Nanay

Two days after Christmas, I received a message on Viber from my sister Bem that Nanay, my mother’s eldest sister, was rushed to the ICU; a few seconds later, my sister declared she has died.

I don’t recall the reason we called her Nanay, perhaps because we wanted to avoid confusing her with our mother whom we call mama. She married last among the four sisters because she was sent early in her life to Mindanao to be employed as a factory worker for Dole Philippines and had to support her younger siblings to school back in Iloilo. My mother also attempted to work for Dole, with Nanay’s invitation,  but lasted only a day. My mother cried, from her recollection, when she saw her older sister waving at her from the production floor removing crowns of pineapples, peeling their heads, and removing their eyes. That day she wore for the first and the last time that pair of soccer shoes Nanay gave my mother as gift to celebrate her first day working at the pineapple canning factory.

My mother married first, at 23, that’s why among us cousins, we’re considered the kuyas and the ates, although they never attach those before our names as the tradition in our family. The other two sisters also started their families very early. This fact made my Nanay bitter, that she worked hard to support her sisters and they ended up marrying or getting pregnant at such an early age. She got married when she was in her 30s, and the only one among the four sisters who had a wedding that looked like a “real” wedding, as far as I can remember — white wedding gown, flower girls, a wedding cake, and trinkets for souvenirs.

She was a very gentle soul. I don’t remember she ever scolded us when we were young. Before she had her own children, we received all the love she could give meant for her children. Maybe that explains why we called her Nanay. When I was in the university, whenever I went home for the holidays, she’d give me a small amount to help me with my studies. And I don’t know why, but my memory of this is always my saying good bye to her while she’s doing the laundry of her family by hand after arriving from her night shift peeling pineapple at the cannery.

Aging ravages us and renders us little by little unrecognizable. This was what happened to her as it would to all of us. Three months ago, she was diagnosed with cancer. Her decline was too fast, I did not have time to see her before she went. We spoke on the phone, but it was a voice that sounded tired and fed up with life. My mother was with her the whole time, sitting by the sickbed of her elder sister whom looked forward to spending their old age together.

Two days after Christmas, Nanay left. She was survived by her four children and her husband.

The two I look forward to seeing when I reach home:

http://www.dpreview.com

Mt Matutum being crowned by fluttering, morning clouds.

And pineapples being harvested. I am yet to taste something more divine than a freshly picked, succulent Dole pineapple. The taste and the tangy smell remind me of my childhood.

Our family’s wooden water cart

My sister, brother, and I were inside a cab on our way to the Rabbit bus terminal on Taft Avenue to send off our sister when the subject about having a complete childhood got mentioned.

Conversations about our childhood do not fail to make us laugh because we get to be reminded of something forever lost but not totally forgotten. These memories remind us that no matter how fast we grow old each day (my sister just turned 26 but this, according to her does not bother her because she feels likes she’s only 22) and our responsibilities getting more insurmountable by the day, there is certainly no reason for us to feel short-changed because we had years of childhood behind us that were well-spent.

When we were younger we quarreled, physically abused each other, almost got each other killed in fits of uncontrolled childish anger. We of course but know deep inside that we share nothing but mutual filial love. We fought each other to a proportion that can only be described as epic just because of a piece of pandesal our mother usually brought from work. We created alliances — me and my older sister against the rest, my brothers against our older sister, my other brother against both my sister and my brother after me — that can have as many permutations as mathematically possible.

We laughed at the mischief we did together: playing hide-and-seek around the house, turning the house upside down to spite our poor house help whom we suspected to be flirting with our houseboy, stealing pineapples from the nearby Dole plantation, sucking santan flowers thinking that the sweet discharge is a kind of milk, going up the rooftop to see the rest of our village, playing with the refrigerator by keeping it open to know if it works like an air-conditioner, and fighting for control of the TV remote control.

While inside the taxi, the cramped car reminded us of our water cart. In our village, before each household got its own running water, we had to push a wooden cart that contained a big rubber vat we call ‘tadyaw’ that contained water we fetch from the public water source to our house. We took turns pushing and pulling this mammoth cart that carried our humongous rubber tub.

This wooden cart eventually got destroyed because of us. One day, the five of us decided to do something we’ve been wanting to do but never got the courage to do because of our parents’ stern discouragement: “This cart is the only way we can get water. Do not play with it”. With their absence, our audacity, call it recalcitrance, got fired up. So we brought our helpless wooden cart to the highest point of our yard and with the help of gravity, rode on it down like it was our version of a roller coaster. The rougher was the way down, the stronger was our shouts and the more we became addicted to the bump and twists.

Of course it broke down. As punishment, we were made to kneel on rock salt our mother had spread on the cold concrete floor. We did not question her mode of punishment; we thought it was reasonable a punishment for a sin as grand as destroying our only water cart.

But not having water for more than a week proved to be more challenging.

Concerns and the passion for the environment

Two years ago, I left for Germany because of my passion in saving the environment. At that time, I believed so much in the ability of the youth to create ripples of change that could help in finding solutions to pressing problems facing the world-melting of the polar ice caps, extinctions of wild life, deforestation-and in my case, mitigating soil erosion in my hometown, Polomolok, South Cotabato, home of Dole, Philippines Inc., the world’s biggest producer of fresh fruits and vegetables.

soil-erosion-campaign

I joined the competition that time sponsored by Bayer and the United Nations Environment Programme because I wanted to go to Europe, never did it occur to me that I’d be enmeshed with my project and be more involved with the environmental issues Polomolok is confronting due to the presence of the big multinational company.

I cannot deny the benefits the people are getting from Dole. Cannery, a barangay that got its name from the fact the it is the cannery for pineapples harvested from the vast plantation surrounding it, is now lobbying to become a municipality because of the revenue it has amassed making it a good candidate as a second class municipality. Almost all the people living in the place are employees of Dole. In fact, my parents who are both teachers, decided to settle and raise their children in Cannery because of the opportunities awaiting them during that time. Some of my high school classmates are now employees of the company. Despite these good that Dole has brought to the place since it first started its operations in the 60s, the environmental degradation it is causing Polomolok as well as the municipalities of Tupi and Tamapakan is increasing at an alarming rate which may cancel all the gains of  Polomolok for having the company conduct it operations in the area.

The pineapple plantation being predominantly monocrop is placing too much pressure on the soil; soil erosion being one of the problems, aside of course from the resulting high acidity of the soil which will leave the soil virtually unusable in the event Dole Philippines decide to bring its operation elsewhere. The problem of soil erosion is observable in the area beside Dole Cannery Central Elementary School and Polomolok National High School; both are my alma mater. The width of the creek is growing at such a rapid rate that both schools have to build retaining walls along areas that used to be green grounds. Moreover, some houses were abandoned because of the dangers of flash floods. Whenever it rains heavily, the runoff carries with it portion of the topsoil and exposes the more vulnerable and less fertile subsoil. This process that is occurring for years is now slowly felt by the residents and the company. However, nothing substantial has really been done.

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With the global financial crises and the slowdown in the demand for fresh products, the place will be hard hit if Dole halts its operation. I heard from a relative that two months ago the working days were temporarily cut by the company. This resulted to salary cuts, an event they fear was just a dress rehearsal for a more gloomy days ahead, or worse, Dole abandoning its operation.

The soil being unsuitable for rice plantation because of very high chemical level and thin top soil will be of no use to people. Here the people are confronted with the delicate balance between the environment and the people being tipped. Polomolok will be a sad case of an environmental disaster if these concerns are not carefully studied and given appropriate solution.

This Earth Day, I am reminded of that project I conducted almost two years ago. It was already a start but I stopped midway because I also had to face other life’s concerns. I seldom visited my hometown and I have no idea what have become of the trees we planted along the creeks or the students who listened to my lectures regarding soil erosion. Mine was a case of an aborted ripple that was supposed to cause tidal waves but disappeared in the middle of my oceans of concerns.

Still my passion for the environment has not waned; probably I am just awaiting for that day when I finally get tired pursuing all my banal pursuits.

Where have all the rice gone?

I grew up in the vast plain of South Cotabato in the Philippines. The only obstruction there is to one’s view of the horizon is Mt. Matutum, an active volcano that nourished the soil of the province, making it the second biggest pineapple plantation in the world trailing behind that one in Hawai’i. However, despite the big revenues the local government gets from the planting of pineapples as well as the canning of these succulent fruit , not to mention the vast number of labor force Dole Philippines employs to keep its operation going, the people of South Cotabato have not abandoned the still important–and now gaining more media attention in the Philippines and in the rest of the world that considers it as their staple food–rice.

The pineapple plantation of Dole Philippines on the foor of Mount Matutum (Polomolok, South Cotabato, Philippines)

My father, who grew up in Iloilo, a province in one of the islands in central Philippines, used to tell his stories about their life as a family of farmers and how he, as a young boy, had to wake up at four in the morning to bring the carabao (water buffalo) to the nearby stream and ready the beast for an early morning plowing of their one and a half hectare land. Every time we eat our meal and he sees that we wasted too much rice, he will proceed in telling us the difficulty of growing rice and the things a farmer has to go through just so we can have our bowl of rice.

Before I left for college more than five years ago, a kilo of rice cost around 20 pesos (0.50 USD in current exchange rate); however, just before I left for Vietnam two weeks ago, I was shocked when a rice variety my mother used to buy now costs 40 pesos or roughly double the 2003 price. It even shocked me more when I saw a long queue of housewives and children alike obstructing the flow of traffic just to buy subsidized rice costing around 26 pesos. Where have all the rice gone?

It is rather ironic because the International Rice Research Institute, the world’s largest research group that develops new rice variety that will have to feed the burgeoning need of humanity’s need for rice is found in the Philippines. What is even more ironic is that the Philippines is the world’s biggest rice importer. Amid this crisis, one can only ask what happened to the results of the studies conducted to improve rice production?

Granting that this is a world-wide problem as the rest of the world say Myanmar, Singapore, Japan, Vietnam are also experiencing the same fate why are these countries able to come up with mechanisms that will better enable them to face the crisis more prepared and therefore less severely hit?

I am a believer that the world has sufficient supply of food to feed its six billion plus inhabitants. With all the current technologies that make this possible, this feat is not impossible. When we look deeper into the movement of rice from preparing the field, applying fertilizer, planting, harvesting, distribution, down to the retailers and then to the homes, one will conclude that there must something wrong in one or more of the processes involved. I do not want to simplify things here. The problem is just so complex to place the blame on any of the entities. But when we try to isolate them, we shall see that the part that concerns distribution brings about most of the problem. Here politics is more than just about building farm-to-market road or giving subsidy to the farmers; here it is the game itself, especially in countries such as the Philippines that remain to wallow in cloaked feudalism/landlordism where serfs are not anymore serving the nobility but are enslaved by the more pwerful, more vicious landlord–the state.

In South Cotabato, as in the rest of the country, the promises of the Compehensive Agrarian Reform Program remain suspended in air sucking out the breath out of each farmer’s lungs. I have known of a farmer in Landan, Maligo, Lam-caliaf who continue to toil their lands without any hope of eventually owning the land of their birth.

The problem of rice shortages in the Philippines is just a by-product of a century long unwinnable struggle of farmers such as my father’s family to own the land they plow and for the government to help them secure these lands.

More than the money generated by the local government from taxes and revenues derived from pineapples, the more pressing concern is the what, the where, and the how of rice production. If it continues to ignore this problem of the people queueing for a kilo or rice these same group of people might think of another option to get food, an option that no one of us will like.