Commentary: The long road to social reform
“[A] man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.” With these words US President Barack Obama in his inaugural address invoked – oh so gently – the long and bitter struggle for racial justice in his country: 625,000 dead in the Civil War, the lynchings, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, violence at Selma, the murder of Martin Luther King, and all the rest.
The wider meaning could be that social change does not come easily or cheaply when it runs up against powerful vested interests – a lesson that has been impressed upon us here in the Philippines time and again.
Take, for example, the recent failure of Congress to enact a reform or an extension of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law (CARL). Farmers’ organizations, committed lawyers, Church people and bishops had lobbied, marched, camped and fasted in the effort to move the nation’s lawmakers to do its duty as mandated by the Constitution, but all in vain. The landlords and their allies in Congress, including the family of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, were too powerful; thus what came out was a mere token six-month “extension” of the law, with its teeth – compulsory acquisition – removed. Here we have a classic example of elite democracy, in which political power is held by an economic elite and used to defend the interests of that elite – at the continuing expense of the non-elite.
The excuse of the congresspersons, that they need more time to consider the issues, inspires ridicule. As though the facts were not clear, for example, in the massive study of Arsenio Balisacan, which was discussed by Solita Collas-Monsod in her column more than a year ago. (“A look at CARP’s impact on poverty and growth,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, 12/1/07) While pointing out there and in other studies the many weakness and failures of CARP, Balisacan does show unequivocally that land ownership promotes both economic growth and poverty reduction.
Equally distressing for those concerned about social reform and social justice is the decision of the Court of Appeals in Cagayan de Oro City, declaring unconstitutional a Davao City ordinance prohibiting aerial spraying of fungicides on banana plantations in the city. For years, workers living on the plantations with their families, aided by non-government organizations, had lobbied against the spraying, which they say causes skin and eye irritations, tightness in the chest, and various other ailments. The lobbyists gathered impressive testimony both from the affected residents of the plantations and from medical and other experts, and eventually convinced the city council to pass an ordinance forbidding the spraying, with a three-month deadline for the companies to switch to other forms of spraying.
The powerful Philippine Banana Growers and Exporters Association (PBGEA) took the issue to the courts, claiming that the fungicides are not hazardous to health (contrary, it seems, to a warning on their labels), and moreover that three months was not sufficient time for a conversion to other forms of spraying. The Regional Trial Court examined the facts quite thoroughly and affirmed the validity of the ban. Thereafter the PBGEA went to the Court of Appeals in Cagayan de Oro City, claiming among other things that the three-month deadline was impossible to meet and that the Davao City ordinance was therefore unconstitutional.
The Court of Appeals took more than a year to act on the appeal. At the same time, the NGOs kept up a steady drumfire of support for the ban and of pressure on the Court to decide the case and give the workers some relief from the poisons descending regularly on their homes, their workstations, their children on the way to school. They marched, held prayer rallies, obtained support from other NGOs, and from the Social Action Center of the Archdiocese of Davao. They came in a caravan to Cagayan de Oro City and camped out by the Court of Appeals even over Christmas. There was full support from Archbishop Antonio Ledesma of Cagayan de Oro, Bishop Honesto Pacana of Malaybalay in Bukidnon province where aerial spraying is forbidden, from Xavier University in Cagayan de Oro and Rep. Risa Baraquel. The campers caroled before the Court of Appeals, fasted, shaved their heads and marched in a torchlight parade by night. The solicitor general, in response to a request from the appellate court, issued an opinion supporting the validity of the ordinance.
But all in vain, it seems. On Jan. 9, the Court of Appeals in Cagayan de Oro declared the ordinance unconstitutional, basically on the ground that the three-month deadline was impossible to meet. It could have, I am told, affirmed the validity of the ordinance while recommending that the Davao City council grant an extension if after sincere efforts by the banana producers to meet the deadline, this would turn out to be impossible.
The case will now probably go to the Supreme Court. In the meantime, it reminds social reformers of a significant fact. Having begun at the bottom, where many believe a campaign should begin, having organized, and lobbied local government successfully, having gained a victory at the legislative level, reformers may face another line of defense on the part of those clinging to their vested interests – the courts.
The courts also stood in the way of justice and equality for Obama’s father and American Negroes for two centuries before him. But in time, through dogged persistence and sacrifice, even this obstacle was overcome.
So let it be in the Philippines.
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