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Friday, January 4, 2013


FOR most of my life, I never held academic life in high esteem. Back in my university days, many of my peers in the student movement and even professors criticized ivory tower intellectuals who spend their days debating their book learning the whole day but hardly create an impact on the lives of the hoi polloi.

I took to heart a poem composed by Guatemalan poet Otto Rene Castillo who addressed apolitical intellectuals: "No one will ask them about their dress, their long siestas after lunch, no one will want to know about their sterile combats with 'the idea of the nothing,' no one will care about their higher financial learning."

Like the final judgment, Castillo said that "on that day the simple men will come. Those who had no place in the books and poems of the apolitical intellectuals, but daily delivered their bread and milk, their tortillas and eggs, those who drove their cars, who cared for their dogs and gardens and worked for them, and they'll ask: 'What did you do when the poor suffered, when tenderness and life burned out of them?' Apolitical intellectuals of my sweet country, you will not be able to answer."

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In my case, I want to provide an answer when I'll be held to account. Right after college, I chose to work among the grassroots and in the process learn from their experiences. I learned how they used the national language, their imagery, and even sentence construction, which I then put into writing statements that attempt to capture their souls.

I took part in a Church-based community organizing program in Tondo among the poor settlers on their rights to housing and jobs. A few years later, I used the Manila experiences to work among farm workers and mountain peasants especially in Northern Negros Natural Park and the Mt. Kanlaon Natural Park.

I felt more at home learning from the grassroots than from university professors who find themselves happily stuck behind the four walls of academia. I tried to capture in year-end reports and articles not just the development experiences of mountain communities but their rich and colorful languages, which I try to translate from Hiligaynon expressions into English.

Our Swiss partner, the Swiss Interchurch Aid, noted our experiences and invited me to make a presentation on forest and development in Berne, Switzerland. From there I got in touch with other academics who are involved with mountain communities in Latin America and Africa.

With the Swiss colleagues, the PhDs combined their academic researches with grassroots immersion. Not for them are the narrow confines of their academic communities. Unlike many Filipinos with doctorates, many of them don't even flaunt their PhD.

I felt an affinity with them. And they treated me as their equal, when we took part in global e-conferences that later led to international conferences in France, Italy, Switzerland, Indonesia, and Peru.

Later, I was drawn back to academia when I passed a scholarship for a certificate course on human rights in Columbia University. Its executive director Dr. Joseph Paul Martin explained to us the basis for the Center for the Study of Human Rights. They want to get those human rights defenders who have in the trenches for the defense of economic, social, and cultural rights.

Now, I find myself writing peer-reviewed articles based on my personal experiences. The first was a chapter of the book "United Nations Reform and the New Collective Security" published by Cambridge Press.

Another is a peer-reviewed article of the Third World Study Center at the University of the Philippines-Diliman on food sovereignty movement in Negros based on the BIND and ONOPRA Experiences. Dr. Roseanne A. Rutten, a Lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam, contributed an article on agrarian angst and rural resistance in contemporary Southeast Asia. Her fields of interest cover social movements and collective action, rural change, and strategies of farmers and laborers.

In Roseanne's case, she immersed herself with the farm workers of Murcia in the 1980s. She studied Hiligaynon, the better to understand the issues from both the farmworkers and the hacenderos. Like Paul Martin, she knows that before she earns the right to write, she must first learn from those who know best. Not from the books and the internet but from real life experiences of various stakeholders.

Please email comments to bqsanc@gmail.com

Published in the Sun.Star Bacolod newspaper on January 04, 2013.

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