Wednesday, July 14, 2004

The Katipunan Divide, Nostalgia and Growing Food

There is something about institutions of higher learning that refreshes the soul. There's something about green grass, the rolling landscape, the acacias, the quiet. Sometimes I wonder if I'll ever be free of the university as long as I live in this city.
I wonder if there will come a time when I no longer consciously seek to soak in the sun through the thick fire trees' foliage, to inhale the aroma of freshly created oxygen, to wander about the buildings both decrepit and spanking new.

Sometimes I wonder if I'll ever do my best thinking without ever having to dip in my Alma Mater's spring of intellectual energy. Its as if, the naked well-toned man whose arms spread
open in supplication and welcome bestows upon all who enter this hallowed domain instant rejuvenation. I love my Alma Mater. Now more so because I am not often in it. More so because I teach in another university a world away from this one.

Where I teach there is something missing. Is it in the clean, ordered surroundings? Is it in the fully-functioning amenities? Is it in the students' eyes? The faculty? Perhaps the priests? I have been thinking about it for quite a few semesters, but cannot quite put my finger on that elusive missing...something. Until today.

Today we welcomed a Belgian diplomat to campus. He was there to speak about the European Union's enlargement (the addition of 10 new member countries). I didn't need to be there, but I thought it would be interesting to hear what the "officials" had to say about something I believe concerns not just this inconsequential archipelago, but a host of other "small" countries. I wanted to hear diplmotese.

It was a relatively small gathering of both students and faculty, 50 would be a generous estimate. The Belgian speaker presented a brief history of the Union and the impacts of its
recent enlargement. All very neutral presentation of facts and a careful selection of words. What could it mean for this archipelago? Why, new trading opportunities! Its all a win-win situation. He was a diplomat. What else could he have said?

After the 45 minute monologue the floor was open for questions. Normally, I like standing up and speaking my mind in lectures like these and often I have no qualms. But today, I
hesitated. I wanted to pose contentious questions, critical. God forbid even "radical." But for a brief moment I checked myself. This would never have happened if this little lecture was on the other side of Katipunan.

I looked to my right, to the Italian teacher who also came from my Alma Mater. I whispered "Medyo contentious itong itatanong ko." But we are of the same blood and she understood what I meant and what I needed to hear. She reassuringly nodded and said "Sige lang ba."

I consciously toned down my usually argumentative voice. I picked my words careful not to sound too...combative. Questions of facts.

Self-deprecatingly I said, "I have a series of questions, I hope you wont mind my taking this opportunity to ask them....(pause)...Would you say there are substantial Philippine exports to the EU? Do you have figures? And in what kinds of commodities do we trade?"

He responded, the Philippines exports some 6.3 billion euros worth of mostly aquamarine
products, some fruits and vegetables. We export agricultural goods.

"I have a particular interest in the EU's Common Agricultural Policy, would you know what percentage this year's EU budget is devoted to CAP?"

His demeanor changed, his facial expression more...resistant, closed. He knew where my questions were going, but nevertheless he answered. Over 53% of the EU Commission
budget. He then conceded that the CAP is a highly politicized policy and that the WTO Cancun deadlock may be partially attributed to it. He didn't say the word "protectionist" I
noticed. I didn't either.

"Some of your documents are freely published in the EU internet website, and I have come across the CAP Midterm Review of 2003. It indicated that the 10 new member countries, obviously a lot poorer than the others, were willing to accept significantly less agricultural funds for the next decade as compared to the fifteen original members. Do you see a trend of this changing? How long will these new members receive less than the rest?"

Calmly, choosing his words he replied. Obviously, the CAP needs to be changed and reviewed. For now he could not say. But these new members will benefit by having their agricultural production increased.

"These new members, Central and Eastern Europeans, are mostly agriculture-exporting nations. As part of the Union, would you agree they might have a priority over say,
Philippine agricultural products?"

He kept his cool but he increasingly looked irritated. I could picture a thought bubble above his head, "Mais quand est-ce qu'elle va arrêter?" (When will she stop?) What was I expecting him to say? Of course diplomatese came out of his mouth, speaking of equal opportunities for free trade. Sure, the costs are higher importing from some place further away. Sure, there are strict environmental standards to be met. But we agree on fair competition do we not?

"Merci." I said. "Il n'y a pas de quoi (Its nothing)." He said.

After the adrenaline rush of public speaking my hesitancy came back with a force. I felt I had taken up everyone's merry, light and gay air with my silly out-of-place questions. I felt I had wasted the faculty and the students' time. This was even more highlighted by someone else's question about the number of stars on the EU flag. And someone else asking what would happen if the Philippines were somehow magically transported to Europe. The Belgian regained a light, casual demeanor and made a few funny comments in reply.

I couldn't help but feel out of place. Like I had soiled a clean, crisp cloth with unnecessary grime. Traitorous to the hand that feeds me, I nevertheless couldn't help but compare. In my Alma Mater, I wouldn't have felt compelled to be circumspect. In my Alma Mater, the diplomat would have been torn to pieces. Maybe that was why he chose to speak on this other side of Katipunan.

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