Friday, July 2, 2010

How overseas Filipinos can help with good governance in the Philippines

Speech delivered at the 1st Worldwide Conference of Overseas Filipinos for Good Governance
July 1 and 2, 2010

Magandang gabi po and welcome home! I’m deeply honored to be speaking here with no less than Justice Carpio-Morales this evening. In fact, the group of speakers in this conference has been quite illustrious all round, so I’m delighted to be a part of such a vital moment in our national discourse. My heartfelt thanks to Rodel Rodis, Loida Lewis and the Overseas Filipinos for Good Governance – mabuhay kayong lahat!

I was asked to speak tonight about some of my experiences during Noynoy’s campaign and to describe how I think overseas Filipinos might help with good governance in the Philippines. But, first, I thought I would touch briefly on my experiences as a New Yorker who had lived in the Big Apple for well over a decade before coming home to help out in the campaign. As a Pinay with many friends in NaFFAA, NAFCON and Bayan USA, I was somewhat disheartened by the lack of cohesion and dialogue between these different groups. Obviously, their respective priorities and constituencies were clearly different, but I had nurtured the hope -- at least after Ondoy and the Ampatuan massacre, and certainly in the run-up to the presidential election -- that Fil-Ams in New York might be somewhat more united so that some of the issues that remain critical to the nation could be discussed by the various groups (whether or not they happened to share the same presidential candidate) in an amicable and public context. Regrettably, this didn’t transpire while I was there, although I was encouraged to hear that there were some efforts to work together once cheating in the national elections became an increasing source of collective concern.

When I first became a volunteer, the infighting in the campaign further gave me pause. Here there were fairly obvious demarcations as well: the supporters of Noynoy, Mar and Chiz/Binay, respectively, as well as the “non-conventional” campaign, on the one hand, and the volunteer groups, on the other. The cleavages were somewhat bewildering to me at first, perhaps because I had worked both at the UN and in the New York corporate world for many years, and was used to a kind of professional relationship towards one’s affiliations – whether they happened to be a team, an ideology or a party.

I had entered the fray, as the niece of FVR and the daughter of former Senator Shahani, with the notion of party discipline firmly entrenched in my mind. LRS and FVR were some of the founders of the original Lakas, and the latter certainly had a great deal of discipline, skill and institutional memory. Regrettably, Lakas-CMD-Kampi has since degenerated with the advent of GMA’s Kampi, and is now an entirely different creature. But I certainly believed in party discipline and had little interest in personal vendettas between the different groups. As far as I could see, much of the squabbling had to do, at least in a number of cases, with an unfortunate sense of class entitlement and the occasional clash of what were apparently rather gargantuan egos; there was also a refusal to defer to authority, on the one hand, and, occasionally, a resistance to enacting that very authority, on the other. But I am not naming names here precisely because they are ultimately irrelevant – in the final analysis, it is the trends that matter.

What mattered, in fact, was helping Noynoy/Mar and the SLAMAT LORRD Liberal Party senate slate, all of whom, in my humble opinion, could have been marketed as a unified entity, as opposed to what appeared to be several discrete campaigns operating almost entirely independently of one another. But it was difficult. While there certainly were a great many volunteers and party members alike whose unwavering sense of commitment to this country was indeed humbling to behold, suspicion was pervasive all around and sabotage a running thread throughout. There was clearly a tendency for people to take sides (that unfortunate business of “making kampi” Filipinos are so fond of, whether or not they have even heard the opposite point of view) and a resistance to thinking in terms of a team.

I regret to observe that warring nations at the UN, where I have been a policy adviser for some time, often have a better record of being able to sit down with their opponents than do any two Pinoys who happen to be working on the same side. As far as I was concerned, the leaders of the different factions were all individuals of merit who each deserved to be given credence, just as they were all equally responsible for not cooperating as much as they could have done with one another.

So why am I going into this unsavory topic now? Because, tragically enough, this is not a function of Noynoy’s campaign alone but about how many Filipinos in general seem to behave when it comes to having to work together: everyone wants to be a star who reinvents the wheel, etc, etc, ad infinitum. We’ve all seen the clichés before. While I certainly resist cultural stereotyping as a rule, I will say simply that I have not often experienced this kind of parochialism – indeed, tribalism, for want of a better word -- when working with people of other nationalities.

So: what many overseas Filipinos can contribute, in my view, is the experience we’ve had abroad of working in teams that are not exclusively linked to personality, personal friendship, clan or province: in America, team work is team work, period -- no ifs, no buts. Hillary and Barack may have had the most visceral rows imaginable during the primaries but, in the end, Hillary was right behind Barack precisely because of that sense of party discipline. And that discipline goes well beyond the party and extends to the nation as a whole. As someone who also campaigned for Mar, I would add that my personal disappointment does not prevent me from respecting the will of the people, who have apparently chosen Mr. Binay to be our next vice-president.

The point is: we need to get out of personality politics and start thinking in terms of party policy and institution building -- as well as creating a professional corps of civil servants -- if we ever hope to get out of the noxious vortex in which we now find ourselves. We need to unite and start forming coalitions if we ever hope to re-build this fractured nation.

More pertinently, those of us who’ve lived in the West for some time are familiar with the primacy of the rule of law in those parts of the world. As Fareed Zakaria (a Harvard don and editor of Newsweek International) has pointed out in “The Future of Freedom,” the ability to vote is merely a cosmetic and historically recent aspect of democracy itself. What is in fact more foundational to the European democracy that spawned the vibrant and muscular phenomenon we see in America today is what he calls “constitutional liberalism”: simply put, it refers to the rule of law. In other words, elections are just the icing on the cake. What is really critical in making a democracy work is that, first and foremost, legal institutions are respected. If you pair that with economic growth, then increased per capita income will in turn lead to a stronger civil society and less human rights violations, which then bodes well for the capacity of elections to represent, at least to a much greater degree, the actual will of the people.

Seen from this perspective, the power to vote can become meaningless in a context where we score alarmingly high in the global impunity index. It is therefore deeply encouraging that Noynoy and Leila de Lima have already made fairly strong pronouncements about refusing to tolerate impunity: I just hope that this, of all the promises Noynoy made in his inspiring speech yesterday, is the one promise that will be considered sacred.

Obviously, remittances are also another area where overseas Filipinos can significantly help the country as well, but this needs to be harnessed so it leads to overall development and not just to conspicuous consumption. In fact, this needs to be carefully re-examined in general, particularly in light of how other countries treat their overseas foreign workers. For instance, Indian remittances amount to almost $50b a year, while the Philippines only boasts around $18b. But Indian remittances only equal about 4.3% of its GDP, while ours comes up to a whopping 11.1%. Relative to population size, therefore, the Philippines has almost 4 times as many people abroad as India does, and OFWs provide almost 3 times as much a percentage of our GDP. So why do Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) appear to have a much more privileged status in India than OFWs do in the Philippines? True, unlike NRIs, OFWs can vote, but why don’t they, at least in numbers that are statistically meaningful?

Clearly, there are obvious differences between the two groups – India has a much more stable and well-regulated investment climate; they have a relatively conservative fiscal policy and there are apparent class differences between OFWs and NRIs, so the latter have access to many more opportunities. Of course, many Fil-Ams will tell you that there are also distinctions between OFWs and overseas Filipinos, with the former primarily doing vocational work, while the latter tends to be employed in the professional work force of its host country. But that is precisely part of my larger point: institutions like UNDP (where I worked for some time) focus on OFWs and not overseas Filipinos not only because of the sheer numbers of the former, but also because the latter cease to send remittances home to a significant enough degree, which is why they don’t merit systematic documentation. In other words, once Pinoys reach a certain economic bracket abroad, they apparently send for their families, cease to send money home or invest in specific projects, and tend to look back far less. In comparison, while most NRIs have no desire to return to India for good, they retain many cultural and financial links with India, and generally remain very “connected,” particularly in terms of real estate and the stock market.

We might attribute these differences to several things: for one thing, India now has a minister, of Cabinet rank, who deals specifically with NRIs. He pays attention not only to overseas workers but also to Indians who can invest in India and whose expertise in science and technology can be used to benefit the country. In short, given their contribution, why don’t OFWs have a Cabinet-level department in the executive branch that goes beyond the mandate of the Commission on Filipinos Overseas or the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA), which merely falls under the Department of Labor and Employment and which essentially tends to prioritize the domestic labor market more than anything else? Likewise, even if OFWs have the vote, what are they supposed to do with it without political representation? Why don’t they at least have a party list representative? Wouldn’t that have improved their participation in the recent elections, which was typically dismal once again?

It might be possible for us, with the help and support of OFWs and other Pinoy expats, to improve financial and investment security in this country. India does have a whole body of law that regulates and protects both government revenues and NRI investments (as well they should, considering the billions involved), for example. In addition to investment ideas encouraged by the government (India also has NRI bonds), as some OFW groups have suggested, there is also the possibility of forming philanthropic and investment programs. In fact, before the remittances spigot starts to dry up (and it invariably will, ladies and gentlemen, given deflationary pressures in the developed world as I write), the Philippines can hopefully lay the ground work for investment vehicles (here the public/private structures favored by the Benelux countries come to mind) so that overseas Pinoys won’t retrench and will instead participate in a more robust and intimate fashion as they find greater financial security in this country.

At the moment, remittances go straight to personal consumption, which has little chance of working cohesively to help the country, nor does it offer the remitter a vehicle with which to "grow" that very investment, since it is invariably spent almost immediately. Several years ago, I was part of a UNDP project to mobilize remittances for development in the Philippines: with the help of ADB, we hoped to convince remitters to contribute even .07 % of their remittances for developmental projects of their choice and in their respective provinces. Regrettably, the DFA did not deem this to be a priority at the time (this was in 2005) because remitters were viewed to be TNTs who were legally problematic, at least as far as the host countries were concerned. I am not suggesting that OFWs should be taxed any more than they already have been, but rather that they should have the option to contribute to any region in the country should they desire to do so.

Following the Indian model, why not think in terms of a Cabinet Minister, OFW bonds, tax incentives and party list representation? In fact, India also offers an Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card to avoid dual citizenship problems in countries that don’t allow it. It serves as an automatic visa for registered people “of Indian origin,” no matter what their citizenship status happens to be, which is precisely the sort of thing a ministry could do. This obviously has significant implications for owning real estate, so clearing barriers to land ownership would be an added incentive for OFWs, who now can only buy a limited amount of land.

Clearly, we need to invest in the Philippines and spend our dollars here, so we also need to provide OFWs with retirement incentives, entrepreneurial development and options for volunteerism, particularly with respect to disaster mitigation. If overseas Filipinos had greater representation in the executive and legislative branches, their contributions to the country (whether in the form of remittances or FDI) could significantly increase, so this issue is worthy of careful scrutiny by the government.

The Ministry itself would not only focus on the economic potential of OFWs, however, but also on their human rights, which are regrettably not a government priority, at least for now. In countries like Saudi Arabia, for example, where we send a good number of Pinoys every year, domestics are not even mentioned in the country’s labor code, which is why protecting their rights becomes legally difficult. A ministry would ensure that bilateral labor treaties with other countries where we tend to send Pinoys specifically stipulate that their human rights be respected.

Needless to say, sending human beings abroad is hardly a meaningful developmental model and, ideally, we would work on preventing population growth and improving the job market to begin with so we could provide jobs for everyone at home instead. But, until we are in a position to do so, we are honor bound to protect their rights because they are not chattel to be sent overseas to artificially keep our economy afloat, like our colossal foreign debt. We cannot allow these workers – the lifeblood of this nation itself -- to be abused any further, nor does it make long-term sense to have our president or vice-president repeatedly go abroad to plead for clemency in the case of prisoners on death row. Clearly, institutional changes need to be made so our kababayans overseas receive adequate protections, period.

And, finally, onto the matter of public discourse itself, which is ultimately what this entire convention is all about. Indeed, one of America’s greatest legacies to the rest of the world has been its first amendment. But, in a country like the Philippines where many journalists are either bribed or assassinated, what exactly does freedom of speech imply? How free, in fact, is it? Respected rags and outlets often don’t bother to vet their data, publishing stuff that occasionally turns out to be downright false. Perhaps because of a perpetual pandering to owners, sponsors and politicians, there appears to be a tendency to wax lyrical, on the one hand, or sling mud, on the other, at least on the part of many (although we do have a few first-rate journalists): there is, in fact, limited space for respectful, empirical and constructive criticism in this country. But I would argue, as I have always argued, that one can be deeply rigorous without becoming disrespectful or getting personal.

Of course, it is equally true that some in power tend not to take criticism well and don’t necessarily listen to it. This is unfortunate, because constructive criticism can be deeply helpful, in my view, and should always be welcome among people who have had even the most basic education. During the campaign, I was somewhat flummoxed by the notion harbored by some that there could only be white operations and black propaganda, and that the party preferred to dissociate itself (officially at least) from the latter. Anything critical of any opponent of Noynoy was deemed to be black, which was endlessly surprising to me, since some of the work being produced about other candidates was carefully substantiated and highly empirical anyway.

This almost Manichean notion of good and evil, light and dark, was alarmingly simplistic, in my view, and smacked, if of anything at all, of moral self-righteousness. Instead, I tend to favor the kind of respectful, graceful and lacerating analysis a few candidates and writers still appear to be capable of doing. I would therefore suggest that we encourage this capacity for analysis while being careful not to jump the bandwagon of supporters who, absurdly enough, have immediately turned into the shrillest naysayers overnight. Noynoy is not perfect but, at this point, we need to give him a chance to begin the process of building the country before we attack his every move. As long as we are constructive -- and not dismissive and judgmental -- I would suggest that we are on the right track.

On the other hand, it is a valid contention that the representatives of the search committee for Cabinet positions should come from all sectors – academe, civil society, the public and private sectors, etc, etc. While I respect the need to have people who can personally be trusted in government, I don’t necessarily see the value of only appointing friends, classmates and relatives to critical positions. If this is in fact what is happening (and I’m not yet entirely clear that it is), then that in itself would be a travesty of justice and is not at all the kind of thinking I campaigned for. My views are precisely all about merit and professionalism, and I say this: let the person’s qualifications and experience alone put them in the search committee or the Cabinet itself. Again, our loyalty should be to the nation and to specific causes rather than to specific political personalities or to our respective families, clans, provinces and friends.

And there is further the matter of coalition-building: when my uncle publicly advised Noynoy to work with his former opponents, he was rebuffed as someone whose advice was not needed since he had not been a part of Noynoy’s “team.” But FVR’s point was precisely about creating a national team and, at the end of the day, I would submit that it is not who expresses an idea but what the idea itself actually is that should determine whether or not it is to be given credence. Moreover, was this really necessary so early in the game, particularly towards a former president who has such widespread support in the military? I would respectfully urge our president to choose his battles wisely and not to make unnecessary enemies. He is after all not just the president of the close to 16 million Filipinos who voted for him but of the 90 million or so whose fate is now in his hands. Six years is a long haul, and we have fought too hard to make this administration a success. We remember all-too-well how many threats there were to Cory’s administration and would not want anything to jeopardize the first reformist administration we’ve had in well over a decade. We want Noynoy to succeed because -- as the people’s president -- his success has now become our own.

As for the rest of us, I would submit that globalization failing to spring from a national context is of limited social value. So I would ask the following of our kababayans overseas and all of you here tonight: please invest in this country, contribute to it intellectually, strive for greater political representation (which means you have to register to vote!), come home for your vacations (we do have better beaches than Cancun, even if they may be a little farther away) and never forget our cultural provenance.

It's high time we all started gearing ourselves for sunrise. Mabuhay si Noynoy Aquino, ang mga migranteng Pilipino at ang ating mahal na Pilipinas!

Marami pong salamat.

This is actually not the spot where I ended up delivering my speech finally, but I quite like that back drop, don't you? :-)

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Concentric Rings, Part II: land-grabbing, land conversion and the untold human cost

Note: Part I can be found here:

Ang buhay sa tumpok

"Hindi talaga ako papayag. Magbubuwis talaga ako ng dugo. Ipaglalaban ko talaga ang lugar na ito."

Pol had been a cheerful, voluble man, inordinately fond of teasing his wife and playing pranks on his three children. He had tried out all sorts of odd jobs in his time -- from painting buildings to driving tricycles -- but continued to struggle because of debilitating bouts of asthma. He and his wife Trining had always dreamed of owning their own home and living someplace idyllic away from the capital, which remained congested and polluted, as always, except in the most privileged enclaves.

The new neighbourhood was called Paradise Park Village -- 7.2 hectares of barren lands situated in Barangay San Vicente in San Pedro, Laguna. As more settlers had streamed in from other provinces, the land tenants -- who had originally planted root crops and banana trees, and occasionally tended cattle -- eventually found work in an adjacent piggery farm. By 1984, the entire property had been bought by Maximino Argana, who, it later turned out, had been a Marcos crony.

Which explains why, in the heady aftermath of the EDSA revolution, the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) chose to sequester the entire area altogether. What is more difficult to understand is how -- and on what grounds -- Crown Asia (a Vista Land company, the 2/3 supermajority of which belongs to the family of Manny Villar) was able to acquire the properties in 2002, using a title under the name of a certain Jose Nuñez. From that point onwards, guards began to monitor the movements of the residents in a 2.18-hectare zone in particular (Lot 157), which housed around 205 families. Almost overnight, it would seem, a giant wall had been erected around this perimeter, preventing the tenants from repairing their homes or building new structures. In the blink of an eye, they had suddenly been denied access to roads, which then made access to electricity and running water all the more scarce and difficult.

Pol, Jr. -- “Qurico” to his parents -- had no way of knowing that this is what would become of his new home. Neither did Trining, who had left her secluded life as a yaya to work in a factory in San Pedro. The de los Santoses were, at any rate, resourceful and happy, and had finally begun to enjoy the rustic existence they shared in Paradise Park with their three children. As Trining would fondly say of her husband, “Mabait, matulungin, concerned masyado sa amin, at napaka-sipag. Bago uminom, magbibigay muna ng pera. Alas quatro ng umaga, nagbi-byahe na iyan, at nag-gagarahe lang kapag alas singko na ng hapon.”

Sadly, life in Paradise Park had eventually become almost entirely untenable. According to Trining, Crown Asia wanted their land for luxury developments and was not above harassing the tenants on a regular basis. “
May problema talaga dito. Laging may gulo. Lagi siyang may katabi na itak. Baka daw kung gabi ay bigla nalang kaming i-harass. Pero ano naman ang magagawa ng itak? Baril ang hawak ng mga gwardiya nila. Nang magkagulo, itak lang ang dala niya. Sila ang unang nagpaputok, ang mga gwardiya.

That day, 29 September 2002 -- a Sunday, and therefore a day off for both parents -- Pol had been excited. He had planned to buy a DVD player for their second child, who was to celebrate his birthday the following week. Trining had not wanted to buy the player because she knew they couldn’t afford it, but Pol had been insistent, saying: “
malay mo, wala na ako bukas.

Their youngest child had wanted to eat at Jollibee afterwards but, having bought the player, they had no more money, so they settled on a lunch of rice and coffee. “
Pag-uwi namin, wala kaming ulam, wala na kaming pera. Bigas lang.”

But Pol didn’t mind: the only thing he wanted to do was play the DVD before a scheduled meeting with the Paradise Park Neighbourhood Association, where he was now the acting director. It was a regular meeting, so he wasn’t worried. What he
did mind was his eldest son not buying something for the tricycle as he had asked him to: “paano na kapag wala na ako?”

Pol was resting (and Trining singing on her videoke) when the commotion began. She didn’t notice Pol picking up his
itak and rushing outside. In an unblinking instant, Pol -- who had suddenly found himself at the centre of a swirling mêlée -- had been shot in the lung. A few hours later, he was dead.

One of the more poignant aspects of this story is the autopsy report itself, which reveals that Trini hadn’t been exaggerating about their diet that day after all: his stomach's contents, only partially digested, had consisted of little more than rice...

In an exclusive interview (downloadable here and here), one of Pol's neighbours, who had witnessed the shooting personally, shares her impressions of that fateful day with one of my sources, during which some light is shed on the motives of the shooters. Here's that interview:

As for the actual whodunit, the police blotter, like the witness herself, identifies the shooters -- security guards working for the Banahaw Security Agency -- fairly clearly. Equally noteworthy: a memo from Crown Asia regarding the hiring of security guards for the specific area (Lot 157) where the shootings had taken place (another victim had also been shot during the same incident), which included a list of licensed firearms. The memo identifies the owner of the property as Jose Nuñez, etc, which is the name under which Crown Asia had originally claimed the title of the land.

So how is it that, with all this evidence, there have been no prosecutions, even after 8 long years and repeated complaints to the authorities, both in Laguna and Manila? Why would Mayors Felicisimo Vierneza and Calixto Cataquiz of San Pedro have let the death of a human being under their respective jurisdictions go?

What weighs so heavily upon Trining even now is what has since become of her children. Their father had always dreamed of going abroad: had he not allowed his barkada to influence him unduly in his last two years of high school, she mourns wistfully, that dream might not have died. Which is why all he ever wanted was for his children to study hard and finish school. So that one day, perhaps, they might have the privilege of becoming OFWs, and Pol could vicariously live his dream of a better life through them. Sadly, his children failed miserably in school after their father’s death, and ended up having to work to help make ends meet. Today, like his father before him, the eldest is a tricycle driver, and the cycle Pol had tried so hard to break continues to remain unbroken.

The only other thing Pol ever wanted, besides the DVD player he never had the time to enjoy, was to one day see his own grandchildren grow. But that dream, too, would never be fulfilled: at 44, he had been severed from the flower of his youth in the most brazen and callous manner possible.

And Pol was, of course, not alone in the indignities he had to face on a daily basis. His may have been one of the more striking examples of life in Paradise Park – an ironic name if there ever was one, you will agree – but there were many others. Because the colloquial term for the area inside the wall where they were all congregated – a ghetto of sorts -- was “tumpok" (i.e., clump), as in “nakatumpok na basura.” As if, in fact, these human beings had been unceremoniously dumped together in the most humiliating manner possible, like trash. Indeed, the term itself is both raw and visceral, subliminally evoking the notion of garbage. So that, to get into their own homes, they needed to walk for hours to pass through a narrow entrance in an otherwise impenetrable wall; and to find potable water, they had to resort to buying bottled water outside the ghetto walls. Always and throughout, there were the security guards on patrol, who reminded them who was in charge and who would one day lay claim to their land.

But Trining and her children had no intention of ever leaving, because doing so would mean abandoning everything that Pol had lived and died for. That separation would be unspeakable. As Pol had once said: "Hindi talaga ako papayag. Magbubuwis talaga ako ng dugo. Ipaglalaban ko talaga ang lugar na ito." To this day, they remain determined to defend their land, the way an accidental hero had once taught them, almost a decade ago, at such terrible personal cost.

San Pedro is, of course, by no means an isolated case. Indeed, scattered all over the archipelago are a number of such examples, many of which are associated with properties belonging to Manny Villar. In San Pedro alone, the materials documenting harassment, intimidation and a life of indignity are legion. Interestingly, page 4 of a complaint recorded by the Department of Justice from the Paradise Park Neighborhood Association notes that the deed of the new "owner" had never been notarized. In fact, the certificate of transfer, like Mr Nuñez's certificate of title, could not even be located...


Elsewhere, Lito Banayo has written compellingly about the situation in Norzagaray, Bulacan. Nixon Kua's film also provides a useful backdrop. In fact, a number of protests against land-grabbing in the region have already been staged.

But all this ultimately evokes a social reality that remains both grim and
disturbing. According to one reliable source (who has spent years on the ground doing humanitarian and environmental work but who has also been the unfortunate recipient of repeated death threats in recent months), there were at least three deaths related to land-grabbing between 2000 and 2005: the one in 2000 was the Secretary of the Kamadulnais (Katutubong Samahan ng Mga Dumagat sa Lourdes Neighbourhood Association, Inc.) in Barangay San Isidro, San Jose del Monte, Bulacan (please see scrapbook below); however, as it is taboo among the Dumagats to name the dead, there is no record of his name in their literature. And, since many IPs still do not have birth certificates, he was also not issued a death certificate, and it appears that he was immediately buried with little fanfare. At any rate, the Dumagats point the finger in the direction of Palmera Security, which has also been associated with Mr Villar...

In 2001 and 2005 respectively, two barangay captains in San Isidro, Bulacan were killed. In 2010, a Genaro Aguirre was also killed, which the NPA ultimately took responsibility for. Of course, my source remains convinced that collusion exists between the NPA and Villar's security people, which he claims has been further buttressed by the recent alliance between Satur and Villar, not to mention Joma's exuberant pronouncements on the esteemed solon's platform for the poor. The source also maintains that there were several beatings prior to 2005 and one ambush very recently, all of which revolve around Dumagat resistance to encroachment upon their land. If true, then it is not altogether surprising that the Ombudsman recently put a hold on the Norzagaray/San Jose del Monte case petitioned by the farmers, since there appears to have been a miscarriage of justice all round...


Franklin Drilon has also broken the celebrated Savannah case in Oton and Pavia in Iloilo, where Villar has been accused of illegal land-conversion, while Boy Mejorada's short film powerfully captures its human face.


But there are other stories, some of which are still being investigated. In Amore at Portofino (Daang Hari, Barangay Salawag, Dasmariñas, Cavite), a land tenant (whom we shall call Mr. V for his own protection; it suffices to say that he was highly respected in his line of work) had been in the process of paying for a deed of conveyance (the amount that needs to be paid to the government to establish full ownership of the land) as a farmer-beneficiary, which had been approved by the DENR. But a new title under the name of a certain Pedro Reyes had suddenly materialized, and Mr. V, along with a number of other tenants, had been thrown out of the land, and was forced to resettle in an informal settler section for the urban poor in Bayanan, Muntinlupa.

The tenants/beneficiaries claim that there had, in fact, never been any sales between them and Pedro Reyes. Interestingly enough, the titles under this name appear to be those being used by
Amore at Portofino (, which is allegedly a development corporation belonging to Manny Villar (note the Brittany and Vista Land ownership). It appears that there are now security guards guarding the entire property development, depriving farmers and their families of the right of way. Like San Pedro, there is a sizable tumpok in Barangay Salawag, where farmer-tenants have no right of way, although this one is far more heavily guarded...


In Barangay San Vicente (Sto. Thomas, Batangas), Domingo Manlocloc was a tenant living on 3 hectares of land, which his family had been tilling since the early 1900s. They have been in conflict with Benjamin Maloles, their landlord, since well before 1967 because he allegedly failed to give them their fair share of produce. The regional trial court of Balayan finally confirmed the Manlocloc tenancy and a sharing system was established. But Manlocloc had difficulty selling his produce in the market for years because he claims that the landlord wanted access at unreasonably low prices. When he tried to transport the produce, he was blocked by policemen and accused of stealing. Strangely, the harassment suddenly stopped in 1997, and it was only in 2000 that Manlocloc discovered that Maloles had entered into an agreement with Camella Homes, which is also associated with Mr Villar. In 2005-2006, Wilhemina Tobias, a Camella representative, bought the neighboring properties at different prices (the better, it would appear, to divide the tenants). In 2007, Manlocloc's shanty was demolished, and he was no longer allowed to enter his own property. When he continued to resist, he was shot by an unidentified man on his way to the farm.

Although they remain unpaid, he and his siblings have never returned to the farm after the shooting. The entire Maloles property is now being developed by Camella Homes. The legal battle between Manlocloc and Maloles continues, with the former pushing for a revocation of the conversion order by DAR because he does not want to give up his right to the land. The only other legal recourse for him would be to receive disturbance compensation, but the amount remains negligible.
“Marami na kaming sakit ng ulo sa lupang ito. Mula pa sa tatay ko, nauubos na ang kaunting pera namin dahil sa kasong ito, at hanggang ngayon, naghihirap pa rin kami. Mas gusto naming makuha ang lupa kaysa ang bayad. Kung babayaran nila kami, sa halaga na tama at hindi kakarampot lang. Ipinagbilin ito ng tatay ko sa amin kaya, kahit hirap na hirap na kami, ayaw naming pabayaan na lang na makuha nila ito.”


And then there is the curious case of Purok 14 in South Daang Hari in Taguig, where several subdivisions (Presidio, Brittany and Marina) are allegedly owned by Mr. Villar. The property was mortgaged to Capitol Bank by an Aida Posadas, and the title fell under the jurisdiction of Muntinlupa. Purok 14, on the other hand, belongs to Taguig, and the two areas are separated by a towering wall.

But while it is not difficult to distinguish between the two sides, it appears that Purok 14 has now become a zone of contention, with mayors from both cities preferring not to get involved. The area is said to have no existing title, let alone owner, based on a cadastral map provided by the DENR, which means that the people living there can eventually apply for ownership of the land.

Regrettably, around 100 families have already been forced to vacate the land. In an effort to protect the remaining portion of Purok 14, a
brigada was set up against the guards, who were allegedly forcing their way into the area. Over a hundred homes were demolished, after which the police informed the residents that there was no point in resisting since they were already in possession of new titles. Joseta Suganob claims that Villar occupied a portion of Purok 14, and that the encroached portion is approximately one hectare. She further confirms that two residents (Isidro Barcelona and Leonardo Elorde) had already been shot and killed by guards in 1994.

There is already talk of a demolition after the elections. Crown Asia has apparently already sent a letter to the Barangay Captain stating its intent to develop the area, attached to which is a copy of a title.


So what is the point of these discrete vignettes I have gone to such lengths to document in scrupulous detail? Can it be said that there is an overarching framework that is both identifiable and premeditated? How does this relate to Villar's largest project to date, the C5 road extension? What is to happen to the 30,000 or so families that have been displaced by this massive DPWH project? Considering the increased market value of the Villar properties along C5, and the high payments for right of way that have already been paid out, why did the negotiations with the residents take over a year with so little apparent resolution? The crux of the matter, in fact, appears to have been a reluctance to pay dislocation or replacement costs to residents who were effectively being displaced and asked to relocate altogether. When the negotiations began to break down, the police were sent with notices "encouraging" the residents to leave. So the more pertinent question becomes: is the C5 case an "anomaly" or is it, in fact, a trend?

I, for one, observe the following trends:

Indeed, perhaps the single most objectionable aspect of the Villar empire is the fact that so much of it is ultimately at the expense of the poor. The rhetoric of "galing sa mahirap" notwithstanding (although that, too, has become questionable), one might have countenanced his modus operandi had he merely stolen from the rich.

But stripping marginalized groups of their most basic human rights -- the right to habitation and the right to live lives of dignity free of harassment and intimidation -- is unconscionable, whether they happen to be poor landowners, agricultural tenants, indigenous groups or farmers. As fake titles and illegal conversions are obtained, artificial walls erected, natural water flows and roads blocked, private security guards deployed to keep restive tenants in check, public funds used for private gain, and government officials bribed to tow the seamless "public-private partnership" Mr Villar appears to have elevated to a science, what is to become of the rule of law in our country? What, more importantly, is to become of the rights of the poor? Why not simply buy their land at fair market value and be done with it, one has to ask? Why, indeed, profit from their obvious powerlessness? Who will defend them when mayors, barangay captains, police officials, lawmakers and even ombudsmen -- our entire socio-legal continuum, in short -- all appear to have turned a blind eye to repeated harassment, land-grabbing, illegal land conversion and even murder?

Even more galling is the realization that these stories -- and the deeply humiliating situations these extraordinary human beings continue to encounter on a daily basis -- ultimately remain invisible to most because these victims have committed the one crime our class-conscious society can almost never forgive: they were born poor. Which is why Pol's deepest aspirations, Trining's quiet despair and the terrible sense of asphyxiation that unites all of Paradise Park within its implacable walls rarely bear much telling.

But these are not, after all, ordinary stories of human poverty. They depict, instead, a reality where injustice has become normalized, and violence towards the poor, sliding imperviously, fits into the natural grooves of our entire social system. We appear to have lost, indeed, our sense of outrage.

Perhaps if we were to remember that the poor are not trash on the street to be ignored and forgotten but human beings to whom we are all socially responsible in the end, we might find ourselves capable of resisting the economic and social injustices all around us. Perhaps we might even be impelled to safeguard our legal institutions from the types of impunity we observe every day. Because, just as we can afford to turn that blind eye, we also have the option of opening them wide -- however painful that might be for one brief instant -- and finally begin to see. That moment of sorrow might even be matched by a deeper sense of exhilaration: perhaps, once we no longer take "reality" for granted, we can begin to think in terms of social justice at last, and the mind can finally set us free.

A private note: this was a very difficult section to write, much harder, in many ways, than the first part, for several reasons. To begin with, the network of confidentiality was such that there was difficulty in accessing the most basic information about these subjects throughout. Preserving their anonymity for their own protection (as well as that of the sources/informants on the ground who were in touch with them), on the one hand, and wanting to tell enough of their story to the rest of the world, on the other, was a delicate balance to negotiate. The need to preserve this anonymity also had to be balanced with the need to vet the quality of the data itself at every step. Files and data were very difficult to track down also because there were no centralized sources of information. Above all, some of the narratives I had to read and listen to were ultimately somewhat harrowing.

But there were a stalwart few who came through for this section in the end, and to all of them I remain deeply grateful: to L, for walking me through Norzagaray; to E and G, for pointing out what might be electric; and M (who I regrettably only talked to at the very end), for clarifying the number of deaths we were actually looking at in Bulacan, which I had spent the better part of an entire month trying to verify... To J and J, for the technical support and for making a podcast of that superb interview, as well as for turning the Norzagaray and Iloilo DVDs into Youtube links. And to P and Luna Salin, for having been a joy to work with (a tight little ship, your unit is, and highly organized too), and for helping me out with San Pedro, Batangas and Cavite; a special thank you to P and M, too, for that wonderful chart at the end...

Luna in particular deserves a heart-felt thank you for having introduced me to some of these characters, for many of the photographs and for giving me enough detail so I could actually write about them. Not once did I encounter any hesitation, excuses or resistance (although there was quite a bit of sleepiness at the end :D); all I ever saw was a willingness to work as hard as I did, and then some. It is people like her (and M), who work in the field every day and clearly care about the people and issues the rest of us can only ever intellectualize about that I have the highest respect for. For Luna, this was clearly not a job or assignment but a calling to defend human beings whose welfare and future she cared about very deeply. To me, you will always be, my friend, one of this nation's unsung heroes.