Sunday, March 27, 2011

The politics of food

If there is one thing that makes me think hard about going back to politics to influence public policy, it is food.

Food is scarce in Romblon. The Romblomanons are going hungry, the reason why they cling to politics to try their luck in getting food.

Let me qualify this. Romblon politics is about the currency of the peso. Most politicians are allured by power because in the Philippines, power is associated with money; and to acquire more money, for themselves and for their constituents who they buy with money, is one among our politicians’ many and varied interests. That’s simple logic. It doesn’t take one to be a rocket scientist to figure that out.

Voters, on the other hand are attracted to politicians who have the money. I said they are trying their luck, hoping that the galaxy of politicians around whose orbits they revolve come election time will result to a peso windfall. Well, they are also attracted to the halo of political power that would reflect upon them, like a moth to the lamp, if they get near or close to a winning politician, but this is seldom. Most of the time, after winning, the politician forgets them until the next election season.

Romblon’s poor is a mixture of the power-hungry and the money-hungry lot. I cannot blame them. For years, our politicians had soaked them in a culture of dependency. Rep. Budoy Madrona knows this. Gov. Lolong Firmalo knows this, too, that’s why as early as now, the two are already engaged in re-election activities. Forget the food. It will come in bounty in a handful of ways in the next election.

But good governance, if I read President Benigno S. Aquino III right, is more than instant gratification, and certainly, more than winning re-election. It’s about profound change and reform, which the Liberal Party espoused in winning the 2010 election. It’s about righteousness in running the affairs of state, as the party slogan, “Kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap”, exemplifies.

Nine years of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s and his henchmen’s (Madrona, Jojo Beltran, Dodoy Perez, and Bernie Fondevilla come to mind) looting have rendered the country bankrupt. So, it is only proper that President Noy nurses our country back to its health. If the President leading the example in good governance has not rubbed off on Madrona and Firmalo, then Romblon is really going to the dogs. But let’s not forget that both belong to the Liberal Party, with Firmalo joining first, and Madrona doing a butterfly somersault after the election. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt that they, in spirit, imbibe the “tuwid na daan ng pamamahala” of the President.

And what better example this analogy applies to than food? Romblon imports rice and vegetables, its main staple, either from Panay or Mindoro. We do not produce enough food so much so that a large chunk of our money resources, private and public, goes to pay for these commodities.

We have the land; we have the people; modern farming technology is available; the seasons favor our province with sufficient rainfall and sunshine; and we have agriculture experts, but we don’t plant and produce sufficient food. Instead, we choose the easy way out by engaging in too much politics and by asking outsiders to mine the intestines of our province for mineral resources.

If the people have enough food on their tables, they would not have grumbling stomachs. Surveys after surveys of the Filipinos’ spending habits point to the incontrovertible fact that the bulk of their expenses go to food.

If this is so, why don’t Madrona and Firmalo sit down and put food sufficiency in their agenda, instead of pledging love for each other that they will cease to raid each other camps? If food is the need of the province, why shouldn’t our leaders think of ways to increase crops and vegetable produce, rather than spend nights in barangay fiestas amusing the people with their peroration about their supposed impeccable credentials, fake Samaritan spirit, and shallow accomplishments?

We need food, desperately. I came to this conclusion when, at a recent trip to Bangkok, I almost cried in envy upon seeing Thai farmers planting vegetables in vacant city lots. In Bangkok, food is so inexpensive (because they are aplenty) that the Thais don’t grumble despite low wages. Here in the Philippines, workers demand for higher and higher salaries simply because their incomes are not sufficient to feed themselves and their families. In Thailand, like somewhere else in Southeast Asia, governments prioritize food sufficiency as a matter of national survival and as key to stability. In the Philippines, our priority is politics.

In Japan, farmers produce a variety of food in surplus quantities for export. Rice is a national patrimony in Japan. Its market is closed to rice imports and Japanese farmers have so strong a lobby that Prime Ministers are elected on the strength of the support they get from rice farmers. Here in Romblon, our politicians are elected and re-elected on the strength of their money-raising abilities, fleecing investors who can’t publicly complain that they are being fleeced.

So, if we need food, food in sufficient quantities and varieties that would give our people peace of mind and happiness, and also, additional income, what do we do?

We plant, of course. But that is easier said than done. I suggest Gov. Firmalo sit down with Department of Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala and find out how the latter had succeeded in increasing the food production capacities of the farmers of his district in Quezon and also of farmers in many parts of the country.

The challenge for Firmalo as governor, I believe, is to nudge the Romblomanons along the lines of a practical program that would ensure food sufficiency in Romblon in the next two years. That’s the only time left for him.

For Madrona, the challenge is for him to support, through legislation and his pork barrel, a food production program by making available and increasing agricultural inputs and by helping open up markets for Romblon’s produce. The likes of Beto Muros and his wife, Ellen, who are producing quality peanut butter even if their peanuts come from Divisoria because Romblon does not produce enough peanuts, must get government support.

As to the lack of knowledge and understanding of agriculture policy and market behavior, including supply and demand, these can be supplied by the agriculture bureaucrats whose talents are under-utilized. The last time I visited the Bureau of Agricultural Statistics in Odiongan, for example, I only saw employees there scratching papers and looking at the clock. Ask them how many tons of copra Sibale produced in 2009 and they wouldn’t know. It’s a pity.

I also believe that Romblon State University has enough bright agriculture students and experts on food production. Their researches must be operationalized into practical action programs. Dr. Jeter Sespene must ensure this happens if he is to live up to the glowing write-up about himself on the RSU’s website as a “man with big dreams and of big actions” because the “big actions” I was only hearing are his being engaged in petty politics. And while I am at it, will somebody please clarify who is the real “father” of the RSU because I have heard that Budoy Madrona is also claiming the title? It’s in the RSU website, people.

Now, a sensible agriculture program must combine all of the above elements, but most importantly the farmers themselves. They need to be inspired and motivated into participating in the program because they will be its beneficiaries. Without them, the program will fail.

The Days

The revolution contagion in North Africa that started in Tunisia, and has crept to Egypt before crawling back to Libya, has infected the Middle East.

Now Bahrain, Yemen, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria, are having their own sufferance of political turmoil fueled no less by widespread discontent with ruling cliques of various histories, lengths of rule, ideologies, and motivations. The ruling elites of these countries, lulled by long years of tranquility and strong and stubborn hold on political power, never have anticipated that open dissent and defiance will one day come to their doorsteps, so much so that when this arrived, each had different levels and degrees of responses to the revolutionary situation.

Syria, temporary home to over 17,000 overseas Filipino workers most of whom are household service workers, is the latest country in the region to be rocked by the upheaval. One of the most tightly-controlled societies in the Middle East, Syria, for over a week, now has been battling loud protests of tens of thousands of its citizens in the southern city of Deraa, close to the country’s border with Jordan. The protesters are demanding political reforms, jobs, and an end to oppression.

The protest began when security forces of President Bashar Al Assad arrested school children for writing political graffiti for the protestors. The arrest ignited the fuse of a clicking time bomb, bottled-up frustration over years of authoritarian rule, economic decay, and suppression of human freedoms. The Syrian government’s response was quick. Its security apparatus, backed up by plainclothes police, fired live bullets and teargas, killing scores and injuring hundreds.

Instead of backing down, the protesters became more emboldened, and spread their street revolution to Latakia, a Syrian coastal city to the east. Last time I watched Al Jazeera, even Damascus has become a battleground of the protest.

What’s happening in Syria is also happening in Jordan, the Hashemite kingdom ruled by King Abdallah and his beautiful and famous wife Queen Rania.

In Amman, Jordanians are demanding the resignation of the government of Prime Minister Marouf Al-Bakhit, who was just appointed in February as part of King Abdallah’s promise of reforms. The King has also raised the salaries of public servants and given subsidies for basic commodities, but still the Jordanians could not be placated. They want more.

Who will win as revolutionary fervor sweep the region and threw existing political structures into disarray? This is the question foremost in many observers’ minds.

Professor Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Centre at the London School Economics, posits that it will be the people themselves who will emerge victorious from the rubble of the revolutions.

“The people’s movements are not just calling for a tinkering of the system, but for the restructuring of entire authoritarian system along more pluralistic and socially just lines,” he wrote.

“The winners are the people of the Middle East who have been politically oppressed for decades. Millions of voiceless Arabs and Muslims have regained their voice(s),” he added.

Indeed, as I write this, the peoples of the various countries of the region where the revolutionary storm is swirling seemed to be coordinating their actions as if giving timelines for their experiments in political enterprise.

In Bahrain, the activists have declared every Friday, their day of worship, as “Day of Rage”.

In Yemen, where the protests are over a month old, Yemeni youth, who lead the peaceful people’s uprising against President Abdullah Saleh, have called last Friday as “Day of Departure” even as Mr. Saleh has not departed and remains defiant.

Activists in Syria are bracing for more protests that could unnerve Mr. Assad. They have called for “Day of Dignity” mass actions every Friday at mosques across the country and it seems the call has gained more traction.

Whatever “day” a day is called following the almost daily mass protests across the Middle East, one thing is sure. It seems the days of quiet and tranquility in the Middle East are over, replaced by days of uncertainty and state of nervous flux that no political pundit can predict, but only speculate. And until political stability returns to the region, there would certainly be more “Days of Death” for activists who are dying as a result of governments’ brutal crackdown against peaceful dissent.

Gone, indeed, are Taha Hussein’s “The Days”. The title of his three-part autobiography, “The Days” chronicles Hussein’s life, transformation, and achievements as a one of Egypt’s greatest thinkers and intellectuals. As one of modern Egypt’s most influential writers, Taha Hussein lived in the days when Egypt—and the rest of the Middle East—was re-awakening, hopeful, and optimistic about its future.

That future is now uncertain, yet bold in what shape Arabs and Muslims would like it to become.They want the days of the future to be “Days of Democracy” and it is in their hands and will if these will be realized.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

And now, Bahrain’s brutality

The video image says it all.

A man—alone, in the middle of a wide boulevard in the capital city of Manama, repeatedly shouting, “Alahu, Akbar!, Alahu Akbar!”—who suddenly fell on his back, blood profusely oozing from his stomach after a shot was heard on the background, was a graphic summation of state brutality, Bahrain’s excessive response to its citizens’ demand for political rights and freedom.

This was yesterday, a month after Bahrainis chose the streets as platform to air their gripes against a long-entrenched monarchy that does not recognize plurality of public opinion, much less the rights of citizens to exercise their rights to vote and chose their leaders, to speak against the evils of inequality, to fight against social and economic injustice—in short, to fashion their own destiny.

Yesterday, or a few days earlier, I can’t exactly remember now, those rights, which Barack Obama called ‘universal’, were curtailed some more when Bahraini police raided medical facilities—hospital-to-hospital, room-to-room—to exact recrimination against the protesters, in the process denying them the right to health and to life. This after Bahrain’s security forces attacked peaceful gatherings at the Pearl Square, the country’s Taharir Square, firing live ammunition and teargas canisters, and burning the tents where the protesters were holed up.

The ‘conflagration’ that Philippine ambassador to Bahrain Cora Bahjin-Yap warned in a confidential memo a few weeks earlier that might happen had happened. What she failed to read, though, from the political winds was the Bahraini government’s pent-up and boiling contempt for the protesters, and its subsequent demonstration of that contempt by a brute display of state firepower.

The toothpaste can’t be rolled back into the tube once it's out..

Bahrain can no longer tame its beastly instinct. It wanted calm and stability so badly that it also so badly miscalculated the protesters’ ability to deliver to a world community the message that they, the Bahrainis, are being massacred by their own government and responded viciously. Thanks to modern information technology: the image of the man felled by gunfire captured by a handheld phone made it to the CNN newsroom.

What emboldened the Bahraini government to crush by force its protesting citizens is now clear: guilt and fear.

Guilt that the protesters’ could be airing legitimate grievances and fear that, because the protesters could be right, Bahrain could go the same way of Tunisia and Egypt, whose leaders were unceremoniously thrown out of their gilded cages in favor of the people’s long-dreamed of self-determination and political rights.

Bahrain’s security forces may also have been emboldened by the presence of friends and allies. Its patron, neighboring Saudi Arabia, and a fraternal brother-country, the United Arab Emirates, had sent in troops to help.

To help in what? In crushing legitimate dissent? We don’t know, but 1,000 Saudi soldiers and 500 UAE police officers—all armed to the teeth—could only mean one thing. They did not plant their feet on Bahraini soil to plant flowers on the country’s wide boulevards. They were there to serve notice to the protesters that when push comes to shove, they are ready to ramble. In short, they are in Bahrain to intimidate, threaten, deter, whatever.

Then there is the U.S. with its navy's Fifth Fleet, anchored off the Bahraini coast. Well, the Fifth Fleet could serve a purpose as well. It can, when push comes to shove, provide the Bahraini ruler, King Hamad ibn Isa Khalifa and his coterie of princess-wives and princes, as well as cronies, a convenient escape, similar to what the U.S.’s Sikorsky helicopters did to the Marcoses when these hurriedly flew them to Hawaii to escape the Filipino people’s wrath in 1986.

The streets of Bahrain are already soaked in sweat, tears, and blood of its peaceful freedom fighters who are armed only with stones and I-phones. They continue to die in the hands of the security forces. They continue to endure Bahrain’s brutality from which they can’t even hide in hospitals. This are the images clearly streaming in to our living rooms.

What are we to do? Indeed, what should the international community do to avert further bloodshed?

Support the protesters? In what way, when the U.S. itself could only encourage the Bahraini government to exercise “restraint” and “start a conversation”; when the United Nations could only say the brute force which the state security forces had used, and continue to use, to stifle peaceful dissent was “unacceptable” and “illegal”?

Individually, we can do nothing, except to egg on the Bahraini people to have moral courage. But collectively, we can also express our voices and speak against the reprehensible action of the Bahraini government against its people. It has been shown that world opinion, when arrayed against the forces of repression, could sway autocrats and dictators even of the hardest hearts.

Let us hope this applies to King Hamad ibn Isa Khalifa, although, by sanctioning state brutality, he had already proved to the world what kind of Emir he is.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Death warrant

The Japan earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear power plant meltdown have stolen the thunder from the political crises now engulfing the Middle East.

For now, the world is glued on Japan, and it only turns its attention to the Middle East, particularly Libya and Bahrain, when the media shifts its focus, fleetingly, to what’s happening there and then turns its sights again on the devastation on northeast Japan. We can’t blame the news organizations.

Blame governments upon whose shoulders rests the responsibility of acting on humanity’s woes.

When on 17 February millions of Libyans took to the streets to demand bread, freedom, and liberty, we who live within the confines of democracy could only express wonder and awe over their heroic courage to confront the claws of authoritarianism. Democratic leaders all over the world should have acted swiftly to support their struggle. They did not.

What they did was to retreat into the safety of rule-making, a slow, painful process, and talk of general things, such as “expressing support to the aspirations of the Libyan people.” They could only warn Libyan autocrat and dictator Muammar Khaddafi of "the dire consequences” of his actions.

In fairness, the United Nations, the toothless social club behemoth froze all the assets of the Libyan ruler, as if denying him access to cash will oblige him to abandon 40 years of ruthless rule. It was greatly mistaken.

Ironically, US President Barack Obama said the rights of the Egyptian people to peaceably assemble is universal. How about the Libyans' and the Bahrainis' rights? They are regional? Ironically, the US ambassador to the UN yesterday said that what the world body is doing is ultimately to ensure the protection of the Libyan people.

I am afraid that before the UN could act, there will be no more Libyans to protect.

Because as it turned out, Khaddafi showed his true form by unleashing the ruthless force of his armed forces on the Libyan people, bombing them and tightening more his stranglehold of Libya. Hundreds have already died from the civil war that ensued. Thousands more have escaped Libya to avoid getting caught in the carnage. To this day, Khaddafi remains defiant; his bombings continue; his rhetoric becoming more strident, describing his own people demanding political reforms as “rats”.

Yesterday, Khaddafi vowed to finish off the incipient revolution of the Libyan masses, saying he will recapture Benghazi, now in opposition control, in 48 hours.

Without exception, including France which was first to recognize the Libyan opposition as the legitimate representative of the Libyans, the West, led by the US, is just standing by on, well, the stands, watching helpless, impotent, and not caring for what’s happening even while Libyans are dying in the frontlines of the civil unrest.

“We are bitterly disappointed at the Americans’ and the global community’s response to the crisis in Libya,” said a civilian-turned-guerilla in Benghazi. “We are waiting for them to do something, but they are not doing anything.”

Well, the UN is still mulling whether or not to impose a no-fly zone over Libya, purportedly to prevent Khaddafi from mounting more air attacks on his people.

A no-fly zone is inadequate, if this is all that the global community can offer. The history and experience of the world in Bosnia prove that. What the Libyans, the Yemenis, and the Bahrainis need are action, not words.

Someone at Al Jazeera commented that by not doing anything, the US has already signed the death warrants of the Libyan people, for Khaddafi, already delusional, is oblivious to world opinion. He doesn’t care if the West abhors him. He doesn’t mind what the US and its allies thinks of him. He has killed before and he will kill again to remain in power.

From all indication, US foreign policy on the Middle East has failed. It is because the Americans could not make up their minds whether to telegraph its intent that it is merely interested in Libya’s oil, not in democracy.

Just look at how it reacted to the brutal and lethal force unleashed by the Bahraini police to peaceful protesters. All the US could do was to “denounce the excessive force” used by the Bahraini government to stop the protests which have been ongoing since 14 February. All it could do was to "urge" the Baharaini king "to discuss the situation." This, as six protesters have already died from gunfire of the Bahraini security forces.

Bahrain is a US ally. It hosts the US Navy’s Sixth Fleet. Libya is also a close friend of the US before 17 February. But to compare the behavior and reaction of the world’s only superpower to the peaceful democratic protests in these two countries plainly tells us that America is so confused it is using double standards in lieu of decisive action.

Iran, meanwhile, which the US considers as a regional enemy, had said that what the government of Bahrain did was “unacceptable” and rightly blamed the US for this “heinous behavior” of the Bahrain security services.

Like the Bahrain protesters, Iran has denounced the presence of foreign troops in Bahrain, which now include 1,000 Saudi soldiers and 500 United Arab Emirates police officers, as “foreign occupation” and an unwarranted intrusion into Bahrain’s sovereignty. Iran is equally guilty of double-speak. It has not done anything to help the Libyans, but that is understandable. Iran is not interested in democracy, but in regional religious hegemony. At least the Iranians are clear on this intent.

The rest of the Arab world, now pre-occupied with its own worries because its own citizens are also restive, has not decided what it should do to help the Libyans who, despite the death warrant signed by the US, remain defiant.

The US, with its allies, remains confused, thus unable to move.

Tsunami wipes Minamisanriku off the map

Snow have been falling since Monday and the window is slowly closing on any survivor, if there are still any, in the township of Minamisanriku, a port town in Miyagi prefecture, in Japan.
From reports and photos now available through the Internet, Minamisanriku could be the worst-hit of all Japanese towns and cities swamped by the mountain of ocean water called tsunami that descended with all its might after the earthquake last Friday.

Once upon a time, Minamisanriku was a happy paradise, a picturesque port whose inhabitants of 17,666 depended largely upon the bounty of the sea. By afternoon of 11 March, the town had vanished together with over half of its population.

Minamisanriku was flattened by the tsunami. Its houses, streets, cars, boats and ships, buildings, and whatever other object stood in town were swept away and buried in water blacked by mud, debris, and detritus. Not a thing was left standing by the merciless torrent that seemed to be on a race against itself to wrought unspeakable destruction.

After the deluge, those who survived could only shed tears and shake their heads in shock and disbelief at the devastation. NHK TV, which today did an interview with the town mayor, Mr. Sato, showed footages of aid workers sadly and gingerly going about town to find any more survivors.

“We are bracing for many more days of hardships,” said Mayor Sato.

Asked what his priorities are now, Mr. Sato outlined three most important things. First, he said, is to find more survivors, admitting that this would be very difficult because of the harsh weather. It’s mid-level winter in Minamisanriku with temperatures going under four degrees.

The second priority, according to Mr. Sato, is to secure food, water, and fuel for the 8,000 or so evacuees housed in a gymnasium in the town.

“The evacuees are living in very harsh condition, and we need food, fuel, and water. We are very grateful to all people across Japan for their help, but we are bracing for more difficulties many days ahead,” he said very sadly.

The third priority of the mayor is to clear the roads for aid workers to reach isolated areas. It’s a tough job to do this, because the roads, if they have not been littered with debris, have been washed away, rendering them unpassable.

The reporter asked Mr. Sato what the survivors need at this time, and he said:

“Correct information.”

“The survivors in the evacuation center are asking for more information about where their families are. They are devastated by the lack of information about their missing loved ones because right now we are cut off from the rest of Japan. They hope they could get mobile phones as soon as possible.”

On the glass doors of the gym where the survivors are staying, posted are lists of names of identified persons who died from the tsunami, but these are of no help, it seems.

“Take care of your health so you can still perform your duties,” said the NHK TV staff to Mayor Sato after the interview.

How sad.

Japan’s nuclear crisis and some people’s radiating ignorance about radiation

It’s funny that in this age of Google, there are still presidents of universities like Dante Guevarra who will declare a school holiday on fear of a nuclear fall-out.
The other day, Guevarra sent home PUP students, apparently after receiving calls from irate parents who have inquired why their sons and daughters are still in school when the rest of the world was on edge over the earthquake- and tsunami-hit Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power facility in northeast Japan.

The furious calls were apparently fueled by a hoax SMS message saying that the Philippines is going to be annihilated by radiation from Japan’s damaged nuclear facility, or words to that effect. Ugh.

There were only two ways to react to this ignorant overreaction. One is to ask for Dante Guevarra’s resignation for, yes, ignorance and replace him with a more somber official.

The other is to die laughing and, after passing out harmless, irradiated gas generated by the laughter, to Google, learn, and find out.

I did the last, as the investigator instinct in me dictated. I browsed the Internet about radiation. Here’s what I learned:

Radiation, according to the American Nuclear Society (ANS), are of two types: electromagnetic radiation and atomic and subatomic particle radiation. Electromagnetic radiation, which travels at the speed of light, includes visible light, radio waves, microwaves, x-rays, gamma rays, and infrared and ultraviolet radiation.

On the other hand, atomic and subatomic particle radiation includes alpha and beta particles, neutrons, protons and heavy ions, and its speed and energy depends upon the source of radiation and on any subsequent interaction of the radiating particle with other matter.

Radiation can be both harmful and harmless. Excessive radiation can kill, while controlled radiation can be generated to diagnose and treat ailments, eliminate or reduce harmful micro-organisms to enhance the safety of medical equipment and the food supply, cook food, transmit information (radio, television, cellular phones, etc.), and many other applications.

Says the ANS: “Unstable atoms that exist in nature are said to be naturally radioactive. Examples of radioactive atoms found in nature are carbon-14, potassium-42, radon-222, uranium-235, uranium-238 and thorium-232. In addition to naturally occurring radioactive materials, radioactive atoms can be produced when the nucleus of an atom is made to interact with a particle or electromagnetic radiation to form an unstable nucleus; this is typically done in nuclear reactors and particle accelerators.”

The latter is what is happening to Japan’s nuclear reactors. So, are we in imminent danger of annihilation by radiation as the hoax text messages warn and as Dante Guevarra ignorantly feared?


Japan is very far from the Philippines. Whatever radiation may be released in the atmosphere even if all of the four Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plants erupt (heaven forbid) will not wipe the Philippine archipelago off the map. Surely, there might be health hazards, but these will not kill whole populations.
I say this bravely because if officials of the Tokyo Electric Power Company, International Atomic Energy Agency, and some nuclear scientists who are in the know of what’s happening in Japan are to be believed, the radioactive fallout from the damaged nuclear power plants can still be minimized and controlled. No need, thus, to panic.

Which brings us to the question, “What radiation level is deemed life-threatening?

The answer depends on the source of the radiation.

There is cosmic radiation, which is from outer space, primarily the sun, which is partly blocked by the earth's atmosphere. It follows that the higher the altitude, the less air there is to block it and, therefore, the higher the radiation levels.

Then there is terrestrial radiation, from uranium, thorium, and other radioactive materials in the soil.

The food we eat can be radioactive, as they naturally contain Carbon-14 and potassium. And because we eat, then we, humans, can be radioactive, too. Kissing and other forms of human contact transmit radiation.

The one that humans, including Guevarra, fear most is radiation from nuclear matters and activity, such as nuclear weapons use. Comparing the radiation levels from any of these sources is in order to clear the air.

But to do it, let’s measure radiation first.

There are many types of radiation measurement, how it is stored in objects, how it affects tissues, and how it affects humans.

One measurement is the curie, named after scientist Marie Curie. A curie is a measure of how fast atoms disintegrate per second. A curie is about 37 billion disintegrations per second. All objects have a certain amount of curies.

Another measurement is the Roentgen, a radiation unit that indicates how much radiation is present in the air of a specific environment. A roentgen show how much radiation may be absorbed by standing in a particular place for a certain amount of time.

A more common type of measurement is the rad, or ‘radiation absorbed dose’, and the rem, or ‘roentgen equivalent man’.

These two can measure any type of radiation, including alpha, beta, neutron, gamma and "X," and deal with how much radiation is absorbed by objects. One rad is equivalent to 100 ergs (an energy unit) absorbed by 1 g of material.

Used to define limits of exposure for people who work in nuclear power plants, rem is a biological measurement divided into millirems and assigned a length of time, such as millirems (mrem) per hour.

“Technically, rad and rem measurements have been replaced by gray and sievert, which are metric measures. Gray is a precise measurement of how much energy the ionizing radiation gives to the tissue it passes through, while sievert takes into account the type of radiation and produces a biological measurement of how dangerous the absorbed radiation is to the body.”

For our purpose, let’s use rem.

If you ride an airplane, you get a radiation dose of 0.5 mrem per hour. How “high” you live varies the radiation you get from the sun. At sea level, you get around 25 mrem to around 50 mrem a year if you live at an altitude of 1.6 kilometers. At 3 km, that would be about 100 mrem a year.

On terra firma, we get about 30 mrem a year, although this can be much less along the coasts. There are places on earth where radiation is higher, like in some villages in India and Brazil that have high levels of thorium in local sands. We inhale radon which is present in the air and that’s an estimated 200 mrem a year.

Porcelain false teeth or crowns are radioactive; so is watching television. These give us around 0.1 mrem every year.

The ANS says medical tests radiate the following typical dose levels: extremity (arm, leg, etc.) X-ray, 1 mrem; dental X-ray, 1 mrem; chest X-ray, 6 mrem; nuclear medicine (thyroid scan), 14 mrem; neck/skull X-ray, 20 mrem; pelvis/hip X-ray, 65 mrem; CAT Scan, 110 mrem; upper GI X-ray, 245 mrem; and barium enema, 405 mrem.

Nuclear weapons fallout is estimated to be less than 1 mrem a year. There is a slight increase in radiation doses when one lives close to a nuclear power plant due to the release of uranium and other chemicals.

Granting you get radiation from all of the above sources every year, you will probably get over 35o mrem, much less than the estimated 250,000 mrem that can kill you. This means, on the average, 3,000 mrem a year for, say, 80 years before you get the chance of dying from cancer. 450,000 mrem can produce instant death.

So, the risks from radiation are very low, even if you ride airplanes everyday, replace your porcelain teeth every year, or watch TV till you get eye sore, or have nuclear medicine procedures until your money runs out. I think the risk of dying from getting hit by a speeding bus on Commonwealth avenue is greater than the risk posed by Japan’s nuclear disaster. Was this why Energy secretary Mario Montejo bats for the operation of the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant? I guess so.

So, Mr. Guevarra, you can cry now because you were had by the hoaxers. If only you googled.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Mother Earth takes revenge as it heals its wounds

It has been two days since an 8.8 magnitude earthquake struck Japan’s northeast region, yet I still couldn’t believe this could happen.

As the extent of the quake’s devastation begun to sink in, thanks to the wonders of the Internet and satellite television, one is led to accept the reality, however, that the trauma suffered by Japan and the shock of the rest of the world, will not easily be erased for some time to come. We, who were on higher and safer ground (at least temporarily), are helpless, our helplessness shown by our offers of prayers and sympathies—and donations—to the Japanese people.

We now knew how the quake shook and sort of “re-arranged” Japan. In Filipino, parang ipinagpag. NHK Television reported that due to the earthquake's power, a portion of Hensho island moved 2.4 meters to the east. We now knew how the Japanese behaved—cool, composed, and urgently moving as one—during and after the catastrophe. Fairly, we now knew how the tsunami—the giant waves that followed the quake—finished off the job that the tremor started. What destructive horror the quake and the waves wrought and how! The Japanese, famous for their meticulous planning and preparation, engineering feat, and clock-work efficiency, did not stand a chance against nature’s wrath.

But no country on earth really does when nature takes revenge; when, at its own choosing, method, and time, it avenges centuries of hurts and abuse inflicted by man on Mother Earth; no, on himself. For isn’t it true that when we exploit and endanger our only planet, the planet that hosts our existence, we pull the rug from under our very own feet?

The earth, regardless that Thomas L. Friedman says it is flat, is round; has come full circle; and is getting even. It is, I suspect, healing its wounds—deforestation; mineral, oil, and water extraction; chemical poisoning; and air and water pollution all being mortal hits—by expressing its anger through the destructive forces of nature.

When, on Friday, 11 March 2011, the earth under Japan shook and righted its crust (subduction, the process was called by geologists), it only expressed its pent-up displeasure. The earthquake and the aftershocks were a warning; the tsunami the whips. And what whips these were, trashing everything on its path!

Actually, Mother Earth’s bursts of anger have been coming in lately with, shall I say, predictable regularity. El Nino, La Nina, glaciers melting, prolonged droughts, earthquakes, tsunamis, forest fires, volcanic eruptions, landslides and mudslides, hurricanes, and fish kills are only some of the natural phenomena that baffle the best minds of humankind and for which no permanent cure is apparent. We cannot heal the manifestation of an ailment. It is the root cause that we cure.

Yet, we haven’t learned. We keep on bruising, flagellating, wounding, and harming the earth. Make that ourselves.

I don’t mean to be apocalyptic, but I remember the Holy Book speaks of the latter days when there will be famines, droughts, killer diseases, wars, and sounds of wars. We are heading towards the precipice of destruction, if we are not already in it.

We are killing Mother Earth. Ourselves.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The great Japan earthquake of 3-11-2011

I was home, half-asleep when an 8.8 magnitude earthquake in the Richter’s scale, hit northeast Japan at 2:46 Japan time, today, March 11, 2011.

The television was on, at Al Jazeera, when the quake occurred. I quickly switched to NHK World, which quickly put up a ‘breaking news’ update of the earthquake.

Shortly thereafter, the Japanese television network broadcast from a helicopter film crew live footages of the 10-meter high tsunami that hit the coastal areas of the Tohoku region, particularly Miyagi prefecture, the ‘bull’s eye’ of the earthquake. Several aftershocks were reported, one reaching the 7 magnitude in the Japanese scale.

Coming in living color, I saw the large swath of destruction that the tsunami wrought on that part of Japan. Floods of ocean water rampaged across Miyagi, inundating the city and sweeping along its raging path houses, boats, ships, cars, buses, trucks, factory buildings, crates, and debris as if these were toys. I saw cars racing to higher ground. Forty-four fires broke out all over Japan after the earthquake, the largest having been the blaze at an oil refinery at Ishihara in Chiba City near Tokyo, which, as I write this, remain raging.

Sendai Airport in the Miyagi prefecture, which is two kilometers away from the coast, was flooded. Haneda Airport in Central Tokyo was briefly closed, but was opened shortly after to accommodate incoming flights. Outbound flights, however, were temporary off. Narita International Airport remained closed.

So heavy and severe was the damage of the earthquake that transportation in Tokyo, a hundred kilometers south of Miyagi, ground to a halt. Electricity was cut off and telephone lines and mobile phones went dead. This is the worst earthquake I have ever known in my 48 earth-years.

Japan Prime Minister Naoto Kan quickly briefed the media about the earthquake. He called for cooperation and instructed Japan foreign ministry officials to prepare to accept international assistance to his country. He said he had established a task force, with him as head, to respond to the aftermath of the earthquake, and asked his countrymen to exercise caution, to remain calm and vigilant, and to cooperate to minimize the damage.

The Diet, Japan’s parliament, suspended its session, and the opposition pledged cooperation to the national rehabilitation effort.

The Japan Meteorological Agency’s Hirofumi Yokoyama quickly briefed the media about the earthquake. The Agency had issued a major tsunami advisory to several northern and southern regions of Japan, including Hokkaido, Fukushima, Tokushima, Honshu Bay, Miyazaki, Tokara, Okinawa, Miyaki, and the Aleutian Islands. Yokoyama warned people in coastal areas to evacuate to higher ground, to exercise caution against landslides and mudslides. He said aftershocks may cause buildings to collapse.

Immediately, the Tsunami Warning Center in Honolulu issued a tsunami advisory for Taiwan, Japan, Russia, and Hawaii. After only a few minutes, the advisory expanded to include New Zealand, Australia, Mexico, Chile, and Peru in South America.

Nature, once again, has its last word. As I write this, footages of the earthquake’s shaking of Japan, the tsunami’s rampage, and the damages that were their aftermath continue to pour on my television screen.

I am breathless in disbelief and very sad for the people of Japan. Let’s pray this doesn’t strike the Philippines.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

In and out of a hospital, a time to read

For some time now, I haven’t read much at home, and the books I have acquired at the national book fair in September last year must have been wondering why they remain closed. I have been so busy to touch their spine, smell the ink on their pages, much more transport myself to the paradise of knowledge and wisdom that only good books are capable of doing.

The books are scattered all over the house: by my bedside, in the shelves at the toilet, in the shelves in the living room, and on my study table. They silently, patiently wait to be picked up, engaged, and then, if one has more time, tell a story about them.

That was until last week when, at a burst of idle energy, I begun to read again. I had the time. I was off from work for a few days because of an unwanted intruder—a hospital furlough.

I have to credit my having time to read to my appendix, that pesky “accessory organ”—according to my daughter Lara—which was now detached, removed from this world, and more useless than it was when it still protruded from my big intestine.

And to think that just last Sunday, when the doctors at the Manila Adventist Medical Center recommended its excision, I adamantly refused despite the excruciating pain that its inflammation brought to my body. Think of being pricked by a thousand needles when you imagine an appendix about to burst!

My refusal to be operated on—to be relieved of the stomach pain—was based not on a scientific fact. It arose from an eternal remembrance of what my grandfather Urbano used to drill into my head as a child in Sibale, Romblon.

He told me: “Nicon, life is never the same once someone other than the Creator removes something from your physical body.” Then he went on to recite the names of townspeople I all knew who went under the knife, after which they were not the same anymore. Some got worse and weakened; others got old faster; all eventually died.

Such was my fear of medical procedures that when I was in the elementary grades, news of a motorboat coming to our island with a dentist, nurse, or doctor from the faraway provincial capital and sent by public school officials to attend to the health needs of students would send me scampering away to the barrio. I escaped those regular medical visits by inventing all kinds of excuses just to be away from school on the appointed time of their coming. Fortunately, I seldom got sick when I was a child. I maintained a robust body by swimming and eating edible wild fruits and leaves, fresh coconut meat, and raw fish eggs dipped in vinegar.

But on Sunday, I could not escape the inevitable. Twisting in pain, I listened to Dr. Noelvin Bartolome, my long-time physician, explain why I had to undergo an appendectomy. He asked a classmate, Dr. Joseph Melbert O. Gulfan, the surgeon who also dabbled in nature photography and mountaineering, to do the convincing because I had been asking how sure they were my stomach pain indicated a near-bursting appendix.

Dr. Gulfan said appendectomy is a minor surgical procedure. The success technique, he said, is early intervention. The earlier it is, the earlier the recovery, and the earlier I can go back to work. Doctors, I suppose, are salespeople, too. They sell hope and I had to buy it if I were to be alive and continue to be productive.

I narrowed my options between temporarily giving up control over my body so it can recover and the possibility of having an intact appendix but pestering me with pain until it burst and poison my internal organs. The second option will still lead to an operation, anyway, or if not, possibly death.

So I agreed. On Monday, at 10:00 A.M., I was sedated. The sedative was administered intravenously so I didn’t feel the pain of the needle when the anesthesia, which lent the lower half of my body limp and numb, was injected in my spinal column. When I woke up less than an hour later, I heard voices but can’t figure out what they’re saying. I felt a pair of gloved hands already dressing my wound.

That was it; finished, I, still dizzy because of the anesthesia, thought. Later at the recovery room—the transit point between the operating room and my hospital room (hell and paradise?)—my wife, Eireen, whispered to me that Dr. Gulfan showed her my appendix. It was elongated, reddish, and seemed ripe to riot. I asked why she didn’t preserve it. She just smiled.

I was amazed how painless an appendectomy was and how fast one can recover from such an operation. I stayed a day more at the hospital, reading and watching TV, because I was bored and unable to move freely yet. The next day, I went home and the first thing I did was to position myself at the living room sofa, with a stack of books beside me because I am not allowed yet to do my regular chores, and read. I read, read, read.

Oh, what a joy not to be able to move your body because an appendix you first thought of was useless was removed! How utilitarian it is to have an appendix and then have it excised! It gives one many precious gifts.

One of which is the gift of time. My immobility due to the operation, however short, allowed me to think, to sort out things, and to notice even some parts of the house that I thought were not there because I took them for granted during normal times, such as the busted bulb in the terrace which I fancied to switch on when I arrived home.

It gave me time to read The Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas, a novel about a fascist writer Rafael Sanchez Mazas who, at the close of the final moments of the Spanish Civil War, escaped death when the unknown soldier who should have shot him, did not, and just turned away, after looking into Mazas’ eyes.

As I write this, I am into Francisco Sionil Jose’s Why We Are Hungry, a compilation of the country’s most widely-translated writer’s published essays that are an analytics of our socio-economic and political times and, as in his previous compilation, Why We Are Poor, raise his resonant voice that consistently call for a nationalist revolution.

Next in my reading leisure list is George F. Will’s The Levelling Wind, but that has to wait, I think. I have to re-read Kain Na, The Maya Kitchen’s recipe book which is Eireen’s favorite. It is her birthday over the weekend and Lara and Lilac have been badgering me to cook for them a dinner. I shall oblige, with or without appendix. I have time. Do you?

The sum of Sam Romero, zero

In between my professional chores as spokesman of the Department of Labor and Employment and as a writer, I still manage to find time to plug myself on what is happening in Romblon.

Recently, mining keeps popping up in my radar and I cannot help but comment on the issue, it being so relevant, explosive, and to me, a matter of life and death for Romblomanons—life, luxurious life, for mining proponents like Sam Romero and company and death to poor farmers and fishermen whose survival is anchored on the dignity and integrity of their lands.

And why did Sam Romero suddenly burst into the scene—and as early as the second paragraph of this opinion piece?

Because, first, Sam Romero is a public official and he is fair game for fair comment.

And second, because Sam Romero chose to wage war which I felt he could not sustain: he disparaged freedom of expression as espoused by the Romblon Sun and in the process joined the likes of Cyril Mayor, Nora Divina, and Nikki Taupo whose tirades against Romblon's only credible newspaper stemmed from their mediocrity and envy that the newspaper of Tony Macalisang is flourishing while theirs, the Romblon Kahapon, err, Romblon Ngayon, is floundering.

The Romblon Ngayon, as many Romblomanon readers could attest, is being used merely as wrapping paper for fish dynamited by illegal fishermen in Cyril’s hometown. It is a newspaper bereft of news, a mouthpiece of Sam Romero and his ilk, and thus has zero credibility, like Sam Romero, in the journalistic world.

“Ang Romblon Sun naman ay puro hula at ‘yan namang si Wilig-wilig Liong-liong ay palaging talo,” allegedly said Sam Romero at the presence of the regional director of the Mines and Geo-Sciences Bureau of the DENR last week. Awe Eranes has reported this to me.

I would not have minded this outburst, but coming from a public official expected by the voters to behave in public with decorum, it riled me.

Sam Romero’s remark riled me because it is idiotic. It riled me because it was senseless; and it riled me because the remark dribbled from the mouth of a politician who, like Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, was a liar.

In 2007, Sam Romero declared with bravado before Jesus Eleandro Madrona and company that if not chosen as Madrona’s governor, he will not run for public office anymore in the May 2007 election. After his melodramatic speech in which he almost cried of pity for himself, he left; boarded a boat for Romblon; and filed his certificate of candidacy.

Shortly after this, I called up Madrona to inquire if he knew that Sam Romero was running. “Oo, Nicon, alam ko na ‘yon,” he said matter-of-factly.

There is Sam Romero! Tigilan mo nga ang Romblon Sun, Sam. Asikasuhin mo ang trabaho mo at marami pang matutuwa sa ‘yo. Tigilan mo na rin ‘yang kapapadrino mo sa mga minero at tatantanan ka ng Romblon Sun. The next time you open your mouth, be sure there is fresh air coming from it that will benefit the hearts and minds of Romblomanons.

As it does, Romero’s remark betrays his politics: that he is trying to push for mining in the province at the expense of the freedom of expression, one of the most basic and universal of all human rights.

By discrediting Romblon Sun, Sam Romero only mired himself into deeper trouble, further eroding his credibility. I think that many Romblomanons—including the writers and editors of this newspaper—perceive Romero to be fronting for some mining interests, and that’s a pity because as an elected official, he should be fronting for us, the common citizens.

But I perfectly understand that Sam Romero imperfectly understands what I am saying. That’s what many Romblon politicians are incapable of doing—reading correctly the signs of the times because they are so blinded by the dark desire to get re-elected even at the expense of the people.

Anyway, I will leave Sam Romero at the moment with the benefit of the doubt. He is entitled to it, not the least because he is an elected official but because I trust the inherent goodness in the hearts of men.

But I would ask him to stop blaming the Romblon Sun for the current anti-mining current in the hearts of many Romblomanons. The Romblon Sun is only a small paper which believes in the power of truth. It is a struggling medium that bears no malice to anyone, including Sam Romero.

In the free market of ideas, the idea that has the ring of truth in it reigns supreme and survives.

Whereas, in the zero sum game of politics which has a life span of three years, just like in Sam Romero’s case, remember that the one thing that gets remembered mainly is the way one adds up to, or improve, the voters’ common weal.

And that’s sad, because if history is written now, many will affix an asterisk before Sam Romero’s name to indicate a footnote that once in his days on this earth, he had trashed a newspaper that contributes immensely to the progressive thinking of many Romblomanons.

It’s a zero sum game, Sam.