Learning Locally to Act Globally

PCDForum Paradigm Warrior Profile #7 Release Date April 15, 1997

Interview with Antonio "Tony" Quizon, by David C. Korten

Tony Quizon is executive director of the Asian NGO Coalition (ANGOC), a major Asian regional association of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and NGO consortium bodies. Tony began his development career as a community organizer working with Philippine farmers and fishermen. He found the efforts of these groups continuously thwarted by national and international economic policies and institutions that deprived the members of such groups of access to the resources on which their livelihoods depend. As head of ANGOC he has become a leading international advocate for grassroots interests in global policy forums, with a particular focus on the Asian Development Bank and food security issues.

Korten: You started your career as a community organizer and subsequently turned your attention to more macro policy and institutional issues. Now I understand you are again spending considerable time with community groups.

Quizon: You will recall the 10 day retreat we held with a number of Asian NGO leaders in Baguio, Philippines in November 1992. We talked a lot there about how economic globalization impacts on the grassroots-including the local impact of global capital movements. It made me realize that the distinctive contribution of NGO people working at the regional and international levels comes from our ability to bring grassroots experience directly to international forums. This experience is the missing dimension in most international dialogue.

Economic globalization has reduced our national governments to providing the framework of laws and police powers that mediates the impacts of the global on the local. If you are well grounded in both the local and the global, the part in between falls into place fairly easily. So I now spend much of the time working with local groups that I used to devote to national networks. Korten: What are examples of your local work? Quizon: I am working mainly with a resettlement community for victims of the Pinatubo volcano disaster in the Zambales mountains North of Manila and with groups engaged in an anti-logging campaign in Cagayan de Oro on Mindanao Island.

We started the Zambales project about two years ago. It involves helping 100 families that did not know one another before to create a new community on public lands in an area denuded by previous settlers. These families were selected from a waiting list of thousands who had lost everything in the Pinatubo eruption. When we first went to the settlement area with the people we had to cross three rivers. They carried on their heads all belongings they had, including the GI sheets for their roofs. We also had to carry in rice and canned goods for survival until crops could be harvested.

Those of us who were helping put up our own money for initial expenses and took out 300,000 pesos in personal loans to provide food until crops could be harvested. The government did not provide a single centavo. We learned first hand the ineffectiveness of government programs to assist people in disaster situations and saw how easily outside traders and money lenders cheat desperate people in isolated communities that have poor transportation.

The people had to build new homes and create new lives from what they brought with them and could claim from the barren landscape. Everything had to be done from scratch. So many questions. How do you divide the land? Where do you put your houses? What crops to you plant in these soils? When do you plant them in an unfamiliar climate? How will such decisions be made? When the Bishop came to say mass for the first time we saw the powerful contribution of the church to building a sense of community.

All the settlers were rice farmers and wanted to plant rice, a crop to which the land in their new home is not suited. Eventually they found that squash grows very well and that there is a local market for vegetables in Zambales city. We faced the conflict between the need of the people to learn from on the ground experience and the demands of funding agencies that wanted specified results by a certain time. We tried to tell prospective funders that it is not possible to change cropping seasons to fit donor funding cycles. People borrow according to the cropping seasons for what they plant. It is different for vegetables than for rice. These are the practical problems we faced.

This year we won the award for the best agrarian reform settlement in Region III. It made us very sad, because if ours is the best, we know how bad the other settlements must be.

I became involved in the Cagayan de Oro project more than ten years ago when a group of us went to Mindanao with the intention of growing orchids. We heard a story of people blockading the logging roads and taking over the check points of the national government's Department of Energy and Natural Resources (DENR) in protest against illegal logging. We ended up helping them build an organization of 45 farmer groups involving all 28 baranguays of the municipality. The local church, a newspaper, a radio station work with the alliance. When a logging violation is discovered the farmers call into the radio station and the message is broadcast. Everyone listens and mobilizes, even the police. There are six organizers working on the project.

There are a lot of arms and money tied up in illegal logging. The loggers pay a sergeant in the Philippine Constabulary to maintain a private army for them that regularly threatens the farmer leaders. Here we learned how little control local government has. In the case of illegal logging the best local government can do is exercise its local police powers by seizing the logs. However, since the local government lacks jurisdiction the logs and the case must be turned over to the DENR. Once in the custody of DENR the logging trucks sometimes just disappear. The farmers have an on going court case calling for the dismissal of the DENR district director for corruption. In turn he has brought a court case against the farmers for liable and harassment.

This is the real world as faced by local people. By being involved you see the concrete reality of how these things happen. It strengthens your will to help them resist and helps you cut through the misleading theories and ideas that dominate the discussion in so many international forums.

Korten: Say more about how you use the lessons of these particular experiences in your international work.

Quizon: Good question. In the case of Zambales it is rather clearly a local matter. With regard to the illegal logging we really don't know whether there is an international dimension. The loggers are domestic groups headquartered in Metro Manila. We have not yet traced where the logs actually go. The anti-logging campaign brings out an interesting parallel between the relation of local to national governments and the relationship of national governments to the global system. In the context of a global economy national governments can exercise police powers, but they can no longer really set economic priorities or control the flows of capital in and out of the country any more than the local governments in Mindanao can control the outflow of their timber resources.

Where we really encounter the connection between the local and the global is in the resistance being waged by the alliance against Cagayan-Illigan Corridor, an industrial development zone being promoted along the coastal road from Cagayan de Oro city to Illigan city. This development is alienating people from their land, converting fertile lands from food production to non-agricultural uses, and threatening massive pollution of the bay. It is a prime example of the use of foreign aid funds to subsidize wealthy, primarily foreign, investors. While the U.S. Agency for International Development and the ADB say they do not support the corridor, both helped finance the feasibility study.

As soon as word was out that a feasibility study would be undertaken the real estate developers and land speculators swarmed in looking for short-term profits before any land zoning was in place. Land values spiraled and many small farming families ended up in the landless labor pool.

Two years ago Ayala corporation was paying 2 million pesos per hectare for land that normally would have sold for around 20,000 pesos per hectare. They wanted contiguous pieces of land, but many farmers did not want to sell even at inflated prices. One of the farmers I talked with told me that the company was pestering him to name a price. Having no intention of selling at any price, he said 2 million pesos, a price he assumed to be so outrageous that they would simply leave in disgust. To his astonishment, the company said OK. He then felt honor bound to sell. Land is now going at 7 million pesos a hectare in a coastal area where an airport will be built. Outside speculators who have advance knowledge have a great advantage over the local people. Of course the planning comes from the national government, so the local government has to adjust itself to plans made elsewhere to which it has little or no input.

Previously military land grabs were a major cause of displacement. Now it is the land speculation that drives up land prices in anticipation of government infrastructure projects, industrial estates, and housing developments. It is a major impediment to success of the government's land reform program. As much as 40 percent of the land distributed to poor farmers under agrarian reform is sold almost immediately to speculators by poor families who are attracted by the promises of instant wealth. Many end up being swindled and end up back in destitution.

For a long time I've been focused on issues of agrarian reform and sustainable agriculture and didn't give much attention to economic globalization. Then I began to see the full implications for both agrarian reform and sustainable agriculture of the government's push to promote exports and attract foreign investors. Our best farm lands were being converted to nonagricultural uses, driving out small farming families and increasing our dependence on food imports. The traditional link between food producers and consumers is broken, a new dependence is created that threatens our food security. This is a gut issue that people can really understand. It is an excellent focus for getting people to grasp the relevance of economic globalization to their deepest concerns.

I've spent a lot of time with farmers and it is exciting to see how aware they are of the issues. They experience the consequence of becoming dependent on corporations for patented seeds on which they must pay royalties every time they plant. They see how globalization leads to their losing control over their land, seeds, and markets.

Korten: How do you bring these insights to bear in your international work?

Quizon: These issues have been particularly central to our work on the World Food Summit being convened by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome (November 1996). The world looks so different inside the official forums than it does on the ground. I attended the regional meeting of the agriculture ministers from 29 Asian countries preparing for the World Food Summit. I saw how the negotiations are carried out and how the ministers lobby each other behind the scenes. I could sense the pressure the ministers face from their own governments. There is so much momentum behind the free trade agenda. I saw how even the Philippine government, which is aware of how GATT threatens our food security, felt compelled to go along.

Our own efforts in regional meetings with governments have focused on gaining recognition for two key points: (1) food insecurity can result from effects of the market; and (2) nations have the right to pursue food self-sufficiency and food-self reliance as a national goal. This is a counter to those countries that are trying to get approval for a clause stating that the freeing of trade in agricultural products is the key to increasing food security.

I was the only NGO allowed to speak at the regional assembly of agriculture ministers.

Australia strongly opposed any mention of the market as a cause of food insecurity and or any call for food self-sufficiency and self-reliance as a national goal. As major food exporters, I believe Australia and New Zealand are trying to establish the idea that free trade in agricultural products as a moral imperative to open they way for bringing the liberalization of agricultural trade into the APEC. Up till now free traders have argued their case on the ground of economic efficiency and comparative advantage. Now they want to elevate it to a moral issue. We have to block this.

After the meeting a lot of the ministers came to me and thanked me for saying what they felt they could not say. The African and Latin American governments also have no general agreement on this issue. In the end, I think that agriculture will be one sector, especially in the poorer countries, that will not toe the free trade line.

For the moment we at least succeeded in getting clauses into the official Asian regional declaration for the World Food Summit indicating that there was no agreement on these issues. The FAO people from Rome were quite upset about our taking on this issue. We had organized the NGO meeting at the request of the FAO office in Bangkok. It was all self-funded by the participants, who came from 18 countries. The day before the meeting the FAO people from Rome came and said we shouldn't be discussing such things. We told them that it was an NGO meeting and we would set our own agenda.

One of our future goals is to get a clause inserted into the GATT agreement in its 1999 review recognizing the right of nations and communities to pursue trade restrictive policies where they believe this is necessary to protect domestic food security.

Korten: How do you feel about the work Nicky Perlas is doing with the mainstream Philippine NGO coalitions to reorient the focus of APEC from free trade to environmental sustainability and economic justice.

Quizon: There will be four or five different civil society groups working around APEC meeting from different perspectives. There will be labor. There may be three different civil society groups. There will also be some local Filipino forums in the provinces around sub-topics. ANGOC has been handling the secretariat duties for the APEC Manila Peoples Forum along with Focus on the South co-directed by Walden Bello, and the Philippine Peasant Institute. As we see it APEC's central issue is free trade.

There was in fact a lot of debate among the NGOs as to whether to hold an NGO meeting in parallel with the APEC meeting. Some thought that by holding a parallel NGO meeting we would simply give APEC more significance and encouragement. There were also different readings of the situation. Some felt the APEC agenda had not yet been set and could be shaped by the NGOs. Others felt APEC was irrevocably committed to a free trade agenda. Walden took the position the agenda was set, but not yet written in stone. We felt it important to do some kind of a parallel forum.

I don't see a potential for a positive agenda coming out of APEC. Our hope is simply to slow it down and keep it from developing a targeted agenda. I think the best that can come of Nicky's approach is to put so many things on the APEC agenda that the push to make it a free trade agreement may get side tracked. Perhaps we should also try as well to add children, migrant workers and other issues. APEC is not central to ANGOC's work.

Korten: What about your work with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the World Bank?

Quizon: Much of what we are doing is very different from the campaigns and stunts organized by groups like Greenpeace around mega-disasters like the Arune dam. We are more focused on helping people understand how the policies and practices of the banks-especially structural adjustment-effect their daily lives, the investments in their home towns, land speculation, the rising cost of basic goods, their taxes, apartment rents, etc. We are working on such education throughout the region. For example, next month we are doing a training program for the Cambodian government and NGOs on the ADB.

A new direction of our work on the multilateral development banks (MDBs) is to look at how they are dealing with the private sector. The international capital flows in Asia are now predominantly private. Official development assistance (ODA) money is only about 6% of the total. Most of the ODA money, especially that coming from the MDBs, instead of going to help the poor goes for airports, roads, and other infrastructure that are really subsidizes to the 94% of private money. Much of the private money goes into investments that receive tax exemptions, so they never participate in repaying the loans incurred to build the public infrastructure they demanded. We are looking closely at this.

Another issue in the Philippines is the 18 percent small farmers are paying for credit. They want to know why their rates are so high when, according to the World Bank, the international lending rate is about 6.9%. This is the rate paid by the ADB, the World Bank, and other banks that in turn provide financing for the government's agricultural credit program. The farmers want to know who get's that spread on the loans the farmers are expected to repay?

Next year is the 30th anniversary of the ADB. To commemorate this event we are putting together a book of suggested strategies for the ADB's future. For each sector a group is putting together a list of the projects we have documented as disasters and don't want to see repeated.

We had a long discussion on whether or not to call for closing the MDBs. People felt it came down to whether we should retain something like the multilateral lending system or leave the lending to the private sector. We noted that the private banks do not do any kind of environmental or social assessment. Our only leverage over them is through the courts.. In Cagayan de Oro we brought a court case to close a single feed mill that was causing a lot of pollution. After three years the case is still in process. With the MDBs we at least have some access to the decision process and an opportunity to influence the procedures and methodologies.

In the end we concluded that doing a thirty years is enough campaign on the ADB would be self-defeating, because it would cut us off from the dialogue and from access to the media and to an important source of information about the distinctive nature of capital flows in Asia.

Korten: What exactly is special about international capital flows in Asia?

Quizon: We find there is a more involved than the efforts of corporate investors from America, Australia, and New Zealand to get a piece of the economic action in Asia. We are dealing with a new kind of home grown capital accumulation that is even dirtier than the foreign capital. A lot of it is from sources such as the military in Thailand or the Chinese mafia and is related to drugs, illegal logging, sex trade and other criminal activities. Much of this is clandestine and we have to piece the information together from many sources, including sources in the banks.

We are also trying to understand the relations between foreign and local capital. Ours is not a simple case of domination by foreign capital. Some say that any foreign investment that comes into the Philippines must go through one of the six major Filipino families who control our political institutions. NGOs who are working on policy issues generally find it easier to deal with the bureaucrats who are not so closely tied to the family interests. However, the bureaucrats don't hold the real power and they tend to come and go along with the politicians. These are some of the dynamics we are trying to understand.

Korten: Do you feel you are making a difference with the ADB?

Quizon: When I ask people in the ADB whether changes in their policies were brought about by NGOs, they respond that the changes usually come when an idea becomes fashionable in the donor countries. Sometimes these are issues that NGOs have brought into the mainstream-like women in development. Other times ADB staff were already inclined toward an idea and the NGOs provided an argument they could take to their board. One of our most important contributions is to bring an alternative way of viewing a problem. For example, during the meeting of agricultural ministers for the World Food Summit I mentioned in my speech that part of the problem is that agriculture policies are being determined by finance ministries. I saw the agriculture ministers nodding in agreement.

Right after this meeting I went to Australia. ACFOA, the consortium body of Australian NGOs working in international development, organized a lunch seminar for me in Canberra at which I reported all the problems I had with their Minister of Agriculture. I suggested we work together to block trade liberalization in agriculture. I asked them, "Is there an argument based on self-interest for why it is not right for Australia to export its beef?" One person suggested that the export of beef actually represents a major export of Australia's biomass. This is an example of the kind of creative approach we need to take in getting people to think about these issues. In many instances only the businesses involved in the trade benefit at the expense of both the exporting and importing communities.

Korten: So you see an important role for activists in bringing new definitions of the problem into the discussion?

Quizon: The language of the development discussion is the language of economists who are unable to think beyond growth. They have conditioned us to the idea that we have to justify investments in sectors like health, education, and agriculture on the basis of contributions to growth.

A lot of people in government don't have tools to think differently. If we want them to support us in more people-centered development approaches we must educate them in the real consequences of policies based solely on economic growth. For example, we want them to see how international capital impacts local environment, culture, and sense of community when left on its own.

Everybody in the NGO community now talks about these consequences. I'm sure most government officials have some sense of it. We must raise questions that deepen the analysis. What do we mean when we talk about capital movements? What is really moving? What do the foreign corporations actually bring to the country and what is the real cost of their extracted profits in terms of our own resources? Who actually pays for what? If we are promoting exports, what are we really exporting? What is being taken out of the country? And what are we getting in return? These are questions that government officials rarely ask.

Korten: What do you see as the most important challenges for the future?

Quizon: The new thinking among NGOs is on how to strengthen government's role as guardian of the public interest. This runs counter to the prevailing idea that the chief role of government is to protect market interests. I think the education of people in government is a major future issue. We should be inviting enlightened bureaucrats to participate in our NGO seminars and training programs, not as government officials, but rather as concerned fellow citizens. Government is the only institution that can restrict or regulate the flows of capital in the public interest, yet the discussion of these issues rarely takes place outside of NGO meetings and we do not include government in our discussions. We should let government bureaucrats know that stopping ecological damage by controlling the flow of investment is part of their job. We also need to frame issues in ways that connect with the concerns and responsibilities of people in government. For example, we invited people from the Philippines National Security Council to a meeting on plant genetic resources. They immediately saw that protecting our genetic resources from being patented and controlled by foreign economic interests is a national security issue and a necessary concern of the National Security Council.

I also think we all need to spend more time understanding the local, starting with our own neighborhoods and local ecologies. We must sensitize ourselves to our surroundings and immerse ourselves in the lives of our own communities both for our own learning and as a statement of what we believe to be important.


Tony Quizon is a contributing editor of the PCDForum and executive director of the Asian NGO Coalition (ANGOC), No. 14A, 11th Jamboree St., Kamuning, P.O. Box 3107, QCCPO 1103, Quezon City 1103, Philippines. Fax (63-2) 920-7434; e-mail: angoc@angoc.org. Interviewed by David C. Korten in Quezon City, Philippines on September 3, 1996.

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