Opinion: Minding the Poor
After writing here last week how government, in utter disregard of solid management, might distribute disaster relief food packed in single-use “sando” plastic bags, we realize now that government isn’t even good at doing that. Apparently, relief in earthquake-stricken Negros Oriental is not reaching victims at all. The few that do, come in “sando” plastic bags, as I predicted, branded with names of political geckos. Oh, never mind.
I was invited to the premiere of the documentary movie, PUREZA, a film by J. Abello and produced by social entrepreneurs of the Negros sugar industry, namely, Joey Gaston, Agnes Villar, and Gina Martin, the current chief of the Sugar Regulatory Administration. I congratulate and thank all of them, and everyone else involved in this three-year project.
Strictly speaking, we cannot comment intelligently on any prevailing social phenomenon unless we have the means to situate all causal elements in their respective time and space. Unless we have access to faithful history. Only when we are enlightened by mitigating circumstances can we view a phenomenon in proper perspective, and opine intelligently about it. Of course, nothing can stop us from opining unintelligently, confident that it is alright to correct ourselves down the road as we acquire more facts. And so, I’m sure many who watched PUREZA experienced moments of enlightenment big and small. “Really?” “Oh, I see.” “I never knew that.” “Who would’ve thought?” “No wonder poverty persists. Government subjected the sugar industry to agrarian reform when sugarcane is a plantation crop, needing expensive equipment and inputs that can only be justified by a farm that is larger than what the agrarian reform permits.” No wonder this, no wonder that. Thanks to PUREZA, now I wonder no more.
The poorness of the poor in Negros Occidental is not unusual in the country. Some are even worse, especially since sugar is the only agricultural industry whose farmers are required by Presidential Decree to allocate part of their proceeds to socio-economic aid. Rice doesn’t do that. Neither does corn, nor coconut. But PUREZA’s unique contribution to our understanding of the Negros sugar industry’s poor lies beyond that. It lies, in fact, in the frank admission that government, in its attempt to sincerely help the poor, or in its pretense to show that it is helping the poor, or in its desire to win the votes of the poor every six or three years, made the poor even poorer. For instance, that government failed to offer technical and financial aid after the agrarian reform program distributed farms, proves government’s short-sightedness. That the short-sightedness has gone on forever makes it seem intentional. The Dept. of Agrarian Reform must itself be reformed.
PUREZA delivered history. That’s what Director J. Abello promised at the start of the film showing, and that’s what I went away with. But it is the kind of history that is not so distant in time and relevance. As I saw friends and leaders of the industry appear and speak in this documentary film, I realized this particular history is alive and continues to be lived and told. But the end took the cake. Words against black background popped up gently. In gist they said, the sugar industry cannot be determined by one farmer. Not even by a few, but by the majority. And then the film closed. I was at the edge of my seat waiting for more words, desperate for assuring words, words saying to the effect that I am not part of that majority. Alas, I and so many others who came to watch PUREZA comprise that majority. What we do now after watching the docu-film will continue the story of the Negros sugar industry. I didn’t want that on my conscience, but it is. Now I will have to live with it, very carefully.
I left the movie house with substantial history, enough at least to keep me intelligently opining about poverty in my immediate nook, and how that might relate to our advocacy of solid waste management. As recently as last week, and on many occasions in the past, I have expounded on the role of the poor in the success of our cause to rid society of unsegregated garbage. The poor, by their sheer number, generate the most trash. Thus, teaching them solid waste management will have an immediate impact on the movement to clean our surroundings and help the environment heal faster. The poor rely on groundwater source, bringing up water from wells and hand pumps to drink, to cook, to bathe, to wash clothes. Effluent that oozes out of unsegregated garbage deposited in open garbage dumps seep into the ground and contaminate groundwater source. By teaching solid waste management, we teach the poor how not to get sick. Government then will have surplus money to spend on education, on creating jobs, on roads that can withstand earthquakes, on things that move a nation forward. And the poor, because they live in illegal structures built near waterways, fan floods and taunt disaster. Teaching the poor solid waste management will prevent the clogging of these waterways that lead to floods. And if only government can prevent the poor from settling near these waterways, then we will not have to count dead bodies after every flood.
PUREZA taught us how we got here. As we move on in our own little worlds, we apply the film’s lesson that we must be more vigilant about what government does to the poor in the name of help. If not a finger, we must at least have the gumption to lift our voice.*