Which will it be: Engines of growth or vows of poverty?

Michael Alan Hamlin

Posted on March 16, 2012

The office of Bishop Pedro D. Arigo, bishop of the Apostolic Vicariate of Puerto Princesa, is humble in the extreme. He looks frail sitting behind a small, cluttered desk in a narrow room slightly wider than a broom closet. Like many aging men, his shoulders slump forward as he sits, and he uses his arms to prop himself up in a gracious gesture of informality. Bishop Arigo speaks with a soft voice that belies a steely determination.

Despite his seeming frailty, his facial expressions are animated, and his hands gesture continually. Bishop Arigo is a kindly man, but his unwavering opposition to mining in Palawan is evident. He believes mining destroys everything: tradition, the environment, and values.

I tagged along with a journalist friend to interview the bishop the day after the first anniversary of the murder of dentist, radio commentator, and anti-mining advocate Gerry Ortega. According to many, including my friend, Dr. Ortega was not just a vocal critic of the mining industry, but a dedicated and fearless environmental advocate. To others, he was a political hack, who endorsed the causes of the highest bidder. To all, it’s either, or. There’s no middle ground.

Bishop Arigo had officiated at a mass marking the anniversary of Dr. Ortega’s violent death in a bustling—for Puerto Princesa—public market. He told his family to be joyful, he related to us, because Dr. Ortega’s passing had focused a harsh light on the mining industry and Palawan’s graft-infested politics. What the commentator had struggled to do in life he had accomplished in death, ultimately thwarting those who opposed his views.

Dr. Ortega’s family believes former Palawan governor Joel T. Reyes is behind his death. Last year, the Commission on Audit recommended filing graft charges against Mr. Reyes, who is accused of misappropriating government revenues generated by the Malampaya natural gas field.

(Update: Reyes was indicted by the Department of Justice for his alleged role in the slaying of Ortega earlier this week.)

The current governor, Abraham (Baham) Kahlil Mitra is also an advocate for leveraging natural resources presumably to generate growth and create jobs. The son of the late Ramon (Monching) Mitra, Jr.—who ran for president in 1992 against former president Fidel V. Ramos and others and served as Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1987 to 1992—the younger Mr. Mitra was elected governor of Palawan after three terms in the House.

Like his father—and it seems most every politician in the Philippines—Gov. Mitra is the target of particularly virulent and continual political intrigue. Speaker Mitra was endlessly criticized as a horse-trading “traditional politician” or trapo and was forced to counter regular internal coups meant to remove him from his powerful post. In Gov. Mitra’s case, he is said to be the target of political rival Jose (Pepito) Alvarez.

This is a case of classic Philippine political irony. Mr. Alvarez was a close friend and supporter of Gov. Mitra’s father, but ran against his son for governor, and lost. The campaign was ugly, and the defeat humiliating for Mr. Alvarez.

Politics makes for strange bedfellows and odd enemies as well as sore losers, it seems. Although Mr. Alvarez is often accused of denuding much of Palawan and causing near-irreversible harm to the environment there, anti-mining advocates have thrown their support—according to Gov. Mitra—behind a recall petition allegedly inspired by Mr. Alvarez. Mr. Alvarez denies that, and says that none of the signatures belong to anti-mining advocates.

If he’s not behind the petition—which incidentally was dismissed last week—although he would be the primary beneficiary of a successful recall, you might wonder how he came across that information. Bishop Arigo’s support of the recall also casts doubt on Mr. Alvarez’s denial, given the bishop’s long-standing opposition to mining and his support for Gov. Mitra’s recall. When we spoke, Bishop Arigo was hopeful the governor will be implicated in the Malampaya fund mess.

“Do you think,” I asked Bishop Arigo politely, “that the alternative to the current governor will be better, or worse?” After a pause, the bishop hunched his shoulders, smiled, and raised his hands in a way that seemed to signal helplessness and said, “We have a lousy system.”

Any system that seeks to remove an allegedly bad politician with the primary beneficiary an allegedly even worse politician is certainly lousy. And common among failed states, never quite emerging economies, and poverty-ridden economies. As the Philippines knows so well. A system that sacrifices responsible growth and effectively sentences millions to lifetimes of poverty for the sake of perceived culture and traditional values steeped in gut-wrenching poverty is downright wrong.

Individuals like Bishop Arigo live lives of self-sacrifice dedicated to others. And it is a pity when their sacrifices don’t uplift lives economically as well as spiritually. Especially when the means to do so has been made so abundantly available.

(Michael Alan Hamlin is the managing director of TeamAsia and a Manila-based author. His latest book is High Visibility: Transforming Your Personal and Professional Brand. Write him at mahamlin@teamasia.com and follow him on TwitterFacebook and LinkedIn. Copyright © 2012 Michael Alan Hamlin. All Rights Reserved.)

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