Uphill reforms

"Tarrying, not changing, can be even more dangerous, because it deters us fromóin the process of changing the worldóbecoming better persons ourselves."

Reform is never as easy to do as it sounds. While very few will dispute the idea of reform itself, it becomes quite another matter when you go ahead and try to RE-FORM something or someone, to reshape “what is” into “what ought to be,” especially after years, or centuries, of having been “what was.”

This is especially true in our country, where changing “what was” is burdened not only by natural human aversion to risk and uncertainty, but also by our own Filipino habit of clinging to what is traditional and familiar. This is fed to a large extent by our manana mentality—“what will be, will be”—but also by the innate conservatism of the Catholic faith that unites so many of us.

Unfortunately for us, the secular world is not—yet—the kingdom of heaven on earth. We are continually called to remake the old into the new, burdened in this task by our own scarcity of resources and good will to each other. But tarrying, not changing, can be even more dangerous, because it deters us from—in the process of changing the world—becoming better persons ourselves.

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A case in point is the current uproar over rice imports and tariffication. How easily we’ve forgotten those bad old days when we often had to line up for rice that was available only at exorbitant prices, or when millions of tons of rice spoiled inside government warehouses because of poor procurement and stocking, or when stories came out about rice hoarding by traders or corruption inside the NFA.

It got to the point where rice malnutrition had become a real threat to the children of the poor. If only for that reason, one simply can’t fault the decision by this administration to finally open up the industry and make cheap imported rice readily available to all those malnourished poor children, while at the same time raising tariff revenues from those imports that could fund safety nets for affected poor rice farmers.

Unfortunately, every reform must deal with its counter-reformers. A recent initiative, supported by a coalition of leftist party-listers, NFA employees, and rich rice farmers—no surprises there!—wants to repeal the rice tariffication law and put all those malnourished children at risk again. It’s a vocal coalition, loud enough to provoke the President into suspending, for now, the operation of that law.

We trust that Duterte will stand his ground on not repealing the law outright, which he correctly points out could lead to a “food crisis.” His common-sense position also reflects his very democratic respect for the rule of the majority—millions of rice consumers—over the complaints of a minority—who certainly deserve to be heard, or even cushioned by special arrangements, but certainly not to overrule the good of the majority.

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Less spectacular—though just as innovative—is the appointment by the DENR of a thousand “estero rangers” who will patrol some 279 waterways traversing 711 barangays of Metro Manila. Their remit is to clean the trash traps, prevent more trash dumping especially by the informal settlers who live by these esteros, and hopefully inculcate more responsible behavior by these communities.

We’ve all seen those embarrassing photos of Manila’s waterways clogged by trash, mostly plastic items. I remember a story told me, years ago, by green activist Orly Mercado about how he had once ordered the military to clean up the esteros during his stint as Defense secretary under former President Erap. Well, cleaned up they were, but after six months they were again just as trash-clogged as before.

Changing the culture of the communities concerned is clearly the only permanent solution. It seems that the new estero rangers won’t be armed, nor will they have the power to arrest. But we hope that their mere presence along the esteros, by dint of example and reminders, will persuade offenders to mend their ways.

It's the same story with clearing the roads, or no smoking or drinking in public, or obeying traffic rules, or clearing the barangays of drugs, one by one. These are reforms on the ground, day to day, that the Duterte administration might be more profitably remembered for. We can only wish the best of luck to DENR Secretary Roy Cimatu—a former AFP chief of staff—with his new army of rangers and missionaries of better behavior.

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Today’s readings present us with two exemplars of faith, although quite different from each other. In the first reading (2 Mc 6: 18-31), we meet the venerable Eleazar, who is being forced by the king to demean his faith by agreeing to eat pork. Even to save his own life, he will not simply pretend to eat the meat, but instead chooses martyrdom in order to set a noble example for the young.

In the Gospel (Lk 19: 1-10), the despised tax collector Zacchaeus receives Jesus into his house and promises the Lord to give half his wealth to the poor as well as compensate, four times over, those whom he extorted. Jesus declares in response that “salvation has come to this house,” reminding us that a great act of faith and charity is redemptive no matter how well or how poorly one has lived life before.

In the runup this week to the celebration of Christ the King on the last Sunday of ordinary time in the Church calendar, it is good to look to these two models of faith in a Lord whose Advent lies around the corner.

Readers can write me at [email protected]

Topics: Reform , rice imports and tariffication , Rodrigo Duterte , Orly Mercado , DENR , Roy Cimatu
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