“The evil that is in the world almost always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding.” – Albert Camus
Don’t get me wrong. It is a tremendous force for good and a symbol of hope in the Philippines — that makes it doubly hard for me to write negatively about it.
My first encounter with GK was an incredibly positive one. While scouting for a potential outreach venue for our students, we at the social science unit visited a GK site in Visayas Avenue. Nestled deep in the heart of a shanty town, the GK site emerged like an oasis — no, like heaven itself — as we walked through its gates. The transformation is undeniable. The people were kinder, the environment was cleaner and brighter, the youth were more pleasant, and the over-all tone was more hopeful. It wasn’t an urban poor ghetto we were in; it was a GK village and it was right.
But that was two years ago, and like all things, perceptions change. Truths come to light, and eras come to an end. In its campaign to eradicate slums, violence and poverty, Gawad Kalinga is also subject to the same pitfalls the mighty colonizers from the West bringing civilization encountered when they got to the East — universalism, superiority, intolerance and misplaced righteousness. They had good intentions, but so was the paved road towards hell.
Today I met a social worker who has engaged the Aeta community in Sitio Target, Mabalacat, Pampanga for the past seven years. It is named Sitio Target because the mountains there have been used by the Americans for target practice. You can see large craters cutting through the mountains.
I am refraining from mentioning any names to protect these people. I also have several words to say about businessman, graduation speaker, 2006 Magsaysay Award winner and GK founder Antonio Meloto, but I am refraining from that too. He is too popular; he just gave two commencement speeches and chances are you have copies in your inbox. I am well aware of the audience I have and I don’t have the means to fend off a libel suit right now. I have the facts though, just not the will to fight (see, I’m no polemicist). If I release these comments, I cannot claim that I am not defaming him. He’s too famous.
Instead, let’s stick to what we can all see. Shy of two hours away from Manila, Sitio Target is not out of reach, save from the media and their fixation on the hope and promise Gawad Kalinga inspires, thus giving us this onerous view — until now. A visit to the town will make one thing clear, unbelievable though it may be: The GK community in Sitio Target is a disaster.
I. Eye of the Beholder
Observe the following pictures. The first is the GK’s image of poverty, disease and backwardness. It is also everything that the Aeta needs. When the social worker asked them what they needed, they only had one response for seven years, “seven bolos.” Nothing more.
These are actually more modern Aeta homes. While they have traditionally been nomadic people, they have found the need to settle down as their population grew larger. Their homes have spaces between them since they need a yard for their farm animals. A house is not just the building for the Aeta. It includes their immediate vicinity where they have everything they need.
Most roofs are made of dried nipa or kogon grass, materials that will keep the interior of the house cool when it is hot outside, and warm if it is too cold outside. It needs to be replaced regularly and that is easily accomplished with the abundance of grass in the area.
An Aeta community is a communal society; they are the perfect communist society. Once, a male carabao (water buffalo) was donated to the village and the families with female carabaos took turns taking care of the male in the chance that the male would impregnate the female. Then, the offspring of the female would be handed over to those without a carabao.
Also wondered what happens to all those rice and canned goods we often donate? They are all given to the village elder who then determines where the resources go. Their priority is often the sick, then the rest is distributed fairly.
This harmony is possible because there are 150 families with 4 members on average. Despite the outward image of poverty and hardship GK — and the lay person — would see, the community is surprisingly self-sustaining.
Thus, enter Gawad Kalinga. Through the auspices of the Clark Development Foundation (CDC) and ANCOP Canada (Clark Field Pampanga is built on Aeta land, by the way), they bring with them the vision of building 150 houses for 150 families. The following picture is an example of their accomplishment.
However, the houses are ugly, impractical, irrelevant and unnecessary.
When given their new homes, the Aeta’s first question was, “Where do we put the carabao?” With only one meter separating the houses, they have been denied their space. And to make matters worse, everything was compartmentalized: people are now separated from cows, cows now separated from chickens, chickens now separated from everything else.
Also, the aluminum roofs (yero) have disrupted the Aeta’s health. Now, the unfeeling hard steel makes the inside hotter when it’s warm outside, and colder when it’s cool outside. A lot of Aetas have gotten sick because of their new homes.
While there are a handful who have taken it, more left their GK homes behind for a more traditional dwelling. Besides the reasons stated above, there is an Aeta practice of leaving their house after a member of their family passes away. They believe that the soul remains and chooses to reside there, thus they leave looking for another dwelling. This makes perfect sense for the Aetas since they have traditionally been a nomadic society.
Apparently, GK did not understand any of this. For one, they didn’t have an anthropologist among their ranks or at least consulted one before disrupting the Aeta community. Secondly, they didn’t consult the tribe’s elders though they claim that they had — it turns out that they only spoke to one ordinary tribesman. Their reason? If they were willing to talk to us, they must have been the leader. That is sheer naivete of course; any Aeta would talk to you.
The tribe has seen Tony Meloto only once too, and that was when he came with a group of foreigners (most likely their Canadian sponsors), delivered speeches in English which no one in the tribe understood, had pictures (with locales they asked to smile), and left. Next thing the Aetas knew, houses were being built but with no idea why.
They failed to understand the culture of the place and imposed their own brand of reality on top of the Aeta ethos. My most recent students know that term too well as the fundamental grounding of any society. Ethos determines our actions, rituals and social order and any disruption in it will assuredly spur social change that is often violent, but can be managed.
In the case of the Aetas in Sitio Target, GK threatened their traditional way of life. And this, with good intentions in the heart of the volunteers.
II. Brother’s Keeper
It is my opinion and that of the social worker I have conversed with, that Gawad Kalinga has been irresponsible in Sitio Target.
I will always applaud them for their success in the urban areas but I beg to caution them when it comes to working with indigenous people (IPs). By and large, I share her sentiments in putting an immediate halt to the project and I will join her efforts. However, it is not only Gawad Kalinga and their corporate sponsors who have been cultural imperialists in the area.
A Korean spa (see picture below) has already been built in the area, and two Aetas killed each other off due to an embezzlement issue. One Aeta was entrusted with money by the Koreans, took some for himself and was discovered by an elder. The elder ordered the death of the embezzler, and the embezzler hired some NPA to kill the elder. The elder died, the first ever recorded murder in the community.
Foreign presence in the community caused severe political, economic and cultural disruptions. Recall your grade school and high school lessons on the Spanish in the Philippines; history holds tightly to her truths.
In Sitio Target, people died and communities splintered. But are all these historical inevitabilities?
In The End of Poverty, Jeffrey Sachs speaks of clinical economics, the economic science of determining the exact problems of a community and responding with the necessary and precise solutions. There are seven main reasons why the poor remain poor and cultural barriers is one of them. That is so here in Sitio Target.
So to Gawad Kalinga, I recommend that you hire a team of historians, sociologists and anthropologists which you can consult when you work with any community but most importantly IPs. If you can’t hire any, I’m sure you can get in touch with a lot willing to work in a consultative position. Your cause is just after all.
Some hardcore GK people can accuse me of denying the Aetas a ladder out of poverty. They would be wrong though. Building houses in this reckless manner is not helping them climb out of poverty; it is handing them their own coffins. GK can still make a positive difference in Sitio Target by doing one of two things.
First, if they still insist in building houses, then hire an architect that would design houses which are relevant and responsive to the environment. If possible, stay as close as possible to indigenous materials. I am sure these designs will remain under P50,000 (roughly $1000) which is the limit for each home.
Second, focus on the people’s livelihood and education. The Aetas do have aspirations. As a matter of fact, they pooled their resources to send two girls to the university so one could be a grade school teacher and another a midwife. (These decisions were made as a community.) Enhance their capacity to make their own living and let economic development and social change take its course.
I can imagine that eventually the Aetas will have their own concrete homes with all of our modern amenities. But this will take time. Development and change will come to them but it can’t be rushed. The job of well-intentioned groups such as the GK is to make that transition from antiquity to modernity as smooth as possible, and to impose a different way of life is to destroy everything they have taken 7,000 houses to build.
During one forum, an Aeta asked the GK representatives what they expect from them in exchange for the houses.
One GK representative, a pastor, replied, “Pagmamahal sa isa’t isa.” (Love for one another.) They also added that they refrain from drinking and gambling, two vices which don’t exist in the Aeta community. Then the pastor continued to ramble on, talking about how the Aetas should redeem themselves from their nefarious ways and be better brothers and sisters. Not only was it preaching to the choir, but it was insulting.
That pastor’s response to the Aeta is part of their mission as an organization that evolved out of the Couples for Christ. They wish to impart values and help form communities. I just find this ironic that they fail to learn from the very community they wish to transform. And the Aetas definitely have so much to teach us.
Of course, the pastor did not intend to be condescending. I understand where he and the rest of GK is coming from. In the Visayas Avenue I visited, I really felt the love and warmth flowing through the people. Many have been touched — and continue to be touched — by the GK experience. Many more will forever attest to the healing power of a beautiful home, clean surroundings, and the grace of God’s love. I am convinced that GK is capable of a great good.
However, that doesn’t mean that they can’t do their job even better.
I have only spoken about one, seemingly isolated case in Sitio Target and a lot of GK and CFC loyalists consider this enough grounds to gloss over the Aeta situation. After all, a quick Google search of “Gawad Kalinga” will lead you to tons of sites, blogs and news sites praising this initiative set forth by Antonio Meloto. This may as well be the first to buck the trend.
But my conversation with that social worker was too unsettling, thus inspiring me to write this. I am not here to give GK a bad name. I want it to be better. I am neither denying these Aeta their own slice of heaven. I just don’t want GK to leave them with a piece of hell.
Postscript (added December 16, 2007)
This article really took on a life of its own. This found its way to many e-mail boxes, Wikipedia and even the Manila Times. Therein the editor split the article into two parts, one for December 9 and the other for December 10 as part of a larger feature on the GK-CFC split. To the best of my knowledge however, this article did not instigate the split and it was never my intention to do so.
But if it did, then I suppose the God of Gawad Kalinga indeed has His way. Tough.
However, of all the places this article took me, none would be more important than going to Sitio Target itself. A lot of my critics challenged me to walk the talk and indirectly, I did. As part of our school’s annual outreach program, we decided to include an immersion to Sitio Target.
Together with twelve high school students and one co-faculty, we stayed the night at Sitio Target, learned about the Aeta way of life and even joined them en route to their mountain.
Of course, it would be unlike me to not write about it. You can read everything in We All Have Our Eden, a piece I am incredibly proud of.