That Today photograph which caught an entire family getting high together on solvent demonstrates more than all the doctored government statistics how poverty has brutalized the majority of Filipinos who live–if you can call it living–below the poverty threshold.

This is not to say that all the poor end up sniffing solvent under the bridges of the capital. But many of the very poor–those who sleep in carts, on the pavements and in doorways–do, and it has become so commonplace no one pays too much attention to it.

At the entrance to the University of the Philippines in Quezon City is a triangle of greenery which has become a refuge of street children, some of whom sleep there and who during daytime knock on the windows of cars stopped at the traffic light to beg for alms. At any time of day, when the light gets green and the cars don’t stop, children of indeterminate age sniff solvent from paper bags.

Along formerly middle-class Kamias Road, also in Quezon City, a couple have taken up residence in a jeepney stop, sleeping there by day on rags, cardboard and old newspapers, wrapped in the clothes on their backs last summer, and in shreds of plastic now that it’s raining.

During the day they pile their worldly goods on one corner of the stop, confident that no one will steal that pitiful heap of nothing, and beg their way up toward EDSA, returning at night to their refuge to sniff solvent from a paper bag they pass between them.

The solvent kills hunger pangs, and is better than food because it lasts far longer. However, the children as well as the couple will eat almost anything they can find in the garbage that litters the street of Quezon City, from which they also save whatever they can to sell or keep.

The Kamias couple, for example, have this rainy season taken possession of the green and black bags in which garbage is packed by environmentally aware households, rummaging through them first for anything edible–a moldy piece of bread, the core of an apple, a fish head–and then emptying the bags into the streets, to sell some of them somewhere, and to use the others as raincoats and blankets.

These images resonate with condemnation of an order of things that has reduced human beings to meaningless lives devoted solely to survival. But there are other, even worse signs of how poverty has brought many Filipinos into states resembling that of beasts, of “brother(s) to the ox” (Edwin Markham) rather than as aspirants to the stars.

Among the less poor the degradation is not as obviously absolute. There are Filipinos who, though poor, do live in housing of some kind. Although with great difficulty, though poor they also manage to eat, if not three, at least two meals a day. Some of their children have even gone to school, though often only up to the third grade, and then too many graduate to the streets where they beg, steal and even sell their bodies.

So focused on survival are even they, however, that it seems many of them will do almost anything to be a little more certain where the next meal’s coming from.

Who has not heard of that town south of Manila which became pedophile haven, with parents actually seeing nothing wrong in–even approving–their children’s exploitation by foreigners so long as these are armed with currencies of superior value with which to pay for the services they crave?

In that town children openly consort with obvious pedophiles, who in some cases have even built homes there. Some not only inform their fellows abroad through the Internet of the delights the town offers, but, say some reports, have even gone into business for themselves as cyber pimps.

There is also the mail-order-bride trade, to provide women for which certain towns have become specialists. A UP researcher has identified one such town, the subject of an investigative report he has proposed to the Truth Awards. In this trade the women, some of them just emerging from childhood, are treated like commodities, inspected like so much meat, and even “tested” for worth as living providers of warmth in the cold winters of the countries of the prosperous North. Asked why they agree to the humiliation, many say that, at least once out of the country, they can eat enough.

Immigration to other climes is justified in the same terms by certain Filipinos, who will tell you that at least in the country they wish to live in they can eat what the rich eat. Not all will say the same thing–others will talk about the lack of opportunity here, and their fears over the future of their children–but the theme of not being able to eat enough, or to eat what one wants is a constant among many Filipinos. It is a reflection of what these Filipinos apparently see as their central predicament in the country of their birth.

It also is a theme echoed by those they have left behind. Those Filipinos who approved so heartily of the US troop presence in Zamboanga and Basilan, and who would like their stay extended, or for them to return perhaps permanently, echo the same theme.

American dollars, multiplied so many times in peso terms, have enabled lavandera to feed their children as well as to eat, and the vendors of boiled bananas to earn enough so they won’t have to eat their wares–a refrain straight out of the days of the US military bases in Olongapo and Angeles, when the poor most of all wept tears to see the Americans go, because it meant no more of the dollars that, among others, meant food on the table.

In Zamboanga as in Angeles, to defend their bellies Filipinos stoned, booed, screamed at, pushed and punched those of their fellowmen who wanted the American troops out for such abstract reasons as sovereignty and pride.

That hunger and food should drive human beings–that eating enough and “like the rich” should be so central to the concerns of creatures fashioned in God’s image and whose destiny, so we’ve been told, lies in reaching for the stars through the cultivation of their intellects and imaginations–that this should be taking place is the starkest demonstration of the brutalizing impact of poverty.

More than anything else–beyond the fact that poverty denies people the material means of survival–poverty needs to be conquered because an impoverished people cannot aspire for anything else other than survival. The drive for survival and survival alone shapes the lives of a destitute people, for too many of whom theft has become a necessity and murder commonplace in communities where fathers rape their own children, mothers trade them off for necessities, and no one values either pride or independence.

These are the human terms of poverty, which above all should drive a sustained and sincere effort to restore those who have become less human to their essential humanity.

And yet at this very moment the country’s leadership is focused, not on that crucial and necessary end, but on the outcome of the elections in 2004, for which purpose rivals have been cut down, movements for social change slandered and the principled cut down–in a setting where, as the Irish poet William Butler Yeats said nearly a century ago, “the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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