Sunday, February 15, 2009

La Esa, the entrepreneur

The words of Mahatma Gandhi that say…

"Each night, when I go to sleep, I die. And the next morning, when I wake up, I am reborn," After all, life does not end at sunset. Every dawn promises a new life.

Like many other heads of poor farming households in Canlaon, La Esa as a staunch Sustainable Agriculture (SusAg) advocate, practitioner and development partner of NIRD since 1997, had always dreamed of becoming a farmer-entrepreneur. She was almost there. A few years before Domingo went ill, they had expanded their rice farm as well as their animal stock, acquired a mobile gas-driven rice thresher and a small rice mill. Business then briskly picked up for the duo – hardworker La Esa and risktaker Domingo, who was a selfmade auto-mechanic.

As rapidly as their business boomed, so was its slump. Draft animals and other animal stocks were sold first; leased 3,000 square meters of her rice land for PhP25,0000, which is not redeemed until now; crops were already paid for before they were harvested; all these were never enough to pay for the treatment of Domingo's illness.

"I welcomed Domingo's death. To me it meant relief, relief from sleepless nights of keeping watch over a 'living dead' only a mother could sustain… Ahh! a relief from the intense pain in my heart each time he begged to be touched when cancer pains ate him."

"Finally, on the fifth dawn of June he was gone. I watched him breathe laboriously… in and out… in and out… his chest moving up and down… up and down. I got to kiss him goodbye and he just stopped breathing… he went serenely." La Esa began to cry, shook her head… looked up… quickly dried her tears, then she went on:
"It was best for Domingo to have died and have been buried peacefully now; but me?... that time?... Yeah.. I was alive, but I felt I was buried, too... buried deep in debt," as La Esa spoke, she positioned her right hand in front of her throat as if slashing it, which was a gesture that could also mean death. True enough, La Esa risked everything on an obligation to business persons and institutions for money, goods and services. When Domingo died, he left behind a little short of half-a-million-peso payables.
She was flat broke.

IN CANLAON, when it rains, it pours. It could go on for days. One rainy morning in early August of 2002, two months after Domingo's death, La Esa came to the NIRD Training Center for a two-day Orientation on Tigum Apod Rotating Fund (TARF), a micro-credit project , which operates on a donated capital from Bread for the World, entrusted to NIRD as a revolving or rotating fund facility made readily available to deserving productive, enterprising and credit-worthy poor.

La Esa was soaking wet, her clothes awkwardly clung to her frail body; her whole body shaking, teeth chattering, when she came for TARF's Day One activity.
How she aged so fast!

La Esa belongs to Batch Three in the roster of TARF's Continuous Education and Training (CET) graduates. CET is a partial requirement before a prospective borrower can avail either one of the loan packages of TARF, Agricultural Productivity Loan (APL) or Enterprise Development Loan (EDL).

While Rob, one of TARF's account officers, was busy welcoming every participant who came to register for the CET that day, which registration must be personalized, every now and then, he would coach assigned local community organizers (LCOs) and volunteers who assisted each of the participants in filling up the registration form so that most of the information NIRD wants to gather through this initial social investigation process is more or less complete.

While waiting for the rest of the participants to come in, informal exchange of ideas ensued among those who have finished with the registration process.
"We are very poor, how can we become borrowers of TARF? In other words, do we qualify," asked La Esa.

"But why go through CET?," butted one of La Esa's batch mates.
"We have been NIRD's partners since 1996, don't you trust us yet?"
"When can we borrow?"
"How much can we borrow?"
"Do we pay interest?"
"How much interest does NIRD offer?"

"Under what term?," inquired the others almost simultaneously. There was no answer.
With no intention to offend them, Vani, TARF account officer incharge with this batch, held his hands up as though he was forced to surrender; then he plugged the electric cords onto the outlet and switched on the laptop and the multi-media projector to start off with the training session.
"By deserving poor," Vani began as NIRD defines it, "is measured in terms of instability in income brought about by high production cost, low production yield… hmm… threatened sustainability of production resources, all of which may render us vulnerable to all forms of exploitation and injustices."
As SOP, there was those usual participants' expectation check and the formal introduction of the project staff. Vani started introducing the team responsible for the success or failure of TARF: from Mico, as the Program Manager, to Patpat, Cashier; Heide, Bookkeeper; and four accounts officers Rob, Tatay Ed, Aldrin and himself.

Afterwards, Vani introduced the objective of the training, content or topics to be discussed and its schedule of activities. Then, Vani introduced the CET module that included NIRD's history, its existing programs and rural development framework; Basic Gender Orientation (BAGO); Orientation on Household-Based Organizing (HBO); Values on Saving-under "Silingan Ko Tulubagon Ko" (SKTK) which literally mean "My neighbor, My responsibility" Movement; and the Review of Sustainable Agriculture Concepts, all of which are done so that every participant will level off on important concepts which are inter-related to the TARF project. The CET focuses on the nature and scope of the micro-credit program, its technologies, its savings and credit policies and its loan procedures.

The workshop on Socio-Economic Environment Scanning widened participants' eyes and minds as Rob discussed on the control of non-Canlaon trader-financiers-and-local-capitalists tandem in practically controlling the poor farmers' lives from womb to tomb inasmuch as they control production, processing and marketing activities in Canlaon. These productive enterprising and creditworthy poor households who are vulnerable to exploitation of unscrupulous traders and financiers are the target of TARF. This micro-credit program, which in 1999 started as a savings and credit support program for sustainable agriculture, underwent twists and turns specially during its inception period.

While on test run, it took NIRD four years to plan, adjust, package, replan and repackage the TARF project proposal before it earned the funding support of Bread for the World. It started its operation in mid-2003 aimed at emancipating the poor farmers and local entrepreneurs from the debt trap and clutches of the few but powerful usurers in Canlaon.

"Debt web," as Vani puts it, who is himself a pure Canlaon-bred, or it could be death web, or that wave - who cares about phonetics? This is distinctly Visayan.
"Again, I asked… do I qualify as a borrower," ventured La Esa, taken more as a statement seeking reassurance rather than a question.

Touching his bulging belly, Rob emphatically spoke as he answered, "Of course, you more than deserve to be TARF borrowers because you are not just Sustainable Agriculture advocates, you are consistent Sus Ag practitioners."
"And," Rob added, "do you know that NIRD designed TARF after an olden indigenous practice of the marginalized rural poor? Culturally, as rural poor savers, our savings are mostly expressed in the form of physical assets. We may have shown less sensitivity to financial interest or economic returns but we are more keen and responsive to social and non-economic returns."

In a pensive mood, La Esa slightly nodded her head in silent affirmation as she was reminded of the idea that TARF wants to disprove the myth that rural poor people do not have a significant capacity to save.
"The Silingan Ko Tulubagon Ko or SKTK bridges the gap between the poor savers and their cultural values," said Tatay Ed, who started his engagement with TARF as Savers' Organizer. "Through TARF," he pointed out, "NIRD hopes that their development partners will see the practical wisdom inherent in every Filipino's cultural or indigenous tradition reflected in every Negrense's values. We hope that as we work together, we will be able to preserve our individual saver's identity and thus, persevere in articulating the significance and positiveness of the Filipino values relative to savings and how these operate in our lives…"

But as soon as Tatay Ed paused to take a deep breath, La Esa and two other participants, knowing about Tatay Ed's theology background at the Silliman University Divinity School, jokingly echoed "Amen" quickly altogether.
Laughter roared that broke the silence akin to the church's atmosphere that made the group relaxed.

"Based on your experience and knowledge," Tatay stressd, "what do you mean by the word saving?" After the sharing and exchanges of opinions, a unified meaning based on the participants' own experiences and understanding was summarized as: "Saving all life forms."
A participant was asked to read the summary statements written on the board.
"Saving means rescuing or unchaining the poor from all forms of injustices and exploitation;"

"It also means reserving, preserving and sustaining all life forms taking into account the air, land, water and human resources which have to be properly utilized, efficiently managed and diligently nurtured;"
On another light, "it means keeping secured or protected from poverty and hostile acts which impinge on women, men, children and elderly;"
"It means environmental security;"

Lastly, "it means storing-up or setting aside resources for future use or fall back on in time of dire needs to pursue life with dignity."
After every reading of these phrases or statements, the participants responded with overwhelming "Amen," each time the mantra becomes more resounding as though the act was motivated by conscientious and undesigning acceptance.
The reading continued: "It is vital for us… that we become aware of these values in order to optimally manage our heart, mind and body as savers' and to this last statement." Everyone applauded like they never did before.

By the end of the day, La Esa was one of the two participants, who were asked to wrap up on the day's activity, the other one being 'Tay Juan. La Esa started by expressing her gratitude to NIRD for the invitation and opportunity to learn about TARF, then continued to express and emphasize "that on account of God's creation and stewardship, each human creation has a saver's responsibility and accountability towards his or her neighbors and environment in ensuring that poverty is properly and decisively addressed."

La Esa paused to clear some obstructions from her throat and carried on with more force as she expressed, "As far as I have understood from the day's discussion, I am sorry… I can only comprehend so much… The role and value of savings is very important in bridging the widening gap between the rich and the poor, the oppressor and oppressed, as well as the unequal power relations between sexes and ages," with genuine feelings in straightforward manner.
The day closed with the symbolic burning of the participants' shortcomings relative to stewardship of God's creation written on a piece of paper, culminating in a prayer-ritual which ended up on offering their lives in a symbol of life-giving commitment and renewal of stewardship commitment.
Everybody was in businesslike mood on the second day of the training. The subjects were about HBO and TARF's Credit Management. Vani started the day's session by giving a short input on household-based organizing or HBO.
"HBO is a three-pronged approach used by NIRD in organizing households in all its programs and services. One prong is directed towards expansion and consolidation work; another as an approach to gender mainstreaming; and the other is used as a monitoring mechanism; these three interface within a household as target for solid organizing work."

"Overall experiences in the implementation of projects even before TARF have shown us that the HBO facilitated the project staff's direct interaction with needy households. Based on my personal experience HBO helped me get a closer look and more objective understanding of factors hindering people's development and validated the information I received on the results the program was making on."
"Moreover, HBO provided a space for both the staff and target partners to reflect on the development of concepts, values and technologies promoted by NIRD through its participatory learning and action method."
"How is saving related to HBO or how does saving find its place at the household level?" asked 'Tay Juan.

"Can I respond to that?," requested Rob, as he raised his right hand to be acknowledged. "The concept of saving, based on the result of our environmental scan yesterday, for example, did not only bring about the realization that wealth is within our reach." Rob paused as if he was waiting for a reaction from the participants. There being none, he went on, "If we use our resources wisely, we help not only our own family but other families and households, as well. Then we also realize that without natural resources, our livelihood, farm production and enterprises cannot flourish"

"So you mean that TARF's saving concept is not a mere economic concept but it also inculcates the value of caring for environment? For production resources?" 'Tay Juan stated more of a remark than a question.

"Sus… Bro Juan," brother as La Esa calls Juan, "how soon you forget?" said in an apologetic manner. "We discussed this yesterday didn't we… remember?" commented La Esa, who is herself a 'Hand Maid of the Lord', a title given by the Couples for Christ Movement to widow-members in recognition of her outstanding contribution to the religious movement.
"This… I want to be clarified about," standing up, with hair pin stuck between her upper and lower front teeth, La Esa ran her fingers through to comb her hair as she teeter-talked… "Why does NIRD focus on the family or households and not on the cooperatives or the whole community?," queried La Esa.
"Heee… haw…because we want you to find a husband! … so your grandchildren will have a father figure ba.. in the family," sang the laughable antics of 'Tay Juan, words and gestures carefully said without being rude to ridicule La Esa.
In response, La Esa chortled with explosive sound.
Everybody laughed. They laughed at all the funny things that happened.
"Wow, that was a good laugh…" declared La Esa.

"And now, let us go back to where we left… let us answer La Esa's question, to restart the discussion," ran on Vani after the laughter was over.
"We know that the family is the basic unit of society. NIRD recognizes the household as the basic unit of cooperation – and also the basic unit of conflict. It is at the household level where we find the distinct character to favorably push organizing work. The norms of the community reflect the norms of the households that comprise it. Any development initiative must, therefore, start at the household."
"The effectiveness of the HBO approach was clearly demonstrated in its ability to reach all members of the family... young, adult, elderly, women and men - who felt that the continuous process of awareness raising and sustained followup by both LCOs and project staff have significantly contributed to the formation of savers groups of all ages and household clusters…"

"And also in training local entrepreneurs, Sus-ag advocates/practitioners and managers of community coops; HBO had clearly involved more people and reached more women and children compared to results in the past," rejoined Aldrin.
"Hmm … Excuse me, will you please explain how HBO works at the ground?" asked La Esa, begging to be excused first to answer a personal call of nature before her
question is answered.

This time, Rob came in to rejoin as this is his favorite subject. "After social investigation, HBO starts with the formation of triads (three to four contiguous member-households) and clusters (four or five triads). These formations helped community members to keep abreast of plans and development in their areas; improved interpersonal relationships; enabled them to acquire new ideas on farming technologies and enterprise development; and enhanced the sense of social responsibility not only towards other households but also on the entire community."
"Moreover, a characteristic of HBO which resulted in the cohesion of households to support Land Tenure Improvement and other program components, for example… is the underlying 'call' or principle it espoused in SKTK which has been effective in consolidating triads."

"Has SKTK really worked?" asked 'Nay Mayang who kept quiet long enough that all the participants looked back to trace where the voice came from.
It was Mico, who just dropped by for Vani's signature, who answered Mayang's question… "The principle worked quite well particularly in areas where triads were composed of neighbors, but where members lived apart from each other that physically blocked passage of both formal and informal communications, triads were weak and diminished their capacities to work together more effectively."
"Triads and Clusters," Mico defined, " also provided a refuge for members who felt that having a group enhanced their access to financial resources. The expectation that they can access loan from TARF was a clear incentive such that members dutifully checked up on the others to ensure that their triads were actively working."

"Beyond these material benefits, however, some members believe that their involvement in the triad and cluster was also an opportunity for them to acquire knowledge, develop skills and express their concerns towards one another, not just in practical matters but also in strengthening camaraderie and wholesome relationships."

"On the other hand," put in Rob, "HBO with all its intentions as a monitoring mechanism is still weak. Clusters are charged with the main task of monitoring the status of triads, while LCOs of monitoring the clusters. It is through them that information on various aspects of NIRD's programs and problems affecting some clusters or triads are communicated. However, they are handicapped in terms of time and resources that bar them to function their tasks well since they also need to survive."

"And they, (the LCOs)… I mean, also felt that the monitoring system to complement the work of the NIRD staff was unclear, this condition made it difficult for Cluster leaders and LCOs to assess and resolve some of the outstanding issues affecting the households," concluded Vani.
"What is TARF?," began Mico.

"TARF is a credit facility that subscribes to the credit plus approach to microfinance, although, as of the present, we can not yet be considered a microfinance institution."

"By Credit Plus Approach, we mean wholistic and empowering; it entails working for strategic support of clients in the form of social mobilization, participation, training, education, social protection, health, housing among others…"
"Credit Plus Approach aims to widen the impact of income, opportunities and empowerment… on the lives of the poor to decrease vulnerability… for example, women's empowerment, poverty alleviation and self-sustainability; where self-sustainability dialectically relates to poverty alleviation and empowerment."
"So, the purpose and emphasis of TARF, is to contribute to the increase in income and provide opportunities to the most vulnerable sectors at the household level, where women for this matter are able to access resources and make decisions on their own. This spells personal social and political empowerment, which results consequently to economic empowerment. "

The sessions in the afternoon zeroed in on the management and technical aspects of the TARF program, which included subjects on credit policies in terms of loan portfolio; credit limit; requirements in applying for the loan; loan release and collections; penalties; sanctions and disciplinary action.
"Penalties?... Sanction?... Disciplinary action?... Prison?.. .any other 'sion,' huh?," retorted Tatay Juan in his usual antics.

Everybody laughed.

"These are considered control mechanisms to safeguard or 'save' our money," explained Mico. "We only resort to these to run after delinquent borrowers."
"Of course, we follow procedures… we don't just give penalties or mete out disciplinary action… without due process."

"Joe Prasis?," asked La Esa in all honesty… "Who is he? You mean… he's the man who runs after delinquent borrowers?"
"Yes, due process," was Rob's quick answer. "This is done to give us… both TARF and borrowers… a fair deal"

"Perdi! " exclaimed Tay Juan.
Everybody laughed louder and longer to the participants hearts' content but to Rob's and La Esa's surprise.

Joe Prasis misinterpreted for due process. Fair deal mistaken for perdi, which literally means loss. Who cares?… this is what Bisayan phonetics has done for us… misunderstanding… miscommunication… yet enjoying our own phonetics.
As the CET went smoothly to its conclusion, most importantly, La Esa, who only has grade IV education, was pleased that TARF's borrowing procedure is simple and easy to understand; and the payment scheme is easy, requiring borrowers to only set aside small amount of money everyday to give to the collector.
"It is just a matter of self-discipline," declared La Esa; although the lola a practising Sus-Ag farmer very much prefers the four to six months term, that is, to pay her APL, including the 5 percent monthly interest, in lump sum after harvest.
On the other hand, EDL borrowers with 4 percent monthly interest have the option to daily, weekly, bi-monthly and monthly terms depending on the kind of enterprise and the amount borrowed.

How time flies. Four years have passed.

STILL SITTING on a 15-year old sledge, then designed and built by the late Lolo Rufino; drawn on the ground by draft animals used to transport farm products, La Esa touched its retroflexed frame where the rope attached to the yoke used to be fastened, thinking aloud as she reflected on her life now.
In childish pride she began, "I grin at my life now. Life without Rufino, Domingo and Rowena wasn't so hard after all. And I am ready to take on 'death' again." La Esa forced a smile.

Then she becomes selfassured. "I am happier now. I have paid most of my overdue bills. I have fully paid the hospital accounts of Domingo. I have fully paid the loans I got from Monsignor. I have fully paid the debt I owe to the local variety stores for the goods I got on account four years ago. I have kept up with the regular monthly amortization of my land… Oh my.. it reminds me… I still have to redeem that portion I leased to Dong Rito."

"I need not stop saying this …'Thanks to TARF,' I felt as if the weight of a mountain on my shoulders were lifted. Only after four years ... huh?"
The organic rice farm is ripe for harvest anytime now. La Esa is hopeful she could get a bountiful harvest specially that she plans to apply for a larger loan amount for her seventh-cycle APL from TARF.

"What do you need the loan for this time?," asked Mico.
"I plan to expand the area of my organic rice by adding 1.5 hectares more, my veggie farm by 300 square meters more. And expand my piggery project too… Oh… I still have more plans to do."
"How much do you plan to borrow this time?"
"I still have to ask Rob to assist me in making my agribusiness plan come mid-April, perhaps after the Holy Week."

"Please let us know at the TARF office then, as soon as you have decided to renew your loan. You need not worry La Esa," reassured Mico, "Anyway you top the list of TARF's good payers, which make you credit-worthy."

"Thank you very much," as she extended her arms to cup Mico's hands. "You know Madam Mico… I might need a bigger amount …you know… I will repair my rice mill that stood laid off for a long time…so that we at CORFADECO (Canlaon Organic Rice Farmers' Development Cooperative), of which La Esa is an officer. CORFADECO proposes to rent La Esa's mobile thresher and rice mill, can make money out of it."
La Esa is excited about her plan. It means additional income.
"No worry…Just tell us La Esa."

Rob, Tatay Ed, Vani and Aldrin had a chance to drop by La Esa one late afternoon. It was not a scheduled meeting. Each of them never knew all of them would meet at La ESa's house.

"Come on right in 'guys' because I have a sad story to tell," announced La Esa as she opened the door.
"Yeah, what is it?"
"Do you remember Job? .. the Book of Job?"
"From the Bible?"
"Uh, huh... From my readings I learned that Job was a good man, but God made him suffer to test his faith. Took everything Job had; health, money, house, family."
"Now, I am wondering what has Job to do with this unplanned meeting, then?" intruded Rob.

"It's simple. I just want to share my thoughts with you guys."
The 'guys' grabbed a cup of hot black native coffee each, found their places each on top of neatly piled bags of dried copra ready for market, quietly sipped their coffee as La Esa told them about her story.

"I think I got the message," started off La Esa, trying hard to link Job's to her own story. "Like Job, God tested my faith. But maybe with mine…he…he... I think God overdid it." La Esa managed to crack a joke as she felt her forehead broke into a sweat from the hot coffee? Or from the uncomfortable situation… Whatever.
The 'guys' waited. The room was deathly quiet.
La Esa was amibale, "Thank you for coming" she rolled her eyes then smiled.
Every one beamed then shook their heads.

Little did Vani, Rob, Aldrin and Tatay Ed know that Job's story was just a point of entry to trigger a conversation for a tired and pained woman like La Esa.
"Well, here's the sad part of my story," La Esa said. "This is about Rowena. I know she knew about my situation, knew what I've been through." She choked.
She excused herself, hushed her noisy grand children, herded them into the kitchen, set the table for them, and proceeded on to tell her story. "I was very hurt when she left me amidst hardships - adjustments to single parenthood. I kept the remorse getting greater inside my heart… because I was doubly hurt… she never came to see how I was. So I decided to drop the relationship."
"Just a few days ago, she and her husband dropped by and tried to reconcile but I didn't accept it. I was prideful. I shrugged them off."
Her voice choked again.

"Rowena went off crying. It pained me so much to see her go again."

La Esa cried again. Quietly.

Aldrin was quick to say "sorry to hear that…"
"Don't be," she said, as she continued to weep alone with her memories.

Finally, La Esa continued, "We also need to forgive ourselves."
"Ourselves?" chorused the 'guys.'

"Uh..huh.. Yes, ourselves. For the things we didn't do, for the things which we could have done so easily… offering others what we want to give… I don't mean material things…but time, concern…forgiveness… love. I realized that I need to make peace with myself first, before I am able to make peace with everyone around me."
They all dropped their eyes… for a moment they sat there speechless as the hot day melted into night and darkness started to swallow them.
Yesterday when La Esa came in to the office to announce that it is harvest time, she seemed so full of grace. She seemed to have lived the life the way it should be lived… a life to be preserved for her grand children and her grand children's children to cherish.

She is still the ever busybody. Seems to be in perpetual motion again, running in and out… outfacing the impossible…outlining what can be possible.
After all, life does not end at sunset. Every dawn promises a new life.


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