They die like sheep

It is the world’s sore crime its babes grow dull,
Its poor are ox-like, limp and leaden-eyed,
Not that they sow, but they seldom reap.
Not that they die, but that they die like sheep.

The Leaden-Eyed. Vachel Lindsay.

In the Visayas recently, I visited and discussed with town officials and barrio people as part of a best practice documentation for a client. I’ve been in the area several times before and it struck me that change in the political and economic landscape there has been damningly slow (and I thought globalization has far-reaching influence). In Local Government Units, the Internal Revenue Allotment is still the major (for many, sole) source for financing local development. This explains why, year after year, many planned development don’t see the light of day. I think I’ve had enough of “kulang kasi sa budget (budget is inadequate)” and “walang budget (no budget)” from elected local leaders (when asked to shed light on development in their areas) that to hear one more of either will see me finally implode (but then who gains from my implosion right?). But isn’t it basic knowledge that the individual can do many and perhaps great things through the organization than on his own? Many local leaders fail to understand the implication of this, viewing themselves as if Atlas weighed down by the organization they’re heads of.

To solve the perennial lack of budget, richer village leaders (or barangay captains) dip into their own pockets to finance public activities and families’ “emergency” needs. As long as there are “emergency” needs, the strategy will be effective (as when a poverty-stricken child will die if he or she isn’t immediately supported for medical care); but when the goal is development, the strategy only sustains over-dependency and absurd hero worship of the individual giver, stunts the ability of the recipient citizen to think and act for him/herself, erodes the recipient-citizen’s just pride and self-respect, and reinforces feudalism, setting back the Filipino masses to when Rizal wrote his masterpieces.

In El Filibusterismo and Noli Me Tangere, Rizal has brilliantly woven the plots and characters around perversions resulting from the few’s land-based ownership and privileges to demonstrate the so-called cancer that’s devouring Filipinos at the time. Yet centuries after Rizal (and despite including in the curriculum study of his writings), not much has changed in the fundamental configuration and distribution of power in Philippine society, specifically, ownership of land (a prime capital) by the masses, the economic returns of which should place “power in the hands of the masses.” This is perhaps still the biggest lingering issue confronting the country. Corruption, I believe, is merely one of the myriad of symptoms of the real disease which concerns land tenure and property rights. To be sure, it was Karl Marx who said “the windmill gives you a society with the feudal lord, the steam mill the society with the industrial capitalist.”

In one barrio, in my visit, I learned that of the total households, ten owned the land on which their houses were built and the rest were renting, 20 to 100 pesos monthly, from a landowner in town. The contract restricts the tenant from erecting permanent structures (toilet and sewerage included, deems the landowner) and making permanent changes to the land. Past observations of the countryside fell into place: The provisions, on the onset onerous to the tenant, kept families from improving on their nipa huts (in 20 years, families may have saved up for a bungalow but they can’t realize it on that land because of the contract), connecting to water supply lines, installing household sanitation system, and even producing on their yards. But if they pack up, where would they go? To cities, to found ghettos? And then what? Multiply the situation of this barrio by, say, half of the country’s 42,000 barangays and you have a rough estimate of the state of Philippine society today. Regardless, one thing is clear

They seldom reap.

I often wonder how the masses – the landless poor – have endured their situation and, enviably, be quite calm about it. My observation is that they are stuck up on Stockholm Syndrome. Like the kidnapped who ends up loving the kidnapper, the tenant ends up loving the landowner because he concludes it’s the landowner, after all, whose land has kept the him and his forefathers from starvation (never mind the quality of that life). This is for the individual tenant, because if they were to organize themselves, the emotion emerging from the group may be not at all sympathetic toward the landowner. The group can very well turn into the roused animal that bit off its owner’s hand. Undoubtedly, the landowner doesn’t discount this possibility and so to prevent it he divides and conquers, favouring one and abusing another such that the favoured ones cannot be in league with the abused. Herein may be found why Filipinos seem to have difficulty being united on important issues. We’re being divided and conquered, see, by an “invisible hand.” This invisible hand has kept them blinded from seeing that they do have a choice. And so

They die like sheep.

Back in Metro Manila, I noticed placards of protesting landless farmers still on display alongside a Quezon City loop and I thought, so where are the middle class in this? Is the struggle only between the upper and lower tiers? The middle class, reportedly, is divided on the issue and trapped in a similar Stockholm Syndrome dilemma, but that’s for another article.

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