25 April 2014

Extraordinary Possibilities for Ordinary People III

Dinagat Islands Rep. Kaka Bag-ao delivered this speech in the "Living the Legacy of Hubert H. Humphrey" Panel and Global Webinar last 25 April 2014 where she received the Distinguished Leadership Award for Internationals in the University of Minnesota, United States of America. She was a 2006-2007 Humphrey Fellow for Law and Human Rights.

Eight years ago, I came to this University as one of the 150 Humphrey fellows who would spend a year away from home and from our ordinary work to learn and muster our skills, knowledge, and expertise in our respective careers. In 2006, I was a young lawyer with 10 years or so of public interest lawyering experience in the Philippines. I was then the Executive Director of BALAOD–Mindanaw, a non-government organization founded by a group of lawyers, including myself, who share a common vision – to help marginalized communities of farmers, fisherfolks, indigenous peoples, women, and workers use the law to protect and advance their welfare and interests.

A year after, I left the four walls of this university filled with enthusiasm, renewed passion, and full of hope. There is no better way to summarize and recall what that one-year fellowship to me than to go back to what I have written as my Reflection for Graduation. Pardon me if I have to quote myself. 

"… I realized that the cold inspires you and sometimes forces you to create warmth deep within your soul that releases a liberating energy. 
"This warmth facilitated so many milestones for this fellowship and for the fellows. The warmth that we bring from our respective countries and the warmth created by the environment around us helped develop not only mutual understanding among professionals but deep friendships that I am sure will last a lifetime.  We were able to create a community, aware of our diversity, critical of inconsistencies around the world at the same time sharing a passion to go beyond our individual limitations and to dare to dream of a better world not only for the present but also for the future of our children."

My year as a Humphrey Fellow has enriched me in so many ways and beyond my expectations. I have learned from the experiences of others who took that journey with me. The Humphrey Institute, the Law School, and the Human Rights Center have taught me lessons and experiences that opened up new perspectives and widened my own worldview. 

Upon my return home to the Philippines, my bags were barely unpacked when I was summoned to begin another journey  that required all the energies, renewed passion, and the knowledge and skills that I have gained during my 1-year Humphrey fellowship. It was a journey with a group of indigenous farmers from the Municipality of Sumilao in the Province of Bukidnon. We literally walked about 1,700 kilometers from their homes in Bukidnon to the halls of power in Manila. They were fighting to reclaim 144 hectares of their ancestral land which were being converted in to a hog farm by one of the Philippines' biggest corporations. The farmers were dispossessed of their land by a series of decisions of a government that was caught in the claws of the powerful and the rich.

While it was the utter sense of desperation that drove the farmers to make this march, the longest in Philippine history, to our country’s capital, it was a journey of hope. This march and the desperation that it represented and symbolized caught the imagination of our nation. The plight of the farmers gained national prominence and hogged the headlines of our country’s media. This shaped our country’s public opinion and gained for them so much sympathy and solidarity from Filipinos of all walks of life. The Catholic Church, led by its cardinals, bishops and the clergy, supported the farmers’ cause. Faced with tremendous public pressure, the Philippine government reversed its position and favoured the farmers. Left with not much choice, San Miguel Corporation, one of the biggest corporations in our country, negotiated with the farmers and returned to them their ancestral land. This day, the landless indigenous farmers are already small owner-cultivators who are engaged in farming through their cooperative. Seven years since their desperate 1,700-kilometer march, visible and palpable improvements in their lives can now be observed. Indeed their desperate march bore fruits of hope and development not only to the lives of the farmers but also to their local community. Their dramatic march had also catapulted the cause of agrarian reform in our country that a couple of years later, the Philippines extended its agrarian reform program for another five years.

This 1,700 kilometer journey, this David-and-Goliath struggle of the Sumilao Farmers had a tremendous impact in my own personal journey as a dreamer of change. In 2010, I found myself in the Philippine Congress as the Party-List Representative of Akbayan Citizens’ Action Party, one of the small but progressive political parties in the Philippines. I found myself being part of an institution in the Philippines that has been and still is dominated by the elite and the rich and powerful. During my years of studying the law and helping the marginalized communities take grasp of the law, I have always maintained that the law is a double-edged sword - it can used against them but they can also use the to advance their welfare and interest. The Philippine Congress, the legislative machine in my country, can also be viewed as a double-edged sword. It can be used to advance patronage politics and maintain the status quo of corruption and societal inequity but it can also provide us with opportunities to tilt the balance in favour of the poor, in favour of change. 

My stint as a member of the Philippine Congress has provided with unique opportunities to advocate for change. We were able to enact the Reproductive Health Law against all odds. Just a week ago the Supreme Court of the Philippines has sustained the constitutionality of this important piece of legislation which mandates the Philippine government to provide support and a wide range of health programs and services that will benefit the poor women, children, and families. I was able to take part in the impeachment of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court as a member of the prosecution panel in our efforts to fight corruption and advocate for transparency and accountability of public officials. We were able to move forward critical legislation such as the National Land Use Bill and the Minerals Management Bill.

When I ran and won as a Representative of the Lone District of Dinagat Islands during last year’s elections, the local media called me the “dragon-slayer” for challenging, successfully, a scion of a political dynasty that lorded over the reins of government in the province for a couple of decades. I told that I might have defeated a member of a strong political dynasty but I did not slay any dragon. The real “dragon” is not just a political dynasty, it is the massive poverty, underdevelopment, and inequality that the province is immersed in. “Dragon slaying” is not winning elections, it is making government work for the welfare of the people and making significant and palpable improvements in the economic, political, and cultural life of the communities in the province. 

Seven years ago, I stood in a hall similar to this to thank and bid farewell to my peers, my mentors, and the wonderful people that have supported us during our Fellowship Year here in the University of Minnesota. Today, it is my privilege to once again stand here in your midst to welcome the graduates of this year’s Fellowship Program. As you prepare to bid farewell to your peers and mentors and prepare yourselves to go back to your respective home countries let me share a few lessons that I have learned during and after my Fellowship year.

1. Learning is unending, you never really graduate.

What we have learned in our experiences in each of our fields of endeavour, and all that we have learned during our Fellowship year are only preparations for us to learn more as we return to our respective work in our home countries. Always find time to regularly reflect on the work that you have done and cull the lessons from these new experiences. Taking stock of the lessons from our experiences allows us to be become more creative and innovative. They also allow us to find areas where we can trail-blaze and begin something new.   Never lose your ability to question and be critical. Questioning what is will lead us to imagining what can be.

2. This journey is not meant to be solitary, seek company. 

Working for democracy, social justice and pushing for change in our society often lead us to taking the “road less travelled.” The journey down this road is certainly difficult and challenging. Working for change always leads us to the path of questioning and challenging the status quo. Working for change is better done collectively by people who share the same vision, values and principles. The task of building a better world involves building communities of people believing in the change that we are committed to work for. Even Don Quixote, in his epic battle against the windmills has Rocinante, his scrawny horse, for a companion.

3. Dream the impossible, it makes the possible possible.

If there is one thing common among us Humphrey Fellows and Alumni it is our being dreamers. We came here because we have dreams to pursue and we all want to be better instruments in transforming our dreams into reality. Let us not be thrifty in dreaming, do not be afraid to dream for the impossible and the absurd. I have dreamed of building a bridge connecting Dinagat Islands to the mainland of Mindanao. If this were built it would be the Philippines’  longest bridge. Many people think this is impossible as it would span several kilometres over the often rough sea which part of the Pacific Ocean. I do not mind because it made building the highway and a better road network within the island very possible.   Defeating my political rivals, who belong to a very strong political dynasty, in an election was once thought to be something impossible, and even absurd. Now people are dreaming about a “New Dinagat”, a province that is free from the clasps of a political dynasty of the elite.

Let me end, my sharing with you by once again thanking the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program for the opportunity that I was given eight years ago. What I have learned here for a year will last a lifetime. Whenever I felt so alone in the struggles that I have been through in the last seven years, I find comfort in the thought that I am but just one of the 5,000 other Humphrey alumni all over the world facing their own struggles and working for the same dream. 

I have to ask the indulgence of my mentors here in the University of Minnesota and the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program. Becoming a politician is a huge deviation from the Individual Program Plan which I have submitted in August 2006 for our Mid-Year Review. Never in my wildest dreams have I imagined myself becoming a politician. Perhaps you will forgive my deviation if I say that I am just following the footsteps Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey.

Thank you very much.

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