Between fighting and farming: Two stories of environmental activism in the Philippines
When I first arrived in the Philippines as a Peace Corps volunteer, the organization held a safety and security briefing at our orientation, during which they emphasized that the plans for the 9/11 attacks were hatched in Manila and Mindanao by Al Qaeda terrorist cells funded by Osama bin Laden.
Mindanao was a black area for all volunteers, meaning off-limits. We were not even allowed to travel through. But Mindanao wasn’t the only black area for us. A map projected on a screen showed dark blemishes all over the country, mostly in the mountainous regions of each island. The safety and security officer addressed an instance of a volunteer being murdered in Luzon, the northernmost island, while she was hiking in one of the black areas in the 1990s. These places in the archipelago clustered in the mountain ranges, he said, were occupied by the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines.
In the presentation, positioning NPA right next to terrorist masterminds that brought down the twin towers made it seem like all of these groups were of the same ilk. It made me believe that if I — a blonde-haired, blue-eyed American — ever encountered NPA, it would just be a matter of time before my beheading was broadcast on television.
That was before I met the NPA.
During that initial security briefing, Peace Corps didn’t tell us about why the NPA did what they did, and it wasn’t until I did independent research that I started to recognize the more complicated factors at work — at the core of which was the environment.
Behind Brazil, Peru, and Colombia, the Philippines is the fourth most dangerous place for environmental activists. Logging, mining, fishing, and farming are often in direct opposition to efforts to conserve an area for sustainable use. When big businesses feel their profit margins are jeopardized, it’s not uncommon that the businesses take measures to overcome their obstacles. Several human rights watchdog groups — Asian Human Rights Commission, Global Witness, and Amnesty International — attempt to raise awareness of the growing epidemic of “ecocide”; however, they concede that political corruption makes progress difficult.
During my time in Peace Corps, one volunteer had to be relocated because his apartment was vandalized just after he’d made progress in marine conservation initiatives, creating a protected no-take zone just off the coast. Another volunteer’s Filipino colleague was shot in the back of the head at an Internet café just before implementing a conservation program to develop a mountain, rich in minerals and lumber, as a tourist destination. Environmental volunteers with the Peace Corps have been lucky to avoid greater forms of violence and retaliation.
Statistics show that environmental assassinations have been on the rise ever since the current president, Benigno Aquino III, took office in June 2010. In 2012 alone, there have been seven murders thus far. One case that received widespread attention in local and foreign media last year was that of an Italian priest, Father Fausto Tentorio, in Cotobato Province, Mindanao. He delivered his masses in the town of Arakan at the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish. When not in the church, he campaigned closely with the indigenous Lumad tribes against a proposed mining project that threatened to displace the Lumad through forceful land-grabbing of their ancestral domain by agribusiness and corporate interests. Father Pops, as he was popularly known by the locals, was shot and killed inside his parish one afternoon.
Witnesses identified a local man, Jimmy Ato, as the gunman. When he was brought in for questioning by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), Ato detailed the intricate planning against Father Pops. The triggermen were Ato’s two brothers, who, Ato stated, were recruited by Arakan Police Chief Inspector Benjamin Rioflorido and a former politician and mayoral candidate, William Buenaflor. Buenaflor was an established agricultural entrepreneur before entering the political arena, but claimed his professional associations with land development had nothing to do with Father Pops’s death.
Jimmy Ato and his two brothers are currently facing trial along with a third brother who Jimmy Ato claims was not involved. Buenaflor, Rioflorido, and another undisclosed mastermind identified by Ato were not included on the NBI’s prosecution list; however, the NBI stated they plan to file murder charges in the future.
More recently, paramilitary groups said to have been mobilized by the Philippine Army’s 57th Infantry Battalion have been kidnapping and executing Lumad community leaders. The paramilitary groups claimed that the Lumad were involved in the murder of two paramilitary leaders.
The Lumad, however, pointed to the fact that the NPA had claimed responsibility for the assassinations of the paramilitary leaders. But the damage was done; by sharing a mutual interest with the NPA in preserving this land, the Lumad had inadvertently invited threats and intimidation upon themselves.
Though the Lumad resorted to peaceful protests and hunger strikes, the NPA’s violence did send a message to the mining interests that exploitation would be met with heavier resistance. In response to the assassination of a Lumad community leader, the provincial government insisted that the killer make amends with the bereaved family by traditional Lumad ways: He was ordered to give the family a horse.
Jomorito Goaynon, chairperson of the Kalumbay Regional Lumad Organization said the provincial government was making a mockery of the Lumad culture and the justice system in that it ignored the severity of the transgression. Goaynon said it “is not as simple as the exchange of a horse — or any animal for that matter — for the life of a community leader…[H]is death affects the welfare of the entire community, endangering everything that he stood up for.”
Examples such as these might explain why the people’s general reception of the acronym NPA differs from the government’s definition. The NPA, despite occasional violence, claim to prioritize the protection of the people and their natural resources. For the people, it’s not the New People’s Army. It’s the Nice People Around.
My first site assignment was on Panay Island in the Visayan Region of the archipelago. The town of San Joaquin consisted of almost 50 barangays (villages), the majority of which were coastal. As hard as I tried to hit the ground running, it became apparent that I had to gain the trust of the community before they included me.
Community organization and capacity building was a large portion of my job, focusing on families that undertook different aspects of fishing as their primary source of livelihood. When I heard about a fishermen’s meeting that was scheduled nearby, I figured it might be a good idea for me to attend.
What I had presumed to be a people’s organization comprised of fishermen turned out to be a NPA meeting. Most of them were fishermen from the coastal neighborhood, Barangay Baybay, except for the leader of the meeting, Bandito. Bandito keenly resembled a Southeast Asian version of Che Guevara except with silver hair. He was from a part of San Joaquin called Barangay Bad-as (pronounced “bad-ass”). That’s where I was told all the NPA lived, out in a difficult pass deep in the mountains.
Bandito spearheaded the press conference to a newspaper and radio outlet about the illegal commercial fishing practices that were leaving Baybay on the verge of starvation. Local Government Unit (LGU) employees — my colleagues — had always badmouthed fishermen of Barangay Baybay. They said they were lazy. They said they were inept because they didn’t want to have a Marine Protected Area as a fish breeding ground. I had never understood why the fishermen would be opposed to the Marine Protected Area, but I soon found out what the LGU employees were withholding.
The fishermen called this meeting because they wanted the public to know that LGU officials were accessories to environmental exploitation. The graft had been happening for decades, but now it was reaching irreparable consequences. Bandito emphasized the Fisheries Code Republic Act 8550, which states that 15 kilometers from the coast is municipal fishing waters. It also defines small fishermen as persons dependent on small-scale fisheries as their primary form of income, and marks these waters solely for their practices.
But the residents of Barangay Baybay observed commercial fishing vessels, using illegal fishing gear, slowly encroaching into their municipal waters over a period of 20 years. At first, the boats stayed mostly at the deep crevice a few kilometers offshore where there was a known tuna run. The illegal boats’ catches were taken to a high-security facility in a southern barangay of San Joaquin where they were processed for export. Cameras, armed guards, and razor wire kept disgruntled small fishermen out.
The LGU then passed an amendment to RA 8550, allowing commercial fishing as close as 10 kilometers from shore, though it was not within their liberty to amend a national law. After a decade, the boats were a mere 500 meters offshore, and Barangay Baybay’s average fish catch dwindled drastically. The fishermen and barangay officials had filed official complaints to the LGU, but were ignored. As food disappeared from their tables in Baybay, they sought another approach to their struggle — cue Bandito.
Bandito was well spoken, well informed on municipal and national ordinances, and fearless when it came to naming names. He was the sort of well-organized, articulate, proactive leader that this community needed.
Winning the favor and support of the impoverished and marginalized food producers of the community was a fundamental part of NPA strategy. The NPA was first formed in the Philippines as an armed resistance to the Marcos regime in the late sixties as an offshoot of the Communist Party of the Philippines. Their Maoist beliefs drove their campaigns for war on political corruption, land reform, and an egalitarian utopia. The NPA’s strategy was to base themselves in the unpopulated mountain ranges around municipalities, gain sympathizers from the working class, and slowly tighten their noose from the outskirts to town center. When Bandito saw an opportunity to advance their influence, he came closer and closer to town.
The journalists present at the meeting asked about Barangay Baybay’s course of action. Bandito responded democratically, yet firmly, that they would document the cases of encroachment. He pointed 200 meters down the beach where an illegal commercial vessel was docked. He explained that their encroachment had forced the fishermen of Baybay to engage in illegal fishing practices themselves, such as sahid. Sahid was illegal because it was a form of near-shore fishing using fine mesh nets to capture juveniles, thereby inhibiting fish population reproduction and damaging corals. The LGU had already issued several fines to residents of Barangay Baybay. Even so, Bandito pointed out, the oil and waste that the commercial vessels discharged in Baybay’s shallows killed off or polluted most of what small fish had remained. Bandito even gave the name of the municipal councilor that pocketed the bribes from the commercial fishing outfits to allow them to fish undisturbed. The LGU’s proposed Marine Protection Area would only further reduce what little food they had.
It wasn’t until after I’d returned home from the meeting that the situation started to come into focus. An employee from the mayor’s office, Ex, visited me at my boarding house as if he had been waiting for me to arrive. After normal friendly banter, he asked me where I had been all morning instead of at the office. When I told him, his tone became foreboding.
“Don’t you know what happened there?” he asked.
“No. What?” Of course I knew what had transpired there — a meeting they hadn’t wanted me to know about.
“Four people were shot,” Ex said.
I was confused. “I was there the whole time,” I said. “Nobody was shot. They were just talking.”
“Oh. That’s what everyone at the LGU is saying,” said Ex. “Well, you shouldn’t go with those people. They have a personal vendetta against the municipal hall. They’ll try to brainwash you.” I nodded in agreement and took the rest of the day off. Ex returned to the LGU.
It was the same type of villainization I’d recently read about in Plundering Paradise: The Struggle for the Environment in the Philippines, a book by two American scholars. It depicts their travels throughout the Philippines, encountering people’s struggles to sustain what they depend on the most — fishing and farming. They recorded ubiquitous instances of people’s organizations intimidated by government forces. In this book, the authors refer to these farmers and fishermen as “the first environmentalists.” They did not learn environmentalism in classrooms, from the internet, or on television, but by directly experiencing the consequences of environmental exploitation through governmental corruption.
I read the book, twice, and I knew how these stories ended. Most of the struggling fishermen and farmers lived under constant threats. The most influential — or the unluckiest — were “salvaged.” Murdered.
That night, my landlord’s son advised me not to attend work for a week or so after hearing about the meeting. “You know, in case they come and shoot up the municipal hall,” he told me nonchalantly.
My landlord, Phil, asked me how the meeting went. I divulged everything I had learned.
“Bandito came here the day before the meeting begging for food,” Phil said. “He was ashamed that he had nothing to offer the press visitors or the participants.” Phil paused and grinned. “I told him, ‘What better way to illustrate your point than not feed them?’”
The second time I met the NPA, it was also an accident. I didn’t know who they were, but they knew who I was. I was attending a fiesta in Barangay Baybay. Phil had invited me to go along to visit some friends. We arrived in the middle of the outrigger races. Videoke machines blared, people went from house to house to eat, and many men took this respite to indulge in heavy drinking. That was typical of a barangay fiesta. When a drunk man, who I’d assumed was a fisherman I’d met but forgotten, invited me for a drink, I accepted his invitation.
He led me into a small bamboo restaurant on the beach. It was dimly lit, and I could make out silhouettes of other men at the tables with their feet perched on the benches and arms around one another. They all greeted the man I was with. It was then that I realized he was a high-ranking NPA commander in San Joaquin.
“Hey, Joe! You’re that American from the meeting,” one slurred at me. I was accustomed to strangers calling me Joe; it seemed to be the standard moniker for American men. I realized that some of them were the same fishermen I’d met at the meeting.
“So what do you have to say about our movement?” one asked.
“Well,” I said. “What happened with the media?”
“Nothing. No response. We get no respect,” he said bluntly. “We will use bullets.”
“I thought you said you were going to document the illegal fishing and present that as evidence first,” I said. “You know, pictures.”
I wanted to suggest writing the ombudsman, the presiding official in charge of investigating graft and corruption among public officers, but I didn’t know if they even knew he existed, much less if they trusted another government official to help them.
“No,” he said. “It’s a revolution. We will use bullets. Will you join us?”
I explained that I didn’t think I was allowed to do that with Peace Corps, and turned to my glass of beer. The commander put his arm around me. He went on about his appreciation for me as an environmental volunteer, but more so because I was a sympathizer towards their struggle. He spoke sternly about how he was going to put a bullet in the head of a family member of the major political family in town — who, it turns out, was his sister-in-law. The commander started to draw attention from passersby as his vigor and confidence grew.
“It’s a difficult situation,” I said. I quickly excused myself. My landlord’s son found me outside and warned me against the company I was keeping and my perceived reputation in the community. I watched the commander as his comrades balanced him on the back of a motorcycle to go back to Bad-as before things escalated further.
I could see the headlines: Peace Corps Volunteer Succumbs to Stockholm Syndrome, Joins Rebel Forces in the Philippines. Or, Peace Corps Volunteer Caught in Bribery Scandal at Corrupt LGU, Exploiting Community Members He Was Assigned to Help. I couldn’t choose one side or the other. My office and the NPA both knew that I was aware of the situation. There was no in between.
The next day, I applied for transfer. I couldn’t stay.
My request for transfer was accepted; however, my recommendation for relocation to two islands over was denied — too close, said the safety and security officer. After a month of living in a pension in Manila, I moved to Bani, on the northernmost island of Luzon. By then, I had become cynical, disconcerted, and defeated in any purpose as a volunteer.
I signed a rental agreement for an apartment in a house owned by Marianito “Nito” Castelo before I found out he was a municipal councilor. Great, I thought: another politician. I decided to be polite yet aloof. Ignorance was my safe haven.
When Nito invited me to his farm for the first time, I expected a business that exploited zoning regulations, elbowing out small farmers. As we bounced down a rutted dirt road past the town cemetery, the scenery opened up into an expanse that I’d not experienced living in coastal communities. Aquamarine streams were filled with kids splashing around. Terraced rice fields stretched to the horizon. Mountains were not pocked with deforestation, but covered with primary forest. I sat in the bed of Nito’s clunker Suzuki with his farmhand, Dit Dit. Dit Dit explained to me that they called this place away. He said that, in the local dialect, it means “peaceful.” In my old dialect from San Joaquin, the word away means “to fight.”
As we neared Nito’s farm, the dirt road widened and hardened tracks from bulldozer belts and heavy construction vehicles imprinted the earth. The streams’ waters were muddied. Then we came to a clearing where Nito parked the Suzuki next to an industrial shale sifter. Cargo containers served as offices for the contracting company that had engineered the new dam adjacent to Nito’s farm. He’d sold a portion of his land to the dam project. My cynicism throbbed.
Despite my efforts to remain distant, proximity has a way of making two people closer, and eventually Nito began to tell me about his past.
Nito’s parents died when he was in college. After all the children had dispersed to pursue their individual endeavors, he was named to sort out the family’s assets. He was 19 at the time. He returned to the lands where he grew up in Bani’s neighboring town of Bolinao. The barangay, called Natulang — meaning “there are bones already” — had gained a reputation for being a wild West of sorts. It was home to a group of former farmers turned bandit cattle rustlers. No one wanted to spend the time distinguishing stolen cattle bones from other types of bones that might have been there. It was a borderland where disputes were not settled by official law, and a place that lawmakers, let alone outsiders, did not dare frequent.
Nito strapped himself with a shoulder holster concealed under his button-down, equipped with a loaded nine-millimeter pistol, as a precaution. He walked the perimeter of the unfarmed land, but saw no one. The property was as the family had left it. Fruit trees were intact, grasses grew tall, and no squatters had taken refuge on the entire 20 hectares.
It was quiet.
He left and went back to town. That night, Nito received a call. The anonymous caller told him that should he ever come back to Natulang, he should come unarmed. Nito was terrified.
He didn’t return to Natulang for many months. Given the outlaw’s acute observation, he knew it would be trouble if he showed up with a companion.
When he did go back — alone — he stood at the land’s boundary again, looking for signs of people before proceeding. Just as before, all he saw was the farmland and a few grazing cows. Before going any farther, Nito slowly removed his shirt to demonstrate that he had come unarmed. He began walking into the property with no intended destination, not knowing what to expect. For several minutes, minutes that felt like hours, nothing happened.
When it seemed they were not going to show, slowly, they emerged from the thicket. There were 10 people on horseback. They wore woven palm hats with wide brims. As they neared, Nito could see that they carried hunting rifles and fully automatic Armalites on their shoulders. Nito didn’t move. One of the men, ostensibly the leader, dismounted and approached him.
“Who are you? What do you want?” he asked.
“I’m Marianito Castelo. I used to live here as a child.”
“So, you’re the son of Doctor Castelo?”
Nito nodded. The armed men had not seen Nito since he was a child and hadn’t recognized him. The leader embraced Nito and welcomed him home. The other men on horseback dismounted and hugged Nito as well. They invited him to their homes where he joined them for dinner and gin: a hospitality not easy for them to afford. Nito saw the crude and basic ways in which they lived.
Many of the farmers did not own their own land, and were forced to lease a small plot to earn some semblance of an income. All of the farmland in town was owned by a handful of wealthy families. The families could name their price and terms to lease the land to the small farmers. The trend was to only allow the land to be used for rice production, a use less profitable than growing vegetables. Upon harvest, the farmers owed the landowner a significant amount of their harvest as compensation. After settling their debts with the owners and selling their rice at the market, they had none left to feed their families. They became trapped in a cycle of debt.
As a child growing up in Natulang, Nito hadn’t understood the imbalanced distribution of wealth and power in his hometown. Despite the rumors that the people of Natulang were lawless savages, they were extremely kind and hospitable to him because of his father’s efforts to help them. The Hippocratic Oath his father had taken as a medical doctor committed him to community service, regardless of whether his patients were cattle rustlers. His commitment was to the people, not to the law.
Nito realized the potential of bio-organic fertilizer to wrest small farmers from the debt cycle of landlessness and irikan. Irik means a grain of rice; the suffix –an is an object-focus future-tense conjugation. Essentially, irikan can be translated to mean “you will be producing rice.” He urged them to engage in the alternative technology, yet most farmers were wary of converting without seeing a success story first.
So, Nito planted a demo farm in Barangay Ranom Iloco to teach the farmers they could cut their input expenses in half, increase their harvests, and grow their profit margins. He urged them to abandon planting rice, which only allows for one harvest per year in areas of Bani without irrigation, and to embrace rotational vegetable farming. Nito wanted to focus on the farmers that suffered the most — landless leasees on plots less than one hectare — for the most dramatic changes in their lives.
For example: Lando, a small rice farmer, did not own the land he labored on. He was forced to lease the plot, and by default, immediately entered debt just to work the land. Furthermore, Lando had become dependent on irikan loans to finance his chemical fertilizers and pesticides. In the irikan scheme, the loan shark charged a high interest rate to be paid in rice upon harvest. After harvest and sale of what was left, Lando didn’t have enough money to continue farming or enough rice to feed his three children. So he engaged in irikan again and again for over a decade, sinking deeper and deeper into debt.
Lando was unable to make a profit on his small plot using chemical inputs. But after the first year of switching to bio-organic vegetable farming, Lando saw that reverse immediately. Over the subsequent five years, Lando earned enough to pay off all of his debts, purchase his own plot of land, and put his three children through college. He served as a prime example of the relief from poverty that can come by switching to bio-organic vegetable farming.
Nito’s father would have been proud of his son, a doctor of the land, stepping up to a higher calling than personal profit. But Nito took his successes unsmiling and anticipated the future of his project; his work was not done. As the stories of these farmers spread, so did the demand for his product all over Luzon. With an emerging awareness of the negative environmental consequences of synthetic agricultural technologies, such as chemical inputs and GMOs, and international agricultural conglomerates, a green movement was gaining traction. Even agricultural capitals in the cooler, mountainous provinces sought Nito’s bio-organic fertilizer. He found himself unable to meet the demand. Despite the success of his business, Nito was not satisfied. Just like his father, Nito sought change rather than profit. Many of the other farmers still did not change their methods. They continued in irikan.
Nito realized a gap in communication. The story of Lando’s success was out there, but it had no effect. The farmers did not see or experience what it was like to manage a bio-organic farm. Nito set out on his next objective to penetrate the mindset of the rice farmers set in their traditional ways. At Coconut Creek in Barangay Ranao, he increased his vermicast production, bought a small parcel of adjacent land with his profits, and began planting. To bridge the gap between rice and vegetables, he decided to transition the farmers by planting a demo rice farm. If the farmers would not abandon rice farming, they could at least save money on inputs while increasing production. Next, Nito planted several vegetable gardens. The additions to Coconut Creek grew and grew to the point that his farm has now become an educational destination for agricultural students, farmers, and WWOOF volunteers. He became known as the godfather of organic farming in Bani.
“I’m worried about Inggo,” Anting, one of the laborers at Coconut Creek, told Nito. “He was talking to the worms today.”
Nito looked concerned. “Well, what was he saying?”
“He was picking them and talking to them all day. He was saying, ‘Bring us gold! Dig and be good and bring us gold!’”
As Nito and I stood under the thatched roof of one of the vermicast pits, his normal stoic expression softened.
“My brother, he studied agriculture too,” Nito said. “When he heard about what I was doing, he didn’t like it. He said I’ll never make any money.” Nito leaned on the bamboo crossbeam, directing his misty gaze on the worms. He seemed vulnerable, but kept his smile.
“From a business standpoint, vermicast is a self-defeating product,” I said. “If the goal is to rehabilitate chemically sterilized land to return to a natural system of farming where no inputs are needed at all, well, you’ll be out of business.”
Nito let out a half-sigh, half-laugh and nodded.
“What do you think about that?” I asked.
“I won’t see it happen in my lifetime,” he said. “But I would be satisfied with that,” he said. I could see his conviction return to his eyes. “That’s the whole point.”
I realized that Nito was, in fact, not a crooked politician. “I’m not a political animal,” he used to tell me. “It’s not buy the people, poor the people.”
After witnessing the same old thing over and over in Filipino politics, I had been conditioned to believe that corruption was simply the reality of things — just as the rice farmers believed that their harsh existence and desperate survival could not change. It took a bold example for inspiration to take root.
After several subsequent visits to the farm, it became clear that Nito was not doing this solely in his interest. His farm, Coconut Creek, had no crops except for some mango and paper trees he and his wife had planted. What Nito was farming, in fact, were African nightcrawlers. I learned that Nito spent any time he had outside of the councilors’ hall here, tending to his vermiculture operation.
He had started it as a hobby outside of politics; his reverence for the land drew him back. Initially, he purchased 10 kilos of African nightcrawlers, a species not endemic to the Philippines. After one year, he had over 600 kilos of worms that produced tons of bio-organic fertilizer every month. His hobby grew into a business, but he wasn’t looking to be a business owner.
Since the developments at Coconut Creek, the farmers of Bani have organized into a much stronger entity than before. They snatched up vermicast faster than Nito could produce it and began the process of rehabilitating their land. They diversified their crops based on fluctuations in markets. They saved money and earned more. They became more capable and self-sufficient.
Most importantly, they boosted Bani’s local economy by lessening their dependence on imported vegetables. They formed people’s organizations and oversight committees to monitor the progress of farming activities in town. Most recently, they gained supply chain market access with the Philippines’ largest fast food company, Jollibee. Beyond offering opportunities to small farmers, the farmers are extending Jollibee’s corporate responsibility to environmental activism by slowly convincing the company of organic farming’s advantages. The newest development was the construction of a sorghum bio-fuel plant.
However, since Nito’s recent success, he has grown mildly paranoid. He suspects people from the chemical fertilizer industry are following him. Nito became a new blip on their radar, a potential threat to their profit margins.
Local champions of the environment have always been under surveillance. Before, small farmers and fishermen were easy to “salvage.” Now, corporations do not discriminate between change-makers in order to protect their future assets.
At the annual forum for vermicast producers in Dumaguete on the Visayan island of Negros Oriental, Nito first became suspicious. He asked himself, why would chemical agribusiness giants send representatives to an organic forum? Furthermore, why didn’t they enter the venue, and only stare him down while leaning on their company vehicles outside? Nito was even more unsettled when he saw them at a sweet sorghum bio-fuel conference in Tarlac, an agricultural capital in Luzon. Waiting outside, watching him, smiling, as if to say, You see us? We see you.
“Here’s to a new beginning for the Filipino people,” Nito declared.
It was around nine in the evening, but it felt much later. I sat with Nito at a table outside his house. It was just the two of us. Behind him, a pair of mud-caked ankle-high boots aired out, and his tattered long-sleeved shirt was clipped to a clothesline. Darkness hid the rice field across the street and the few other buildings on the narrow, muddy track. Our normally quiet neighborhood was even more so tonight.
The chief justice of the Philippine Supreme Court had just been impeached — the guilty verdict had been announced on television a few hours ago. We’d come outside to celebrate. A bottle of 12-year Chivas Regal sat on the table between us. The scotch had a peaty flavor: an earthy onset with an oaky, maple finish — particularly appreciable after weeks of crude grain liquor with artificial brandy flavoring. Nito had been saving it for a special occasion, and this was it.
But our celebration was disturbed by the nagging sense that while the outcome was positive, justice hadn’t really been done. Out of eight initial allegations against the chief justice — including constitutional violations, betrayal of public trust, and corruption — the prosecution was only able to get one to stick: tax fraud. The chief justice was impeached but his bank accounts remained intact. It felt like a hollow victory.
It wasn’t a new story.
But Nito repeated his toast, “Here’s to a new beginning,” and took another sip of scotch. I thought of Bandito and his fishermen. I wondered if they’d made any progress. I doubted it. I pictured Nito as a young man, blowing the whistle on cattle rustling despite threats from local police in his hometown of Bani. One night when he’d had enough, Nito had walked to the municipal hall, shook his fist in the air, and shouted, “You want me? I’m right here!”
I could see how that passion had been dulled beneath decades of politics. I heard the cynical tone beneath Nito’s optimistic toast. But for a moment, I wanted the words to be enough.
“A new beginning,” I said, and raised my glass.
[Note: This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program, in which writers and photographers develop long-form narratives for Matador.]