Elmer Ferrer: The Participant Guru

By Gerald Paragas, based on an interview with Elmer Ferrer

When he declared that Harry Belafonte is his favorite musician, this could have been because Prof. Elmer Ferrer might have heard the singer-activist picturing out through romantic tunes the plight and causes of the people. And to borrow the line of a 1960s hit song to describe in a melancholy way  his defining era, “times were getting hard with those crops withered to the ground Sometimes, a practical setting can steer one’s mind, and that’s how a young Elmer started an intellectual journey back in 1965. The rice crisis was the issue of the hour when Elmer began his collegiate studies in UP Los Banos – with the high hopes of contributing to alleviate the problem of staple shortage.

Elmer said said: “My friends then were activists so we often found ourselves in the countryside and talking to farmers. I was amazed at how the farmers understood their situation, ” an understanding which he  thought  was a  monopoly of professionals and the  intellectual class. The political and humanitarian issue was too big for Elmer to ignore, contributing to his molding as an activist advocating land reform. He was taking up Agricultural Economics and he went into community-organizing for the Christian movement called Kilusang Estudyante ng Kabataang Pilipino.

Upon his return to Manila, Elmer   considered taking up medicine to pursue his interest in the biological sciences.  But since the blood of an activist was already running   in his veins, he decided to enter the Institute of Social Work and Community Development (ISWCD) of UP Diliman. He viewed his enrolment for graduate studies, both the Certificate and the Master in Community Development, as a widening of his perspective in serving the people. “I thought, it was a natural extension of my perspective, my style of work on community-organizing, and my background in agriculture.”

During the 1970s, the teaching of Community Development in the College bore the shadow of the Presidential Assistance for Community Development (PACD), an agency responsible for CD as a counter-insurgency effort of the Magsaysay administration in the 1950s. As a reaction to this, under the leadership of former Prof. Karina Constantino-David and Dr. Amaryllis Torres, the young department, of which Elmer was a neophyte faculty member, helped indigenize both the curriculum and the teaching materials.

The experiment, later referred to as Linking Communities for Development (LINK-COD) Program, energized the department with its program of teaching research, and extension in the community, and placing students on field. In the words of a second–generation faculty member like Elmer: “That experience gave us a gauge of what a real community development fieldwork could be. Just imagine, that time of martial law, we had these students who actually encountered military commanders. Worse, they even blacklisted us.”

During the martial law period, a time when resource management was equated with the struggle for justice, Elmer managed to organize CERD (now Community Empowerment and Resources Development), an NGO focusing on community-based coastal resources management (CBCRM) and related concerns. Later, in 1984, he formed the Tambuyog Development Center Inc. which during its first phase conducted projects in Pangasinan.

Having him at the helm of such organizations spurred him to develop participatory methods and tools, which are considered essential both in research and community organizing. Protecting resources and promoting livelihoods with stakeholders entail an active involvement for a project to succeed, and Elmer championed various dialogues that focused on his advocacy.

He owed much of the interest in these methods to his thesis days at the graduate school. What came through as a joint project with Mo Pagaduan, his colleague now at CSWCD faculty, was perhaps a pioneering attempt to contribute both to the theory and practice of the participatory approach.

“We used to think that participation was to fully give up your perspective. But, that’s more of a populist approach – lahat na lang nanggagaling sa tao (all coming from the people). We realized in the process that when you say participatory, it means a dialogue between yourself and the people you are conducting the research…Equal relationship.”

The very core of participatory research is what keeps Elmer, now a senior citizen, in the noble realm of teaching Community Development. For him, his engagement in the profession that has spanned decades is made remarkable by continuing field supervision of his students, and seeing them develop his ideas. A case in point is the CBCRM project in Bolinao,  Pangasinan, , his brainchild, which  despite the financial challenges,  enjoys the sustainability  developed   by his former students.

Moments, however, come to pass in the Professor’s mind when he wonders how things have been transformed across generations. After several decades of facilitating capacity building activities in resource management, what has changed? Since the rice crisis that once – or several times – bedeviled the country, what impacts if any, have been felt?

Students, former and present, tend to consider him one of the gurus in CBCRM. His impressive academic expertise and community involvement are testimonies to why he deserves this kind of recognition in his chosen field.  But, in   one DSD [Doctor in Social Development] class session,, he asked himself : What new understandings and lessons of resource management, CBCRM in particular or “sustainable development” have been gained? The answer is oftentimes just a word:

“Nothing. ”

Elmer  finds  truth and comfort in what Dr. Robert Chambers (1997) said: Those who damn the errors, failures and deficits tend to ignore the counterfactual, how much worse things could have been if nothing had been done. Those who laud achievements and successes tend to overlook how much better things might have been …. A balanced view has to recognize renewals and continuities in the landscape as well as ruins and rubbles, and older trees as well as new sprouts.”

A participatory development guru in his own right, the CSWCD professor hopes that by revisiting the theory and practice of CBCRM, he can contribute to building the road that could take Filipinos to a sustainable, equitable and empowered future.

Indeed, things could have been worse but things could still be better. Documenting experiences and drawing lessons of the past, Elmer suggests words that spell change. Management, Community-based Participation and Empowerment, Complexity, Ecology, Self-organization, some of which he amplified in his writings thus:

The study of ecosystems is the study of relationships. It is anchored on living systems thinking and complexity theory. These are emerging paradigms informed by recent discoveries in quantum physics and living sciences to understand the chaos and unpredictability of the world we live in.

When you look at an ecosystem, the first thing you recognize is that there are many species – many plants, many animals, many microorganisms. But they are not just an assemblage or collection of species. They are a community, which means that they are interdependent; they depend on one another. No individual organism can exist in isolation. For example, animals depend on the photosynthesis of plants for their energy needs while plants depend on the carbon dioxide produced by animals.

Life is relationship.

In the nineteenth (19th) century, the Darwinists and Social Darwinists popularized the notion of competition in nature – the survival of the fittest as the mechanism for survival or sustainability. In the twentieth century, ecologists have discovered that in the self-organization of ecosystems cooperation is actually much more important than competition.

In the interdependent world of life, unrestrained competition is generally self-defeating. On the contrary, those who survived and prosper are invariably those who find a niche in which they meet their own needs in ways that simultaneously serve others.

“Self-organization” is the capacity of all living systems including human communities to respond/self-organize to the need for change.  It is the capacity of the community to create and/or rejuvenate itself in order to maximize its existing resources to respond to its needs (Capra 1996)”.

How this capacity is made possible? The pattern of relationship in ecological communities is that of a network. Network goes in all directions, it is non-linear. In a network, you have cycles and closed loops which serve as feedback loops and because of this the community can learn. Since the community can learn, it can organize itself – it does not need an outside authority to tell it what to do.

There is no need to push, pull or bully a network/organization to make it move, what is important is “meaning”. A living network responds to “disturbances” that it finds meaningful. Thus, holding a vision is central to the success of any organization, because all human beings need to feel that their actions are meaningful and geared toward specific goals. At all levels of the organization, people need to have a sense of where they are going.

In his transformative stint at the CSWCD, Elmer acknowledges its developmental efforts in contributing to change. Veering away from the old style of imparting knowledge, the College is sanguine in the innovations and complexity of the environment. In his telling view of the institution: “We manage to introduce the idea that there are things beyond what we normally consider as economic and political institutions to explain how social change proceeds. There’s a role for what some refer to as social energy or spirituality as energizing people to do development work.” This energy is what moves communities to undertake activities for development in a mindful and participatory way.  #



College of Social Work and Community Development