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Lessons in humidity: The fight for power in rural Philippines. (Action).

The humidity makes my shirt stick like flypaper. It's high noon in the dead of summer, where even the water buffalo seeks shade from the heat of the sun. After one hour on the plane from Manila, and five on the bus across the island of Leyte, I finally arrive in the town of Bay-bay in my native Philippines. My good friend at the Freedom from Debt Coalition (FDC) based in Manila urged me to visit their Leyte chapter and witness first-hand how the effort of local townspeople is slowing down the pace of globalization. So I've come to meet those who choose to preserve their pristine forests over the construction of steel towers for electrical lines, and to ensure that their river isn't choked by the runoff from a denuded watershed.

It's been close to 20 years since I've visited the Philippine countryside, the last time as a youth leader in the anti-Marcos movement in the United States. In the early '80s, whole villages were "hamletted" for counterinsurgency purposes--thousands relocated from the periphery to the town center to drain the support base of the revolutionary forces. Twenty years later, Marcos is gone, and parts of rural Philippines continue to be displaced by forces less brutal but equally pernicious.

This will make for a compelling story, I thought: a local campaign with an international dimension, striking at the core issues of our time. Structural adjustment. Privatization of public utilities. Environmental degradation. Environmental justice. People's participation in governance. It was that and more. It was all about coming home.

Privatization of Power

Juanito "Nitoy" Modina points to the mountains near Baybay and with a bit of exasperation says," This is where electrical lines will pass. They will ruin our mountains!" Like thousands of other coconut farmers, Modinas family feels a deep affinity to the mountains of Pangasugan on the eastern boundary of Baybay. His father, and those before him, were landless farmers who made wine from the fruit picked from these tall trees in return for shelter and food. Modina's ancestors worked these mountains with their hands; these coconut trees have given sustenance to generations of Modinas. Ironically, the construction of electrical transmission lines, seeking to connect rural Leyte to its neighboring islands, threatens to sever this affinity for thousands of families in the region.

The National Power Corporation (NAPOCOR), the country's major generator of electricity, plans to build two transmission lines through the island that will traverse the Pangasugan mountains. These two interconnection" projects will complete the electrical grid for the entire region, connecting the power-rich rural towns with the power-hungry urban areas. With a completed grid, NAPOCOR expects to sell these transmission lines to domestic and foreign companies in pursuit of its privatization plans. Following the dictates of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and the Asian Development Bank (ADB), NAPOCOR is rushing to dispose of its assets and pay off the country's debt to these very same institutions. If NAPOCOR succeeds with its plans, the government-run corporation will reduce its share of the utility market from 94 percent in 1998 to 58 percent by 2010. These two Leyte projects are part of NAPOCOR's privatization scheme.

"No private company will dare buy NAPOCOR unless the interconnection is realized," predicts Rey Enales, secretary-general of the local chapter of the Freedom from Debt Coalition (FDC). "Those corporations will not be able to get windfall profits unless power generated from this island gets to the tourist and commercial areas of Cebu, Bohol, and northern Mindanao. Baybay is key."

For Enales and the FDC, the situation in Baybay reflects a familiar story for developing countries like the Philippines. "When governments are cash-strapped, privatizing basic social services such as health, communication, housing, water, and power utilities seems a quick-fix solution." But for Enales, it always comes with a steep price. A statement released by the national office of FDC in June 2002 calls for the Philippine congress to "re-classify power generation from a private undertaking to that of a public utility" and to re-negotiate government contracts with private power producers. FDC claims that the contracts, which guarantee payments from NAPOCOR even if these private companies don't supply them with any electricity, have been responsible for an increase of up to 300 percent in household utility rates over the past two years. In the first months of 2002, FDC spearheaded a popular campaign which forced Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to lower utility rates and investigate these onerous contracts.

Making It Personal

"These projects of NAPOCOR will affect more than 880 hectares (3.5 square miles) of virgin forest, coconut lands, and watershed areas of Baybay," Modina continues. He pauses to pour ice water into a clear glass tumbler, and drinks from it heartily. "It will displace coconut farmers from their land and affect 7,100 residents who depend on water supplied by the watershed."

He looks at the calm Pangasugan River and reminisces. "We used to hike those mountains as kids. We'd leave right after breakfast and come back in time for lunch." Condensed water drips from the bottom of the glass as he lifts it from the small bamboo table between us, and takes another sip. "Then in the afternoon, we'd play in the river to cool off."

We hear children playing in the shallow river water just beyond. "Shelly Kate, be careful. You might hurt yourself!" Modina shouts to his five-year old daughter. "My three older sons, James, Robert, and John Michael, are in town with their mother, or else they'd be in there with her, too!"

We both smiled. The Pangasugan River in the heat of summer has provided comfort and play to many Modinas, I thought to myself.

From Contract Worker to Environmentalist

Becoming a defender of the environment was the furthest thing from Modina's mind in the early 1980s. He dropped out of architecture school in his second year, and found himself jobless and broke in the unfamiliar environs of Manila. He moved from one job to another, until the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration told him to pack his bags. A few days later, Nitoy Modma, son of a landless farmer in rural Leyte, was on his way to Yemen.

Modina joined 3 million other Filipino contract workers abroad who are placed in more than 60 countries. For two years, he worked in the lavish kitchen of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Taiz, Yemen. "The kitchen staff prepared food for hundreds of people each day," Modina says. "We were working all the time. So my fellow Filipino workers and I looked forward to our days off." It was on one of those days that Modina met his wife-to-be from Britain, Janet Mackenzie. She taught science at the Mohammed Ali Othman International School. There were very few foreign workers in Taiz at the time, so all nationalities would play sports and go to parties together. That's how Nitoy and Janet spent their few days of respite during those years. They got married soon thereafter.

When traveling in Britain to meet his in-laws, Modina was amazed at how a developed country could be so clean and environmentally aware. Modina soon became interested in environmental degradation throughout the world. When they came back to Baybay, he enrolled at a number of ecology seminars at the local college and eventually got a job as an illustrator at the Department of Plant Protection.

But it was the typhoon of 1991 that sealed his fate as an environmental activist. After a few days of torrential downpour, the raging waters of the Pangasugan River rose above its banks and flooded the Modina home. What concerned Modina the most were the tree limbs and trunks careening down the mountains. "The water seeped through the doors," Modina recounts, "but the tree parts ripped through walls and fences. I knew that illegal logging was responsible for this." This was his wake-up call to do something to protect the fragile mountain ecosystem. His career as the defender of Baybay's environment had begun.

Once he was voted in as captain of Pangasugan village in 1994, Modina began to strictly enforce all environmental laws and stopped illegal logging in the mountains. He organized other village captains in Baybay and blocked the application of the Philippine National Oil Company for mineral exploration in the forested mountains. His advocacy on behalf of the environment continued when he was elected to the town council in 1998, and he assumed leadership of the Committee on Environment and Human Rights.

Modina assesses the impact of his advocacy on behalf of the environment, "When I first started, the environment didn't matter. As long as you had dynamite (for fishing), it's okay, you will not be punished. You could throw garbage anywhere, you could poison the river. But now you cant do that anymore."

Showdown with NAPOCOR

Modina's fellow council members don't always share his views, especially when it comes to the NAPOCOR projects. With a 9-1 vote on February 12,2002, the town council passed a resolution that endorsed the Leyte-Bohol Interconnection Project, the smaller of the two projects in dispute. Modina was the lone voice of opposition. "We underestimated the pressure coming from above--especially from the governor and Malacanang (the presidential office in Manila)," admits Modina. "None of my peers dared to contradict the wishes of their political patrons."

That's when Modina, Enales, and others in the Strategic Alliance of Volunteers for the Environment in Leyte (SAVE-Leyte) kicked it up a notch. Enales recounts, 'According to the local government code, any significant municipal project has to go through a public discussion process; everything has to be transparent." Enales gets worked up. "Well, they got 15 out of 25 councils of the affected villages to support the project but couldn't produce the minutes to go with it. And in our discussions with residents in those communities, no one knew about any meetings!" Modina adds that the resolutions that the 15 village councils passed seem suspect. "They all had the same format, and you couldn't tell one signature from the next." Within a few weeks, nuns, priests, students, faculty, vendors, and community residents were mobilized to collect signatures and attended public meetings with NAPOCOR representatives.

By May 2002--a period of less than three months since the council endorsement--the SAVE-Leyte coalition had collected more than 15,000 signatures in a town of 90,000 residents spread across 23 urban and 69 rural villages. They demanded that the councils of the affected villages, the town council, and the regents of the local university rescind their initial support of the NAPOCOR projects. In a few months, they had reversed the tide of support for the project, and exposed the secret dealings of NAPOCOR with local and provincial officials. By September 2002, most of the village councils had retracted their support of the project; members of the town council and the university regents have made public declarations of "respecting the will of the people." In an article, which appeared on March 4, 2002, in the Eastern Visayan Mail newspaper, Vice Mayor Florante Cayunda hinted that if the resolutions passed by the barangays (villages) do not reflect the stand of the people, the SB (town council) might withdraw its endorsement.

The SAVE-Leyte coalition has given a loud voice to the people of Baybay. Modina summarizes the fight with NAPOCOR this way, "We cannot give up our forests and water to be destroyed by the government and private capital. It is immoral."

New Meanings

It's starting to cool down a bit, and trees have begun to form shadows. Shelly Kate has traded her Winnie the Pooh swimsuit for a Disneyland t-shirt and matching shorts. Sensing that she'll start fiddling with my tape recorder, Modina motions for her to come to him. "Did you have a nice time at the river?" he asks as he plants a kiss on her forehead.

The river, along with the mountains, are central to this monumental fight only because they truly mean something to people's lives. They are what Modina shares with his kids now; they are what connects their generation. And as long as they continue to do so, the efforts of Modina and the townspeople of Baybay have a chance of beating back the forces of globalization.

I came to Baybay to be inspired by the heroic effort of regular people, bucking the odds, and winning.

But I learned more than that.

Issues and fights are easy to come by; the're everywhere around us. When you know whom you fight for and what the fight means in their lives, that's when it finally makes sense. Coming home allows that understanding to happen.

Francis Calpotura spent the first six months of 2002 visiting social change organizations in the Philippines to investigate the impact of globalization on progressive movement infrastructure.

Francis Calpotura, "Lessons in Humidity." Francis is a frequent ColorLines contributor. He spent the first six months of 2002 visiting social change organizations in the Philippines to investigate the impact of globalization on progressive movement infrastructure.
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Author:Calpotura, Francis
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Date:Dec 22, 2002
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