by Manuel L. Quezon III
OVERLOOKING a little valley on the outskirts of Davao, there is a little rubber plantation. It is a modest piece of property, but the view from it is attractive and not a little sad -for the destruction of the countryside in the vicinity of the plantation is just a matter of time. The plowing up of greenery to make may for subdivisions is relentless.
In the middle of the plantation there stands a little wooden house, the materials of which -wood from rubber trees- represent a story typical of the frustration conscientious citizens encounter when dealing with the agencies of our Republic. Not just the wood, actually; the whole plantation itself is a kind of testament to the shortcomings (if one wants to use a relatively kind word) of our society. Perhaps it would be better to talk of the plantation, first. Then the house.
The plantation is owned by Mrs. -, who has been a Davao resident for nearly forty years. She is an exceedingly slender, soft-spoken woman of sixty or so years. She wears glasses, has white hair (none of that denial of elderliness which afflicts so many women of her age for her!), is an artist by profession and a cultivated person by nature.
Mrs. -’s father had been a judge and when she was small, they moved from province to province as her father was assigned to various courts. They stayed longest in iloilo where the war overtook them, and where she received her education. Sometime after the war the family finally planted its roots in Davao where her father, like so many others, found a small measure of prosperity by cultivating land. In the mid-nineteen-fifties, her father died. His will specified a division of his properties among his heirs. Mrs. – was to be given the title to the little rubber plantation and some other pieces of land.
But she was not informed of this. She went on with her life, marrying, then separating from an Englishman by whom she had three children. Two sons and a daughter. Her eldest son died tragically while climbing Mount Apo, where he is buried. Her daughter has become a scientist and is struggling to get the grants necessary to pursue her fieldwork on forest fauna for her doctorate. Her other son, the youngest, finished at UP and now works for a desktop publishing firm in the United Kingdom.
Mrs. – has always lived modestly; money has never been easy to come by, and yet she has managed to educate her children and own a small home in Davao City, where she could paint and engage in environmental activism -one of her most passionate advocacies being the preservation of Mount Apo, which is suffering from the effects of a government geothermal project.
Her life was rocked by the revelation -by her sister, with whom she has not been particularly close- around sixteen years ago, that her father had left her properties she had never known of. The only reason she found out was that due to some financial difficulties, her sister had to sell some land, which required Mrs. -’s consent, as, it turned out, she was part owner of the land in question. It became apparent that there were other smallholdings in her name, too: the fruits and income from which her sister had been enjoying for forty years.
And so when Mrs. – found out that her father’s legacy had been withheld from her for nearly half a century, and would have been withheld God knows how much longer if necessity hadn’t made her sister admit she had the land, Mrs. – decided to fight to gain custody of the land that was rightfully hers.
The fight took seven years in just one particular case: the case of the rubber plantation, which was promptly appealed by her sister, further prolonging the agony. Other cases remain unresolved, plagued by foot-dragging attorneys, judges who turned out to be the neighbor of her sister or who were reassigned, and mysterious rulings which soomed to have little to do with the law and more with intervention behind the scenes from the other party.
But at least she was able to take possession of the rubber plantation. A majordomo and his wife, who faithful worked for her sister for decades only to be relieved of their duties the moment her sister felt they were a little too old, help Mrs. – administer the property; “I don’t know what I could have done without them,” she says. The couple seems happy working once more on the land they know so well -for an employer who considers them partners instead of mere hirelings.
When she took over the land, she had some unhealthy rubber trees cut down. When she tried to sell the lumber, she was harassed by the local office of the Department of the Environment, which sent inspectors to berate her for not having secured a permit to cut down the trees and who insinuated that she would face penalties if she tried to sell the logs, although of course for a small consideration all the difficulties could be made to vanish.
She would not bribe them; she couldn’t stick the logs in the ground and order them to sprout leaves, which is what the DENR seemed to want her to do. So she built a little house.
It was on the balcony of that little house that I spent an afternoon with Mrs. -, who had invited friends to visit. This was eight years ago. This is how I heard the story of the house and her land.
She talked of many things that afternoon. Of justice and how it is so easily denied. Of personal tragedies and how it is so important, and so difficult, to move on and retain one’s faith in one’s fellow human beings. She talked with wisdom and compassion, and most of all, gratitude: for those, like the majordomo and his wife, who have made a difference in her life; for the small blessing in recovering the plantation, which offers hope of an improved financial standing for her, when most other people experience the opposite as they approach old age. I remember her at Christmastime, because her story is like so many others, and yet so different in its having a happy ending.