Sunday, July 20, 2014

I didn’t buy anything (or how the boycott SM thing is doing)

Last night dinner, my son confessed: he had to go through SM to get to a location where he and his friends were doing a photo shoot. “But I didn’t buy anything.”

It’s been more than two years since our family decided to boycott SM because of their expansion plan that would result in the removal of 182 trees in an area that’s one of the very few remaining forest covers in the Central Business District of Baguio.

The family boycott started on January 19, 2012. That was the day we responded to a call by Michael Bengwayan to rally against the planned expansion. That day, we printed placards that said, “It’s not what you’ll build, it’s what you’ll kill to build it,” and distributed these to some friends who joined us as we walked down Session Road to Malcolm Square where the protesters gathered.

Just when we thought that the rally was over, we heard that some of the protesters decided to continue to demonstration right at the rotunda by the entrance to SM at the top of Session Road. We were already tired and were ready to go home, but decided to check on what’s happening up there.

When we arrived, there were several people gathered at the rotunda already – gongs were being played, motorists were being coaxed to blow their horns as a sign of support for the protest, there were performance artists dancing (and at one point one of them set herself on fire).  The police were all over, trying to convince us to disperse. Right across the road in front of Banco De Oro I remember seeing then Councilor Nicasio Aliping, talking to some policemen. The protesters didn’t want him in their ranks, and I don’t think he was there to join the protest anyway.

After an exhausting couple of hours of shouting, playing gongs, dancing and at one point preventing the arrest of one of our friends whom one policeman tried to pull away from our group, we went home and a had late dinner and talked about the idea of boycotting SM.

Before that, we were SM regulars. It’s where our children had their music lessons and while waiting for them, where we bought our groceries. The hardware store there was also the most convenient place to get supplies for our productions. That night, we talked about losing all that if we boycotted SM.

We made it clear to the kids that they didn’t have to join the boycott, but they did ask why we, their parents, were doing it.

We were going to boycott SM then to protest their plan to easily sacrifice the environment, and with it the welfare of the people of Baguio, so they can expand their business despite already being the biggest commercial center in the city. We told them that we, their parents, cannot continue to feed the monster that’s trying to kill us, so to speak.

The children decided that they too would stop going to SM until the issue is resolved. And since then, we have never patronized SM or any of the establishments therein.

Of course at the height of the Save 182 protest movement, thousands joined the boycott. But as time passed and recently with the announcement of SM that they have since redesigned their expansion project to spare the remaining trees in the area, others thought that it was time to end the boycott. Nothing wrong there too, really. 

Not us, though. And no regrets too – we do our shopping mostly at home-grown establishments and have since been spending more time outdoors. We miss the spectacle of a huge movie screen, but nothing compares to a movie night at home when the whole family would camp out in the living room, cuddling, snuggling warmly under the covers. The children have gotten so good at horseback riding, just one of the few outdoor recreational activities they do in place of an afternoon at the arcade.

So, yeah, it doesn’t matter if our family’s continued boycott of SM makes any dent at all in their revenues, or if it helps forward the cause of saving one of Baguio’s fast-disappearing forest covers, we’re still not going and still not buying. It’s a matter of principle.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Innayan and Gawis ay Biag

I just came from a road trip with my son. I needed some photos of various Cordillera cultural icons for a project and I thought that this would be a good opportunity to let my son, and eventually and hopefully soon every single one of my children, in whose veins run the same blood as the people who call this awe-inspiring mountain range home, to experience the same sense of belonging that I did from the very first time my mother brought me here as a child, to the time I would come here every time I needed some time away from the dog-eat-dog world that was, and is, Manila as a young man, to the time I decided this is the place I want to spend my life in.

As a child I fell in love with Baguio specially when it rains. I loved the warmth of the homes of my mother's friends, and the warmth of their friendship. I was awed by the serenity of Sagada, the majesty of the Ifugao landscape, the scent of the mountains, I could go on and on. I wasn't surprised at all when one day, after a trip alone across the Cordilleras that ended with a stay at some friends' home in Baguio, I decided to give up our place in Manila and make this beautiful city my home.  

Banaue, Ifuago, ca. 2014
We arrived in Kiangan at sunrise, and after going around the town, all the while reminding my son that this was where his grandmother spent her early years as a child, we proceeded to Banaue. It felt good that some friends I met there more than a decade ago, particularly the owners of a restaurant that would eventually be my regular stop whenever I was there, remembered me. Like old friends, we were welcomed warmly. We left our bags at the restaurant before proceeding to Batad.

What used to be a 2 to 3-hour trek is now a mere hour's walk and if the project of building a road from the main road proceeds as scheduled, by early next year motor vehicles would now be able to go all the way to Batad. And while the thought that even the physically-challenged, persons with disabilities, or the elderly will be able to experience the beauty of the place was welcome, I also wondered how the influx of tourists would affect the culture and landscape of Batad.
We have seen this in Banaue, where there are now less farmers, carvers, weavers and way more store-owners, innkeepers and restaurateurs.
My son, Leon, taking it all in (Demang, Sagada)

We proceeded to Sagada from there and while having coffee at a roadside cafe, we noticed how every 15 minutes or so a huge truck would pass carrying heavy construction equipment - more roads are being paved.

I needed a photo of a Patpatayan and an authentic dap-ay, which had us abusing our van over rocky roads to get to Demang, Sagada where we met Biag, the current village chief. He was named after Biag, an ancestor who is said to be the first settler in Sagada. Biag is a staunch advocate of the preservation of indigenous culture. "This is one of the curses of modern education - the younger generation now know very little about native wisdom." His house, built in the mid-80's, was the last one built through the Ug-ogbo, or reciprocal labor system. "I did not spend a single centavo on labor when I built this house," Biag shared, "people in the community all contributed, that's how it was before. And later on, when the time comes that they need my help either in building a house or working their farm, I will be there for them. But now? Everybody wants money."

He's especially saddened that the concept of "Innayan," which may be translated simply as taboo or "must never be done," which Biag considers as among the most important life lessons that a person must learn, is now lost on the youth. For example, it is Innayan when someone diverts the flow of water to his own farm and deprives others of irrigation. It is Innayan to cause so much damage to nature for one's own selfish interest.

With Biag of Demang, Sagada
While listening to Biag talk, I was reminded of the more than 700 trees that were cut on Mt. Cabuyao to pave the way to a resort owned by the family of our very own congressman. That is, as I understood from Biag, definitely Innayan. It makes me wonder how Congressman Nicasio Aliping, now the representative of the people of Baguio, an Igorot who traces his roots to where Biag himself comes from, can do something like that.      

If there's one life lesson that I wish my son will never forget from this road trip, it is the thought that Gawis ay Biag, or the beautiful life, can only be achieved if one lives it in harmony not only with the community but more importantly with the environment.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Tyranny and the Baguio POSD (Justice for Oscar Caranto)

It is a common sight around the market area and the rest of the Central Business District: ambulant vendors being chased by either the police or members of the Public Order and Safety Department (POSD) of the City Government of Baguio. Often, the vendors are old women who have mastered the art of sensing the presence of “authorities” from some meters away, giving them a few seconds’ head start to pack up their wares and make a run for it before they lose all their merchandise, and with it, a few meals for their family.

The late Cecil Afable once said during a rally: “We call them squatters because we failed to provide them homes.” And we call them illegal vendors because the benefits of our city’s so-called development, progress failed to reach one Oscar Caranto, a so-called illegal vendor who passed away on July 4, 2014 allegedly due to the beating he received from elements of the POSD.

I am for a peaceful, orderly, clean Baguio, but not at the expense of a life of a father who’s just desperately trying to make ends meet for his family. Who really wants to make a living that way, anyway? Imagine having to start your day preparing your merchandise all the time hoping that today, the “authorities” wouldn’t be around, or if they are that you would be able to run away from them fast enough. Nobody wants that kind of life.

Given the chance, nobody would want to be called an illegal vendor, or for that matter, a squatter. Given the chance, everyone would embrace a dignified, secure, peaceful, happy life – Caranto would have jumped at the opportunity to become a legitimate vendor, just as any squatter would to legitimately have the right to the land their home sits on. There is no dignity in being an illegal vendor, no security, it’s dangerous and it’s sad.

So how do all the taxes that the huge businesses pay that our local government have allowed to sprout all over this city at the expense of its natural environment, beauty, heritage trickle down to the likes of Caranto, if at all? 

And while Caranto paid with his life, others get away with it – how come supposed "legal vendors" selling illegal wares such as pirated DVDs and second-hand mobile phones that came from questionable sources can peacefully, orderly go ahead with their trade un-harassed? The law must apply to all...

And I wonder, too, what kind of instruction, direction these men of the POSD receive from their superiors that make them believe that violence can result in public order and safety.  

Caranto’s was a very, very wrongful death. City Hall’s got blood on its hands – the blood of a hapless, desperate, disenfranchised, deprived citizen. More light will be shed on this very unfortunate, tragic incident in the coming days – I already anticipate a self-defense alibi, but taking the life of someone who’s  just trying to make a living, or stay alive at all, is criminal. Way more criminal than what the elements of the POSD would say Caranto was committing. And even if he reacted quite violently to their efforts to confiscate his merchandise, that is justified – a hungry man is an angry man, as Marley sang – they were taking away the only means he knew to feed his family, his only means to stay alive.

The curse of the Filipino – given the slightest hint of power over his fellowmen and he abuses it. The ghost of hundreds of years of colonization and having those colonial masters as role models that really messed up our concept of being in power continues to haunt us.

That’s the point those POSD men missed – they didn’t have the power, instead, they had the responsibility to keep the community orderly and safe. Just like our congressman doesn't have the power to do as he pleases with the environment, like cutting down more than 700 trees for his own personal benefit, instead, he has the responsibility to ensure that the welfare and rights of the people he represents are defended and forwarded, including their right to a healthy environment.

And now that he's gone, Oscar Caranto and the loved ones he left behind have one right that demands to be respected, defended, forwarded: Justice!  

Photo lifted from the Facebook wall of Ivy Buenaobra

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Where is Save 182?

A friend sent this to me one morning. Why did I bother to blur the photo and his name, really, when it was posted on a social networking site for public consumption.

I wanted to ignore it, I have actually, coming from another netizen who not only asked where we were but even went as far as calling us hypocrites. Ouch. Then a scion of a prominent lawyer in Baguio came out swinging in a letter that was shared online... his father, among the "true leaders" of Baguio, according to him, wanted to help the legal team that filed a case against SM, et al, but was rejected. He went on to belittle the lawyers who worked pro bono, and hard, to save the trees on Luneta Hill.

Never mind that his true leader of a father was rejected more than once by the Baguio electorate, but really, you should have been there...

"Kasi walang photo-ops..." said one referring to Save 182's alleged absence amid the ongoing protest actions against the cutting of trees on Mt. Cabuyao.

So, where's Save 182?

First, who's Save 182?

A lot of the people involved in the protest then were people I met for the first time like the group of young advocates like Calypso, Dumay, Ivy, Richard, Jarlaw, et al.

Michael Bengwayan, I had no idea who he was, but I fully supported his call for signatures when he launched that very first online petition. When he called for a rally, I called him to ask if there was anything needed for the rally, such as a sound system. We did provide that during the first rally.

The members of our artist collective, Open Space, of course I knew them well. Ethan who actually owned the sound system that we abused at the time, his wife Emerald along with Eunice, Delo, Ryle, Roman, Rose, Cholo, Ro, Jeff, Jerrick, Jojo and the rest who were there at one point or another and in the case of some, the whole time...

Cheryl Daytec-Yangot of course I have heard of before (who from Baguio hasn't, really?), but only knew her, before this, as (pardon me, Chyt) a lawyer and the wife of politician Leandro Yangot. She headed our legal team and was the one responsible for bringing the cause to international rock star Sting's attention, who cancelled his concert at the SM Mall of Asia and moved it to Araneta Coliseum.

I knew Chris Donaal and Go Abaeo before when we helped them with a concert at the Melvin Jones Football Grounds (oh, by the way, where were you when we were protesting the planned concreting of the grounds and gating of Burnham Park? Anyway...). I hardly knew Gideon Omero except as a regular face I occasionally bump into at Luisa's Cafe. Their organization, the Cordillera Global Network, spearheaded the filing the case against SM.

Willy Alangui and Vangie Ram I knew as teachers at UP Baguio.

Who else... Ellen Lao I only knew as a member of the family that owned Tiong San, and the first time we actually met was by mobile phone when she asked me to take care of the empty containers of water that she lent to the concert. Marie Balangue along with (Tita) Sonn Fenrnadez and (Tita) Guia Limpin I also met for the first time during those first few meetings at her place. Andrea I got to know better whenever she whipped up a wonderful meal out of whatever's available.

There were the teachers too, the students from the different universities and schools, the religious.

What's in a name

One afternoon, after another grueling week of protest actions, and after being asked repeatedly what the group was called, we decided to just refer to the movement, not the people, not the group, as Project: Save 182, or Save 182. There was never any attempt to "organize," we knew then that we differed on so many other things: political affiliations, religious persuasions, etc., so we focused the on the one thing that surely held us together, united us, which was one specific issue: the 182 trees on Luneta Hill and all that they stood for.

So, where's Save 182? 

While the case is still pending with the Court of Appeals, SM has since re-designed their expansion plan. That too has caused differing opinions among the protesters for while some of us welcomed the fact that despite having no legal impediment to their expansion plan as it was originally designed, SM adjusted their design that would leave more than 120 out of the 133 or so remaining trees at the site untouched, others believed didn't think it was enough (and even accused some of us of "selling out").

So, really, where's Save 182? First, Save 182 is not an organization. So what is it? Call it a movement, a concept, an ideal, a cause. Where is it? It is in every single tree on Luneta Hill that was saved from SM's backhoes, in every single person who was made more aware about the importance of taking care of our environment, in every single environmental protest action it inspired all over the country and indeed in other parts of the world, heck, it is even in every single Sting fan who had to get a refund and buy a new ticket when he moved his concert to a different venue to support the cause.

Seriously, where is Save 182? It's here, in our hearts and minds and, with all your impassioned statements online and offline, apparently, in yours too.