February 2017 is a radical month and it’s not even over. While it is short of days, it is not short of surprises and shocks.
Now termed as the Valentine Day Massacre, the decision of Secretary Gina Lopez to terminate 25 mining contracts in order to protect natural watersheds is a serious disruption to business-as-usual. She is being consistent with her advocacy and public image as an environmentalist, but that doesn’t make her decision less dramatic. The impact of her move is difficult to describe because the adjectives are very contrasting depending which perspective one carries. Suffice it to say that it is one of those things that matter in a deep way.
My spontaneous response was to say wow with a big smile indicative of a pleasant surprise. Her stance is not a new one; neither is it the most radical among environmentalists. What is totally surprising is the stand of Rodrigo R. Duterte. First, he appoints Gina. Then, he backs her up. Against all odds. Wow.
It doesn’t mean the ball game is over. It doesn’t mean that the conventional won’t fight back, and maybe even win. They have good reasons to offer all-out resistance. They have mining contracts awarded to them by government and, therefore, legal basis. They employ thousands, and the mining economy does not stop at salaries and wages of their employed. They drive support industries and jumpstart new ones besides. They will question, they will resist with every legal means, and they will wage a campaign for national sympathy to their cause. Secretary Gina and President Digong will not be walking in a park.
But protecting the environment, especially watersheds, is not a small cause either. It has its own determined warriors plus the fact that water is fast becoming a severely threatened resource. The law, too, is a growing defender of the environment, not to mention Pope Francis, too. Governments have grudgingly been conceding to the demands of a new environmental consciousness. This is an emerging pattern that a changing climate is motivating to be even more demanding. It is like the present and the future are doing battle with one another.
While another earthshaking decision was announced earlier this month, it did not gain that much attention from the public. Media did report it but it seemed media did not appreciate its implications. I am referring to the President’s announcement to Yolanda victims that the houses that the National Housing Authority (NHA) are building for them, 200,000 in all, would be given for free. It was mentioned that this radical move would cost the government around 50 billion pesos.
It should puzzle me, or anyone for that matter, why this spectacular decision did not create that much traction among our people, including social media. But the relative silence after the news was reported simply confirmed that few really understand the implication of Duterte’s decision because it was a matter that directly affects only the poor. And the poor who don’t read newspapers or do Facebook.
That presidential act, however, is not any less dramatic that the decision to back up Gina Lopez in closing or suspending mines. Giving free houses to typhoon victims, 200,000 families in Yolanda’s case, must be the single biggest gift that government has ever attempted to give to the poor. It is also just the beginning. Down the line is at least another 5 million poor families who deserve the same because they had experienced their Yolanda much earlier in their lives, or their parents and grandparents did.
It is only a matter of time before both government and the private sector will have to confront a historical anomaly – landlessness and homelessness – because these two are at the root of Philippine poverty. Because of Duterte’s biting the bullet of giving houses for free to people who cannot pay for them anyway, the rest of the landless and homeless have a much brighter future.
Why did it take all these years to go against mining companies despite their unwillingness or inability to be more sensitive to the environment and to people adversely affected by their business. It does not mean that everyone is irresponsible, but they are the exceptions and not the rule. That is why it is difficult to point to outstanding models of mined-out concessions that are not only ugly sores but have caused great damage to the environment.
Why did it take so long for government shelter agencies to provide free housing to poor Filipinos who cannot possible afford decent homes in safe areas? It was easier to live with the reality that the poor live in the most vulnerable area and are the sacrificial lambs with every disaster. It does not surprise us that they suffer and die because they are forced to occupy only what nobody else wants but it never occurred to us to provide them safe and decent shelter because they are human beings and citizens of the republic.
The illegal drug situation instead has become much more controversial because of drug-related deaths. It has been pointed out time and again that most of the victims are poor, and that is what makes the killings especially unfair or brutal. But the poor have been dying in greater numbers from poverty, from forced illness due to having no safe place to go, having no sturdy shelter from the elements, having no food security. Nobody was protesting why millions of lives were being pre-terminated before the normal life span simply because of their being poor.
If we care so much for the poor who are victims of mining companies, the poor who are massacred by natural disasters, the poor who are killed in the drug wars, then maybe we all put our efforts to dismantling poverty itself. We might as well, because poverty is like a millstone around our collective necks, because poverty strips the nation of any right to be proud.
If we do, we will all be more radical than Rodrigo R. Duterte.
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