The curse of the landless

by Jose Ma. Montelibano


Jose M. Montelibano

It’s one of those days when some amount of depression and exhaustion sets in despite a determined effort never to lose one’s optimism. For a concerned citizen like I have been from the 80’s, it becomes unavoidable to notice what is wrong or malfunctioning around us. That is the easiest thing to do. The next easiest is to complain about it. The harder step is to be objective, find what is not working, then what possibly can. The hardest thing is to find one’s personal way of contributing to the solution.

Like many, especially typhoon victims, there is a point when pain and desperation overwhelm whatever optimism there was in the first place. Typhoons do not choose whom to hit. Everyone in their way just gets battered, rich or poor. The great difference, though, is that the richer one is, the better-prepared one can be, enough to withstand the most typhoons. Those with fewer resources, and worst of all, the poorest, are always the hardest hit. Their homes get blown away and it’s the evacuation center for them if any is available.

I listened to several reports of the damage wrought by Typhoon Ompong in the North. I watched live coverages where the President, some members of the Cabinet, and senior LGU officers were present. I was happy to know the level of their preparations and their quick responses. But it was heartbreaking to imagine the pain and sorrow of victims who lost so much, even some loved ones.

The need of evacuation centers was a front-and-center concern, which it should be and which should have been decades ago. When massive destruction and death accompany natural disasters, the government is moved to act quickly and more generously. But never had there been a policy to establish evacuation centers because everyone assumed that public schools can accommodate the victims. They can, up to a point, but this disrupts the schooling of students whose classrooms are converted to temporary shelters. Now, though, it just might become policy to build evacuation centers if I heard the President right. It can be a 5 to 10-year program, but at least it begins.

The focus may now be the building of evacuation centers because the need is constant and urgent with our pattern of typhoons and other natural disasters. Yet, it is more important to understand why the need is that important. Remember, natural disasters got both rich and poor. But only the poor need evacuation centers because only the poor have homes that get blown away easily.

Thus, it is not really a matter of typhoons which represent the most common of natural calamities. Rather, it is about poverty. Even the tragic landslide at Itogon that buried small miners. It was really not about landslides but, again, about poverty. The poor are forced to be where they are for two basic reasons. One, it is where they are allowed, temporary at that, to stay without harassment because they have no legal right to be anywhere. Two, it is where they can earn survival income, even where it is dangerous like those slopes in Itogon.

Filipinos were mostly landless until not so long ago. When the OFW phenomenon unfolded, and OFWs, though considered themselves poor, have never been from the poorest, they impacted the overall poverty situation because of their steady earnings and their numbers. They also triggered a construction boom in the countryside because they bought land and build houses. Through them, the landlessness of Filipinos decreased. Imagine what it was before the OFWs sacrificed their lives abroad.

The poorest of the poor are not OFWs. We already feel sorry for the OFWs and their families because of the pain and the attendant consequences of separation. Yet, a whole 30-35% of our population comprising the poorest of the poor can only dream of working abroad. It is not as though they lack the skills, which may be true later for many, but it is first and foremost the lack of documents. When you have no documents, you cannot get travel papers. Even if you know how to read and write well enough to apply or qualify to apply, you need an address to start with.

It is inconceivable how many Filipino families remain landless. No one has really tried to get a census on landlessness. Before, it must have embarrassed government to even think of it because the level of landlessness can truly embarrass a sovereign nation. When a government has millions of hectares of public land but millions of Filipinos are landless, it is a matter of shame. Imagine, the government owns more land than the sons and daughters of the motherland! But that horrible reality has locked in the landless to poverty more than lack of income. Landowners, even over a small plot just in square meters, will love and improve the only land they own or have permanent rights to. That is also a solid pathway to productivity, maturity, and a long-term view.

The thing about landlessness is that it leads to homelessness, it leads to hunger, it leads to a sense of not belonging, a lack of roots. Landlessness reduces one’s value as a human being and stunts the love of country because our country, before anything else, is the land of our birth.

From landlessness, we have since our independence from America been forced to accept its consequences – the greatest of which is poverty. Disaster after disaster is helping clear the numbness of those who have always governed our country, making them slowly, ever so slowly, realize that we have long offered the poor as sacrificial lambs to calamities. It is the moment of Build, Build, Build. Why don’t we build the poor and the weak among us, give them a fighting chance at a better life, address the landlessness that plagues them, and prevent it from creating worse consequences?

One voice in the desert, one concerned citizen, one simple insight.

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