A SOJOURNER’S VIEWS: Winning small wars

The giants are at each other's throats. There is, metaphorically, blood on the floor as if this is akin to  the arena of the Roman gladiators (as well as "gladiatrixes" –  to recognize the presence of the  women Senators). 

The gladiatrix, Senator Miriam Santiago, labelled these intramurals (read: taking place within the walls of an enclosed unit like a building)  as "fighting over the spoils."  And, indeed, she is right  for in the language of war,  the victors do fight over the spoils once the dust had settled. 

No sooner had the last election's dust settled and we now witness how the great men and women of the body politic slug it out to assert their power and might. While I am transfixed and mesmerized with the images on the TV screen as I watch the proceedings, my sense is that I am excluded from all of the drama of these intramurals.

I am located outside the walls; I am barely able to only have a glimpse of what is happening inside. And, perhaps, like so many other Pinoys, the questions on my cynical mind are: Will the whole truth be revealed? Will the guilty be punished? Will the Filipino people live happily ever after once the powers-that-be are brought down to their knees? 

Today, we are caught in an age of cynicism. In the ever-changing landscape of people's attitudes towards social and cultural change, we are at the other end of the People Power euphoria. Even as the Senate proceedings can be quite riveting (see how Cayetano gets slugged by the presidential wannabe Gordon! see how Pimentel tries to get even with Abalos! see how Santiago walks out in a yellow suit!), we would rather be entertained with more titillating entertainment on TV: the boxing bouts, the scandalous talk shows and the  teleseryes. 

Can we be blamed if we make our very own conclusions before the whole investigation wraps up?  That, since this is a game involving the high and mighty – the generals and other Cabinet members, the Senators and other  political power-dealers – some heads will roll (watch your back, Abalos!), but, in the end, all will be forgiven.

Don't look now, but the Erap forgiveness scenario will be a useful precedence for history repeating itself in 2010 (if and when another ex-powerful will have to face plunder charges?). 

As for me, I am making  a drastic effort not to be sucked into the blackhole of cynicism and apathy. I will think globally (wishing the best and expressing solidarity on behalf of  Aung San Suu Kyi, the monks and the 100,000 Burmese people) but act locally. 

For, indeed, where I am located – deep in the heart of the city of my affection – a war is steadily being won. A small war when one compares it to Burma and the ZTE scam. But for environmentalists, it is a strategic war.  I refer to the ongoing struggle to stop the aerial spraying taking place in the upland agri-business plantations. 

Last Saturday, September 22, 2007, Regional Trial Court Branch 17 Judge Renato Fuentes ruled in favor of Davao City's ban on aerial spraying as an agricultural practice.  In the process, Judge Fuentes dismissed the case filed by the Pilipino Banana Growers and Exporters Association (PBGEA) which questioned the constitutionality of an ordinance passed earlier by the City Council.  

Immediately reacting to the verdict, the PBGEA sent fax messages to the media indicating that they "respect the decision" and that they "have strong grounds to raise (the case) before the court of appeals and will do it as soon as possible.”

It is assumed that the PBGEA will go all the way to the Supreme Court, if need be, to assert their right to use pesticides in their aerial spraying operations even if various research studies have found that such practices are a threat to the people's health and the precious watersheds of Davao City. 

Unlike the ongoing ZTE circus, the long struggle to ban aerial spraying did not involve only those with high stakes in the game to protect economic and political interests. Yes, there are parties that have huge economic capital, namely, the circle of the PBGEA.   But on the other hand, there are the members of the Mamamayan Ayaw sa Aerial Spray (MAAS), a people's organization set up by those directly affected by the spraying operations.

MAAS spokesperson, Dagohoy Magaway,  is a farmer from Balingaing, Tugbok District.  Among those involved with MAAS are ordinary folk whose health and lives have been impacted by the pesticides. It is a classic David vs Goliath struggle!  The poor who have nothing but their allies in civil society and the rich who can afford the fees of  the most expensive law firm in the country. 

Unlike the ZTE extravaganza, civil society has positioned strategically in this struggle to ban aerial spraying following a Habermasian model of communicative action  engagement. They, too, have little by way of economic and political capital; but they have accumulated enough social, cultural and symbolic capital to help push the struggle to the level that has now created an impact. 

There is PANAGHOY, the alliance of environmental NGOs, led by the Interfacing Development Interventions, Inc. (IDIS). There is Davao's media that loves a good fight!  There are schools – especially the Holy Cross College of Davao – who move out of their ghettos to confront social issues affecting the citizenry. And thank heavens, there are those in the churches – especially Pastor Apollo Quiboloy – whose view of heaven is not only directed up to the clouds.   

There are the doctors – from Dr. Jean Lindo and her colleagues at the Davao Medical Society and the Philippine Medical Women's Association of Davao City to Drs. Romy Quijano and Lynn Crisanta Panganiban of UP College of Medicine's Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology – who have provided the scientific evidence of the evils of pesticides. 

With such a cast of characters in civil society, the PBGEA found its match despite the fact that – early on in the struggle – the scale was tilted in the latter's favor given their wealth and political influence.

What was crucially needed to tilt the scale to favor the ordinary folk's interest was to be determined in the field of the public sphere. This is the sphere where civil society had to win the hearts and minds of those who hold power at City Hall.  Early on, this was ironic given the assumption that in democratic States, it is government that should be at the forefront of protecting the citizenry.  

In the case of the aerial spraying, government agencies like the DENR and DA washed their hands. Fortunately, in the beginning, those in the Davao City's Water District did show concern about this issue. 

In time, however, the City Hall caught up with civil society and took the issue head-on. The person who worked hard to make this possible was Councilor Leo Avila, followed by Councilor Nenita Orcullo.  Eventually, a few more councilors supported the move to come up with legislation. 

Once the die was cast, Mayor Rudy Duterte responded to the challenge and signed the law to ban aerial spraying. The moment of signing brought sweet victory to the collaborative efforts of local government and civil society.  But not for long, with PBGEA's move to question the law's constitutionality which stopped the implementation of the law. 

There is still an impasse with the drama moving on to a new location, the sala of the Court of Appeals in Cagayan de Oro. It's been a long road for those who have marched to end aerial spraying in Davao City. 

There is still a long road ahead to consolidate on the gains of this war.  But winning this small war has made already some difference in the lives of all those involved in the skirmishes. 

I do intend to monitor closely what is happening in Burma and in the Senate-Congress-Malacanang in the next few weeks. Who knows: we could be in for pleasant surprises! But my full attention will be on this small war that will have such impact on Davao City's uplands. 

Meanwhile, I need to go back to the book called Weapons of the Weak! Winning small wars does need such weapons. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar of Davao City, former head of the Redemptorist Itinerant Mission Team and author of several books, including “To be poor and obscure,” and “Mystic Wanderers in the Land of Perpetual Departures,” writes two columns for MindaNews, one  in English [A Sojourner’s Views] and the other in Binisaya [Panaw-Lantaw])  

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