Thursday, February 24, 2005

When the fat lady sings

When the fat lady sings

Posted 09:50pm (Mla time) Feb 23, 2005
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A12 of the February 24, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

"YOUR grandchildren's children will be grateful," Mayor Tomas Osmeña proclaimed when worried taxpayers asked him how much they will pay for the Cebu City South Reclamation Project's yen loans.

"Not a centavo," he claimed in that May 1997 statement. The national government would pick up the tab. But he ducked, even then, the question of how much.

Last Sunday, City Hall officially admitted that it ladles out P1 million daily to pay for the interest alone. Come September, the first payment of the principal, amounting to P500.5 million, kicks in. A last payment of P333.8 million comes in 2025.

"By 2025, Osmeña will no longer be mayor," the Cebu Daily News pointed out. "All things pass, and we along with them...But our grandchildren will be still saddled with the tabs then. No basta decir adios. It's not enough to say goodbye."

In the next 20 years, City Hall must "cough up about P10 billion" to pay the Land Bank, Japan Bank for International Cooperation and the national government.

As principal repayments start, a full quarter of Cebu City's budget is hocked for the IOUs. That's one out of every four-tax peso. It will slice into basic services, Osmeña grudgingly admits.

Thus, he'll shelve purchases of heavy equipment critically needed for upland barangays. There'll be little to augment skimpy services, like health, currently pegged at P93 million a year.

"People of the short straw" suffer. Iodine deficiency afflicts 29 out of every 100 kids in the city. And one out of every four pregnant women is short of vitamin A.

"Man does not live by words alone, although sometimes he has to eat them," US presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson once said. As Osmeña munches his grandiose claims, many ask: How did a good project go wrong?

Currency gyrations for one. The Tokyo IOUs were contracted for when the dollar fetched P25. The value of the peso plummeted and hovers at P54 to a dollar today. So, the IOUs have "imploded."

The original P2.3-billion loan has bloated to P6.2 billion. And so has the repayment burden for every man, woman and child within Cebu. Each is now strapped with a tax repayment burden of P86,821--up from P31,996 at the loan signing. Compare that with the P44,548 national debt burden of every Filipino.

Currency fluctuations are, of course, beyond the good mayor's control. But measures to cushion them are. He flunked them.

Take out insurance against peso fluctuations, former adviser Samuel Darza suggested. The mayor scoffed.

Follow your father's example, a London School of Economics adviser suggested. Mayor Sergio Osmeña swapped land for debt. That way he insulated the budget of basic services from debt clams. His honor snorted louder.

"We Osmeñas think we are God's gift to man," explained a senior member of the clan. "Many of us try His chair for size."

Thus, Mayor Osmeña brooked no questions on the loan. A Mafia-like omerta muzzled a thoroughly cowed City Council for years.

"Continued smudging of City Hall's spiraling foreign debt is clamped in place by a seraglio (harem) of eunuchs in the Council," the Sun Star pointed out. This is a mayor who rewards "subservience handsomely." But he whittled down the citizens' role to paying the bill.

No business group or NGO asked the tough questions even as the debts spiraled. It was left to hard-nosed investigative reporters who stripped away the data blackout, revealing lack of a credible repayment policy. Most were women, from Cebu Daily News' Rainne Tecson to Sun Star's Jamin Sumaoy and Ginging Campana, among others.

"[These] are not a gift from Japan. These are loans our grandchildren will have to pay," the Cebu Daily News stressed in "Please pass the can opener." "But Osmeña and Company always downplayed this hard fact" the May 10, 2000 editorial added. "Even a Political Science 101 student knows better..."

"Many crucial issues of our national life have been removed from the agenda of public discussion," the Inquirer noted. And the last election in Cebu was notable for silence that enveloped the debt issue. "Our lives begin to end on the day we become silent about things that matter."

In its editorial "Right hand, left hand IOUs," the Cebu Daily News pointed out: "Osmeña lopped off P60.9 million from the JBIC's loan to pay-who? The JBIC. That's who. Money hocked from Tokyo is to pay off Tokyo, plus interest on the interest. We paid with the left hand what the right borrowed."

The Commission on Audit complained that City Hall "window-dressed" its books by understating its yen loans by P1.52 billion, revealed the Inquirer in a July 20, 2004 commentary.

This laundering resulted from using obsolete 1996 exchange rates. Stop using imaginary figures and use the real rates, the COA said. So, who is fooling whom?

Threat is a standard Osmeña weapon. He'd sue the national government if it drags its foot on issuance of titles. Investors buying could end the cash flow crunch that has left him twisting in the wind.

Back in 1997, the Sun Star challenged the mayor's propaganda on the milk-and-honey nature of his loans. "Let it be for now," that commentary suggested. "It ain't over until the fat lady starts to sing. When the collection bills are presented, that's when the fat lady will sing."

With another repayment bill of P619 million due next year alone, the fat lady isn't just clearing her throat. She's singing-with gusto.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Last-resort weapon

Last-resort weapon

Posted 10:47pm (Mla time) Feb 21, 2005
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A12 of the February 22, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

OUR grey hair and creased foreheads make us "near-elderly," a tongue-in-cheek tag first used by the Associated Press in 1978. We're vulnerable to memories. This shows when anniversaries, like People Power in late February, roll around.

In contrast, few students today remember the late Sen. Benigno Aquino, Pulse Asia found. Recount how the Marcoses scrammed in helicopters to avoid Benito Mussolini's fate: being hanged by the heels. "Mussolini who?" they ask.

Our memories include how 350 martial law detainees were permitted to attend Mass within the jammed Camp Crame prison. Imelda Marcos claims no such obscenity existed.

Someone hustled up a Mass kit for the imprisoned Philippine Priests Forum editor Constante Floresca, SVD. "The excuse for your arrest was illegal assembly," the late Luis Beltran of Evening News joked. "But your Master was nailed for subversion."

Around the makeshift altar were, among others, Constitutional Convention delegate Teofisto Guingona, businessman Jose Concepcion, Graphic's Luis Mauricio and the Philippine News Service's Manuel Almario. The Chinese Commercial News' Veronica Yuyitung had been released earlier. Did I see UP's Haydee Yorac?

The Daily Mirror's Amando Doronila read the Gospel. He selected Matthew's account of the midnight arrest in the garden of Gethsemane. "Those who take by the sword, will perish by the sword," he tautly read. It reverberated. Most detainees were arrested past midnight.

Minutes after Father Floresca's "Go in peace" dismissal, word came down that there would be no more Masses until further notice.

"All of us must open our hearts to human memory," Nobel Laureate Elie Weisel insisted at the Auschwitz death camp memorial rites. "I do not want my past to become the future of my children...."

Today, many want us to forget. The "five-percent revolution," Ferdinand Marcos Jr. scoffs. That's from a man convicted for tax evasion.

Bongbong clones our communists. Heirs of a failed ideology, Reds fancy themselves as "the vanguard of the masses." But when people revolted, they huddled in safe houses. Today, they try to shuck off, via dolled-up fronts, their stigma as People Power "orphans."

Responding to Jaime Cardinal Sin's call over Radio Veritas, citizens massed and saved martial law enforcer Juan Ponce Enrile from ending up like Mussolini. He had fled when found plotting Marcos' ouster. In the 2004 campaign, Enrile "apologized" to Ilocano voters for People Power. He forgot?

We made headway in preventing a future dictator from reemerging in the 1987 Constitution, Inquirer's Randy David notes. "But we're far from eliminating those conditions that make strongman rule a seductive alternative."

Has the revolution of rising expectations then curdled into one of frustrated hopes? Between the 1980s and 1990s, some 81 countries cast off dictators, notes the UN's Human Development Report. By century's turn, 140 countries held multi-party elections.

The democratic wave fizzled since then. Massive poverty and inept governance foiled delivery on promises. Several countries, like Zimbabwe, returned to authoritarian rule. Somalia and similar failed states breed extremists.

"Many others are in transition to nowhere." That's us. Stagnation persists because we assumed good governance would automatically follow. It does not.

Sorry to rain on our parade, but we didn't invent People Power. Non-violent protests go way back. In 1930, for example, India's Mahatma Gandhi led thousands to Dandi's seashore in peaceful protest against the salt tax.

In the mid-'80s, TV interlocked with satellites. These brought images of Filipinos with rosaries and flowers, blocking tanks, into living rooms the world over. Televised evening news foreshadowed that trend shoving the Vietnam war into American homes.

People Power rippled out, a year later, to South Korea. Chile, Poland, the Berlin Wall's collapse and Czechoslovakia's "Velvet Revolution" followed in 1989.

At Beijing's Tienanmen Square, the Communist Party brutally crushed the seven week-long pro-democracy protest and people accepted it, recalls UP Law Dean Raul Pangalangan. See that "as part of a historic bargain between the Chinese Communist Party and its people." Is consent at gunpoint an option?

In 1991, People Power swept Russia, and in 1992 Thailand. By 2003, the "Rose Revolution" rocked Georgia. And the "Orange Revolution" freed Ukraine last year. It's unclear if today's street protests in Lebanon and Togo will escalate into People Power revolts.

After a protracted city arrest, Marcos approved our request to accept a United Nations posting abroad. Executive Secretary Jacobo Clave and Palace adviser Alejandro Melchor helped us on that. We uprooted our family, heeding Sen. Jose Diokno's counsel.

Minutes before boarding, the public address system blared: Come to the immigration desk. Heart-in-throat, I trudged forward. "Visitor," I was told. It was the journalists' lawyer in Supreme Court habeas corpus petition, Joker Arroyo. "I wanted to confirm you got away," he chuckled.

"Joker, I appreciate your concern," I gasped. "But I almost got a heart attack. Don't ever do this again, please."

In our twilight years, we recall how brittle our constitutional structures were--and how ordinary citizens stood up against dictatorship.

People ignored Erap when he tried to incite Edsa 3 and 4. Filipinos will risk all for a cause, but not for a souse. That's heartening, too. People Power remains a democracy's weapon of last resort. "Those who answer its call," David writes, "must work hard to prepare the ground" through good governance.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Can of worms No. 3

Can of worms No. 3

Posted 00:14am (Mla time) Feb 17, 2005
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A14 of the February 17, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

TOURISM Secretary Robert Ace Durano blabbed earlier that retired Air Force Gen. Adelberto Yap would oversee the country's second largest international airport. "He'll find," this column warned last Oct. 14, "a can of management worms waiting."

At the Mactan-Cebu International Airport Authority, the Commission on Audit reported that the "worms" included P1.41 billion in properties unlisted, P90.2 million in debts and reduced fees for coddled firms like Philippine Airlines and Waterfront for over a decade.

"Can of Worms 2, 3, 4, 5 Etc." debunked acting MCIAA manager Marcelino Cordova's claim that reforms were implemented. Garbled books and reform lags led the COA to exclude the airport and 13 other offices from its review of national agencies.

Instead, the airport cheekily urged the Inquirer to prod the Bureau of Internal Revenue to rule if PAL is tax exempt.

"It's not a newspaper's job to wring decisions on airport taxes," we wrote then. The board's "refusal to do so, for over a decade, constitutes gross dereliction of duty. Others were cashiered for less."

Future cans of worms are in contracts, from the supply of X-ray machines to fire trucks. "Can of Worms No. 3," we said, "is an Ombudsman case over a partial P7.9 million runway, rejuvenation."

An "independent board" will name Yap manager tomorrow (Feb. 18), Sun-Star's Elias Baquero reports. The members of the board apparently have seen the letter stating: "It is the President's wish...."

No one will admit glimpsing a wink from the financiers of the 2004 presidential campaign. They're now recouping their donations from airport contracts. So, will Yap play ball with them?

Yap will find "Can of Worms No. 3" waiting. The no-nonsense Regional Ombudsman Virginia Palanca Santiago approved the filing of a criminal case for graft against the airport's former manager Angelo Verdan and engineer William Sabado.

While the board shilly-shallied, one member, Capt. Antonio Oppus, charged Verdan and Sabado for awarding 7HTechnochem Industries P7,470,476 in a rigged transaction to buy 14,534 gallons of sub-standard "rejuvenator."

Since then, the COA's Roy Ursal confirmed Oppus' assertion that Verdan excluded the awards and bids committee and instead ran a personal canvass. The MCIAA couldn't be bothered to reply to the COA.

Technochem's bid surfaced three months late and it was overpriced by P6 million, Ombudsman prober Ephemia Bacalso found. To favor a family corporation headed by Ronnie S. Tiu, the "project specifics" were watered-down three times. Except for Oppus, the board played along.

It did so again by swallowing retailored specifications, this time for a fire truck. Doctored "specs" enabled the MCIAA to buy a P32-million Oskosh fire truck last May.

There's "enough basis to proceed with a criminal investigation" on the fire-engine award, wrote Ombudsman's Edgardo Canton. The Ombudsman's can opener will see courts rule on questions that Oppus raised.

Like Yap, Oppus is a military fighter pilot. He moved on to fly 747s and is also an engineer. He serves on a board staffed with members of varying qualifications, from lawyers to a movie house operator, insurance peddler and political retreads.

The board minutes show where Oppus drew the line. "Effective immediately, I am inhibiting myself from any and all discussions regarding runway repair," he wrote the board chair, Undersecretary Edward Pangunsan, on July 1, 2003. "The whole episode is chaotic and graft ridden." Pangunsan didn't reply either.

That wasn't an overnight rejection. In August 2000, Japan Airport Consultants warned about "moderate to severe unraveling" of the runway. But for 21 months, the board sat on its hands-until the May 2002 meeting, when Oppus bluntly charged "gross incompetence for neglecting an airport's critical and primary facility: its runway."

From then on, a charade developed. Bids by reputable firms were shoved aside on the basis of an "unsigned white paper." In the interim, vital documents never showed up from response of shunted bidders, the memorandum of agreement between the airport and the Air Transport Office for repairs, the progress and evaluation reports to Technochem Industries' backdoor appearance, three months after the bidding closed.

The eroded runway drew complaints. "Our technical evaluation confirmed that (Mactan) is in an advanced state of deterioration," PAL's flight operations chief wrote in May 2002. A series of accidents since then underscored the warning. A PAL 737's tire exploded upon touchdown in August 2002. A Cebu Pacific DC-9's tires were ripped during a September 2003 landing. In February 2004, a Qatar jet had its tires zapped.

How good are the repairs? The over 2.27 million passengers, who stream through Mactan yearly, have no idea. Neither does the board. The acceptance document, sans technical report, for runway repair surfaced 62 days late. A disinterested board wasn't bothered that only "ocular inspections" preceded submission. "The roughness of the runway is dangerous to aircraft landings," says Capt. Amado Soliman, president of Air Safety Philippines.

"Can of Worms Nos. 3 and 4 " are case studies, too. They show how an inept board, subservient to shadowy political and economic groups, toy with lives of people by converting a crucial airport into a jar, as the Filipino saying puts it, "to make kupit." That's a polite word for snitching in the millions.

When Yap assumes office before distinguished board members, no one will ask: Are your fingerprints, as former board member, also in the MCIAA deals?

As the old Spanish farmer said: "They're all honest men. But my cloak is not to be found."

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Hoofing it

Hoofing it

Posted 00:45am (Mla time) Feb 15, 2005
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A14 of the February 15, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

EVEN before they graduate, almost half (47 percent) of Filipino students already plan to migrate. And within overseas workers' families, the proportion ratchets up to six out of every 10 kids.

So, how long can a million of our workers yearly hoof it to foreign lands without crippling the country?

That question arises in "Hearts Apart" -- a hard-nosed analysis of parents seeking jobs abroad, as seen in "the eyes of Filipino children" left behind.

"The millions of Filipinos working overseas make a difference ... between basic survival and a better life for their families back home." BBC correspondent Sarah Toms observed. "But there's a cost to be paid, too, by the children they leave behind."

What's the cost? -- asks the study sponsored by the Catholic bishops' commission for Pastoral Care of Migrants, Overseas Workers Welfare Administration and the Scalabrini Migration Center.

Researchers -- from University of the Philippines (Cebu), Colegio de San Agustin in Bacolod and Ateneo de Davao -- interviewed 1,443 children in 130 schools in Metro Manila, Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna, Cebu, Negros Occidental and Davao del Sur.

Concern over migration is reflected in the growing body of research. Socorro Gultiano of San Carlos University's Office of Population Studies' and her team are analyzing domestic migration.

The numbers, however, shove overseas migration to the forefront. One out of every 10 Filipinos today lives or works abroad. About a fourth are "illegals." They remit about $8 billion through banks. But much is funneled in via unofficial networks."

Studies range from Ateneo's "Filipino Children Under Stress" to Bangkok's Asian Research Center's "Filipino Women Migrants: Home But Not For Good," and to "Seasonal Orphans" by Victoria Paz Cruz.

Immigration curbs, war or government haven't staunched the hemorrhage. In 2003 alone, 867,969 Filipinos left for over 100 destinations in "those far away places with strange-sounding names." Filipinos operate dialysis machines in Khazakstan, sail ships in the Caribbean or work as domestics in Hong Kong.

Starting in the 1980s, more women left. "We cannot work abroad," says Pete, whose wife from Laguna is a domestic worker. "They're the ones who can find jobs."

Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Philippines are the Asian countries where women constitute the majority of migrants. "The trend has become irreversible."

But there's "more beneath and beyond the statistics and the dollars," notes Scalabrini Center's Dr. Maruja M.B. Asis. Filipinos call mothers “ilaw ng tahanan,” or light of the home. The departure of mothers has "put the well-being of the family on the line."

If they had a say, 49 out of every 100 kids would prefer that the father migrate, the survey found. "My mom can be both father and mother," says Don, 19, from La Union. "Sometimes, she climbs the roof. But my father can't cook."

Cash gives migrants' children an edge: home ownership, durable goods, quality schools, better health care, etc. More children of overseas Filipino workers enroll in private schools with higher educational standards. They "fare slightly better" than those of non-migrants in several indices of academic performance: from general weighted average to honor rolls.

"With a lifetime ahead, how did the children view their future?" Rosy. Nine out of 10 said so. But many of them plan out careers shaped by what's marketable abroad. More than half (52 percent) want to become doctors, nurses, etc. That's followed by engineers (7 percent) -- and entertainers.

"There's no possibility to move up here," says Ron, 19, from Cagayan de Oro. "I'll have a future abroad." From the Ilocos, Ric, also 19, says: "Professionals in the Philippines go to other countries, and then the other countries progress. But where they come from, there's no progress." But there's ambivalence too. "I prefer it here. The values are good," says La Union's Migs, 19. "If nothing happens here, I'll try international." But Risa, 17, of Manila admits: "It's like a conflict. The family you leave behind -- you don't know what will happen to them."

Public perceptions swirl around stories of philandering husbands or wayward children. The study's findings, however, present a less monolithic picture.

"Departure of one or two parents does leave an emotional mark," especially when it is the mother who is away. But extended families offer support. In many other well-being indicators, the children do as well. Where the family is stable, "it can withstand the separation imposed by migration."

The study does not discount the psychological stress. "I pity my mother and fear for her safety," says Hafiz, 19, from Cotabato. "I was still young then, about six. I cried a lot. It seemed hard to adjust," says Ric. "My youngest sibling always pines for her. This is for our own good," adds Farid, 20.

But hearts inch apart when the absence of a parent is prolonged. "My daddy is really kind ... But it feels there's a stranger in the house," 19-year-old Isa from Bulacan says. Some regret for experiences they could have shared as a family.

To maintain ties, families spend for costly communication. "Cell phone families" reassure children their families remain intact. "The phone cards he consumed could be our food budget," explained Sonia, a Manila seafarer's wife. "But if you take it away -- nothing."

"The children's responses indicate that overseas migration will continue," the report notes. Hearts apart have "implications for the country as a whole."

* * *


Thursday, February 10, 2005

Frantic race

Frantic race

Posted 11:43pm (Mla time) Feb 09, 2005
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A12 of the February 10, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

"WHAT we discovered in Panglao Island in Bohol was absolutely daunting," admitted Dr. Philippe Bouchet of France's National History Museum.

Apparently ill-at-ease with adjectives, this marine scientist was sketching, before a packed room of professors and students, the stunning range of species found by 74 other savants, researchers and divers from 19 countries in their study of Panglao waters. These ranged from a "blind crab" in mangroves at the Abatan River to a Balicasag Island shell last seen in an 1897 survey.

"Panglao Marine Biodiversity Project 2004" is arguably the world's most comprehensive inventory of crustaceans and coral reef mollusks, said Dr. Danilo Largo, chair of San Carlos University's biology department. Largo and Bouchet were the principal investigators for the project.

The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Asean Regional Center for Biodiversity Conservation and Total Corporate Foundation supported the inventory within the so-called "Golden Triangle": the Philippines, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.

In this "Triangle" are more species of coral, sponges, fish and invertebrates than anywhere else, Largo explained. The "Triangle" crests a "species gradient" that thins out, in richness, across the Indo-Pacific area.

Tacked below Tagbilaran City, Panglao harbored more than just coral gardens for scuba divers, scientists always felt. Now, hypothesis is hardening into data.

The project focused on Panglao's coastal ecosystem. Teams scoured the intertidal mudflats between Tagbilaran and Cortes, to narrow rocky platforms on Panglao's northern coast and Balicasag. Some 59 sites were sampled intertidally, using a range of tools: traps, tange (pamo) nets to yabbie pumps that suck out minute organisms in burrows.

So far, the project's ongoing inventory has turned up 1,200 species of "decapod crustaceans" or shrimps, lobsters, crabs.

The result came as a total surprise to the crustacean researchers. "Put that in perspective and you'll understand why," Bouchet said. From the cold temperate Kuriles in the north to the tropical Ryukus in the south, Japan has just over 1,600 species.

Known for his worldwide survey, the Singapore scientist on the team "was state of the art," Bouchet recalled. "We showed him a stone crab, from the Parthenopidea family, trapped 20 meters from our lab. 'I've never seen this before,' he said. This is a new species."

The scientists anticipated Panglao would yield a rich trove of mollusks or snails, clams or squids. It did. They found almost 6,000 species crammed within the 15,000-hectare study site.

"Again, see that in perspective," Bouchet suggested. "The Mediterranean is 300 million hectares. And it has just 2,024 species of mollusks and 340 crustaceans."

The Panglao team explored Abangan's pitch-dark mangrove channel waters, part of the over 1,150 dives the expedition did. They came up with, among other things, a blind crab never seen before. "Over how many million of years did it take to adapt to an environment without light?" Bouchet asked.

Questions like that will keep an international network of scientists engrossed for many years, including a startling range of brilliant micro-mollusks. Analysis of Panglao findings is now proceeding in Cebu, Paris, San Francisco, Singapore and other study centers.

"There could be 10 to 15 potential Panglaos here," Bouchet said. "But for how long, as you seek a balance between activities like tourism and conservation?"

There's a race to identify species -- and possible uses of their unique genes -- before spreading human settlements drive some of them to extinction. Can this rich biodiversity survive in complex tropical environments, often with imploding populations?

Genes are building blocks of life. They combine into new plants, food, medicine, etc. They can spin off into Vitamin-A rich rice or anti-cancer medicine, like Madagascar's periwinkle.

Estimates vary on how many species exist. But roughly less than 15 percent, most scientists agree, have been catalogued. Like Abangan River's blind crab, about 85 percent remains to be tallied. "It's a world complex beyond understanding and valuable beyond measure," Worldwatch Institute says.

But today's decimation of species is a "killing curve." Unless reversed, Oxford University scientists estimate that within 30 years, a fifth of all species could become extinct.

Squirting cyanide into reefs originated in the Philippines and Thailand in the 1960s. It devastated reefs. And in 20 years, cyanide tainted over four out of every five kilos of fish, the United Nations Environmental Programme notes.

Dynamite decimated fishing grounds. Only 4 percent of reefs here remain in excellent condition, updates of the "Inventory of Coral Resources" reveals. "The most significant decline has been in the Visayas."

Giant clams, Mindoro tamaraws, Cebu cinnamon have been virtually wiped out. What species disappeared when loggers creamed the remaining forests in Aurora and Quezon? No one knows.

When a species becomes extinct, so do its unique God-given genes, the late National Scientist Dioscoro Umali said. "That forecloses little-understood options for our grandchildren. Obliteration is forever."

That's what the Panglao study is all about.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Reverse bumper harvest

Reverse bumper harvest

Posted 10:52pm (Mla time) Feb 07, 2005
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A14 of the February 8, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

THERE are awards, and awards. But for sheer brazenness, hand it to Cebu City's Mayor Tomas Osmeña.

For the Charter Day rites on Feb. 24, Osmeña has handpicked 18 awardees. He included his controversial close-in security guard, SPO1 Adonis Dumpit, necklaced with three killing cases before the Ombudsman.

Dumpit will get a P50,000 prize in taxpayers' money, too.

"I'll accept it, as I need the cash for my cases," said the man who has been unfairly dubbed, Osmeña protests, as a “salvage” [summary killing] cop.

The mayor sprang Dumpit from jail to "train police in marksmanship." He'll be cited alongside President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, NGOs, a university, a producer of Visayan films, plus a clutch of Osmeña loyalists.

The city will honor the President for her concern for Cebu, Osmeña explained, but she'll not get "a cash incentive." Instead, they'll go to police officials who haven't solved 21 summary executions, by shadowy “escuadrones de la muerte” [death squads].

The P50,000 is the least of Ms Arroyo's concerns. But will the President agree to stand, cheek-by-jowl, alongside Osmeña's gunslinger in the controversy over vigilante rub-outs?

Ricardo Cardinal Vidal, the Integrated Bar of the Philippines and other groups have protested against the “salvaging.” The most searing indictment came from the Philippine Jesuit Prison Service Foundation, which has opened a farm and livelihood center for former prisoners.

"Crime committed to stop crime makes no sense," said Fr. Victor Labao, SJ, who founded the multi-purpose cooperative. "Nobody was born a criminal. It is a sick society that breeds criminals."

Osmeña endorsed the ex-prisoners' farm and washed his hands of death squads. "I may have inspired them," he shrugs. Nonetheless, he allocated P20,000 for every criminal "neutralized" or "permanently disabled."

The known body count is 21. So, has he disbursed P420,000 for scalp bounties? Who received the blood money? Did that come from the P3-million intelligence fund that the President authorized? Or did businessmen, as Cebu Daily News' Raymond Fernandez fears, chip in secretly.

"Time was when Charter Day awards were cherished by recipients," wrote Sun-Star's Bong Wenceslao. Today, they've "acquired the sheen of plaques sold on the sidewalks." One-man choices, they reflect Osmeña's "eccentricities."

Complaints over the depreciation of the awards are of long standing. "Values that transcend narrow frontiers and selfless service to others characterize honors by the Magsaysay Foundation, Silliman University or Mother Teresa awards," the Cebu Daily News noted in Aug. 29, 2001. But "raw politics underpins the Osmeña trophies." This year's "murder-with-a-wink" exacerbated the decay.

Awards from the Nobel or Ramon Magsaysay Foundation, in contrast, follow established criteria. They're applied by a non-partisan board of eminent persons. That establishes credibility.

To see the difference, scan the list of awardees. Nobel Laureates include Rudyard Kipling, Ireland's George Bernard Shaw; Doctors without Frontiers, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Burma's Aung San Su Kyi and Kenyan environmentalist Wangrai Maathai.

On the home front, the over 239 Asians and institutions honored with Magsaysay Awards include Supreme Court Chief Justice Hilario Davide, graft buster Haydee Yorac, the Bayanihan Folk Arts Center and Thailand's Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn.

Osmeña also tickled the public with his attempt to clone Harvard University's Lampoon. He dumped his “kalabasa” [squash] awards on unpopular agencies like Philippine Airlines for late flights, telecom companies for text-messaging charges, etc.

Founded in 1876 by seven Harvard undergraduates, Lampoon modeled itself on Punch, the British humor magazine. Its parodies of Playboy, New Yorker and J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" won a following. Osmeña initially did too with his squashes.

Mocking praise is legal. Filipinos are gluttons for the spoof. Remember those wisecracks about Jose Velarde, Jose Pidal and now Generals Garcia and Ligot? Satire is a legitimate tool in a democracy. It can wring accountability from officials. "Parody is a game but satire is a lesson," Vladimir Nabokov said.

"Osmeña inflicts his trophy on those who the mayor, by his lonesome, claims don't serve Cebu well," Cebu Daily News noted in its "Pot to the kettle" editorial. "They pander to what is popular at the moment-and thereby boost his sagging political stock."

But scandals and crass misgovernance have sapped the regime's credibility. His imploding yen loans strapped constituents with the country's heftiest foreign IOU. Every man, woman and child within the city must repay P60,654 each. He window-dressed a P4.3-billion debt by P1.52 billion, the Commission on Audit complained.

This merits a jumbo “kalabasa” award. So does his buying of secondhand dump trucks disguised as brand-new. His city is over-pumping, by over 150,000 cubic meters daily, its strained aquifers. And 29 percent of children, in the city, suffer from iodine deficiency while 34 percent lack Vitamin A.

Osmeña has "policy black holes" on food security, sewerage, nutrition, transport, pollution, migration, schools, out of school youth, Cebu Daily News noted in its commentary, "Makalusot governance." "This vacuum provides temporary sanctuary from accountability -- but a reverse bumper harvest of kalabasa."

Vigilantes running riot will add one more squash.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Tracking changing stories

Tracking changing stories

Posted 11:28pm (Mla time) Feb 02, 2005
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A12 of the February 3, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

HAS this country become a media treadmill? And does it straightjacket us into mechanically inserting new data, over dated figures, within stale stories with dusted-off headlines?

That bone-weary question arises when you scan new findings, whether in population, forests, nutrition, schools, even gunning down of journalists. "Is there anything new under the sun?" a burnt-out Ecclesiastes asked in 300 B.C.

At a Philippine Press Institute meeting, for example, former Health Undersecretary Mario Taguiwalo lucidly summarized impacts from a population that mushroomed from 43 million in 1975 to roughly 83 million today.

"Our national papers published in the mid-1960s the first reports on population surges," recalled the demographer sitting next to me, Mercedes Concepcion, the University of the Philippines (UP) Population Institute's founding director. "You wrote that series. Remember?"

Yes, but what changed since then? you asked as Taguiwalo displayed slide number 16. It was on skewed income distribution.

In 1961, the upper half of Filipinos nailed roughly 82 centavos out of every peso. The poorer half made do with 17 centavos -- crumbs, really. By the year 2000, their share of crumbs barely budged. The better off had a “kosing” [centavo] shaved off their 82 centavos. And the poor had a “kosing” tacked to their 17 centavos.

But the arithmetic shifted. In 1961, there were 27 million of the poor. By the 21st century's start, that had swollen to 76 million. "The population issue is about impoverished people," Taguiwalo said.

It's about "expanding their choices to lead the lives they value," as the UN's Human Development Report notes. But with 17 centavos, what choices do our poor have?

They have no tiaras, like Imelda Marcos. Nor can they fly barbers in business class to Hong Kong. Joseph Estrada did that when he needed a trim. That disparity makes our TB incidence inevitable: 219 for every 100,000 citizens. Compare that to 26 for Thais, 8 for Mexicans.

Of course, numbers "alone cannot explain poverty." In their follow-up paper on the fiscal crisis, UP professors underscore that "bad governance, high wealth and income inequality, weak economic growth" stoke penury.

Thus, journalists must "track a story in real time," CNN's Frank Cesno says. "The story changes out from under you, and you've got to ride the roller-coaster."

So, did you track your stories on the first protests in the 1960s on spreading forest devastation? asked Metro Post editor Irma Faith Pal at a Silliman University seminar. "Your hair is now gray," she noted.

The late Sen. Emmanuel Pelaez and forester Nicolas Lansigan, we wrote then, hit the alarm button, saying the logging frenzy couldn't be sustained. Clear-cutting would chainsaw into resource base itself. Forest cover, then, was a still-manageable 39 percent of the total area. We strutted among the four prima donnas of world timber exporters.

Today, the country is a wood pauper. We buy logs from Sabah or New Zealand, a country that nurtured tree plantations. Forest cover has been whittled down to barely 17 percent. Yet, remaining stands in the Sierra Madre and remote parts of Mindanao are being ravaged, if Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago's privilege speech is right, by people like Angara-Castillo, Zubiri, Enverga, Joson, among 42 officials in 25 provinces.

That nationwide pattern of plunder beggared thousands. It wrecked a world-class industry. Unwittingly, we provided a case study on how not to handle a natural resource, the Food and Agriculture Organization notes. Worse, it handed denuded deserts on to future generations.

Journalists must track these basic changes. However, "the market has no alarm that sounds when a biological system's carrying capacity is breached," Worldwatch Institute cautions. The real costs for remedial policies, long postponed, appear belatedly in lethal flash floods, as in Aurora, Quezon, Ormoc and Caraga.

The treadmill prevails in the media. In Tagum, the 60th assault on a journalist, since 1986, has been reported. Yet, it was 26 in 1999 and rose to 32 by the year 2000. "Today, the body count is 56," Cebu's Press Freedom Week editorial noted in 2003.

Not a killer has been convicted. The Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists blames "a culture of violence"-often condoned by officials-for making the Philippines, after Iraq, the world's deadliest place for media workers. Malacañang bristles at the charge of nurturing impunity. O.K. How about impotence?

Take schools. In 1996, we commented on the tail-ender record notched by Filipino students in the first International Mathematics and Science Tests. Today, Education Secretary Florencio Abad is confronted by the dusted off headlines: failure in the fourth IMST in 2004. And the Department of Public Works still spends P600,000 on a schoolhouse which the Chinese Federation of Commerce builds and donates for P300,000.

"Treadmill stories" are often about issues that persist over the long haul. But we in the press find the demand for "something new" bearing down relentlessly. It's difficult to stave off that pressure by greater stress on reporting of significance. But we must try. As the Nobel Laureate Archbishop Romero said, "We are prophets of a future not our own."

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Home is where the cash is

Home is where the cash is

Posted 10:57pm (Mla time) Jan 31, 2005
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A12 of the February 01, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

REACTIONS from New York, Florida to Quezon City have come fast, thick and articulate to the issue raised in our Jan 26. column, "Diaspora as economic clout."

Can Filipinos abroad muster economic muscle to create a critical mass enough to shatter crony governance that brought us all to the brink of "democratic exhaustion"? that column asked.

"Filipinos of the diaspora" -- a thousand or more delegates who have succeeded abroad in their fields, yet were drawn back to their native sod -- confronted that issue at the Global Networking Pinoy convention in Cebu. So did delegates to the Cultural Center's Karangalan conference and "Pinoy Unleashed" at the Ultra.

Echoing John Kennedy's 1961 inaugural theme -- "Ask not what your country can do for you..." -- they wondered: how could they help a country skirting democratic debility?

Use your economic clout to sledgehammer reforms at home, First Pacific's Manuel Pangilinan suggested. Replace systems crammed with cronies with a meritocracy that rewards excellence. Otherwise, the best will vamoose at the first visa.

"Thank God for confabs like (this)," wrote Jovie Galarga of Pasig City. "Pinoy achievers challenge us to focus on our strengths as a people. There's a with-God-nothing-is-impossible spirit resident in every Pinoy's heart."

"The easiest way for overseas Filipinos to help is to get as many relatives to their adopted country," scoffed Amadeo de la Cruz of New York's Greenwich Village. "There are enough obstacles," from reacquiring citizenship to buying land, put up by the rich, with help of politician-relatives, to discourage overseas Filipinos.

Filipinos abroad have economic muscle, Pepton J. Anton in California writes. But is there "common purpose of reforms"? Elites returning adopt vices of corrupt domestic oligarchs, from underpaying domestic helpers to ostentation, a point that "Andre MM" of New York concurs with. "Elites don't want to change the system anymore than non-elites risk changing it."

Should they abandon comfort zones to cap a social volcano created by corrupt rulers and corrupt ruled? Filipinos abroad debate. Should they help dismantle this anomaly in the autumn of their lives, when they can sit in relative peace?

Many do, reports Jose Montelibano of Gawad Kalinga in the Pusong Pinoy webpage. Some adopt simpler lifestyles to channel their savings to help.

"Esok and Sally Andraneda of Chicago sold their mansion to buy a modest house and donated the difference of $100,000 to build homes for poor Filipinos," he writes. They raised another $77,000 from the sale of their Mercedes. "More stories like this are waiting to be told."

"When Filipinos leave, they are halfway out the door," Anthony Yu (of Canada?) pointed out. "The only thing holding them is people they care about here. Take them away, and they're gone. This is fact."

Dr. Remigio Lacsamana of Florida agrees. "Majority of us who left did so because of the lack of opportunities there. Few plan to go back except to visit." Those who left families behind send hard-earned money to help relatives get by. Often, this entails sacrifices, "as some don't always have good jobs," Lacsamana adds.

Yu concurs saying: "(Those) who send money do so because they have loved ones there, not to exact excellence from government's performance. That's confusing personal responsibilities with the public good."

"National redemption, however, depends on empowerment of the majority, not from the diaspora's enthusiastic few, prescribing solutions," writes "Andre MM" from New York.

"We're not competitive in the world labor market. That's the unpleasant truth. It's harder even for educated Filipinos now to migrate. It's due to our deteriorating education, competition from neighbors, and changes in immigration laws. We didn't dislodge Mexicans on the basis of advance competencies. This isn't a pretty record."

Lasting change will come from the commitment of Filipinos who participate in a boring process called nation-building. "We are on our own," Yu stresses. "If we don't get our act together here, expect more (thieves) who eventually park their cash someplace else."

"Our neighbors like Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and South Korea make giant strides while we lag," Dr. Lacsamana adds. "I'm saying no to Tita Glo. More than retiree dollars, we must throw behind bars every official who has made that his way of life. Revamp our culture."

Since the mid-1990s, Gawad Kalinga monitored the shifting mood of Filipinos abroad, Jose Montelibano claims. At the September 2004 Chicago conference of Filipino groups, GK reported "on a collective angst to focus on the motherland, and perhaps even help."

Filipinos in the United States, Canada and Australia assist typhoon, flood and other victims. They chip in for various charities. GK supports 400 communities nationwide. Volunteers tend poor families in cooperation with "partners": mayors, some corporations and colleges. A group rebuilds a typhoon ravaged Camarines Sur town.

Many church and NGOs do similar work but never get into the news. Despite the "agony of a wounded people," Montelibano claims there's "a growing empathy in the hearts of Filipinos abroad that transcends the extreme frustration they have long felt at the quagmire known as Philippine society."