7 February 2017
Message at the Tahanan ng Mabuting Pastol Alumni Homecoming, Tahanan ng Mabuting Pastol Seminary, Tagaytay City
There is a small island municipality in Northern Palawan called Agutaya, a fifth class town with a population of around 12,000. You have to take a ten-hour grueling boat ride from Coron just to reach its shores. Agutaya has no electricity, and access to safe, potable water is still a problem. During the height of Typhoon Yolanda, their only school building was destroyed – leaving many children with not enough classrooms to use, even up to this day.
When my team and I went to Agutaya two months ago, some of the locals were on the verge of tears. We were told later on that it was the first time that a national government official visited their area. While walking around, we noticed that the Grade 5 students were as small as the Grade 1 students.
Those children were stunted and would never get better. Stunting is an irreversible condition. We left Agutaya with broken hearts, but we went home with determined spirits. We promised ourselves that we will be back with help.
I am sure many of you here today have heard similar stories like that of Agutaya’s – small, far-flung, pockets of life where even the most basic of necessities are hard to come by.
Communities where families survive on a day-to-day basis. Dark, lonely corners in our society where people have lost hope even in themselves, some even resorting to violence, crime, and drug-abuse. Perhaps, some of you can relate, having been assigned to these places.
I trace my humble roots in community work as an lawyer for the poor with a group called SALIGAN. For almost ten years, we would spend our days hiking along mountainous trails, crossing fields and rivers under the heat of the sun. We would visit the most remote barangays and offer free legal services to farmers, fishermen, indigenous groups, rural women and children. We spend hours listening to their stories – narratives that reflect how the poor and disenfranchised have been left behind in our country’s quest for progress; personal accounts of suffering and injustice.
In the last several years, we have seen how much our country has developed – in terms of economic wealth and growth. We take pride in being one most vibrant democracies in the world. In the last few decades, we have brought down corrupt leaders, strengthened our institutions, and restored the liberties of our people.
Despite these many triumphs, a quarter of our population is still mired in deep poverty. Our country’s wealth and resources have taken too long to trickle down and be felt by those on the ground. Faced with these harsh realities, we turn to another and ask: how do we bring back faith in our people and restore the value of their lives?
I found the Church’s pastoral letter this past weekend to be highly enlightening. It spoke to my heart; and the feelings I have long harbored found solace in the affirmation of the Church.
That the life of every person comes from God, and it is God alone who can take it back. Taking drugs and pushing drugs shows disrespect for the gift of life, and endangers the life of others. But we must not lose faith in the ability of any person who has lost his way to change.
Finally and most importantly, we must understand that “the deep root of the drug problem and criminality is the poverty of the majority, the destruction of the family and corruption in society.”
We are called to be soldiers of God’s love and compassion during these extraordinary times. Extraordinary, extra challenging times – where many seem to have lost trust in our leaders, where the poor are pitted against the rich, and where many have taken advantage of our collective frustrations.
Let us not allow ruthlessness, an emerging culture of hate and apathy, to divide our nation. Now is the best time to revive our sense of community.
These words from our spiritual leaders speak the truth: “To consent and to keep silent in front of evil is to be an accomplice to it. If we neglect the drug addicts and pushers we have become part of the drug problem. If we consent or allow the killing of suspected drug addicts, we shall also be responsible for their deaths.”
Nowadays, it has become easy to speak of our countrymen in terms of facts and statistics. It has become so convenient to treat them as disposable collateral in a numbers game.
But behind these figures are real faces and lives that lay hostage to a bigger and more destructive war – the war against poverty – which has long been overshadowed by the brutal war on drugs.
We, at the Office of the Vice President, believe that the best way to combat poverty is through effective partnerships and community engagement.
Such is the driving philosophy behind our Angat Buhay program; Angat meaning lifting our poor from abject poverty, and Buhay to signal a respect for life – for every living Filipino, both rich and poor.
Focusing on six key advocacies, namely: hunger and food security, health, education, rural development, women empowerment, and housing, Angat Buhay reflects our dreams for the poor Filipino family. It draws strength from bayanihan and pagkakaisa – traditional, Filipino values that have long guided our quest for equality, social justice, and democracy.
I am happy to share with you that we are now piloting Angat Buhay in 50 partner LGUs across the country, Agutaya being one of them. We chose these local governments not just on the basis of poverty incidence, but also on their fidelity to good governance.
We’re talking about LGUs that have shown a commitment to transparency, accountability, and citizen participation. Through Angat Buhay, these 50 LGUs will be linked with much-needed aid and resources from our various partners. We have already received hundreds of pledges from corporations big and small, as well as from development partners and non-profit groups.
In a time where people have resorted to senseless violence and disregard of basic rights, the Church rises as a powerful ally in our fight for the preservation of life and the protection of our liberties, including economic liberties. Remember that our deeds need not always unfold in grand and majestic gestures. Just like the parable of the mustard seed, real change flows and flourishes in small, collective acts of kindness.
As we work together in preserving the sanctity of life and liberty, I invite you to collaborate with us in mapping out a more holistic rehabilitation program for victims of drug and substance abuse. Drug dependence is a public health issue more than an issue of crime and order.
The government’s facilities to help those who have surrendered are bursting at the seams. Many of those who surrendered need community support, specifically the kind that will bring them back to the fold of faith. Our country needs you now, more than ever. This is new territory and we need each other. If we don’t get this right, we run the risk of setting our country back again when we are already so close to success.
As we give importance to the gift of life, let us become bearers of light – ever-ready to dispel darkness and bring hope even in the darkest, and most forgotten of places.
Inspired by Christ’s example, let us work together in bringing back peace, understanding, and solidarity among our people.
Maraming salamat po.