By Donella Meadows
–April 27, 1989–
One could interpret the recent shooting of an American serviceman near Manila as one more example of how things are falling apart in the Philippines. The guerillas of the New Peoples’ Army (NPA) have not been brought under control. There isn’t yet a land reform worthy of the name. Most of the population is still desperately poor. The peaceful revolution that put Cory Aquino into power three years ago was a miracle, but there haven’t been any miracles since.
That’s not quite true, my Filipino friends tell me. Don’t lose sight of the small miracles.
For example, Davao City is now free from the communist New Peoples’ Army. Davao is at the southern edge of the large island of Mindanao. Under the Marcos regime much of Mindanao fell under the control of the NPA. The rebels were killing off policemen in Davao at the rate of about one a day. After sunset the police barricaded themselves in their compounds, leaving the streets to the NPA and any citizens who dared to venture out.
No one ventured out. From dusk to dawn Davao was a dead city.
The NPA collected a tax of 50 centavos from every man, woman, and child, and a higher tax from every business. NPA soldiers would drop into houses and demand to be put up for the night or to have their laundry done. They would commandeer motorbikes and drive off with all the food or money in the house.
When Cory Aquino came to power, she held one of her first cabinet meetings in Davao City, instructing her new ministers just to listen to the people. The people asked for help in restoring order; they said they could take care of economic recovery themselves. The Aquino government replaced the Marcos military officers stationed in Davao. After that the people took over.
Martin Escano, 23 years old, was married in Davao City a few months after the cabinet visit. At his wedding party the neighbors started talking about the NPA’s oppression. There and then they decided to stop it. They declared an “alsa masa”, which literally means “rise up” — a neighborhood patrol to keep the NPA out. They went to the new police chief and requested just two armed officers to help them — no one else had any weapons.
“The first three nights were the hardest,” the people say. The men were scared, but they turned out, walking the streets all night. The women and children gathered in one house and prayed. The NPA never showed up. Other neighborhoods did the same. Soon Davao’s districts were bedecked with signs painted in blue on old rice bags, stuck to buildings and trees. They said, “Alsa Masa Country — NPA keep out.”
In the rural areas around Davao City, the villagers made bonfires of trash and old tires. If NPA troops passed the fires, their shadows were visible to the people watching all night inside their houses. One household would beat a warning on a tin can — tonk, tonk, tonk! Others would hear and pick up the beat. Wherever the shadows appeared, they were followed by the tonk, tonk, tonk.
There was no secrecy for the NPA any more, no anonymity, and no support, not even coerced support, from the people. The rebels started fading away. Many sought intermediaries to help them surrender and go back home.
When it was no longer necessary to patrol his neighborhood, Martin Escano began helping rebel returnees get jobs, find land, and re-enter society. One of those former guerillas is now working at another small miracle. It is a growing self-help movement on Samal Island, 30 minutes by boat from Davao City.
The 70,000 people of Samal Island are even poorer than the national average. They are mostly fishermen, but their fish catch is going down because of overfishing and illegal dynamiting of the coral reef.
Crispin Lanorias, son of a fisherman, founded the Samal Island Development Foundation along with six of his high school friends. One of those friends is Wilmar Cabigas, who joined the NPA at 16, was arrested at 19, and at 23 was a rebel returnee. Wilmar and the others began talking with Samal people about their problems and what they could do to solve those problems.
Within two years they started cooperative grocery stores, bought a boat to deliver produce and fish to the higher-priced Davao markets, and dug an aquaculture pond to raise fish. They planted fruit trees and started an experimental farm. They even agreed to stop dynamiting the fishing reefs and hired the chief dynamiter to enforce the agreement.
Wilmar Cabigas says, “I joined the NPA to help the people. But we only told the people what to do. In the Samal Island Development Project we ASK them what to do.”
Now at ten at night in Davao City, the streets are full of people, music is playing, restaurants and theaters are open again. On Samal Island the people have higher incomes, and they are beginning to pressure the department of agrarian reform about inequitable land ownership. Sometimes peoples’ power shows up in the form of a revolution that shakes a nation. Mostly it just shows up as a steady accumulation of small miracles.as says, “I joined the NPA to help the people. But we only told the people what to do.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1989