On Dangerous Grounds

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

That is what major change does—it makes everyone stand on dangerous grounds.

It is true, as many wise people have advised, that it is better for us to manage change than for change to manage us. It is just as true that there is change that nobody can manage, only anticipate in broad strokes and learn to welcome rather than resist. Today, that kind of change, major, radical and dramatic, is upon us.

While this change of today has urgency, its concept of time is entirely different from ours. One generation can be just a wink of the eye, just a turn of the wheel. That is because life does not measure time in terms of a human life, but in terms of existence. Nonetheless, there is urgency, and this urgency produces great anxiety among many.

There is technology as well. It breaks barriers in speed, in imagery and in volume. Technology is driven by creativity, and creativity triggers change. It is the propensity to create that is evolution’s most dominant feature; when that propensity to create increases its tempo, evolution becomes urgent, change becomes major, radical, dramatic.

Why now, some may ask. And the answer is the same as it always has been from the words of the wise—because it is simply time. For Filipinos, for the Philippines, it is simply time.

It is not as though major change has not been happening. It definitely has. From martial law to Edsa I, from Marcos to Cory, from Erap to Gloria, and from Gloria to PNoy, the same major change, radical and dramatic, has been happening. It happens still, and will continue to do so in this manner for at least another decade. It is as though our society developed a cancer that is now threatening it with death, and our immune system, weak as it may be, is fighting back.

This collision between survival and health on one hand, and the cancer of poverty and corruption on the other, is creating urgency and pressure. In turn, survival and health have to be extremely creative as previous therapies, though not total failures, have not won the battle. At the same time, poverty and corruption dig in, use their established advantages, as if they know they are in the fight for their lives.

The lessons to be learned are not at all complicated. We have a country whole land and waters are among the richest in the world, if not the richest. I speak of biodiversity, or life forms; I also speak of minerals, of precious metals, of oil and gas, and fertile lands that can grow almost everything, of waters hosting a great abundance of marine life. To top it all, we had a people who loved our lands and our seas, calling them home, knowing that their very identity and existence were drawn from them.

What has happened to these land and waters? Why would there be a cancer if our people and motherland had everything going for them?

It was some time ago, I admit, but not enough long enough to erase memories. In fact, what is four hundred years when we consider history? The dominant religious belief now obtaining in the Philippines is based on a history of only two thousand years, anchored on a person called Jesus who was a Jew from a lineage that must have been thousands of years more. This has not been forgotten. It is still a history where we listen to its story told and retold every week, or everyday, depending on how often a Catholic hears mass, or a Christian goes to religious service.

There was this joke attributed to a religious personality from Africa, Anglican Bishop Tutu, which goes this way, “When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the bible and we had the land. They said, “Let us pray.” We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the bible and they have the land.”

I would be laughing heartily if the joke is not too painful in the Philippine setting. We are now a Catholic-dominated country with approximately 80 million Filipino Catholics, but more than half of whom are landless. Why? Their ancestors were not landless, not until a Spanish king claimed all lands as belonging to the throne.

Why, then, is our history forgotten, or the most important part of that history – how a landed people became landless? Why do we learn history from school but our own present-day landlessness is being glossed over? How come we can keep fighting one another but we cannot even fight for our memory, and for our motherland?

No wonder we have cancer of the worst kind, of poverty and corruption that began when the lands of our ancestors were stolen, when local leaders who colluded with Spanish forces to placate us were able to retain or increase their landholdings, when conquistadores and the Catholic Church were granted large estates. No wonder most Filipinos remain landless, squatters in their own motherland, and no wonder many Filipino leaders today still act as though they are foreign masters. It is no wonder. We just had to forget our history.

There must be something deep in the Filipino soul, however, that is awakening to a forgotten past. Our ancestors must be screaming for us to shake off our amnesia and reclaim what was stolen from them. They know why we have cancer, and they know it has its roots in the greatest land grab in our history, and the betrayal of a few to enrich themselves.

A restlessness will keep plaguing us until we see the thread of four centuries and correct the historical anomaly of landlessness, correct the perspective of power and governance. That inner restlessness provokes the superficial change we see around us. We will awaken, though, and this I believe with all my heart. Not long from now, we will awaken. Until then, we will stand on dangerous grounds.

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