One Tribe

Sta. Ana coordinates Action for Economic Reforms. This essay was published in the October 5, 2009 edition of the BusinessWorld, pages S1/4 to S1/5.

The catastrophe that was Ondoy brought out the best in the Pinoy.  Everyone has a story to tell about bayanihan and solidarity, kindness and fellow feeling, selflessness and courage.

From the media, we learn about the heroism of Muelmar Magallanes, the18-year old construction worker, who rescued more than 30 people.  His last act, costing his life, was to save a mother and baby being swept away by the raging current.

We find out the gallantry of Judge Ralph Lee of the Quezon City Regional Trial Court who rescued more than a hundred people, mainly women and children, using his private motorboat.  He likewise nearly perished when his Jet Ski overturned.

We hear of the self-sacrifice of JP Mateo. Using a kayak, the young father gave priority to rescuing his neighbors, instead of salvaging his family’s belongings. This was amazing since it was the first time he navigated a kayak.  Like Judge Lee, JP nearly lost his life when the kayak capsized.

JP is no stranger to us. His parents are our contemporaries. And surely the parents have a great influence on the son.  His mom Angel, an activist since her college days, has simple joys, while serving the poor and fighting just causes.

Undoubtedly, many other deeds have not been publicized.  Among us are countless nameless heroes.

We come across stories of displaced people becoming relief volunteers. We witness the poor themselves giving donations and the rich immersing themselves in the squalid, impoverished life of the urban poor. Here’s a stirring narration from Eckie Gonzales, a schoolmate and now the CEO of Universal Storefront Services Corporation:

“Yesterday [1 October 2009], ten adults and kids showed up at our makeshift center.  They came from a community of 85 families somewhere in shoulder-deep Pinagbuhatan.  They had walked for three hours, hoping to find a relief truck.  Color had been washed from their ragged clothes, and their scraggly countenance bore the full effects of deprivation.  We were overjoyed to give them more than an ample supply of food, water, clothing and medicine.”

The example of Caloy Paredes, another young man born to activist parents, may not be as newsworthy as the actions of Muelmar, Judge Lee and JP. Everyday, Caloy has been out in the field to take part in the rescue and relief work.  He has had sleepless nights, cooking, packing and delivering goods to the flood victims in Pasig, Cainta, and Marikina.

A co-owner of a Persian food restaurant called Alfakhr, Caloy used it as a cooking center for relief operations. His personal savings have been wiped out, having been spent to buy the relief goods.  And he now depends on pledges to sustain his volunteerism.

Many friends also narrate how proud they are of their children, who, without being nudged have become relief volunteers. Grade-school kids like my nieces—Ariana, Cara, Danielle and their friend Annika—found time to relate with children evacuees.  With affection, they visited a refugee center at Rosario, Pasig and gave out goods.  Not noodles but cupcakes!

All these stories tell us one thing.  Ondoy has galvanized the people, both the rich and the poor. Here’s collective action at its best.

Will we as one people sustain this spirit?  We have no choice, with Ondoy providing us a most stark lesson. The Philippines has always suffered from natural calamities—typhoons, floods, earthquakes, aggravated by man-made disasters in the form of bad rules and policies. The interaction of climate change, environmental degradation, and overpopulation endangers all Filipinos. Climate change does not discriminate between the residents of plush, exclusive subdivisions and those in shantytowns.

Hence, this set of problems can be overcome only when Filipinos act collectively. In tackling climate change, we are able to reconcile self-interest and public interest.

Very relevant is a passage (pp.519-20) from Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005).  Pardon the long quote, which explains why the Dutch value solidarity and collective action:

“One fifth of the total area of the Netherlands is below sea level, as much as 22 feet below, because it used to be shallow bays, and we reclaimed it from the sea by surrounding the bays with dikes and then gradually pumping out the water. We have a saying. ‘God created the Earth, but we Dutch created the Netherlands.’ These reclaimed lands are called ‘polders.’ We began draining them nearly a thousand years ago. Today, we still have to keep pumping out the water that gradually seeps in. That’s what our windmills used to be for, to drive the pumps to pump out the polders. Now we use steam, diesel, and electric pumps instead. In each polder there are lines of pumps, starting with those farthest from the sea, pumping the water in sequence until the last pump finally pumps it out into a river or the ocean.  In the Netherlands, we have another expression, ‘You have to be able to get along with your enemy because he may be the person operating the neighboring pump in your polder.’ And we’re all down in the polders together. It’s not the case that rich people live safely up on tops of the dikes, while poor people live down in the polder bottoms below sea level. If the dikes and pumps fail, we’ll all drown together. When a big storm and high tides swept inland over Zeeland Province on February 1, 1953, nearly 2,000 Dutch people, both rich and poor, drowned. We swore that we would never let that happen again….”

Let us hope that we Filipinos have learned our lesson.  High time we, too, swore that the Ondoy disaster would never happen again.  As a first step, we have to think and act beyond the family, beyond friends and classmates, beyond the fraternity, beyond the tribe.  We Filipinos must build our nation, our institutions.

Confined at home at the height of Ondoy, I took full advantage of my laptop, drafting documents, sending email, surfing the Web to monitor the storm and to relate with Facebook friends, while listening to iTunes music. What has turned out to be a top-rated song in my library is the Black Eyed Peas’ One Tribe.

The word “tribe” gets a new twist from Black Eyed Peas:

One tribe ya’ll
One tribe ya’ll
One tribe ya’ll
We are one people

But wait, in the age of climate change in a global village, one tribe is not just about one people in one country.

One Tribe, one time, one planet, one race
It’s all one blood, don’t care about your face
The color of your eye or the tone of your skin
Don’t care where ya are
Don’t care where ya been
Cause where we gonna go
Is where we wanna be

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