Tuesday, March 15, 2005

The President's men -- or wimps?

The President's men -- or wimps?

Posted 11:04pm (Mla time) Mar 14, 2005
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

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

THE CLOUT of a "strong republic" is gauged by the compassion it extends to the weakest citizens.

Now, a rookie lady senator is testing President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's men: Can they apply that humane yardstick in, of all places, "Paradise"?

Some call the place Boracay. For many, it means white beaches, sailing, food, fun, etc. -- at devalued peso bargain rates. For tourism honcho Dick Gordon and Secretary "Ace" Durano, the place is a Filipinized Rubaiyat: "Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough, /A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse -- and Thou/ Beside me singing in the Wilderness -- /And Wilderness is Paradise enow."

But few know -- or care -- about the "origs" who gave the island its name. Like Mount Pinatubo Aetas, the Atis were Boracay's original inhabitants, then Kalibo Bishop Gabriel Reyes wrote the President in 2002. "Lacking education," they're often harassed and evicted. "Help them, Ms President."

Boracay's white sand reminded the Atis of “bora,” or water bubbles. They spliced that with "bocay," meaning "white." But the name is all the Atis have left.

As in Mindanao, after outsiders ("Bisayas") came, Atis were muscled off the land, the Inquirer Visayas noted. Only then did the Atis realize the "Bisayas had other notions of land ownership."

Exploiting the weak is not a Filipino monopoly. It has occurred in Australia, the United States, Indonesia, among other places.

"In Honduras and the Philippines, indigenous people have been systematically forced into more marginal (lands) which echoes the 'native reserves' of Southern and East Africa," notes the Journal of Agrarian Change. "They're frequently denied social and political rights. And struggles often focus on asserting these."

Today's "reserve" in Boracay is a one-hectare lot in Sitio Bolabog, a 10-minute tricycle ride from the tourist strip. Some 200 or so Atis live there in huts, malnourished, sickly, poorly educated. Although laws, like the Indigenous Peoples' Right Act (RA 8371) offer protection, they're insecure.

More difficult is enforcing the law in a country where "the local political bosses [caciques] lord it over the countryside through a complex network of patronage," Saturnino Borras Jr. told the International Conference on Agrarian Reform.

In "Paradise," the rich with political clout have taken to stringing barbed wire to slice the miniscule Bolabog. They've also set deadlines for next week's eviction.

"Your trusted man Nathaniel Sacapano ordered Atis to vacate their abode," Malacañang's fund-strapped National Commission on Indigenous Peoples wrote Rep. Joven Miraflores of Aklan. The "Atis have a pending Certificate of Ancestral Land Title claim over this area," NCIP Chair Reuben Lingating reminded Miraflores, who claims extensive tracts. Until a decision is reached, "their right to stay is guaranteed" by law.

The Boracay parish priest, meanwhile, confronted tax declaration holder Aniceto Yap's workers who were fencing the Ati village. An overnight wall sliced three and a half huts. An accomplished eviction, the priest feared, would outrun the law.

Daughters of Charity nuns, who live among the Atis and serve them, stand up for the embattled Atis. Bishop Jose Romero Lazoto wants the Kalibo church to live the Second Plenary Council's call for "a preferential option for the poor, a church of the poor."

The Catholic Church protest was ignored. It's not the first time. "How many divisions has the Pope?" Josef Stalin scoffed in one of history's grossest under-estimations. Can "Paradise's" tourist trade afford front-page photos of nuns, serving the Atis, dragged from their nipa hut convent?

Sans publicity, Sen. Jamby Madrigal bucked Boracay's slice-and-divide tactics. In a polite but blunt letter to the President's men -- Secretaries Angelo Reyes, Mike Defensor and Rene Villa, the NCIP chair and other officials -- she wrote that the Atis are threatened with eviction by persons who "represent themselves as owners of the land of which said tribe sojourns and are indigenous to." Boracay land is "inalienable" since it is classified as forestlands. (PD 180 also sets aside the island as a tourist zone and marine reserve.) The law "recognizes the superior right of indigenous peoples to their ancestral domain." Their right to stay "shall be inviolate." Neither may they be "relocated without their free and prior informed consent."

Can Madrigal change the odds?

"This is about very poor people fighting the odds," notes Oxfam's Global Land Policy adviser Robin Palmer. "Land is always a deeply political issue, involving highly disputed and often very dangerous terrain." It's happening when the long wave of land reform, kicked off by the French Revolution ended in the 1970s, as globalization surged. "It's a world in which human and labor rights are being put into reverse gear.... And the poor find themselves, in today's global supply chains, in a race to the bottom."Madrigal's speaking up for those at the bottom was unexpected. Many saw her as a spoiled rich dilettante. Like Jinggoy Estrada, wasn't she out of her depth in the Senate? some people asked. Did we under-rate this lady?

Madrigal insists that a "strong republic" is measured by the compassion it extends to the weakest. Can the President's men match that? Or will they be wimps in the face of a gauntlet tossed by land claimants who built a hut in the Atis' basketball court?

"The measure you mete out to others," the Master from Galilee said, "is the measure that will be meted out to you."


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