Friday, September 23, 2011

What were they, we, thinking?

*my column in the Sept. 25 issue of Cordillera Today

What were they thinking, those young boys, when they ganged up on their helpless classmate? After the first punch on the face, the first stab of that pen on his body, what motivated them to go on?

I have had my share of pre-preadolescent fisticuffs – an older schoolmate once engaged me in a mano-a-mano over a girl he had a crush on who happened to be our neighbour, and our walks together on our way home from school made him jealous. I was about to “win” that fist fight after landing a couple of punches squarely on his face, but then I hesitated when I saw he was hurt, and let down my guard – a mistake he took advantage of. The next thing I knew he has pinned me down on the ground and was peppering me with his fists on the face. But he too somehow stopped when perhaps he realized that judging from the number of punches he landed against those that I did, he has already won.

That was how far physical confrontations used to go in my time. And that’s why I was shocked to find graffiti in the back pages of my son’s notebook a couple of years ago depicting gang logos and their twisted slogans. I felt chills running up and down my spine as the word “kill” seem to jump out of every page. I wanted to dismiss it then as just something harmless, even when I got to listen to the lyrics of some of the music he listened to, gangsta rap, as it’s called. But when we learned that gangsters were actively recruiting members as young as 10 years old in their school, it reinforced our resolve to home school our children in the meantime.

I have heard so many different theories about the tragic event – that is was a simple bullying incident that went way too far; that it was an accident and that the students were simply engaging in horseplay; that it was actually a gang initiation rite where neophytes are required to stab someone with a pen. And this isn’t the only shocking news to hit Baguio involving children in criminal activities – aside from murder, we’ve heard of and seen cases of vandalism, theft and even rape.

Some are now clamouring for the amendment of the Republic Act 9344, or the law establishing a Juvenile Justice and Welfare System, which essentially lets those 15 years old and below get away with crime. Some want the age threshold lowered, some want it repealed totally. At the current rate congress gets things done, if they get anything done at all, how many more murders, vandalism, thefts and rapes will be committed before anything is done?

According to Psychology Today (, “A time of both disorientation and discovery, adolescence describes the teenage years between 13 and 19. With increasing rates of early-onset puberty, the preteen or "tween" years (ages 9-12) may also qualify.” It adds, “No longer children but not yet adults, adolescents struggle with issues of independence and self-identity.”

At those ages, pre-teens and adolescents go through radical changes physically and psychologically. Young girls experience the onset of menstruation, boys see their bodies grow right before their eyes, they begin to be aware of their sexuality - there’s so much energy going on inside them and that energy needs to be channelled somewhere and expressed somehow.

If mainstream society does not, if we do not provide for venues where our young can express themselves, provide for something they can identify themselves with, others will fill in that gap – that cannot be expressed more by the circumstances that surrounded the unfortunate incident at the Baguio Central School. The teacher stepped out of the classroom for a while, and in her short absence, a pupil died in the hands of his peers.

In our homes, if we don’t step in, the world wide web -, it’s that parallel universe where they can easily access pornography, depictions extreme acts of violence, etc., will. In the late 80’s and the early 90’s, we were scandalized by Carmi Martin and Alma Moreno dancing scantily clad on TV – that’s nothing compared to what they can easily access these days with a click of the mouse. Just a little over a decade ago, we cringed at the thought of the crime Leo Echegaray committed against his own daughter, and later by his execution by the state – that’s nothing compared to the videos of people being beheaded by extremists, young girls and women being violated and other despicable and gut-wrenching acts they can watch freely on the internet. Before, parents were shocked by the naughty insinuations of the ditties sang by Tito, Vic and Joey and their like – have you heard No Vaseline by Ice Cube, or Dr. Dre’s B*tches Aint Sh*t, and all those other songs they play for the public on radio?

What were once unspeakable, despicable, are now common occurrences we take for granted.

And every time a basketball court where the youth can play and develop themselves physically and learn the concept of cooperation and teamwork is turned into a venue to accommodate illegal vendors; every time a public park where they can run and play and smell the flowers is left neglected; every single cent we take away from our education budget that results in shortage of classrooms and teachers to finance suspicious public works projects; every time we turn our attention away from our children even for just a moment, we ourselves are making it possible for a 10-year old to die in a classroom in a senseless act of violence.

Think about it.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

This is why

Tonight, at 6:00PM at the Bulwagang Juan Luna of U.P. Baguio there will be no grand sets, no amazing lighting equipment, no state-of-the-art sound system.

I write this at past midnight, the early hours of Saturday, the day of the premiere of our latest production. Minutes ago, I was talking to my mother and her best friend on the other side of the world – they are both theatre artists too. They asked me about this play we’re opening later today, my mother talked about this play she’s currently working on, and her best friend talked about the last play she did. We talked about our struggles to get our stories on stage.

“Why are we doing this?” don’t we always end up asking ourselves this question? My mother’s best friend asked.

I have been giving myself the same answer for the past couple of decades or so, and yet I do find myself still asking the same question after each curtain call. There’s no money in this, but I just can’t help myself – I always find myself getting ready to tell the next story.

There’s something messianic about being a theatre artist, I cannot deny that. When I was much younger I believed that I was here to help provide an alternative to the inanities being fed to us by popular media. In recent years, I thought that there simply are stories out there that need to be told. Some might scoff at the idea that if I am able to make one man out of all the people in the auditorium start seeing things from a different perspective, open up his mind to new possibilities, provoke him to think, to act, make him cry, or laugh out loud, I would have been successful. Well, I don’t - I myself truly believe in that idea.

I won’t be getting much sleep tonight – the day starts at dawn tomorrow. After weeks of late night rehearsals, we start the day by hauling everything we need to tell this story to the performance space. We don’t have much time - we have to have everything set up by noon for we just couldn’t afford paying for just a little extra time to get ready to tell our story. Then my fellow storytellers will start arriving, start putting on their costumes, they will then get a feel of the three-dimensional space for the first time. They have to get their act ready before sunset, our audience will start arriving by then.

A bare stage, only the actors themselves will up that space, and we’ll do our best to light up that space. I hope our sound equipment will be enough to reach every single person in the theatre.

Tonight, I have nothing much to offer but a good story that I tried with all my heart to tell the best possible way I can. And if you happen to be one of those hiding in the darkness of the theatre when we tell our story, I hope you found it worth your while to listen.

And that is why.

Friday, September 9, 2011

From where we stand (Show us the elephant)

*my column in the Sept. 11 issue of Cordillera Today

Someone once asked me, after doing a couple of plays here in Baguio a couple of years since I moved here, why I haven’t done a play that touches on Igorot culture. I told her I cannot possibly tell that story truthfully then just yet. It’s been 15 years since, and I still won’t dare tell that story, not yet. I don’t know enough about it to tell stories about it.

But, I have told the stories of Jose Rizal, Antonio Luna, one Fernando Bautista, Jesus Christ, an orphan named Timoune, a beggar called Serapio, a place once known as Kafagway and its transformation from being a natural paradise to a concrete and GI sheet jungle, among others. I told these stories for I believed I could, and in most cases, I should.

The same way I felt that I should tell the story I knew of about the wall that ruptured unleashing a torrent of garbage that claimed people’s lives and homes.

We are being told different stories about the tragedy, and there may be some truth to all of those stories. Just like those men who ventured to observe an elephant – the men were all blind and as the Indian legend goes, the one who bumped against the animal’s broad body believed that an elephant is like a wall; while the second man who touched its tusk was convinced that en elephant is shaped like a spear; “it’s like a snake,” cried the third who was clutching its trunk; while the fourth who hugged the animal’s leg knew for sure that an elephant is just like a tree; the fifth blind man who happened to touch its ear assumed it be just like a fan and the sixth thought it was like a rope as he tugged on its tail.

None of the blind men lied, you see, but none of them knew the whole truth.

I acknowledge that perhaps I was like one of those men, knowing only a part of a whole. But really, has anyone come forward to tell the whole truth and nothing but the WHOLE truth about the Irisan dumpsite tragedy? Because that’s what we want, what the people of Baguio deserve and nothing less. So go ahead, tell me I’m only describing just part of the elephant.

I was invited to visit the dumpsite recently, for “you don’t know what you’re talking about,” I was told. But is seeing the dumpsite the same as seeing the whole elephant? Or is Irisan just the tail, perhaps the tusk, of a much bigger animal?

But what I talked about, I do know of. If that’s not enough, then please tell us the rest of the story. Correct me if I’m wrong in saying that the tragedy was the result of a rotten political system, a system that allows powers-that-be to get away with murder. I have said that not much was done from the time we were bound by law in 2001 to do away with the Irisan dumpsite by the year 2006 – is that not true? That the Irisan dumpsite was finally closed only in 2009, which forced the city to pay dearly to haul its refuse to faraway Tarlac – is that not true? That seeing the tons and tons of garbage that rampaged from the dumpsite all the way down to Asin Road somehow tells us, since the city has managed to stop hauling its garbage to Tarlac, where our garbage was being dumped – is that not true too?

If so, then tell us what is, but don’t shut us up just because our truth is not the same truth you want us to believe.

What we say about it, what we know about it, is simply what we see from where we stand.  

Friday, September 2, 2011

Mina showed us

No, they can’t pull out the “politicking” card and cry foul when it comes to the Irisan tragedy. That’s how they got elected themselves, by politicizing the issue during the campaign.

But really, what led to the “garbage slide” that claimed lives and property at the height of Typhoon Mina last week?

In January, 2001, the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000 was enacted into law which mandated the “State to adopt a systematic, comprehensive and ecological solid waste management program…” The 44-page document signed by then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo also directed local government units, in our case the City Government of Baguio, to come up with a plan that “shall include an implementation schedule which shows that within five (5) years after the effectivity of this Act; the LGU shall divert at least 25% of all solid waste from waste disposal facilities through re-use, recycling, and composting activities and other resource recovery activities…”

Five years. So between 2001 and 2006, what was done to implement that law?

Since the majority of finger pointers point their fingers at the executive when it comes to this particular issue, the men holding the reins of the local government then were as follows:

The Hon. Bernardo M. Vergara – Baguioi’s mayor from the year the law was enacted to the year that the Irisian open dumpsite should have been converted into a controlled dumpsite for Section 37 of the law, headlined “Prohibition Against the Use of Open Dumps for Solid Waste” states that “No open dumps shall be established and operated, nor any practice or disposal of solid waste by any person, including LGUs, which constitutes the use of open dumps for solid waste, be allowed after the effectivity of this Act: Provided, That within three (3) years after the effectivity of this Act, every LGU shall convert its open dumps into controlled dumps…” the sections ends with, “no controlled dumps shall be allowed five (5) years following effectivity of this Act.”

The Hon. Braulio Yaranon – our mayor until he was suspended in 2006, or the year that the Irisan dumpsite should have been totally closed, and that a Sanitary Landfill should have already been established in its place.

The Hon. Peter Rey Bautista – the chief executive when the whole thing blew up in our faces and right under our noses in 2008, or two years since the deadline set by the law.

That year, Baguio was in the headlines because of the mounting uncollected garbage in its streets – uncollected because we had nowhere to dump our trash because the Irisan dumpsite was finally closed. Why did Bautista close it? Because it would by then already illegal to operate an open dumpsite, which is what the Irisan dumpsite was. At that time, at the height of the crisis, then Mayor Bautista, instead of sweeping things under the rug and making excuses like any old trapo would, bit the bullet and apologized to the people and said that “he alone was responsible for it and was willing to go to jail for the actions he took to solve it” (Vincent Cabreza, Philippine Daily Inquirer 08/07/2008).

With the Irisan dumpsite closed and with no other option but to bring our garbage somewhere else, Bautista had the city’s waste hauled to faraway Tarlac, the nearest garbage facility willing to accept our garbage. It cost a lot of money, obviously, but considering the risks to life and property posed by the continued operation of the Irisan dumpsite then, add to that the health risks brought about by uncollected garbage left rotting in our streets, what other real choice did the city have then?

The dumpsite's operation was limited then to being a staging area before hauling the garbage to Tarlac - effectively turning it into a controlled dumpsite, something that was supposed to have been done three years since the law was enacted, or back in 2004.

The City Government then began focusing its attention on finding a suitable site for a Sanitary Landfill, but that proved to be not a walk in the park despite the availabliity of funds for its acquisition and construction. The law specified that a Sanitary Landfill must satisfy the following criteria:

(a) The site selected must be consistent with the overall land use plan of the LGU;
(b) The site must be accessible from major roadways or thoroughfares;
(c) The site should have an adequate quantity of earth cover material that is easily handled and compacted;
(d) The site must be chosen with regard for the sensitivities of the community's residents;
(e) The site must be located in an area where the landfill's operation will not detrimentally affect environmentally sensitive resources such as aquifer, groundwater reservoir or watershed area;
(f) The site should be large enough to accommodate the community's wastes for a period of five (5) years during which people must internalize the value of environmentally sound and sustainable solid waste disposal;
(g) The site chosen should facilitate developing a landfill that will satisfy budgetary constraints, including site development, operation for many years, closure, post-closure care and possible remediation costs;
(h) Operating plans must include provisions for coordinating with recycling and resource recovery projects; and
(i) Designation of a separate containment area for household hazardous wastes.

The highlighted part above proved to be one of the several major hurdles in the establishment of a Sanitary Landfill. While there were suitable sites that were found to have passed most of the criteria, mostly in neighboring municipalities, residents objected to their town being the recipient of Baguio's garbage.

By the time elections came last year, this was where we stood:

1. Irisan dumpsite closed.
2. We didn't have a proper gabage disposal facility as prescribed by the law.
3. We continued to produce garbage.
4. The nearest facility willing to accept our garbage was in Capas, Tarlac.

To lessen what needed to be hauled to Tarlac, the City Government asked, nay begged, residents to segregate their garbage. When this didn't work, a no-segregation, no-collection policy was enforced. It still didnt' work, to a lot of people, segregating their garbage was such a big hassle, required too much extra effort. So instead of exerting extra efforts to segregate their trash, they started finding ways to dispose of these by dumping these in collection areas when barangay officials aren't looking, burning them (including plastics and other toxic materials) in their backyards, etc. The mountains of uncollected, unsegregated garbage continued to pile up.

In 2009, the year before the elections, politicians capitalized on the garbage issue to perpetuate their respective candidacies. Every one of them had a “permanent solution” to the crisis. In a report by Artemio Dumlao for the The Philippine Star (November 08, 2009), he quoted then Congressman and now Mayor Domogan as saying that “(there) seems no action to implement the permanent solution,” apparently referring to Bautista’s administration.

Photo of Irisan Dumpsite before (at left) and after Bautista closed it and began its rehabilitation in 2010 (at right).

He won the mayoral seat last year, together with The Hon. Bernardo M. Vergara who won as congressman and who promised to spend much of his pork barrel on solving the city’s garbage woes.

Then just three months ago, in May of this year, according to a report, Mayor Domogan announced that the city’s garbage problem has been solved (“Mayor solves Baguio garbage woes” by Dexter See, May 16, 2011 The government has purchased Environmental Recycling System (ERS) machines which should take care of the city’s biodegradable waste, and the rest of our garbage (residual, non-biodegradable waste) will be taken care of by the suppliers of those machines, Protech Machinery Corporation.

Which makes one wonder – if the ERS machines only took care of biodegradable waste, where were they taking the rest of the city’s garbage?

Last August 27, 2011, Typhoon Mina showed us where. See, Typhoon Mina did not just trigger a tragic catastrophe that claimed lives and property, it uncovered a rotten political system, a system that kills.

During last year’s elections, flyers were anonymously printed and distributed ridiculing then Mayor Bautista which had an illustration of a mountain of rotting garbage with the caption, “Basura, basura, matutumba!” How ironic.

But at the end of the day, forget about politics, the ball is in our, the citizens’, hands. The city government has provided for the handling of our bio-degradable waste. That’s good. Now as for the rest of our garbage - reduce, reuse, recycle. A lot of the trash that made it to Irisan dumpsite, and unfortunately down towards Asin Road, can instead be recycled, if only we would exert a little extra effort – and SEGREGATE!

We can point fingers all we want, rant on Facebook all we want, but really, what have we done to help solve the problem?