December 2004

by Perry Diaz

While the lowlanders’ basic survival depends on the water flowing down from the forested mountains, the highlanders — the mountain inhabitants — depend on farming the mountains. However, to farm the mountain, they need to clear the mountains of trees. This is called “kaingin” — a slash-and-burn method of farming. I remember in the 1950’s and 1960’s during the Holy Week trek to Baguio, hardly was there an evening where there were no fires in the mountains. The “kaingin” is an illegal but accepted practice by the cultural minorities — like the Igorots and Apayaos. Although the Philippine government does not condone “kaingin,” it does not have the means to police the mountains to stop “kaingin.” Today, you’d seldom see a “kaingin” burning. Is that good? Yes… and no. No, it’s not a good sign because the reason you do not see a “kaingin” anymore is that there are no more mountain forests to burn.

The biggest predators of the Philippine ecosystem are the illegal loggers. Philippine law prohibits logging in government-owned land unless you have a logging permit. However, to get a logging permit requires a stringent set of conditions, among which is a reforestation program. And just like any other “controlled” business activity in the Philippines, corruption blooms like a field of golden poppy.

The government agency that controls logging — and issues logging licenses — is the Bureau of Forestry. In the 1960’s before migrating to the US, I used to hang out with Tom (not his real name), a son of the Director of the Bureau of Forestry, and Jojo (not his real name), a son of the Auditor of the Bureau of Forestry. The Bureau of Forestry was located in an old dilapidated Spanish-era building in Binondo. I used to go there with Tom whenever he needed some spending money from his father. Jojo, on the other hand was a tightwad. However, whenever we went on a night out to Barbecue Plaza, we traveled in style — we had a chauffeur. Hey, it wasn’t too bad hanging out with sons of well-positioned officials. I didn’t say “rich officials” because they’re not supposed to be rich. Actually, they lived a pretty decent — and discreet — lifestyle, not the kind of lavish lifestyles that today’s bureaucrats live.

Don’t get me wrong, Tom’s father and Jojo’s father were down-to-earth honest people. But they were part of a corrupt system that became the domain of powerful politicians and their business associates. Logging concessions were “sweetheart deals” because they are considered one of the best deals anyone could get from the Philippine government. In many cases, the real owner of a logging concession was a politician or a politician’s relative or friend. The licensee was no more than a “dummy,” a front used by the real owner. Although Tom’s father and Jojo’s father were two of the highest officials of the Bureau of Forestry, they were just pawns in the whole scheme of things. Sometimes, they didn’t have too much of a choice but to cooperate with the powerful special interest groups. It’s quid pro quo. That was just how the system worked.

The denudation of the forests in the Philippines only took a generation to accomplish. With an annual deforestation rate of 3.5% and with barely 30% of the forests remaining, the illegal loggers will cut the last timber in about 10 years. Unless the Philippine government comes up with a plan and adopts stern regulations to stop illegal logging and starts a massive and ambitious reforestation program, the Philippines would soon be known as the 7,100 islands of bald mountains.

But no matter how good a plan is, it would not work unless the people make it work. It is a challenge to today’s generation of Filipinos that the sins of their fathers can be forgiven and forgotten only if they themselves would make an effort to reverse the disintegration of the ecosystem of the Philippines. 

Since the last week of November, three storms, including “Winnie,” struck and wrought havoc in Luzon. And then came “Yoyong” which battered Bicol and Southern Tagalog. The storms devastated Luzon and claimed the lives of more than 1,600 people. Landslides from denuded mountains and flash floods have devastated towns and villages leaving thousands of residents homeless. Food shortages and inadequate medical emergency services have caused undue hardship to hundreds of thousands of people.

The Philippine archipelago was Mother Nature’s gift to mankind. With 7,100 lovely islands, it has one of the longest coastlines and one of the largest — if not the largest — body of sea water within its territorial boundary. The land is fertile and the mountains are lush with rain forests and natural resources. The beaches — like Boracay — have some of the purest white sand in the world. There are species, like the largest eagle (monkey-eating) and the smallest monkey, that are indigenous to the Philippines. The forests have some of the hardiest trees found only in the Philippines. The people always wear a happy face. Well… there are few times when they’re not too happy like when Mother Nature unleashes its monsoon storms.Every year since the beginning of time, tropical typhoons pass through the Philippine archipelago. However, the ecological system in the archipelago has created an environment that could withstand the fiercest typhoons. The mountains are densely covered with rain forests that absorb the monsoon rain, store them in natural underground reservoirs, and release an endless flow of spring water cascading down to the waterfalls and rivers providing the inhabitants of the lowlands and coastal areas with life’s most precious element — water.

by Perry Diaz

When I was attending high school at the San Sebastian College on Azcarraga Blvd. in Manila, I always treated myself to a glass of ice-cold buko juice — peddled by street vendors — while waiting for my JD bus to Quezon City. It was a good refreshing drink especially during the hot and humid months. This was in the late 50’s.

Today, buko juice is still being peddled in Manila in the same manner 50 years ago. However, in the past five years, buko juice is now being peddled in Asian markets in the United States. Recently, I went to my favorite Filipino supermarket and looked for the canned buko juice. Eureka! I found it in several brand names. But none of which was processed in the Philippines. They were processed in Thailand or Vietnam.

Buko or coconut is grown rampantly in the Philippines. As a matter of fact, the Philippines is the world’s number one grower of coconut. A hardy tree, coconut can withstand the worst typhoons unleashed by Mother Nature and it can grow on just about anything, including water.

With the abundance of coconut, exporting processed coconut products — from buko juice to “macapuno” — should not be a problem. However, the Philippines, due to lack of capital infusion, does not have the means to process its huge deposits of natural resources — from seaweeds to oil. The Japanese and Taiwanese have taken advantage of the Philippines’ inability to process its natural resources by buying raw materials from the Philippines and processing them into consumer products; e.g., rattan furniture, plywood.

Wouldn’t it be good for the Philippine economy to export canned buko juice and other delicacies? How about furniture? The Philippines has one of the best wooden furniture-making industry. However, it is mainly a cottage industry — a mom and pop operation. The Philippines used to have a growing export of rattan furniture. However, the lack of quality control forced the exporters to drop rattan furniture from their product export list. Today, Taiwan has a virtual monopoly of exporting rattan furniture. Since rattan does not grow in Taiwan, it imports the rattan vines from the Philippines where they grow wildly in the rain forests. The rattan, or “yantok,” vine does not grow anywhere else in the world.

Another product that can be made in the Philippines and exported is the baseball cap popularly known in the Philippines as “sure fit” or “shurpit” in the vernacular. People call the cap “sure fit” because it was designed to fit all sizes. At one time, K-Mart placed an order of one million “shurpit” caps. No one took the order. The reason: Nobody was big enough to make one million “shurpit” caps.

This situation where no one is big enough to handle large orders is prevalent in the Philippines’ manufacturing industry. Clothing manufacturing is one of the big industries; however, most of them use antiquated technology and many are small “sweat shop” operations.

In a nutshell, the Philippines needs an infusion of capital to modernize its manufacturing industry. Local sources of capital are drying up fast. Foreign sources of capital is abundant; however, because of the 60/40 rule, foreign venture capitalists are not motivated to invest in the Philippines… for a good reason.

The 60/40 rule applies to the ownership ratio of businesses including corporations; that is, 60% of capital stock must be owned by Filipinos. There is nothing wrong with this provision in the constitution. The major problem is that foreign investors are required to capitalize and pay up their stock subscription 100% while Filipino investors are required to only capitalize 25% and pay up 20% of their capitalized stocks, which means that a Filipino investor needs to pay up only 5% of the subscribed stocks while a foreign investor has to pay up 100% of the subscribed stocks. However, dividends are distributed according to the subscribed stocks. To begin with, the corporation’s operating capital would be less than the subscribed stocks. There is not much to expect when a corporation is operating at 45% of its capitalization.

I brought this issue up with Speaker Joe De Venecia — during the Ramos presidency — when I arranged for him to speak to a joint session of the California Legislature, the first and only time that a Philippine congressional leader addressed the state legislature. He explained to me that it would take a constitutional change to do away, or modify, the 60/40 ratio. He further explained that a “charter change” convention — known as Cha-Cha — had to be convened to make a constitutional change. At that time, a Cha-Cha was deemed too political because of fear among the presidential wanna-be’s that then President Fidel Ramos would change the constitution to allow him to run for another term.

Now, there are again talks of Cha-Cha. However, some of Presidential Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s supporters fear that a Cha-Cha might change the form of government sooner than PGMA’s presidential term. Actually, former President Ramos has suggested a constitutional change just a few days ago. It sure made a lot of people nervous. If this has to happen, would it be considered as a “constitutional coup d’etat?” Hey, let’s give PGMA a chance. She’s trying very hard. Even First Gentleman Mike Arroyo is beginning to look serious now. He’s been wearing eyeglasses lately. I am not sure if those are prescription glasses. If they are just for “looks…” Hey! Whatever it takes to convince the Filipinos that the PGMA is really serious about uplifting the economic condition of the Philippines.

Meanwhile, my fellow Filipino-Americans, if you yearn for a real buko juice, you might as well take a nostalgic trip to the Motherland during the Christmas or Lenten season. There is nothing more refreshing than an ice-cold buko juice.




by Perry Diaz



You mention HR 677 and chances are you will get varied reactions from Filipino-Americans. For those who have not heard about it, you would probably have to explain a lot of details before they could understand the issue and then ask you questions which would make you wonder if you understood what you were trying to articulate in the first place. And for those who have heard something about HR 677, watch out because you would probably hear different accounts of what it is all about.

HR 677 — introduced in the 108th Congress and known as the “Filipino Veterans Equity Act of 2003” — was authored by Representative Randall Cunningham (Republican, California). The purpose of the bill is “to amend Title 38, United States Code, to deem certain service in the organized military forces of the Government of the Commonwealth of the Philippines and the Philippine Scouts to have been active service for purposes of benefits under programs administered by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.” That is the one-sentence language of the bill. As simple as it may sound, HR 677 is a complicated piece of legislation, depending on whom you are talking to.

I checked the status of HR 677 and the congressional records revealed that on February 11, 2003, it was introduced and referred to the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee and on March 12, 2003, it was referred to the Subcommittee on Benefits. That was just the first step — “Introduced” — in the legislative process. Subsequent steps to be followed are: Scheduled for Debate/Floor Vote in the House, Passed/Failed House, Moved to the Senate/Vote in the Senate, Passed/Failed Senate, Sent to the President, Signed by President. Since the bill is still in the “Introduced” stage, and the 108th Congress is now in “lame duck” session, HR 677 is virtually dead.

One self-proclaimed Fil-Am veterans’ leader talked about the “injustice caused by the Rescission Act.” By the same token, he mentioned that “the mere mention of a FilAm Equity Bill is a turn off to most Americans who equate it to retroactive pay from 1939 – an initiative that the American Legion also find (sic) difficult to support.” He talked about “injustice” and then cautions you against using the word “Equity.” Quite an oxymoron, isn’t it? It’s like walking a tight rope with a safety net a foot below the rope. But what is interesting is that, while he talked with an appearance of authority, he made the wrong assumption that HR 677 asked for retroactive pay from 1939. There is no such provision in HR 677.

Meanwhile, several Filipino-American community leaders have criticized the Republicans for the failure to pass HR 677. They claimed that there are 191 Democratic co-sponsors and only 16 Republican co-sponsors. They insist that if there were more Republican co-sponsors, HR 677 would have passed. Apparently, these Filipino-American community leaders were under the impression that if they have enough votes on the floor, the House Veterans’ Committee would release the bill for a vote on the floor. That would not be the case. The Subcommittee on Benefits — where the bill was referred to — has yet to complete its assignment.

In the Midwest, a small group of veterans — about thirty-strong — is still actively seeking co-sponsors for HR 677 hoping that the bill will be released for a floor vote before the 108th Congress adjourns. With only a few weeks left in the “lame duck” 108th Congress, I doubt if HR 677 will ever see the light of day again. Meanwhile, this group is working on a “novel” proposal. According to a representative of the Veterans Federation of the Philippines (VFP), the official organization representing the Philippine-based veterans, this Midwest group has proposed a draft of a bill — released via the Internet — that would only provide monthly benefits to US-based Filipino veterans at the rate of $800 per month. Philippine-based veterans will not be included in this proposed bill. This “novel” proposal has ignited a cauldron of controversy pitting representatives of the VFP against the authors — self-proclaimed advocates of Filipino World War II veterans — of this “novel” proposal . While it would appear like a few veterans would get their “thirty pieces of silver,” this “novel” equity bill is anathema to the Philippine-based veterans. After all those years of fighting for equity, the Philippine-based veterans felt that they have been sold out by a few self-serving nefarious individuals — none of which has ever served in the military — who, in their self-glorification pronouncements, claim to represent all of the Filipino veterans.

After 58 years of trying to restore the benefits lost as a result of the discriminatory Rescission Act of 1946, the fragmented Filipino World War II Veterans movement has a hard time working together in unison. Filipino-American community leaders in conjunction with several veterans groups scattered throughout the United States, have been at the forefront of the Equity Bill legislation. While several small pieces of benefits have passed the US Congress and signed into law in recent years, a process that became known as “Step by Step,” the final fight for full equity — known as “All or Nothing” — has led to “nothing.”

There have been discussions that HR 677 is flawed. Nobody has specifically identified the “flaw” in HR 677. However, in my opinion, the flaw is that the bill would require the annual disbursement of about $200 million in benefits to the Filipino veterans. The question is: Is there enough money in the US government’s 2005-2006 fiscal year budget to initially fund the HR 677 disbursement in the coming fiscal year? Shouldn’t HR 677 have addressed the budgetary source of the funds?

Perhaps, it is time to think outside the box. With their ranks dwindling pretty fast, the less than 30,000 surviving Filipino veterans — about 20,000 of which are Philippine-based — are now in the twilight of their lives. We need to put a dignified and equitable closure to their sad plight. They put their lives on the line for the United States, it is just fitting that that they be treated just like any American veterans.

The Filipino Veterans Equity Bill Task Force has been organized to review the issues on HR 677 and determine what is a realistic and equitable bill that would pass the legislative requirements of the US Congress. It is often said that soldiers will never leave a comrade behind in the battlefield — dead or alive. This should also be true for those who survived the war. They should remain the “band of brothers” that they were 60 years ago — protecting each other from those who would attempt to divide them and conquer their will to fight for one more battle that will give them a final glorious moment in their lives. General Douglas MacArthur said in his farewell speech at the military academy in West Point, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” But let us not forget that as the Filipino veterans fade away, we must make sure that dignity and honor be bestowed upon these heroes.