His name was Wilhelmus JJ Lutz Geertman. A native of Holland, he left his country 46 years ago and settled in the Philippines—not in any of its cities, but in its poor, desperate corners, where, for the rest of his life until his murder on July 7, he worked tirelessly for the betterment of the marginalized communities around him. As executive director of the nongovernmental group Alay Bayan-Luson Inc., he held office in a middle-class subdivision in Aurora province whose main road, oddly called the Rue de Paree, was perhaps the closest reminder he had of his European roots.
But it’s a safe bet Geertman never gave the street name a wistful glance, as he had cast his eyes somewhere else. “His coworkers tell me he was more Filipino than Dutch,” said his brother Antonius, who flew in from the Netherlands with sister Maria Elisabeth for the grim task of burying Geertman in the province and country he had long called his own. The siblings were joined by some 1,000 mourners, many of them the poorest of the poor and recipients of Geertman’s generosity and compassion through the years, in giving their brother a final, grateful send-off.
They were thankful for the fact that Geertman was, to be blunt about it, not only more Filipino than Dutch but also more Filipino than many citizens of this country. Much of his 67 years was spent trying to make a difference in ordinary Filipinos’ lives—specifically, to empower them, fight for their welfare, and give them a decent place in the social order.
In the 1980s, he taught Dumagat, Alta, Cordilleran and Ilongot elders to write and count to allow them to manage their own affairs without being exploited by traders and mining interests. He also taught them how to farm their ancestral lands efficiently. Before that, he organized stevedores and workers in Luzon shipyards into unions, then spearheaded agriculture and literacy programs in Baler and other towns. He raised money for the scholarship of students, trained people on disaster preparedness, and joined the fight for human rights, agrarian reform and responsible mining. The small pension he received from the Dutch government he even shared with farmers and the poor.
“Wim was a foreigner but he lived like one of us,” said Marietta Corpuz, chair of Samahan ng mga Katutubo sa Sierra Madre. “He ate what we ate. He did not make us feel that he was different from us or he was better than us. He crossed rivers so he could reach remote villages.”
Was his death at the hands of still unidentified gunmen a case of plain robbery, or a result of his tenacious, committed work on such causes? The police think a premeditated heist is the simpler explanation, because Geertman was reportedly carrying some P1.2 million he had earlier withdrawn from a bank, to be used for his scholarships. After shooting him in the back, his killers fled with the money.
But the prominence of Geertman’s social work—his opposition to mining, logging and the commercialization of agricultural land in Aurora, for instance—lends plausibility to the suspicion, immediately voiced by those closest to him, that he was killed chiefly because his activities were increasingly becoming a bane to powerful, shadowy interests. His reported ties with Hacienda Luisita farmers have been cited as a possible reason for the “politically motivated” killing, though Alay Bayan-Luson spokesperson Loren Villareal has said it was unlikely he was killed for this reason: “We tend to link Wim’s death to his anticorporate mining and logging stance, and to his being a staunch environmentalist.”
Whatever the motivation behind it, Geertman’s death is a tragedy. More than that, it is an outrage—the latest blood-soaked evidence of the government’s sheer inability to stop the extrajudicial killings that have continued to define the country as a land of lawlessness and impunity. Geertman’s death is the 13th such killing to occur under the two-year-old Aquino administration, which people had hoped would be able to stem the tide of assassinations (about 305) that marked the presidency of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. But no respite is in sight.
Geertman could have stayed in his native land and lived a comfortable life, but “home is the Philippines, particularly Aurora,” he had told those around him. With his death, the Philippines has lost an outstanding citizen, whatever citizenship is stated in his passport. If this country knows how to be grateful, it should demand that the government act, at last, to make Geertman’s death the last of its kind.