Nestor Pestelos and the Poetry of Development

Posted June 27, 2015 by edicio
Categories: Leadership, Lifelong Learning, Popular education

NMP Book cover

Yesterday, I was invited to introduce the book of Nestor M. Pestelos at its launch in the Quezon National High School.

While waiting for him to arrive, some students of QNHS interviewed me. One question which I sought to answer is how poetry relates to development work. Nestor is better know as a development worker, with international agencies, the province of Bohol, and now with his NGO. But listening to yesterday’s stories about him, his schoolmates and teachers knew him as a poet, with a “magical realist” style and sensibility.

Listening to him tell the story of his move from Quezon to Bohol, I realise better why he calls himself an “old warrior.” He was part of our Dekada 70 generation. He was hunted, eventually captured and detained, many of his closest friends tortured and killed.

Yesterday, I reflected aloud on how poetry is important for development work. But after knowing more about Nestor’s life, I want to rewrite what I said.

In the meantime, let me post the short essay I contributed to his book:

Nestor Pestelos and the Poetry of Development

Prose is the default language of development.

His lifetime commitment has given Nestor Pestelos a rich development vocabulary, including key words like logical frameworks and SWOT analysis, performance indicators and means of verification, benchmarks and baselines, milestones and timelines, impacts, assumptions and risks.

Nestor is also familiar with the math and algorithms of development. He even spent his retirement funds developing software for mapping and measuring poverty, the Poverty Database Monitoring System.

Now, late in his life, he has published 33 poems.

Are these poems his escape from the prose of development? A way to set his spirit free from the limits of development discourse?

Nestor explains: “I was writing these poems as therapy. As I approached and turned 70 I became increasingly self-critical of the road I had taken. I felt that all my hard work in development, which claimed most of a lifetime, had not amounted to anything significant at all…

“I needed again to believe in something – to gain optimism despite moral setbacks everywhere. In writing the poems, snatching time in- between meetings or worrying about them, I gained emotional distance from events or personalities which frustrated me.”

Two successive events jolted Nestor and his wife Jojie. His father in-law died a day before the magnitude 7.2 earthquake hit Bohol in October 2013: “We realized much more how fragile life was. Images of corpses on the streets in the aftermath of typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda in Samar and Leyte reinforced this feeling.”

He stopped writing poems.

Nestor and Jojie plunged into distributing relief goods, raising funds and soliciting construction materials to build transition core houses so that families could move from their tents and makeshift shelter.

There was overwhelming response from within and outside Bohol. The earthquake victims and communities moved as one to help build their houses.

Nestor writes: “The disaster galvanized whole communities again towards a common goal. Indeed, the earthquake restored our waning faith in local communities. We were surprised by their capacity to fight off dependency and hopelessness.”

Did Nestor give up poetry when he decided to focus on relief, reconstruction, and development? Not really, if we believe Juan Galman, an Argentinian poet:

Poetry is a way of living.
Look at the people at your side. Do they eat? Suffer? Sing? Cry?

Help them fight for their hands, their eyes, their mouth, for the kiss to kiss and the kiss to give away, for their table, their bread, their letter a and their letter h, for their past — were they not children? — for their present, for the piece of peace, of history and happiness that belongs to them, for the piece of love, big, small, sad, joy, that belongs to them and is taken away in the name of what, of what?

Your life will then be an innumerable river to be called pedro, juan, ana, maria, bird, lung, the air, my shirt, violin, sunset, stone, that handkerchief, old waltz, wooden horse.

Poetry is this. Afterward, write it.

In his introduction, Nestor links his initial “dimly-perceived need to publish a collection of poems” to his advocacy to build more core houses for those rendered homeless by the earthquake: “We will then go beyond therapy if we again venture to write and publish another set of poems.”

As he pours his energy into reconstruction and development work, Nestor is doing poetry.

We hope he will write it, soon.


May 18: Linking Incheon and Kwangju

Posted May 19, 2015 by edicio
Categories: Uncategorized

Incheon Kofid

Yesterday, May 18, 2015 was the opening of the NGO Forum on World Education.

It was also the 35th anniversary of the Kwangju democratic uprising and massacre. Thanks to Mr. Tae Joo Lee, the speaker from KoFID for reminding us.

For us in the human rights movement in the Philippines and Korea, the struggle in the 1980s focused on democratization against authoritarian and repressive regimes. We did take up education issues, but not as sharply as now.

If there is one key message I take from the Incheon World Education Forum, it is this – to combine our passion for human rights and our passion for education.

Unfinished business and ambitious aspirations

“Education for All” has been our rallying cry from Jomtien, Thailand in 1990, and reiterated in Dakar, Senegal in 2000.

Will we simply repeat that call here in Incheon, Korea?

There are enough reasons to repeat the call, since we face what speakers call “unfinished business” – children not yet in school, adults without basic literacy, youth and adults without needed skills and learning opportunities.

And there are the continuing gaps and exclusions, based on gender, ethnicity, geography, disability, discrimination, disasters and armed conflicts, and more.

At Incheon 2015, we acknowledge and address these unfinished business. But we address them within a larger framework, that is described in some draft documents as more “ambitious and aspirational.”

Instead of “education for all,” the draft framework for action calls for “inclusive and equitable quality education for all.” And adds “lifelong learning for all.”

New goals inspire and energize. They are stretch targets that force us to do more than “business as usual.”

But 25 years after Jomtien and Dakar, we can’t help but ask ourselves: Is it realistic to hope that these goals will be achieved by 2030?

“Be realistic. Demand the impossible!” I can relate to the youthful bravado of this slogan. The challenge is to work out “real world strategies” that we can pursue.

My next blog will examine some of these proposed strategies.

Coco Hubs

Posted February 22, 2015 by edicio
Categories: Leadership, Rebuilding our Nation, Sustainable Agriculture

Coco Hubs is the “nickname” for Integrated Coconut Agro-Industrial Hubs.

It is a program of government that seeks to address the problem of small coconut farmers whose only income from coconuts are from their sale of copra or nuts to traders who aggregate them and in turn sell them to large mills that are far from the farms.

By supporting the setting up of small and medium size processing plants, the Coco Hubs program seeks to make the small coconut farmers go beyond being raw material producers to being participants in the higher value-adding part of the coconut value chain.

Last Friday, I was asked to speak on the Coco Hubs at a forum sponsored by SOAP, the group whose mission is to Spread Organic Agriculture in the Philippines.

Am posting the slides I prepared.

Slide01Slide02Slide03Slide04 Slide05Slide06Slide07Slide08Slide09Slide10Slide11Slide12Slide13Slide14Slide15Slide16Slide17

As raw as it can get. Tears in my eyes drown me.

Posted January 31, 2015 by edicio
Categories: Rebuilding our Nation, Renewing our spirit

Aida Poem

The words are from a friend activist-poet, Aida Santos.

On the way to Tacloban airport, she saw people awaiting the bodies of some SAF (Special Action Forces) who were killed in Mamapasano.

The words introduce three short poems she wrote.

The week-long national conversation about the killings in Mamapasano have been cacophonous. My work schedule did not allow me to join in, but also because I couldn’t find words that are superior to silence.

Cautionary words in prison

When I was in prison during the martial law years, fellow activist-prisoners from Mindanao expressed to me their criticism about “Imperial Manila.”

They said that Manila-based people, whether elite or ordinary citizens, including activists, tend to think we have the solutions to Mindanao issues, and that our intervention is always helpful and welcome.

Since then, I have followed this rule. I don’t go to Mindanao unless invited. And in judging events and issues in Mindanao, I give greater weight to Mindanao-based friends and kindred spirits.

Silence. Tears. Words.

When the news broke about the death of 44 SAF fighters (with little mention of MILF fighters killed, nor of civilians), there was understandable outrage, expressed publicly, targeting not just what happened but directed to those in authority.

At the same time, there were fears, also publicly expressed, that he emotions of the moment would be exploited by those who do not agree with the peace process and initial peace agreements that the government has signed with the MILF.

I wondered what public comment my friends from Balay Mindanaw would post.

Kaloy Manlupig chose the response we learned and liked from the recent visit of Pope Francis. How fast things change. The deaths in Mamapasano happened only 10 days after the Pope left..

Silence. Because realities are greater than our ideas.

Tears. Because eyes washed by tears see more clearly. But only after tears have dried. Tears cloud our eyes and hearts.

And difficult it may be, words. To help each other understand what is in our hearts and minds.

Prose and Poetry

The national public conversations are mainly in prose, so with the conversations inside us and among us.

We need prose, for analysis and for perspectives, historical and structural, that help temper the immediate and existential.

But we also need poetry. Not as an evasion, but as a way to join the conversation even when we haven’t fully sorted out our stand.

Aida Poem 2

Justice and Peace 

There are calls for justice. There are calls for peace.

Last year, I was invited by Balay Mindanaw to facilitate a synthesis session of a peace building conference in Myanmar.

I shared with them my difficulty in framing the link between justice and peace.

My activist history and sensibility have been focused on justice, and its associated call to take sides in a struggle. From this perspective, “peace is the fruit of justice.”

Peace builders who acknowledge the link between un-peace and injustice pursue “peace as the path to justice.”

Are these simply different starting points in the same direction? Or are they contradictory?

Is this an example of a reality that is greater than our ideas, and words?

Rest in peace. Thank you.

Fallen 44



The Silences of Pope Francis

Posted January 25, 2015 by edicio
Categories: Community Organizing, Renewing our spirit

Pope Francis in the rain

A week after Pope Francis left the Philippines, the “struggle for interpretation” of the papal visit continues.

I am reminded of Anais Nin’s “We see the world not as it is, but as we are.” We remember Pope Francis not as he is but as we are. We choose what to remember about his visit, and with whom to remember.

Our remembering is not just about his words – what he said publicly and the texts of his prepared speeches, though undelivered. Our remembering is even more about his actions, especially about his symbolic “gestures” – the word he used to describe what impressed him about us Filipinos: “The gestures moved me. They are not protocol gestures. They are good gestures, felt gestures, gestures of the heart. Some almost make one weep.”

I want to add my remembrance about his silences.

1. The silence of not giving easy or simple answers

This first silence is the most eloquent.

In Tacloban, faced with the prayerful attentive silence of the people in the rain, the Pope acknowledged their unspoken questions, and said: “All I can do is keep silence and walk with you all with my silent heart.”

In UST, his silent answer to the tearful question of Glyzelle was a hug.

A refreshing change from the usual reaction of a facile reply, or even a rant against those responsible. Instead, a respectful acceptance of the gravity of the questions, including the unspoken.

There are answers to the questions, of course, but they are neither simple nor easy.The time and circumstances were not right for expounding answers, for words that are superior to silence.

2.  The silence about the rural poor and rural issues

Unlike the first, this second silence bothers me.

Pope Francis talked a lot about the poor, but mainly urban, especially street children.

He had specific messages about women and youth. In his message in Malacanang, he mentioned indigenous people and indirectly Muslims by supporting the peace process.

But he said nothing about farmers, and agrarian reform or rural development. In his closing response, Cardinal Tagle did mention farmers and fishers, but not the Pope.

One explanation for the silence is that there was no activity, no context that called for a message about farmers and land reform, unlike the visit of Pope John Paul II that included a trip to Negros,

Instead of blaming the Pope about this silence, I pose questions in self-criticism to ourselves and fellow advocates for rural development. Why was there no space negotiated for rural issues? I asked NASSA’s Fr. Edu Gariguez about this, and he also wondered why.

3.  The silence about organising the poor for their empowerment

Another silence that disappoints me is about organising the poor.

The Pope had clear forceful messages about the dignity of the poor and their centrality. But his messages came across as mainly addressed to the government and the church and to the elite to care for the poor and to help them.

I wish that he also addressed the poor to tell them, as in Mater et Magistra, that it is their right and also responsibility to organise themselves to press for their rights to uplift their lives. In the Latin American social vocabulary, to be “protagonists” – subjects and not just objects of history.

Again, one explanation is that there was no context for the Pope to deliver such a message.

If Denis Murphy’s dream proposal happened and the Pope visited the no-build zone in Tacloban, he could have talked about it, since the site is the organising area of the Urban Poor Associates. It would be like Paul VI’s visit to Tondo to the area organised by ZOTO.

Another occasion could have been in Palo, if there was time to present the REACH program of NASSA which includes a component on community organising.

Given such contexts, I trust that Pope Francis would have said something about organising the poor for empowerment. In his address to the World Social Movements, he included the idea of the poor as protagonists. He encouraged the social movements to pursue their struggles,”with courage, but also with intelligence, with tenacity but without fanaticism, with passion but without violence.”

What about our silences?

After the visit of Pope Francis, it is fair to ask questions about the actions and words of Philippine church leaders, and also about their silences.

Community organisers can draw inspiration and support from the papal visit for our efforts to break the “culture of silence” among the poor members of the churches.

There is a useful silence for those of us who trace the roots of our activism for social justice to the social teachings of the Church. Having learned the language of structures, strategies, and ideologies, I find it fruitful to reflect in the silence of our hearts on the Pope’s words and gestures as a way to revisit and deepen the ground for our preferential option for the poor.


Pope Francis: “Don’t focus on me. Focus on Jesus.” Which Jesus?

Posted January 15, 2015 by edicio
Categories: Community Organizing, Renewing our spirit, Theology of struggle

The welcome has been described as “rapturous.”

The MMDA estimates that 800,000 to one million Filipinos waited for hours to catch a brief glimpse of Pope Francis along the route from the Villamor airbase to the nunciature. Millions more watched the Pope’s arrival on their TV screens.

Even for a while, I can understand if Pope Francis, and Cardinal Tagle who sat behind him on the Popemobile, forgot their pre-arrival message: “Don’t focus on the Pope. Focus on Jesus.”

The Vatican’s instruction to replace the image of the Pope with the image of Jesus came too late. But even if it was issued much earlier, I doubt if many would comply.

Focus on Jesus, rather than the Pope?

When I first read the call to focus on Jesus instead of the Pope, I felt ambivalent.

Barely a week before the Pope’s scheduled arrival, there were millions who did focus on Jesus, on the feast of the Black Nazarene. What message was delivered by that expression of popular devotion?

Given the prophetic pronouncements of Pope Francis on justice and the poor, and his compassionate words and actions, wouldn’t focusing on the Pope offer better inspiration and instruction?

To avoid the dichotomy of focusing either on Jesus or on the Pope, I used Matthew 25 to interpret the call to focus on Jesus: “I was hungry and you gave me food…Whatever you do to the least of your brothers and sisters, you do it to me.”

I visualised this through this hurriedly done e-poster.

Pope Francis message

The three faces of Jesus among the poor

Thinking further about this identification of Jesus with the “least of our brothers and sisters,” I reflected on the three faces of Jesus which represent three different ways we look at the poor.

The first is the Santo Nino. This is the Jesus we see among the poor who are victims, without their fault. Innocents, needing our mercy and compassion. This is especially easy to imagine when we see street children.

The second is the Black Nazarene. This is not just the Jesus whose suffering gives meaning to the suffering of the poor who identify with him, as Rey Ileto essays in his Pasyon and Revolution. It is both the suffering of the poor who do not yet struggle, and also the further suffering of those who are struggling, but still frustrated and unable to achieve their goals. They call for our solidarity.

The third is the Risen Jesus, so transformed that Mary Magdalene could not recognise him, nor Thomas until they saw his scars. We see the Risen Jesus among the empowered poor who have managed to break out of the “culture of poverty” and whose struggles have achieved some visible transformation of their lives and communities, that we can celebrate.

Which Jesus do we focus on?

These three faces of Jesus are present in different degrees among the poor. The official theme of the Pope’s visit, “Mercy and Compassion,” tends to emphasise the Santo Nino and the suffering part of the Nazarene. Among the images of Jesus available in our churches and religious posters, we rarely see one of the Risen Jesus.

Shall we interpret this as a reflection of the state of the poor in the Philippines? Or does it reflect how most leaders of Church and State look at the poor, focusing mainly on their needs, without believing and investing in their possibilities?





Human Rights Day 2014

Posted December 10, 2014 by edicio
Categories: Renewing our spirit, Theology of struggle

In biblical numerology, the number 40 means ” ä very long time.”

That’s what I feel, thinking back to 40 years ago when I was first arrested on Friday the 13th of December 1974. (I should have been superstitious).

Ironically, three days earlier, on Human Rights day,I watched President Marcos on TV speaking to foreign journalists asserting that “no one has been tortured” under martial law.

Three days later, in a series of raids, over 30 of us were arrested. Most were tortured, some very heavily. I recall asking why one of us, Samby, had to be carried because he couldn’t walk. I was told that he was arrested while he was ironing his pants. During interrogation, his captors pressed the hot iron against the soles of his feet.

My memories of those days in December 1974 are spotty and fading. I will have a chance to refresh them when our group of political detainees gather for a simple reunion at the Bantayog ng mga Bayani this Saturday afternoon. Maraming salamat to May Rodriguez for taking the initiative. Her partner, Butch Rodriguez (a former student of mine in the seminary) wore a sleeveless T-shirt while playing the guitar at the Christmas midnight mass I requested the camp commander to authorize. I was shocked to see his upper arm – black, blue and purple from being beaten by a 2 x 2 wooden club.

Reflecting on the struggle for human rights in 2014, I can only fall back to my framework – Between Honesty and Hope. There are signs of hope, not just in the persistence of the human rights advocates, but also in measurable gains. But honesty makes us acknowledge how much more need to be done, and how fragile some of the gains are.

Surfing the web, I found art works posted on Facebook for Human Rights Day. Pablo Baens Santos, one of the social realist artists during martial law posted an old mural ” Tumba” on extra-judicial killings, and a recent work “Teargassed” which is part of an exhibit which opens tomorrow at Galerie Anna in Megamall. Boy Dominguez refers to the killing of Gomburza in his piece “Garute.”

I was inspired to do an e-collage, and included an old pen and ink sketch I did in prison “Tulos Kandila.” The protest rallies outside prison reminded me of processions. When processions passed by our homes, we would place lit candles on our window sills, in solidarity,

It is good to light our candles, even as we rail against the darkness.

HR 2014 between honesty and hope