Thursday, November 25, 2004

'Quickie' annulments

'Quickie' annulments

Updated 02:13am (Mla time) Nov 25, 2004
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A14 of the November 25, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

WILL a flood of marriage annulment cases swirling into an obscure Cebu town court win for Barili the title of "Reno of the Philippines"?

"If you want to get unhitched pronto, you go there," an editor notes. Barili (population: 57,497) is 61 kilometers west of Cebu City. It "caters to domestic disharmony."

In the second half of 2003, an on-going Supreme Court audit found "nearly 100 cases filed in Barili," Court Administrator Christopher Lock told SunStar reporter Grecar Nilles. In the first quarter of this year, "another 50 were lodged" in Barili's Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 60.

Divorce isn't in Philippine law books. The Family Code, however, allows broader grounds for annulment.

"I married beneath me," Lady Astor once snapped. "All women do." Does this explain why in nine months, almost 150 annulment cases swamped, not Cebu City's Family Court, but Barili's. What's special about Branch 60? Is it Judge Ildefonso Suerte?

This 69-year-old magistrate presided over this court -- "used to," that is. The Supreme Court suspended Suerte on complaints ranging from violating Court orders against taking on new cases to foot-dragging on 170 complaints.

But annulment cases sailed through RTC 60 due to Suerte's "extraordinary fervor," the Court found out. Controversial acting Talisay City Prosecutor Mary Ann Castro's petition was decided within 67 days from date of filing. The decision was made final 23 days later.

"Quickie" annulments result in the perception that courts are not a cathedral, but a casino. They clone Reno's mass-produced divorces.

"Divorce in one week," a Nevada ad trumpets. "No residency. No travel. $379 deposit refund guaranteed."

Barili hasn't aped that pitch. Neither is there evidence that the going rate for restoring battered bachelorhood was P50,000 ($892 at today's exchange rate). But word gets around.

"Some litigants made it appear they live in Barili, even if they didn't, just so they could file their cases there," SunStar revealed. When checked, their actual residences were elsewhere: Talamban, Osmeña Boulevard, Pardo, Tisa -- all in Cebu City.

Those "one-night-stand annulments" refocus attention on a 1997 unanimous Supreme Court decision directing courts to buttress marriage's indissoluble character. "I married the Duke for better or for worse," the Duchess of Windsor once said. "But not for lunch."

"Both our Constitution and our laws cherish the validity of marriage and unity of family," the ruling written by Associate Justice Artemio Panganiban states. Judges must resolve doubts "in favor of the existence and continuation of the marriage and against its dissolution."

Silver, golden or diamond wedding anniversary couples underscore what remains ideal in this society. "You shall be together when the white wings of death shall scatter your days," Khalil Gibran writes in "The Prophet."

Thus, the Court riveted eight guidelines before judges may accept "psychological incapacity" as nullification ground. The burden of proof is on the complainant's shoulders. By medical and clinical evidence, they must show incapacity existed on the wedding day-and that it was "grave, permanent or incurable," preventing fulfillment of marital duties.

The thrust is to prevent trivializing marriage into a flitting tryst or escape from moods. "Quickie" annulments do that.

"The best part of married life is the fights," Pulitzer Prize novelist Thornton Wilder writes. "The rest is so-so."

Governments have a stake in stable families, fostered by sturdy marriages. History passes through the family. Thus, the Court stipulates that trial courts must order the fiscal or solicitor to appear as counsel for government. "No decision will be handed down unless the Solicitor General issues a certification, which will be quoted in the decision, stating reasons for agreement or opposition."

Assembly-line annulments leave no room for those values. Over the centuries, they've underpinned what Thomas Aquinas defines as "inseparable union of minds... a couple pledged to each other in faithful friendship."

It's about fidelity during good days and the not-so-good days. "One man loved the pilgrim soul in you / And loved the sorrows on your changing face," W.B. Yeats scribbled in his poem "When You Are Old."

At his golden wedding anniversary, Henry Ford credited the success to the "same formula I've always used in making cars: stick to one model."

Tell that to Judge Suerte who retires on Jan. 23. He hopes to do so with benefits intact.

That's a thin hope. "In mabuhi ha hulat-hulat, matai bungtas," the Tausugs say. He who lives on hope will die of hunger.

The Supreme Court led by Chief Justice Hilario Davide has disciplined six wayward judges in Cebu, ordering outright dismissal for some.

The final report will pinpoint fraudulent annulments. So, what happens to those who "remarried"? There's been early fallout. Disbarment cases were filed against Suerte, Prosecutor Cezar Tajanlangit and four others for getting RTC 60 to intervene in a pending murder case against cult leader Ruben Ecleo.

On leaving a Bangkok hospital with a pacemaker, an old UN colleague e-mailed a wisecrack: "The doctor says recuperation will speed up if I change my wife. Any suggestions?"

Barili unfortunately is no longer a viable option. So, I e-mailed back: "My wife says life would be smoother if she changed husbands. Do you have any suggestion?"

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Transparency thresholds

Transparency thresholds

Updated 01:28am (Mla time) Nov 18, 2004
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A12 of the November 18, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

"ARE they serious?" our neighborhood bank manager asked. "They'd hire a consultant to figure out how much Cebu City's yen loans for the South Reclamation Project (SRP) cost in pesos? My assistant can do that in her sleep."

She was incredulous that over 18 councilors, confused over how much Mayor Tomas Osmeña's IOUs really amount to, will dun taxpayers in today's devalued peso.

It depends on whom you talk to. City Hall accountant Edna Jaca claims Cebu only owes P2.26 billion. The debt is almost triple that, counters, City Treasurer Tessie Camarillo. It is P6.36 billion.

"We're facing two different sets of figures," a puzzled Vice Mayor Michael Rama told equally stumped colleagues. "How much really is our foreign debt?"

Don't ask Osmeña who stonewalls on the debt. But his city accountant uses the conversion rates prevailing in 1996 when he signed for the loan. Under this "first set": debt repayment burden on every man, woman and child, who lives within city limits would be a tolerable P31,400.

But currency depreciated from P26 to the dollar then to P56 today, the city treasurer notes. She factored actual rates into Cebu's 2005 budget. The Commission on Audit's Helen Hilayo backs the treasurer, saying: obsolete rates doctor actual debt by P1.52 billion.

Under the "second set," per capita debt repayment would be P87,643. Wait. There's more. Councilor Gabriel Leyson says his calculator totals Osmeña's IOU at P4.3 billion. That's a third opinion. Dusting off their math, councilors came up with yet a fourth guess: P6.3 billion.

"There must be some way out of here," the joker says to the thief in Bob Dylan's song: "All Along the Watchtower." "There's so much confusion/I can't get relief."

Temporary relief is a councilors' executive session where they'll try sorting it out. But a "your-guess-is-as-good-as-mine" approach won't wash with the Tokyo bill collectors.

Neither will debts "fold its tents like the Arabs and silently steal away." They will, in fact, increase. "They were stunned by interest totals last year," Sun Star reporter Ginging Campaña noted. "They were stunned this year. And they'll be stunned next year because payment for principal begins."

The problem, however, is more basic: Osme¤a never crafted a debt management policy. He has no such policy today. And it'll take more than a consultant to cobble one tomorrow.

City Hall has no policy on food security, peri-urban areas, youth, transport, migration -- and yen loans, Cebu Daily News editorials noted. The mayor shuns transparency. But (this) "provides temporary sanctuary from accountability-but a bumper harvest of problems."

The city now reaps what it sowed. "Capacity (of the whole government) to service foreign debts has weakened over the years," the national treasurer notes. Cebu's going into hock is part of the overall P1.14 trillion outstanding foreign IOUs. And there's been a shift away from yen-denominated loans: from 47 percent to 34 percent.

It's critical to develop a strategy to ensure that foreign liabilities don't bankrupt the city. This requires thinking through risk factors, debt service burdens, lowering of financing costs, balancing budgets to flatten the debt's trajectory, etc.

"He that goes a-borrowing, goes a-sorrowing," the 1593 proverb says. The council's anxious questions are the first tentative stab to get a fix on the quagmire. This is welcome. For over a decade, a council dominated by the mayor merely murmured amen.

"Secrecy on city finances is clamped in place by a harem of eunuchs known as the city council," the Sun Star observed. No one put His Honor's "feet to the fire with the tough questions ... This mayor rewards subservience handsomely. But his tolerance for independent thought is thin."

Will crushing debts see Osmeña shift to transparent governance? His statements don't hint of a "Saul-on-the-road-to Damascus" change ahead.

No one expects the mayor's addresses to compare with Cicero's "First Oration Against Cataline" (43 B.C.) or Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" (1951). But cliché-laden speeches ill serve cities being swept into 21st-century change.

Osmeña's inaugural address proposals were limited to legalization of cockfighting and better tax collection. "Not exactly the stuff of radical reform." His last State-of-the-City speech discussed his awards, school kids' contributions, etc. But it zippered up on yen loans, malnutrition and a deepening water crisis.

When people today cast about for governance models, they look to Naga City. Cebu Daily News editor in chief Ivan Suansing explains why.

A Ramon Magsaysay Award winner, Naga City Mayor Jesse Robredo “isn't as swashbuckling as Tomas Osmeña ... Yet, this unknown Bicolano has transformed Naga into one of the Philippines fastest-growing economies" with a transparent government that brings in world experts.

Robredo has structures that give citizens a say in decisions, from budgets to schools. Procurement bids go on the Internet. So do government forms. Corruption and project costs are down. Government forms are accessible. "With hits of up to 1,300 a day, this website has been hailed as a people empowerment tool."

It is the opposite of what prevails in Cebu where the question is: What's the threshold for transparency? A per capita repayment burden of P31,400? Or is it P87,643?

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Lobotomized mindsets

Lobotomized mindsets

Updated 10:33pm (Mla time) Nov 15, 2004
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A14 of the November 15, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

IS lobotomy of mindsets both the cause and effect of the unremitting depletion of our natural resource systems?

Only 30 percent of reforestation projects succeeded, Environment Secretary Michael Defensor candidly told a meeting in the Subic Bay Freeport Zone. "People hardly recognize economic benefits from protecting the environment." Connivance sabotaged the program.

In 1575, forests blanketed 92 percent of the country. Abundance foisted the attitude that "there was more where it came from," Mindanao Center for Policy Studies' Edmundo Prantilla noted. "Well, there's none."

By 2001, accessible timber stands had been chain-sawed. Forest cover had dwindled to only 18 percent, when the Southern Leyte flashflood buried hundreds in mud. (Remember Ormoc's 8,000 fatalities?)

Centuries of plunder gave rise to anguished proverbs. "Do not cut the trees to get the fruit," Ilocanos and Tausugs counsel. "A sturdy tree resists the winds," Boholanos note.

"Most of the country's once rich forests are now gone," says the 2003 Food and Agriculture Organization update of the forestry master plan. Out of 500,000 mangrove hectares in 1900, for example, only 109,000 hectares still stand. "Forest recovery, through natural and artificial means, never coped with the destruction rate," the FAO found.

University of the Philippines students launched in 1910 the first formal reforestation program at Los Baños. President Sergio Osmeña later opened Cebu's Camp 7 reforestation project. It still exists in a province where forest cover is almost zero.

By the mid-1970s, the government operated 91 reforestation sites. From top-down diktat, the projects sought wider people participation, using various tenurial instruments, including contract replanting.

Under "social/community forestry" approaches, Paper Industries Corp. sowed tree plantations within its concession. It pioneered smallholder tree farms.

International agencies supported these efforts. The Asian Development Bank and Japan's OECF, for example, loaned $240 million for today's "Forestry Sector Project."

"You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself," insider-trading convict Ivan Boesky once said.

That mind-set is reflected in logging money squirreled abroad, spent on flashy cars, etc. In the process, the Philippines skid from "prima donna" of timber exporters to today's wood-pauper. We now buy logs from countries that reforested: New Zealand, Malaysia and Australia.

We also become, in the process, a mismanagement "case study." The Philippine experience "provides a poignant lesson for (still forest-rich countries) like Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, the UN's Asia-Pacific Forestry Towards 2010 points out.

Timber money's refusal to invest left the country without wood, factories or technicians, plus "a legacy of problems and no revenues to alleviate them," the FAO notes. Explosion of demand in North America and the region for wood-based panels, paper and paperboard bypassed a sunset industry.

Time has not been an ally. Migrants streaming into northeastern Mindanao from denuded Cebu "ruined their first homesteads," Dr. Karl Pelzer noted in a 1972 issue of Journal of Asian Studies. By then, some migrants were moving into Mindanao's interior, repeating the destructive cycle there.

In three or four generations, large parts of Mindanao will replicate Cebu, Pelzer predicted. "Where will Cebuanos go after they've destroyed the forest soils of Mindanao?"

But Pelzer's estimates were off, we told Mindanao journalists, in their late 20s, attending a Philippine Press Institute seminar. "He made that forecast about the time when you were born. Only a generation later, you file dispatches on Mindanao's denudation and flash floods."

Depletion of forests also denudes the mind. A Negros and Panay survey discovered most schoolchildren have no concept of natural forests. When asked to draw, they depicted neat rows of plantation trees. Some "baby-boomers think Philippine mahogany or molave is a street sign," a forester explained.

"Today, our legendary forests are just that-legend," the late National Scientist Dioscoro Umali told a graduating class of the University of the Philippines. "For your children, the rich texture of Philippine mahogany will be, at best, a quaint story ... We stripped the land of its beauty. And the victims are our grandchildren-bone of our bone, and flesh of our flesh."

When lobotomy of the mind occurs, policy is skewed by widely differing accounting, Foreign Affairs' Steven Anderson warns. One exclusively adds pesos and centavos. Another tallies "extinction deficits" -- the drawdown on biological capital and the threats to survival they unleash.

Cebu Gov. Gwendolyn Garcia exemplifies this dilemma. "We have a budget surplus and no debts," she asserts. This is understandable. She was an infant when some Cebuano migrants were razing northern Mindanao.

Her programs gloss over staggering ecological IOUs, from 70-percent soil erosion, skimpy fish catches to a nightmare: potential contamination of water tables and food chains from toxic chemical sludge in the abandoned Atlas copper mines. That could replay the Marinduque tragedy.

"After you've felled the last tree, caught the lash fish, and polluted the last well, can you eat money?" No. But if lobotomized minds exclude concern for conservation, the Foreign Affairs analysis cautions, "then the ecological systems that make human life possible will be increasingly put at risk."

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Skidding back to square one?

Skidding back to square one?

Updated 01:33am (Mla time) Nov 11, 2004
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A12 of the November 11, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

"WHOEVER captures the Palace captures the only government there is."

This old axiom started to unravel in 1991, when the Local Government Code kicked in. The Code built on incremental self-rule laws crafted over half a century, notes the United Nations' "Local Government in Asia and the Pacific." These included the 1959 Local Autonomy Act, Sen. Emmanuel Pelaez's Barrio Charter and the 1967 Decentralization Act. All chipped away at once untouchable "Imperial Manila" funds that, under centralized governance, beggared the countryside. That led to stagnation and festering unrest. "Where there is no bread, all is anger."

Internal Revenue Allotments (IRAs), provided by the Code, spurred growth of increasingly self-reliant local government units (LGUs). They're also at the vortex of today's scramble to patch the fiscal crisis.

IRAs are shares of provinces, cities and towns in taxes. Whoever the transient Palace tenant is, he or she must, under the Code, share part of cash in the tills.

Over a five-year period, "IRA per person in the provinces almost tripled," the Philippine Human Development Report noted. P4 out of every P10-or P80 billion-went for patchy health facilities, rundown schools, etc.

"Even a clever daughter-in-law needs rice to cook with," Pelaez argued as he wrote into the Barrio Charter a thin wedge for today's IRAs: a provision empowering “barangay” [villages] to withhold and spend a fraction of land taxes.

Now, 65 centavos of every LGU tax peso -- or P113.3 billion -- come from IRAs, the Commission on Audit reveals in its latest Annual Financial Report.

IRAs keep the poverty-mired Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao afloat. So with fourth- and fifth-class towns from the northernmost province of Batanes to the southernmost Tawi-Tawi.

IRA shares can be hefty. In 2003, Pangasinan province bagged P930.8 million and Cebu province, P909.4 million. Negros Occidental followed with P905.6 million and Bulacan, P806.7 million.

Among cities, Quezon received P1.47 billion, Davao, P1.39 billion and Manila, P1.09 billion. Caloocan, Zamboanga, Puerto Princesa and Cebu trailed after them.

But do IRAs shrivel the local tax base?

Nationwide, only 13 percent or P22.8 billion was raised from real estate levies, the COA reports. Significantly, tax on idle land netted only P3 million.

"Local governments treat IRA as a dole and there's need to reverse this trend," the UN study notes. IRAs are not a crutch. Local income should be higher than IRAs.

"An ideal initial percentage ratio between local and national government is 50-50," the UN suggests. In the long run, LGUs should aim for at least a 70 to 30 percent ratio, with local taxes the mainstay.

Malacañang communication director Silvestre Afable, meanwhile, claimed that the Union of Local Authorities of the Philippines (ULAP) agreed to a "drastic deferment" of the 10-percent increase in IRA due in 2005. They'd voluntarily help patch the government's deficit.

Indeed, there's an "escape hatch" in the Code's mandatory transfer provision. In "emergencies," cuts can be self-imposed by LGUs.

But self-sacrifice is not the strong suit of many LGUs. The provinces of Cebu, Pangasinan, Cavite, Negros Occidental and Laguna, among others, splurged on "personal services," the Commission on Audit (CoA) notes. Those with bloated employee rolls included Pangasinan, P513 million, trailed by Batangas with P456.5 million and Cavite, P444.3 million, followed closely by Laguna, Cebu and Negros Occidental.

LGUs jacked up bloated "maintenance and operating expenses" for business-as-usual work. The province of Cebu spent P690.8 million; Bulacan, P660 million; Laguna P583.8 million, followed by Batangas, Negros Occidental and Cavite.

IRAs lack performance indicators, the UN notes. This undermines efficiency and accountability. Local officials who think beyond patronage and waiting sheds are the exception. Far too many twist IRAs and similar resources into mini-pork barrels that leave the poor on the short end.

The "20 Percent Development Fund," for example, was intended for unmet basic human needs: potable water, sanitation, preventive health care, nutrition, etc.

But earlier CoA audits show Davao Oriental “sanggunian” [provincial board] officials ladled P669,892 as "financial assistance" for themselves. Dapitan City spent over P1 million for an "executive band." San Carlos City allocated P110,000 for its delegation to a Boy Scouts jamboree in Angeles. Northern Samar province bought seven brand-new vehicles.

In Cebu City, Mayor Osmeña's “barangay” leaders bought themselves high-powered motorcycles and handguns. In Cebu province, then Gov. Pablo Garcia parked P42 million of the Special Education Fund in time deposits while students did without textbooks or classrooms.

Doles do not spur growth. And development, which means enlarging human choices, results from policies that tap local resources and people's participation.

"Unconditional grants" like today's IRAs, "do not stimulate long-term capital investments" or tapping of local revenues. Incentives should be written into IRAs to prod LGUs to exert greater tax effort or jack up administrative and operational efficiency and innovate for production.

Ask LGUs to show the color of their money, the UN adds. They must "put up equity to the grant." This will scrub the dole-out syndrome. And how about clipping IRAs equal to the amount of unliquidated advances officials rack up? This may be "the opportune time to revisit the present IRA formula."

"Those who pay the piper call the tune." If the IRA piper cannot play new tunes, there's danger of skidding back to square one: "Whoever captures the Palace captures the only government there is."

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Can of worms 2,3,4, etc.

Can of worms 2,3,4, etc.

Updated 10:42pm (Mla time) Nov 08, 2004
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A12 of the November 9, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

MARCELINO Corodova, manager of the Mactan-Cebu International Airport Authority (MCIAA), wrote the Inquirer objecting to this column's "A can of worms." (Oct. 14, 2004)

The apologia glosses over "worms" the Commission on Audit (CoA) pinpointed. These included its failure to tally P1.4 billion worth of MCIAA properties, P90.2 million uncollected debts and Lapu-Lapu City's claim for P1.08 billion in "unpaid real estate taxes."

"The report is a year old," MCIAA spinmeisters ghostwrote to the paper to hide embarrassing facts with spin. It's "for the history books."

Facts: Auditors completed that report in February. The CoA sent it to the board on March 11, 2004. This is, therefore, the current audit. The next audit report will come early next year.

The Inquirer and Cebu Daily News revealed the CoA findings in mid-October. Until then, even MCIAA employees were kept in the dark, including the auditors' blunt conclusion that MCIAA books "do not present fairly the financial position of the airport."

More facts: As of Aug. 31, 2004, the CoA revealed, the MCIAA was one of 14 agencies that didn't submit adequate reports. Thus, its annual five-volume "Financial Report" for the whole government went to press without the airport's statement. Can of worms No. 2?

Still more facts: "Volume II-B" points out that the MCIAA's "Summary of Discretionary, Representation, Extraordinary, Promotional, Confidential and Consutltancy Expenses" is missing. Transparency is not this board's strong suit. The Inquirer had to rip their blackout curtain again.

The "big ticket" items, however, are elsewhere, including mounting debts. For over 11 years, the board waffled on wringing a definite ruling from the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) on whether Philippine Airlines (PAL) is exempt from value-added tax. Thus, PAL's uncollected debts last year added up to P18.2 million.

"Perhaps, the [Inquirer] columnist should ask the BIR if it has resolved this decade old issue," the MCIAA suggests. This is buck-passing. It's not a newspaper's job to wring decisions on airport taxes, that's the board's. Its refusal to do so for over a decade constitutes gross dereliction of duty. Others have been cashiered for less.

PAL and Waterfront Hotels were exempted from the automatic two-percent surcharge for delayed payments, the report revealed. Why? Smaller concessionaires must pay, no questions entertained.

Do board members craft one policy for companies of cronies and another for small fries? Selective sanctions show that between cronies and board members, as Thomas Jefferson wrote, "the whole commerce is between master and slave ... the most unremitting despotism on one hand, and degrading submission on the other."

This board's history is one of subservience to the powerful. That's why we recalled that board members Pablo Garcia, Valeriano Avila and others supinely heeded President Fidel V. Ramos and bought a $7.86-million Bell 412 EP helicopter, although they were warned by then finance officer Josefina Villasin that the bill could bankrupt the airport.

That "happened eight years ago and is history," the MCIAA said. No, it's not. That weak-kneed decision strapped a monthly bill of $80,337 (or P3,384,154 at the exchange rate then). The drain continued until Malacañang, which used the helicopter exclusively, bailed out the MCIAA.

But "the evil that men do lives after them." It's affecting payment of employees' benefits today. Why is the MCIAA burdened with a budget deficit? asked MCIAA employees mutual association president Edgar Bongayon. Only partial benefits have been paid.

For suggesting there were other cans of worms, the board snapped that the Inquirer columnist is "hung up" over policies that dictators had left behind. Sorry about that. But all despots stick in my craw.

But are board members better for coddling interests of political and economic overlords? They've shredded civil service rules on qualification for general manager to accommodate their proxies. Airport contracts, X-ray machines, fire trucks, especially the repair of Mactan's dilapidated runway, will be future cans of worms.

In August 2000, Japan Air Consultants warned the MCIAA about the runway's deterioration. PAL's flight operations chief, Captain Johnny Andrews, wrote in May 2002: "Our technical evaluation confirmed that it is in an advanced state of deterioration and poses a hazard to aircraft operations."

Accidents have occurred since then. A PAL 737's tires exploded on touchdown in August 2002. A Cebu Pacific DC-9's tires were ripped during a September 2003 landing. And in February 2004, a Qatar jet had its tires zapped. No lives were lost. But we may not be as lucky next time. Officials, who deny links to politically wired construction firms, but roll dice for airport contracts, play with lives.

Can of worms No. 3 is in an Ombudsman case over a partial P7.9-million runway "rejuvenation." Why was the bids and awards committee excluded? the CoA's Roy Ursal asked. The audit report brands as "irregular" the release of P7,470,476 for 14,534 gallons of rejuvenator. Can of Worms 4, 5 and 6 may be in those contracts for fire trucks, X-ray machines, etc.

The CoA never recommended filing of graft charges against anyone, the MCIAA insists. So, we erred by claiming that "thieves masquerade as MCIAA friends."

Only what is illegal is wrong? The Pharisees taught as much. But subservience, stripped of conscience, is subtle larceny. The common good can be savaged by those sporting a halo. "Balang sulug may buwaya," Tausugs say. There's a crocodile in every river.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

No place but home

No place but home

Updated 11:39pm (Mla time) Nov 03, 2004
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A14 of the November 4, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

BORACAY, Aklan -- "The Ati?" asked Marsel Maribojo who oversees an Internet operation in tourist-crammed D' Mall de Boracay. "They were the original inhabitants here. Are they being evicted again?"

The Ati are "negrito," like Mount Pinatubo's Aeta, then-Kalibo bishop Gabriel Reyes wrote President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in October 2002. "They've lived in Boracay since their ancestors," Reyes stressed. "Lacking education, they don't have titles ... Help them, Ms President."

For most people, "Boracay" is sun-drenched white-sand beaches and tourist dollars. Few know -- or care -- the "originals" gave the island's name, Inquirer's Nestor P. Burgos notes. The gleaming white sand here resembled water bubbles. So, the Ati spliced "bora," or bubbles, with "bocay" meaning white.

The remaining 200 or so Ati live in huts, clustered on a hectare of coconut-shaded land, in Sitio Bolabog -- a land claimed by affluent and politically wired Representative Florencio Miraflores of Aklan province.

Aniceto Yap, a tax declaration holder, is badgering the Atis to leave, since "some occupy part of a plot he owns." Aniceto is the brother of provincial board member Jose Yap, Philippine Association for Intercultural Dialogue area coordinator Angelo Ruel-Belen wrote the Ancestral Domain Office in September 2000.

In this country, land underpins local political kingpins. In Boracay, displacement by migrants and lack of land tenure security remind one of Mindanao's tensions. The early Indian reservations in the United States and Australia's original aboriginal camps resonate here.

The Ati were Boracay's original inhabitants before the "Bisaya," or outsiders, came and took over, Inquirer Visayas recalled in February 2003. "The Ati have no concept of individual ownership of the land, believing they're mere stewards of nature's bounty." Only when they were muscled off the land, did they realize that the "Bisaya" did not share their view.

Bolabog is a 10-minute ride from the tourist strip on Boracay's "cabs," smoke-belching, two-stroke tricycles. (Soon, fume-laced air will compete with resort septic tanks as one of the island's problems.)

It might as well be on the moon. Few "outsiders" come this way. Bolabog is a world apart, sealed off decades of neglect and prejudice. Like varicose veins, prejudice tends to swell with use.

A National Mapping and Resource Information Authority team surfaced here recently to survey the whole island. That triggered anxiety attacks.

"Even well-meaning programs can disturb the Ati," explained Daughter of Charity Sister Victoria Ostan. "Powerless and derided, their self-worth is brittle. It takes little to scare them."

"Fear has many eyes," Don Quixote author Miguel de Cervantes once said. Sister Victoria and two other nuns, Lydia Malgapo and Violeta Diocena know that. So, they help a marginalized people tamp down fear.

They do so, not just by prayers, but also by teaching the Ati skills that help them enter a modern world, 10 "unbridgeable" minutes away. Three students are now in high school, one in college. Most men do menial work in resorts. Women take on laundry. Little of the P3.5 billion in tourism trickles down here.

Self-effacing Boracay residents help. Sanitary facilities have been installed. To counter malnutrition, the sisters operate a feeding program for those under 12. Mothers who lack milk to breast-feed receive formula packs.

Soon, a tutor will help Ati kids cope in public schools. Most of them need remedial classes in English, Science and Math. Many shrink from the searing experience of being mocked.

Boracay residents plan -- with the nuns and the Holy Rosary Parish Mission-to set up a continuing medical program. Kids would be dewormed, immunized, etc. "A society is only as strong as its weakest member," a benefactor explained.

But the most striking lesson the nuns offer is presence: They live among the Ati. Their "convent" is also a hut -- only it's more orderly, cleaner and with a tiny flower garden. They resemble the Good Shepherd sisters' lodging in the slums of Manila’s Malate district or Mother Teresa nuns' hospices in Cebu province, in Calbayog City in Western Samar province, and in Manila’s Tondo district.

"Don't their service remind you of the nard bottle?" a friend asked, as we sat in the "convent's" front yard. The what? "The woman who poured a bottle of precious nard on the Master's feet," he said. "Its fragrance filled the house."

Sister Victoria and companions replaced the "first wave" of sisters, invited by the Diocese of Kalibo, now headed by Bishop Jose Romeo Lazo. (Reyes has been assigned to Antipolo City in Metro Manila.) They follow up with offices, like the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples, for recognition of the Ati's ancestral domain.

The knotty question of land ownership is tied up with Presidential Decree 1801 that, in 1978, declared Boracay a tourist zone and marine reserve. Public lands could not be titled.

Some wave Spanish colonial government "titles." Others display tax declarations. Alternative sites for the Atis are bandied about. President Joseph Estrada's "para sa mahirap" [“for the poor”] speech remained hot air. "So far, nothing has happened," the diocese notes.

Eduardo Supertran was 89 years old (his children said) when he told Inquirer: "No one owned the land then. We farmed everywhere ... We were born here ... and our elders told us not to leave the place..." He was 91 when we visited.

"For many, Boracay is paradise," Inquirer Visayas noted. "But to the Ati it is still home to be reclaimed." The street-smart Marsel Maribojo, in the tourist strip, agrees.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

'Bifurcated' All Souls' Day

'Bifurcated' All Souls' Day

Updated 11:23pm (Mla time) Nov 01, 2004
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A12 of the November 2, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

We give back to You who first gave them to us: our faithful dead, whose beauty and truth are even now in our hearts. -- Rufus Ellis

BORACAY, Aklan -- "All Souls Day is -- what's the word now? -- bifurcated," the wife said at a Halloween dinner.

"Words like 'bifurcated' send the opinion editor up the wall," I replied. "What do you mean?"

"Half a world away, our granddaughter tricks-or-treats today," she explained. "Here, our grandchildren bring flowers for family graves -- including ours sooner rather than later." Oh, that.

"A contraction of 'All Hallows Eve'" (All Saints’ Day), Halloween marked the Celtic new year. In 1848, Irish immigrants brought those spooky costumes to the United States where it continues today as a fun-filled kids' feast.

From its start, the Church prayed for the dead. By the year 998, Benedictine abbot Oddilo of Cluny picked Nov. 2 for remembrance. The practice spread to other countries. The living can help the departed, the doctrine went, by asceticism's trio of prayer, sacrifice and alms. They'd help atone for past transgressions, and pave their entry into the Beatific Vision.

Both celebrations reflect reverence for the dead. "Lift us up, that we may see further, as one by one, You gather scattered families, from the distractions, strife and weariness of time, to the peace of eternity," the ancient prayer goes. "Death is only a horizon, and a horizon is the limit of our sight. We thank you for the labor and joys of these mortal years. We thank you for the deep sense of mystery that lies beyond our mortal dust." The desire to "see further" also echoes in newsrooms. "Here come ‘de-cajon’ [stock] stories," an editor wearily snapped. She meant those humdrum stories that swamp news desks whenever All Souls' Day comes around: traffic jams to squatters living in crammed cemeteries. "Is that all there's to this?"

No. But the familiar blur realities beyond the customary: whether votive candles or cemeteries turned into two-day cities, zapped by karaokes. But the central reality remains, as Dr. Lino Pantoja Jr. writes, in "Itaga Mo Sa Bato," life beyond a handful of ashes. "We Filipinos use the idiom ‘itaga mo sa bato’ to assert our utmost confidence," this pastor writes. "Such were Job's exact words: 'Oh, that my words were engraved in rock forever.' They're words of his primitive theology of the Resurrection: 'I know that my Redeemer lives. And in the end, He will stand forth upon the earth. And after my skin shall have been destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God!'"

These words were written 2,500 years before Easter's empty tomb. "It is a good and wholesome thought to pray for the dead," declares the Book of Macabees, from that period. And over 1,500 years later, Handel worked it into his soaring oratorio.

The liturgy spotlights this reality today. "Vita mutatur, non tollitur," priests murmur in the Eucharist's preface. For unto your faithful, O Lord, life is changed, not taken away.

The theme resonates wherever religious or laymen read the Liturgy of the Hours. Few now hear the ancient Gregorian chant, "Dies Irae" [Day of Wrath]: "Tuba mirum spargen sonum / Per sepulchra regionum / Coget omnes ante thronum." My now-hazy freshman Latin translates that to: "Trumpets blare through sepulchers, calling all to appear before the judgment throne."

Above all, there's universal aching for assurance of what lies beyond the grave. "If only I could see him, for just a second, and know he's all right, I'd be able to cope," Seamus tells the priest blessing his son's crumpled body, killed in an accident.

"I remembered Seamus' comment" at a Mass for a student accident victim, writes Jesuit theologian Catalino Arevalo. "We'd all love to know that those who've gone before us, marked with the sign of faith, are at peace."

The son's classmates chose the Transfiguration for gospel reading. "The one about Jesus going up to the mountain and changing into dazzling white," they suggested.

"It struck me, for the first time, that Jesus allowed his friends to see, 'for just a second,' what was beyond. Their reaction was strange: they did not want to leave the spot. It's 'wonderful for us to be here.' But Jesus reminded them they had to go down the mountain," Father Arevalo adds. "What if we could get some vision, 'for only just a second,' or if we could 'for only just a second' see people who've gone before us, in faith, specially those suddenly or tragically taken, in that place of light that is God's promise?

"What if we, too, had some authentic extended experience of 'what our eyes have not seen, nor our ears heard,' what God prepared for those who are faithful? It is truly the better thing that an authentic extended experience is not given us -- because we would not want to leave the spot. Better still because there is still so much of the humdrum, the frustrating, the difficult for us to endure, if possible with courage, to build some small beginnings of the Kingdom which Jesus wanted to make our work in this world."

Whether in the dim catacombs off Rome's Appian way, or in our garishly lighted cemeteries, All Souls speaks to us in Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore's poignant verse: "Death is not the extinguishing of life. It is putting out the lamp, because dawn has come."