Thursday, August 27, 2015

Tempest over the balikbayan box

Philippine Daily Inquirer/OPINION/by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo

I have never personally received a balikbayan box from abroad addressed to me, nor have I sent one home from abroad to myself (to, say, avoid airline excess baggage fees). But I have surely received items that came from someone’s balikbayan box, like not-so-easy-to-find food items that I want (flax seeds, for example). I also receive bath and beauty stuff, health supplements, American-made fruit cake—thank you—which can be bought here.

A university professor who chose to remain in the Philippines and whose entire family migrated to the US, usually refers to food items in her newly arrived balikbayan box as “food aid” and we all laugh about it and enjoy the manna. In this disaster-prone country, anything useful or edible sent from overseas is considered a gesture of affection and caring.

Books for me in a balikbayan box? Never. The gift of books is usually hand-carried.

A tempest brewed over the plan of new Customs Chief Alberto Lina to subject balikbayan boxes to inspection, and its taxable contents to taxation. Cited reasons are the use of balikbayan boxes for contraband and prohibited items like drugs, luxury goods in commercial quantities, firearms and ammunition. Legit concerns, surely, but many cry out: Must the majority suffer for the sins of the few? Why not run after the big-time smugglers instead of poking into balikbayan boxes?

The furor has yet to die down and the way people have raised a howl and spoofed the plan, one would think they are against something that can spell the rise and fall of the country’s economy, or the violation of a cultural symbol. But cargo balikbayan boxes are not mere cardboard boxes. They contain, not only an assortment of items—from disposable diapers and towels to signature bags and watches, name it—for those back home. There is so much more packed into them than their material contents; much more poured into them than their senders—many of them homesick overseas Filipino workers (OFWs)—can put into words.

But not to overlook the fact that balikbayan boxes are also symbolic of some Filipinos’ penchant for lavish spending relative to their humble earning capacities abroad, their way of compensating for their absence and, for their next of kin back home, the craving for things foreign and even to show off. Surely there is a downside to overdoing things.

Sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists and those interested in Filipinos who toil abroad—the so-called modern-day heroes who help boost the economy, the accidental missionaries and evangelizers in their adopted countries—have studied the new lifestyles that are the outcome of this diaspora. More than 10 million OFWs, not immigrants who uprooted themselves permanently from the homeland, could be a whole country in itself.

Think of the balikbayan boxes they have been sending to their families back home over the years. A number of OFWs have, in fact, set up their own freight forwarding companies that serve the needs of their compatriots. They understand the needs, financial capacities and yearning for home of those who are now going through what they once went through as struggling OFWs.

The first balikbayan boxes came from the US in the 1980s when many Filipinos who settled there regularly sent boxes of goods to their relatives in the Philippines. Fil-Am forwarders noticed and offered door-to-door delivery of these boxes that were charged import duties upon arrival in the Philippines. But sometime during the presidency of Cory Aquino, the duties were waived in recognition of the OFWs’ contribution to the Philippine economy.

The balikbayan box has since evolved into three regular sizes. The cost of delivery is computed according to the origin and destination. Weight is not a consideration. The box has become ubiquitous and easily available in Filipino stores abroad.

Here are some prohibited items that may not go into the box: currencies, checks, traveler’s checks and money orders; jewelry; firearms, ammunition and explosives; prohibited drugs and substances; pornographic materials, gambling cards and toy guns; pirated products (CDs, DVD). The Department of Trade and Industry suggests that those sending by sea should deal only with Philippine Shippers Bureau-accredited sea cargo consolidators and freight forwarders that have Philippine counterparts. One can learn about sending balikbayan boxes from the Internet.

There is a story in every box. Who is the sender, who is the recipient? I don’t mean their names as written on the box. But who indeed are they, what are they like, where, how are they? What went into every box? Why? For whom?

I read an article about an OFW who was preparing a balikbayan box, putting in goods inside it and making her thoughts and feelings known. Filling the box was, for her, an act of love. She couldn’t be there for her kids, she might as well shop for them. She thought about their every need, their every whim. Maybe she needed to do this for herself, more than her family needed to receive what she was sending. Would it have been better if she sent money instead? Who is to say?

But there should be a limit to all the sentimentality and to thoughtlessly sending crap (iodized salt, instant noodles, about-to-expire food items, sanitary napkins, microwave ovens) that are available in Philippine stores. Also, how to curb the criminal use of these boxes.

In this country that thrives on padala (no exact English translation) or something sent or received, a balikbayan box is more than cargo. It is a story.


Overseas absentee voters can register via the site that my Canada-based friend, Mila Alvarez-Magno, developed: http://irehistro.info. #

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Remembering in August

Philippine Daily Inquirer/OPINION/by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo

Photo by Recto Mercene
“Think back,” presidential aspirant Raul Roco, seemingly lost in a fog of memories, mused in 2004. “Think back on all the tales that you remember of Camelot.”

The words from the 1960s Lerner-Loewe musical cascaded from his lips as he thought back on how King Arthur sang “that once there was a fleeting wisp of glory, called Camelot.”

“We were the Camelot boys,” Roco, then 62, recalled as he scooped out buko from a freshly cracked coconut shell.

In 2004 I was assigned to do a cover story on a presidential candidate for the Sunday Inquirer Magazine. So where else to meet Roco if not in his family’s Antipolo hillside retreat named “An Maogmang Lugar” (Bicolano for “the happy place”), where bloomed countless hibiscus varieties that became the signature design of his campaign getup?

I was recalling all these as I went through the recently launched biography of the former congressman, senator, education secretary and presidential aspirant who suddenly dropped out in the midst of the 2004 election campaign because of ill health. Roco passed away on Aug. 5, 2005. His admirers still speak of him as “the best president this country never had.”

The launch of “Honorary Woman: The Life of Raul S. Roco” by Conrado de Quiros was in time for Roco’s 10th death anniversary; quite timely, too, as politicians, presidential wannabes and the electorate go through confusing scenarios in order to arrive at decisions that could spell good or bad. There is a lot that presidential hopefuls can learn from the political style of Roco, who was a brilliant public speaker.

August also marks the third death anniversary of Jesse Robredo, former mayor of Naga City, recipient of a Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service, and interior secretary when he died in a plane crash on Aug. 18, 2012. Robredo’s sudden death was mourned by so many because of his “tsinelas” style of public service—selfless, focused, action- and people-oriented. Now many people talk of him also as “the best president this country never had.”

That makes two of them—Roco and Robredo—who both hail from Naga City in Camarines Sur. And if their alma mater should matter, one is from San Beda, the other from De La Salle, which are among the country’s best but whose graduates have yet to make it to the highest post of the land.

I did write sometime back that there is something about August. Many of us who are August-born have not failed to notice that many earth-shaking events in this country’s historical timeline happened in August. It is a month when we remember guns, bombs, blood, fire and water, even an earthquake, tearing through our nation’s life. The Plaza Miranda bombing, the assassination of Ninoy Aquino, the death of former president Cory Aquino, etc.

August is also the birth month of, to name some, fiery Filipino leaders, like the wartime president Manuel L. Quezon who pushed for a national language. His birthday was marked yesterday; this week is Linggo ng Wika; and August is Tuberculosis Awareness Month because Quezon died of TB while he was president. (I still have August anti-TB postage stamps in my collection.) Also August-born was Sen. Lorenzo Tañada, against whom the present crop of pygmy lawmakers should be compared and found wanting.

Last Monday, Edsa People Power hero Agapito “Butz” Aquino passed away at the age of 76. The occasional actor, former senator and brother of Ninoy Aquino led antidictatorship protests after Ninoy’s assassination in 1983. He was a strong voice in the Senate and in civil society. He deserves our gratitude.

So life-changing were these August events that when we look back through the veil of mist we can’t help but be overcome by the memories.

Now my remembering goes overseas. August was when India became an independent nation, whose people were, for centuries, subjugated by the British Raj. I have some kind of bond with India because I did some Christian-Hindu spiritual explorations there.

First Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s immortal words, spoken on Aug. 15, 1947: “At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, then an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.” Listen to the sound of it.

From “the best presidents this country never had,” here are some words worth remembering.

Roco: “Transparency is the way to fight graft and corruption. Where there is sunlight, there are few microbes. Where there is darkness, there are more microbes. This is the Sunshine Principle.”

“Work without spirituality is meaningless. Spirituality without work is fruitless.”

“There are three forces of change that will be critical in the next century—knowledge, women’s empowerment, and youth participation.”

Robredo (as mayor): “Leadership must be bold and inspiring. It must be energizing, enabling and ennobling, making the bureaucracy and constituency collectively confident in their capacities. Our message was: Your government not only works, it always does things better. Everyone was given the opportunity to prove his worth, but it also became clear to everyone that a no-nonsense leadership was at the helm.”

“Leadership must not only be empowering, it must be inclusive. The Empowerment Ordinance of Naga City is a landmark and revolutionary legislation that has forged a partnership between the city government and people. The Naga City People’s Council was the result of this ordinance which enabled people’s representatives to participate, vote and even propose legislation.”#

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Saving the last ecological frontier

Philippine Daily Inquirer/OPINION/by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo

Part of the Foundation for the Philippine Environment’s (FPE) first Sarihay Award for journalists were out-of-town trips to FPE project sites. Four of us chose to go to Palawan, the others went to Surigao del Sur and Negros Occidental. If you’re a journalist, you know you would be on a working trip, and you hope to stumble upon some surprises on the rugged terrain or at the end of the road.
This was my seventh visit to Palawan. I had been to Puerto Princesa several times, Coron, the disputed Spratly Islands (Pag-asa Island is a municipality of Palawan); Iwahig Penal Colony, Culion (for the writing of the coffeetable book “Culion Island: A Leper Colony’s 100-Year Journey Toward Healing”), the refugee camp of the Vietnamese and where many were resettled.

Do I have bragging rights? Oh, sorry, I’ve never been to any of the exclusive, dollar-charging luxury islands in Palawan, not even to the famous El Nido.

Last week, FPE flew us to Puerto Princesa and took us on long road trips to Roxas and San Vicente towns. We stayed briefly in Port Barton, a breathtaking beach hideaway in San Vicente that I hope would not become a Boracay or, some locals hope, would not be like El Nido. Port Barton is literally at the end of the road that cuts through a forest. What used to be a logging road (before the logging ban) that leads to Port Barton will be fully paved soon, and become like the endless ribbon of roads that run parallel to the beaches on the left and on the right of this sliver of an island that is Palawan.

But we were not tourists. First stop was the herbal processing plant of Palawan Center for Appropriate Rural Technology (Pcart). The small plant converts into powder the dried herbs produced by remote communities and bought by pharmaceutical/nutraceutical companies.

Lagundi, sambong, banaba, tanglad and guyabano are grown by Pcart’s local partners. We did visit a community that grows these plants in order to augment their income. An elder explained that the plants are best grown in a remote, pollution-free area like theirs. The people showed us the wood-fired drier that can dry 20 to 25 kilos of lagundi per day, which are worth P3,000. The drier is owned by the Abaroan Small Farmers Association. The growers take turns in using the drier.

A one-fourth hectare planted with lagundi can yield 200 kilos of dried leaves worth P30,000 every three to four months. With added income from herbs, families need not resort to slash-and-burn farming or collection and sale of endangered species.

We also visited a community of 42 households, mostly migrants from the Visayas, that produces sugar and syrup from coconut sap (tuba). Their newly gathered sap or unfermented tuba is immediately processed and turned into coco sugar.

Here’s the ABC of tuba and coconut sugar: Coconut sap drips after a still-encased coconut blossom is cut. Cutting for extraction is done every morning on the same blossom. The mananggiti or tuba gatherer places a container into which the sweet sap drips and leaves it there. He returns several hours later to bring down the sap. We’re not talking of one tree here but many. Trees from which sap is extracted do not yield nuts because their flowers are “bled” daily. If not consumed or processed immediately, the sweet sap ferments and, by late afternoon, becomes the heady brew called tuba. It can also be turned into vinegar. So it is important that the newly collected sap is cooked right away and turned into coconut sugar which costs more than raw brown sugar and refined white.

We also met with Palawan NGO Network Inc. (PNNI) para-enforcers, they who guard against the destroyers of the forests and the seas. We met with a community leader—a woman whose name I will not mention—and her team who are deputized to apprehend violators and seize instruments of destruction. At that time they just came from a court hearing. They spoke with apprehension about mining and the 14-kilometer stretch of beach called Long Beach (where we met) which will be turned into a high-end resort strip, a playground for the rich and famous, to be complemented by a new airport nearby.

We had interesting meetings with environmental lawyers—PNNI executive director Robert Chan and Environmental Legal Assistance Center (Elac) executive director Grizelda Mayo-Anda (whom I have known before she became a lawyer, and the wife of Inquirer correspondent and jazz musician Dempto Anda). When we arrived at Elac, we found Brooke’s Point Mayor Mary Jean Feliciano seeking legal help for her town that was under threat from open-pit nickel mining. She promised to keep me informed.

But if I may save one of the best for last, it would be what I call the “museum of environmental crimes” or the Palawan Environmental Enforcement Museum. This is Chan’s pride and “discomfort” zone; this is where more than 600 seized chainsaws are exhibited as a two-story-tall Christmas tree and used as fence posts, rows of them. There’s more—seized firearms, dynamites, cyanide, big trucks, tricycles, boats, including a huge Malaysian boat on the museum grounds that, I thought, could be turned into a café. Also exquisite hardwood now used as a multipurpose stage. While we were gawking at the deadly items, a para-enforcer arrived with a newly seized chainsaw. We asked about the old scars on his arms…

The museum and the courageous para-enforcers who risk life and limb deserve a feature story of their own. I will write it.

Let me end by saying that Palawan is the province with the most number of declared protected areas in the country. It has its own special environmental laws. It is hailed as the Philippines’ last ecological frontier. Last, not lost. #

Thursday, August 6, 2015


Philippine Daily Inquirer/OPINION/by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo

It is the root word of a Filipino noun and verb (in various tenses) that mean expulsion, expel, expelled, etc.: “tiwalag.”

This T word brings fear among the Iglesia ni Cristo (INC) followers because, to them, being stripped of membership means certain damnation to the fires of hell. The INC teaches that only through this church can one attain salvation—that is, go to heaven. It is the powerful Sanggunian (advisory council), which governs the INC, that can order the expulsion of members who are deemed to have gravely sinned or spread erroneous beliefs incompatible to INC teachings. For the INC, Jesus Christ is not divine but a God-sent messenger (sugo).

Also, an INC member told me, marrying someone who is not an INC member and getting pregnant out of wedlock, among other missteps, could mean tiwalag. I couldn’t resist asking, but gently: Didn’t Jesus Christ defend and reach out to the woman caught in adultery?
Unlike in mainstream Christian churches such as the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant churches that do not exclude people of other faiths from the so-called economy of salvation, the INC maintains that it alone has the monopoly of the truth and the keys to the kingdom of God in the afterlife.

In the Catholic Church, excommunication or being denied the sacraments is rarely applied. And when it is, it is on those who openly rabble-rouse to defy doctrinal teachings on faith and morals, etc. In which case, the excommunicated is better off leaving anyway, because, why stay? But there is no talk of eternal damnation, at least in present times. Crimes (e.g., murder, rape, corruption) are better tackled in court.

Catholics can openly criticize erring pastors, question policies and traditions, even doubt articles of faith, and not be ousted. I know Catholics who cry for changes in the patriarchal state of affairs in the institution but who loudly profess their love for the church that, Catholic Christians believe, Jesus founded.

You can’t do that in the INC. So what happens now that the leaders who have the power to expel members are themselves being accused of wrongdoing by their own members? Ironically, these leaders who are being accused of corruption, abuse of power and other grave misdeeds are considered the keepers of the keys to the kingdom. By decree, they can condemn to hell the members who, motivated by their desire to see reforms, dare question. Alas, the expelled believe they are indeed damned.

It’s been two weeks since the INC imbroglio broke in the news, but long before that there was already restiveness in the ranks. The media, not the law enforcers, were the first recourse of disgruntled members who claimed harassment. For days, it was touch and go. Finally, there was INC “Deep Throat” aka Antonio Ramirez Ebangelista, whose blog, “Iglesia ni Cristo, Silent No More,” gained followers who became a “core group” that refused to be “blind followers.” But no names, no faces.

Will you or will you not? I snarled at the hesitating INC source who, to be fair, later brought out a bag of beans for spilling. But only after Angel Manalo and his mother Cristina (Tenny) jumped the gun, so to speak, by coming out on video and saying they feared for their lives, with the latter begging to talk to her son Eduardo, the current INC executive minister.

Poor Angel is closeted (or being held captive?) in his home in the INC compound in Quezon City. Sympathizers bring him food. His widowed mother Tenny is believed to be abroad and ailing. Besides Tenny and Angel, another brother and a sister of Eduardo—Marco and Lottie—have been expelled. Itiniwalag na. But they are not leaving the INC, they protested. Where will we go? Angel asked.

The INC could be a luxurious comfort zone to these third-generation Manalos whose grandfather Felix founded it in Manila in 1914 and was later succeeded (monarchic style) by his son Eraño, husband of Tenny and the father of Eduardo who has just expelled his own mother and siblings. The INC claims some two million members here and abroad who vote as a bloc.

With the INC’s influence and supposed wealth (from members’ offerings), many politicians woo INC votes, a situation that could lead to unholy deals. A dismayed INC source revealed that with national elections 10 months away, the INC has revived the position of “political liaison.”

Whom to believe? Angel has made pleas and statements to the media through his home’s gate. An INC minister in the United States has resigned because he couldn’t bear to read to his flock the circular on the expulsion of the Manalo family members. A minister now denies he was ever abducted, but his own brother insists the minister was forced to change the story. (The Department of Justice is now looking into the alleged abductions.)

The story unfolds one day at a time. And where has Eduardo been all this time? Except for his sermon during the INC’s 101st founding anniversary at the $200-million Ciudad de Victoria INC complex two weeks ago, little has been heard from him. He has not boldly confronted allegations of wrongdoing in the INC’s upper echelon. Is he under the spell of the Sanggunian?

If INC critics do not invoke command responsibility, it is because of a rule—written or unwritten, I don’t know—that the successors/descendants of the INC founder are never to be questioned.

Now in the media’s possession is a damning document in PowerPoint that shows the alleged rot in the Sanggunian over which Eduardo presides. It is a jaw-dropping exposé about corruption in high places. Is the INC now deeply in debt? Why? How explain Ciudad de Victoria/Philippine Arena? Needed are hard evidence and spade work that should lead to a paper trail that should lead to banks, property registries and hidden places that show proof of rot.

The T word keeps many INC members in fear and trembling.#