Saturday, October 30, 2010

Plants vs. zombies

IT’S better than “FernGully” and “Avatar,” even “Plants vs. Zombies,” a cute video game that pits a homeowner and his plants against a marauding horde of the uncute undead.

Mainly because it’s better than these ecologically inspired media, the message is ambiguous and disquieting.

In Surigao del Sur, the Mamanwa and Manobo tribes oppose the Ventura Timber Corp. (VTC), which has been granted an Integrated Forest Management Agreement (Ifma) to manage their ancestral domain. This is based on an Oct. 19, 2010 Business Mirror article written by correspondent Bong D. Fabe.

The website of the Forest Management Bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) defines an Ifma as a “production sharing contract” entered by the DENR and a partner.

The Mamanwa and Manobo tribes claim the logging firm failed to secure their Free and Prior Informed Consent (FPIC), invalidating the Ifma.

Republic Act 8371, also known as the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act (IPRA) of 1998, requires a company to first secure a tribe’s FPIC before it can develop an ancestral domain.

While an Ifma grants a company the “exclusive right to develop, manage, protect and utilize” the covered forest land and resources, the VTC is focused on marking and cutting trees, paying little regard for forest management and protection.

If the Surigao tribal drama were a movie and directors Bill Kroyer of “FernGully” or James Cameron of “Avatar” were at the helm, this would be the cue for the noble savage to save the forest from the attack of the killer acronyms.

Yet, although the tribes have lodged a legal protest and petitioned the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) and the DENR, the VTC’s Ifma has yet to be cancelled. Granted on Feb. 12, 2010, the Ifma grants VTC power over more than 7,000 hectares of forest land in three towns of Surigao del Sur and two towns of Agusan del Nore.

The indigenous communities elevated their cause to a higher court, that of the spirits and their ancestors.

As the Business Mirror reported, the Manobo tribe’s chieftain and “babaylan” (spiritual leader) performed the “pangapog” to invoke their ancestors and Magbabaya (God) to direct the felled trees to fall on VTC workers and their machines to fall into ravines. Business Mirror reported that a tribal member working with the VTC had to be hospitalized after a falling tree branch pierced his back.

In another ritual, a pig slaughtered as offering to the spirits and Magbabaya did not bleed. The injured worker also reportedly did not bleed when the branch protruded from his side. Both incidents were interpreted by a Manobo “hawudon (leader)” as a message that the spirits and Magbabaya did not want the ancestral domain to be encroached on and the trees cut for timber.

To the urbanized, these tribal appeals hint of the naïve and superstitious. Unlike the VTC, which relied on the Charlie Co. of the 36th Infantry Battalion to disperse the peacefully protesting tribal members, the Mamanwa and Manobo tribes may expect a fair hearing only in another court, where the laws and authorities favor the ancestral and communal over the acquisitive and destructive.

Among some residents of Barangay Matutinao in Badian, there endures the belief in “Talangban,” a city of supernatural beings residing in Kawasan Falls. Looking for this legendary city, S. said she met old men with beards that hung down like skirts, pythons and black dogs , who offered to take her there if she accepted a cigar and other gifts. S. said she refused to eat, drink or smoke anything because she wanted only to visit Talangban but be able to return home.

For indigenous peoples, that choice of coming home may be as mythical as a city ruled by fairies and the dead.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Oct. 31, 2010 issue of the “Matamata” column

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Romantic and reptilian*

LOVE does not just move everyone, from presidents to birds. It is the impetus for research and experiments in an emerging new science.

When a State University of New York researcher of the science of love cross-pollinated his ideas with a pain scientist at the Stanford University, the result was a neuroscience study that found evidence that romantic love may relieve physical pain like a drug, minus the side effects.

According to an article by Amina Khan of the Los Angeles Times, the academics tested Stanford campus volunteers who were chosen because they were in the first nine months of a relationship—conducive to being “still in the throes of romantic passion”.

The experiments showed that when the subjects’ left hands were heated to a point causing a moderate or high degree of pain, looking at the photograph of the beloved “distracted” the subjects from feeling the pain by about 36-45 percent for moderate pain, and 12-13 percent for the high pain.

This was the same level of distraction achieved when the subjects were given a mental task, such as thinking of all sports that didn’t involve a ball. However, a photograph of an attractive peer had no effect on the subjects, who felt the full pain of their heated palms.

When the researchers scanned the subjects’ brains with a functional MRI, they saw a further differentiation of effects. When the subjects were engaged in a mental task, the MRI showed that the subjects used the higher, thinking parts of their brain.

When the photo of a loved one was shown, the involvement ignited the “reptilian” regions, the so-called “more primitive reward centers” related to “urges and cravings that are also implicated in addictions”.

Stanford’s pain scientist, Dr. Sean Mackey, said that the results suggest harnessing the influence of a loved one to relieve pain without drug-induced side effects. He said he might not yet recommend a passionate love affair every six months, but he might consider this therapy for curing people withdrawing from addictions, like smoking.

Is it only sexual love that’s effective as a painkiller? Given the background of the study volunteers, what if the sexual love is long past the exciting first phase of the chase and the conquest, when love is now struggling to outrun, uh, demanding kids, runaway careers and multiplying chins?

Foremost, the Stanford study of love tantalizes with its correlation of the romantic with the reptilian. On the day of the publication of the Los Angeles Times’ article, the Agence France-Presse reported that a London court found a Saudi prince guilty of murdering his male servant after a Valentine’s Day celebration.

Closed-circuit television (CCTV) caught the prince assaulting his servant during two incidents in a London hotel elevator. Sexually explicit photos of the servant were also found in the prince’s cell phone. Prosecutors said that the injuries of the Saudi victim include bite marks on both cheeks, indicating a “sexual element” to the killing.

More painful than the sadism is the victim’s subservience to his perpetrator. In the CCTV video uploaded on Youtube and news websites, the victim does not try to escape after the perpetrator first steps out of the elevator. When the doors slide open again, the prince steps back in the elevator and resumes to pummel and slap the victim, who seems to be about his abuser’s height and size but who puts up no defense. When the perpetrator steps out again, the victim meekly follows.

The court considered reports that the servant endured years of “slavery” and abuse at the hands of the prince. “The victim was so worn down by the violence that he let Saud (the prince) kill him without a fight,” the AFP report quotes London prosecutors.

Love hurts, we all wail before loving again. But when love releases reptilian urges and addictive cravings that end in self-destruction, love chills.

( 0917-3226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s “Matamata” Sunday column on Oct. 24, 2010

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Bayong and the city

THE SKIES opened on the day I brought books for my students to take home for sembreak reading. Since the route to school involves two jeepney rides, the early morning downpour tested my ability to lug a purse, an umbrella and two big bags of books.

Fortunately, I’m a buyot creature. The buyot is the Cebuano version of the bayong, a native bag used by women in the past to transport anything to and fro the farm and market. Men punch holes in the bayong to convert this into a traveling compartment for game cocks.

Today, the buyot has been repositioned as a “green bag”. Aside from using leaves, vines and other natural, biodegradable components, the tote can be reused. Contemporary versions are made from recycled juice packs, tarpaulin, streamers and other discarded materials.

My favorite totes are made of cloth. When a used merchandise seller took over the formerly chic Gaw department store that met its demise in the Colon of the 1990s, I bought my first canvas totes there for P10-P25. Before Cebu City Hall started collecting taxes from the Carbon used goods sellers, these totes were dumped anywhere, freely associating with Lifesaver-colored, tortured-looking pantylets and bras and once, snugly curled inside a teapot.

Though a lifetime of carrying books makes my totes look like dried strips of meat, their sturdiness and dependability count high if their looks don’t. A reused grocery bag can very well haul one’s stuff, but the clear plastic renders one too transparent to fellow travelers. (I’ve had to disappoint jeepney neighbors, who, after straightening up necks made stiff from reading the spine titles of books I’m carrying, ask hopefully if I’m in the book-lending business.)

The modern buyot also has another edge: zippers. Much as I admire jeepney drivers for nurturing readers among their passengers by way of a Sun.Star Superbalita inserted above their rearview mirror, I dislike remembering to get back my copy of the daily that’s been borrowed by a fellow passenger only after I disembark. For reasons yet to be pinned down by a market analyst or hypnosis expert, a Superbalita copy glimpsed inside a jeepney, whether tucked near the dashboard or peeking out from an open, unzippered tote, is fair game for passengers who have to be up-to-date with “Laysho” or “From Junquera with love”.

Last Oct. 11, 2010, the buyot showed signs that it may yet become not just a many-splendored thing for commuters but also a “national bag”. Local groups observing Global Work Party Day singled out the native bag as one of the viable solutions to combat climate change.

A week ago, the Cebu Chapter of the Philippine Retailers Association (PRA) launched their own “unified” version of a green bag made of recycled plastic bottles. PRA-Cebu Chapter members said they will give incentives to customers who reuse their green bags when they shop or patronize shops.

In 2009, the Department of Trade and Industry launched a campaign to promote the bayong among consumers and entrepreneurs. The agency noted the livelihood opportunities in supplying the global market with alternatives to replace plastic bags. Artists and even students in Home Economics classes are encouraged to reinvent the “national bag”.

Last September, Pampanga Representative Aurelio Gonzales Jr. introduced Resolution 783 in the House of Representatives. House Resolution 783 provides for the phase-out of plastic bags as packing materials of goods sold from sari-sari stores to bigger establishments.

Plastic bags comprise half of the garbage, equivalent to about 300,000 kilos, recovered during coastal cleanup operations in 2009, according to the Department of Environment and National Resources. Plastic represents 15 percent of Metro Manila’s solid waste.

According to a report, switching from plastic to bayong may keep down the country’s 390 parts per million (ppm) current level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to the safe upper limit of 350 ppm.

Whether it’s to prevent one’s books or newspaper from being read to bits during a traffic lull or to safeguard our planet, the buyot is The Bag to be seen toting around. 0917-3226131

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Oct. 17, 2010 issue of the “Matamata” column

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Unfinished quest

THE QUEST is heroism distilled.

It’s been weeks since I’ve been tagged by friends to come up with a list of 15 books I read “that will always stick with me”.

Stickiness, as defined by the tagging rules, means the first 15 books to be remembered within 15 minutes.

After 15 minutes lapsed, I realized that my list, if it ever was going to be done at all, was going to be different.

Some titles naturally figured in the list because every rereading is nearly like the first time of discovery. When the sharks first hit the marlin in Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” always stuns and saddens decades after I first read the novel in college.

Although the impact is partially due to the wily technique of inserting the unexpected at a paragraph’s closing rather than its opening, where it would be more predictable and less shocking, the storytelling is as powerful as the currents that test the old Cuban fisherman Santiago, battling with the sea and mortality.

In this list of mine, hardly 15 yet, some books had to be dredged up, like striking faces seen quickly and lost in a crowd, and remembered again. I have read two out of three of the Cormac McCarthy novels making up The Border Trilogy. I have yet to see the “architecture” of romanticism and desolation, which the novels, taken as a whole, are supposed to set up.

Yet, meeting 16-year-old Billy, as he returns to Mexico the she-wolf he rescues and loses in “The Crossing,” the second volume in the trilogy, and encountering him three years later in “The Cities of the Plain,” the final volume, where he finds and loses a friend, I wonder if the missing first novel reinforces or contests the storyteller’s claim that, without desolation, all love is suspect.

In working to finish my list of 15, I recognize one theme uniting the disparate members of this incomplete company. The stories that find their way beneath the skin are all centered on quests.

Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” is a trilogy that follows two friends—Lyra and Will—making their way between parallel worlds, intertwined consciousness (humans and dæmons) and three novels: “The Golden Compass,” “The Subtle Knife” and “The Amber Spyglass”.

Bought in a school sale for my children, the volumes have been read and reread by the same fan at home. Pullman’s tale turns inside-out the Creation story of Adam and Eve: while Lyra is as deceitful and manipulative as Eve, the first stereotyped female, she and Will use Knowledge to destroy the fabrications of organized religion. Caveat: this trilogy will upset Narnians and expose anti-Potter critics as far from being wide readers, if at all.

Set in a less ambiguous but as magical stage—the Third Age of Middle-earth—“The Lord of the Rings” is my favorite of all heroic quests.

While Pullman’s wordplay is keen and tensile, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s prose can be earnest and bland as a grade school student’s effort to write “moral” poetry. Yet, perhaps because I discovered “The Fellowship of the Ring” first and then “The Two Towers” and “The Return of the King” when I was barely a year out of this school level, I am more forgiving about the starkness of Tolkien’s vision of good and evil (fair Elves and pure-hearted Hobbits versus power-hungry Wizards and deformed Orcs).

Why do these fictional quests enthrall? There is a goal that seems unreachable but turns out to be attainable. There is an unlikely hero (or heroine) who surprises not just the reader but even himself (or herself). There is a tale that, after much unraveling and unwinding, returns home.

In the real world, not all quests have these three elements, specially the third.

( 0917-3226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s October 10, 2010 issue of the “Matamata” column.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Naked lunches

ASIDE from a bed, the most intimate thing one can share with another is a meal.

Filipinos bond over food. Unashamedly, colleagues scrutinize each other’s lunch. We sample each other’s hastily packed breakfast or the remnants of a family feast or the unclassifiable weekend experiment.

We masticate failed affairs, office power struggles, jokes/politics and the state of our health as carefully as the P20 fried fish, P8 rice, P6 banana and P6 mongo soup the street vendor handed over the gate to us.

Working lunches may be a modern necessity—or inefficiency, depending on one’s experience. In the multicultural organization I worked with in the 1980s, technical meetings usually extended till 2 p.m. We, Filipinos, did not complain but the expatriates noticed that between 11 a.m. till adjournment, our participation quite drastically faded.

So sandwiches were served. The reception rose a little higher than glum. An expat married to a Filipina suggested a “regular” lunch, meaning rice, viands and softdrinks.

However, this scheme was also scrapped due to the overwhelmingly enthusiastic local response. The business of having lunch—involving much passing to and fro of plates, pairing of mismatched cutlery, the collective frenzy for meat, asking for sawsawan (sauce)—took over the official business at hand.

Work productivity improved when we decided to break at noon and resume an hour after everyone ate lunch. A consultant was driven to ask, though, why few of us sat at the conference table with them, with most preferring to return to our nooks or cram in the pantry.

I said that we wanted a break from speaking in English. A more candid answer should have been: talking about work messed up the food as it was going down; you could not eat with the boss because the boss was sometimes the main entrée in these lunches; and who could lean over and tell an expat: say, can I have some of those greens?

When one eats in company, there are three things to savor: the food, the company of others, your own. Is there some of that tough beef stuck in my smile? Do my lips betray the squid cooked in inky broth? After a good meal, my friends and I burp musically in three voices, lean back and puff with our toothpicks, wiggle our tongues to dislodge and swallow the last clinging holdouts. So what? We still share lunch.

Lunch tastes best when the company transports me to the familiar and the homely be-as-you-are. Precisely because of these ordinary but intimate associations, lunch can be sacrosanct grounds that permit few transgressions.

As part of a couple, I don’t have a habit of lunching out with any male friend. College chums would rather email or post on my Facebook wall rather than wait for me to confirm a lunch date only after telling my spouse, sons, mother, companions at home, sundry relatives and dog (with whom I share Wednesday and Friday lunch regularly).

As a contributor to this space and as a freelancer, I tell my editors the clients I lunch with. Editors are an anal-retentive lot. They have to be to spot bias that’s caused either by external parties corrupting a journalist or a journalist self-censoring to slant an article to favor or cover up on a client.

As a Catholic, I’m more than a bit bugged why Carlos Celdran recently disrupted mass at the Manila Cathedral to protest the clergy’s opposition to contraception. The popular tour guide regularly distributes condoms and birth-control pills to the poor. I, too, think that reproductive health information should be made available to couples. Staging a stunt during mass, which represents both a shared meal and a memorial sacrifice, will close no chasms that’s yawning between the state and the clergy.

Lunch? Best taken without agenda.

( 0917-3226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Oct. 3, 2010 issue of “Matamata”