “traditional” existing at once from converged planes.

The piece spoke to my condition of trying to make sense of what I was seeing, a linear rational planning system overlying a non-linear psychology. Infatuations for celebrating the heroes of modernity (plastics, urbanity, free markets) while the subsistence and organic forms of society and production remain largely ignored. These ideas of PROGRESS indeed bring burdens. What have we forgotten in our development? How can we integrate what sustains and guides us? I walked beyond, into a partially lit theatre, I was handed an unlit candle.


High Water Mark in Barangay San Sebastian | PHOTO: CJ Carter

Objectives in the local political environment tend to be hard infrastructure tangibles, road dikes, short-term emergency provisions, pacts to build infrastructure upwards forever, or just long enough to perhaps persuade the next election. To address the “burdens” of the present state, I see a reification of local needs and preferences made clear to decision-making and finance and granting perspective of long term thinking to shift planning from coping to survival, guided by local values such as bayanihan (togetherness) and dominant discourse that “everyone is effected in the same ways” when much priority is focused on short term survival. Using a rational planning system in this situation can seem trivial and inappropriate but it is the working frame.

Tibaguin Primary School at High Tide| PHOTO: CJ Carter

Our alignment with LGU planning departments indeed addresses the “burden” of neocolonial development in providing research capacity and strengthening local action amidst climate change but is it the wrong approach? Talking with Dennis over dinner he mentioned the differences between Mag Handa (to collectively prepare and feast-tagalog origin) and Mag Plano (to plan- spanish origin).

If adaptation is culturally bound and intergenerational, strong and sustained vision is necessary to collectively illuminate resilient strategy amidst disaster cycles and short-term schemes. Today will it be local governments that Mag Handa towards climate resilience? If colonialism has “officially” ended, how do planners hailing from Western Educated Industrialized Rich and Democratic backgrounds like myself tactfully navigate persisting differentials and psychologies of imperialism?  The candle remains unlit in my shirt, its combustion capable of bringing light, illuminating a tare of meaning amidst my own inner colonial chaos. ▒