The small, quiet, hill town of Liliw in Laguna is an unlikely place to bump into anyone rich or famous. It is a million miles from glamorous exclusivity, despite its splendid location amid forests and waterfalls in the shadow of Mount Banahaw.
And even with its long history and architectural heritage, epitomized by the 17th century brick church, not to mention its thriving tsinelas industry, Liliw has somehow remained the same low-key and stubbornly unassuming town I have known and loved since childhood.
When statesman Heherson Alvarez came for a visit one Saturday afternoon, I saw it as an opportunity to get to know his brand of populism. I also wondered what one of the country’s leading environmentalists and human rights advocates would make of a town so charmingly unspoiled.
First time visitor
We meet at the top of the steps of San Juan de Bautista Church. He is dressed in classic weekend wear: a striped Lacoste polo shirt, unbuttoned at the neck, and mustard colored pants. At 75, his hair has become finer, but a lock still falls boyishly across his forehead now and then as it has famously done in his prime. He has no glasses, and other than his watch—a sporty Omega—the only other piece of jewelry he wears is his Harvard University alumni ring.
There is still a little while to go before the start of afternoon Mass. At the entrance, choirboys fidget with their vestments, women dressed all in white linger by the door looking out for the priest. We chat pleasantly with the assembled manangs who appear to know instinctively he is someone important.
Perhaps it is because of his voice. It is truly an orator’s voice—authoritative in tone, clear and rich in timbre. He is amiable, erudite and speaks five Philippine languages, including perfect Tagalog.
It is his first visit to Liliw, he tells them, and explains he is from the Cagayan Valley, from Santiago, Isabela. He admires the church, its majestic gold retablos, and the courtyard flanked by statues of saints.
The Franciscan parish priest finally arrives and the women in white step forward, bow and kiss the priest’s hand. After brief introductions Alvarez discreetly signals for us to go.
As we walk into town, he recalls the visit of Pope Francis to Manila. “He was treated like a living saint,” he says drily. Alvarez is Catholic but of a decidedly liberal hue. “I guess I am on the side of reason,” he adds.
I jump right in and ask his opinion on the recently issued encyclical on the environment. “Of course that is good news. The Church and the clergy treat the environment in terms of stewardship. I take more of a scientific outlook. In a country like ours, you have to work with the Church and keep the clergy as spiritual advisers as well as social friends.”
As Climate Change Commissioner, his approach has been unifying. The series of inter-faith dialogues on climate change he initiated in 2010, just concluded, brought a range of grass roots organizations together with church groups, government agencies and the private sector, and resulted in the signing of memorandums of agreement between the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and people’s groups.
Alvarez is an expert broker. During his tenure as senator, from 1987 to 1998, he authored the most significant legislation addressing environmental concerns, from the creation of the Department of Energy, protection and preservation of natural parks and wildlife sanctuaries, to the clean air act, the introduction of unleaded gasoline, solid waste management, and the low carbon regime. He has consistently emphasized climate change mitigation, rather than adaptation, and pushed hard for the development of renewable energy sources, river and watershed conservation, greening programs, and what he calls “climate smart agriculture” that aims toward national self-sufficiency in major food staples and poverty alleviation.
What he plans sounds good, but I venture that, sadly, experience has shown how development does not quite go the way it should. I tell him that I can think of a number of instances where irrigation schemes resulted in the forcible ejection of indigenous communities, in ancestral land grabbing and furthering the interests of powerful elites and big business.
“It’s a question of implementation” he says. “Or are you suggesting we follow a different ideological path? I understand the Communist cause but have always been committed to Parliamentary democracy.”
We are strolling while we talk. At weekends, Liliw closes off its streets to traffic and the entire town is given over to pedestrians. Vendors sell jars of honey and cones of pako ferns freshly gathered from the mountainsides, stalls are piled with boxes of espasol, uraro cookies, and pastillas. Purple colored maruya is frying for merienda.
Alvarez has a commanding presence. He walks in the middle of the road in the confident manner of one who is accustomed to being in the public eye. He looks at the houses and gazes fondly at the curved balustrade balconies decorated with pots of flowers, and the capiz-filled sliding windows. He notices the clean drainage troughs where wastewater flows away unhampered by trash.
“Santiago, where I come from, is nothing like this. It is a big, frontier town” he remarks. He stops to buy a paper bag of candied pili nuts and a handful of bignay berries.
Someone recognizes him but only manages an uncertain whisper: “Ikaw ba po si Senator Alvarez?” “Opo” is his warm response and shares his berries with the stranger. He appears genuinely delighted to be recognized, perhaps even touched by the simplicity of the encounter. They speak as if they were town mates and talk about mundane things. In Manila people are not this way. There, he is greeted with a bold hand shake. In a restaurant, it is not unknown for a complimentary bottle of wine to be sent to his table.
While he is being distracted, I finally locate my favorite café, Arabela’s, where the ceilings are so low even short people bang their heads.
The café is full. He has to stoop to enter. We are seated next to a table whose occupants keep giving us side-long looks. The space we have is cramped and feels a bit like trying to eat inside a crowded jeepney. A menu is brought which he doesn’t bother to read. Instead he talks to the waiter and asks for recommendations. He orders a cup of brewed coffee and salad, specifying an oil and vinegar dressing. I choose the blueberry cheese cake, which the café has served for over a decade.
I bring up the country’s ongoing maritime conflict with China and ask him whether he thinks the proposed P12 billion allocation for military purposes and beefing up security in the West Philippine Sea is justified. His reply is predictably diplomatic: “Priorities are dictated by Congress and by Parliamentary procedures.”
And what did he think of President Aquino’s final SONA and of Secretary Mar Roxas as the newly appointed Liberal Party standard bearer for the 2016 national elections? His responses are clipped. “Noynoy deserves credit for passing the RH bill and pushing the Anti-Dynasty Law bill. I got him to sign off my projects on Green Building, Black Carbon Reduction, and Renewable Energy. Mar Roxas gave commendable service as secretary of interior and local government, but the world stage is a different matter.”
He ushers the conversation towards a reflection on democracy and the democratic process. In terms of both, Alvarez seems more angry than discouraged and the passion in his voice surfaces. “There is a lack of voter education in this country. People will only vote for personalities and celebrities they recognize from TV, not on the political platforms of candidates. They vote with their emotions and are deprived of analytical intellect. What is more, everything depends on vast amounts of money. A presidential bid carries the price tag of P1 billion. Taking money from business forever ties one’s hands. The Philippines is a cash-fueled democracy.”
Advocate of democracy
It is easy to understand why Alvarez is angry. The problem of corruption seems intractable. He was one of the first to call for the impeachment of former President Joseph Estrada. During the Martial Law period, he was forced to live in exile for 13 years.
“Ninoy [Aquino] was a close friend. He was more of an ideas man than the son. When he was eventually released from prison and allowed to fly to the US, he would often call me up from Boston and I would go from New York. The Ninoy Aquino Movement was the largest and most well organized oppositional movement challenging the Marcos dictatorship. I lobbied American senators to cut aid to the Marcoses. My team revealed the family’s property assets in the US and disclosed to the world the extent of their plundered wealth. We fought to restore democracy. There is an inclination to forget that.”
The salad arrives in a large bowl overflowing with crisp greens. He is delighted by it and eats with gusto. My cheese cake is as good as ever, creamy and flavorsome. “This place serves chic food,” he says. I have a feeling he is completely at ease in my home town.
All politicians struggle to muster mainstream appeal and try to stake out their positions accordingly. P-Noy’s administration strived to capture a collective moral imagination with a reform agenda called “Daang Matuwid.” My burning question is: What will Alvarez’s approach be for 2016?
His answer is simple and forthright. “The country is hungry for growth and social development. For that, honest people who can come up with intelligent solutions are needed. For that political education needs to happen. And for that, we need a movement.”
Alvarez has been in professional politics all his life. While still in his twenties he wrote speeches for President Diosdado Macapagal. Throughout, he has put environmentalism and democracy at the heart of his long career. He has been beating the drum of principled governance and social development for a very long time.
I ask him how he has managed to survive. “You mean stay clean?” he laughs. “There are so many opportunities to make dirty money, but I am incorruptible. When I was a boy I wanted to be a priest. Perhaps I carried this ambition into political life. And learnt how to juggle.”
Climate change, environmental degradation, poverty, and corruption are the great issues of the day and Alvarez stands at the forefront of these battles. It is the imperative need to tackle these problems urgently that defines his version of populism.
We have talked for two hours. His phone had not stopped pinging with incoming text messages, some of which he answered. The waiter brings us the bill. He takes out his senior citizen card and also inserts his calling card. I give him a quizzical look. He explains, “When I like a place, I give them my calling card so that they know who just appreciated them.”
By the time we emerge from the café it is dusk. He takes one last long look at Liliw. “Nice town,” he says before getting into his car.
(About the author: Rachel Reyes, PhD, was born in Manila and raised in Europe. She is a writer and historian of Southeast Asia at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. She is the author of Love, Passion and Patriotism: Sexuality and the Philippine Propaganda Movement, 1882 to 1892; Sexual Diversity in Asia, c. 600-1950; and a contributor to the Routledge Handbook of Southeast Asian History. She is based in London and Amsterdam.)