Column: PH politics is a 600-year-old ‘balete’ tree

Published on June 2, 2015.

IT IS an imposing sight. The massive balete tree in Maria Aurora town, in Aurora province, is about as tall as a 15-story building and at its base is as wide as a three- or four-bedroom house. Tourists visit it by the busload, drawn by a simple superlative: It is known as the largest balete tree in Asia.

There is some slip-sliding, sometimes, and local guides also call it the oldest—but that title probably goes to the balete tree in Canlaon City, in Negros Oriental, which has an estimated age of 1,300 years, or more than twice as old. (I have not yet been to Canlaon myself.) But the tree in Maria Aurora is an extraordinary sight; first there is its sheer size; then there are the thousands of hanging roots that have descended (the tree starts as an air plant) to form an incredibly dense curtain right around it; and then there is the gap, just big enough to accommodate a crouching adult human, in the middle of the tree.

It takes only a couple of minutes to walk through the tree. The roots inside have been smoothened over the years, from contact with tourists’ suddenly helpless hands and wayward limbs, but being inside the tree, and looking up from within its hollow core at a hall of roots, is an eerie, unforgettable experience.

As it turns out, the balete is a parasite tree. The unedited description in Wikipedia offers a working definition: “A number of these are known as strangler figs wherein they start upon other trees, later entrapping them entirely and finally killing the host tree. Also called hemiepiphytes, initially, they start as epiphytes or air plants and grow several hanging roots that eventually touch the ground and from then on, encircling and suffocating the host tree.”

According to one of the self-styled “balete boys” who serve as peppy tour guides in the park (they used to perform tricks like climb the entire tree in a matter of seconds, but now these have been disallowed), the host in Maria Aurora was a dau or dao tree. Perhaps a botanist could readily identify the host’s remains, victim of a centuries-old strangling; I could not, but mention of the parasitic nature of the balete struck me.

The discipline of embodied cognition recognizes that human beings think in metaphors. Well, here was one, standing right in front of me. Perhaps our corrupt, immature political system could be likened to an overgrown balete tree: An impressive sight (over 10,000 laws in the statute books, an ecosystem of thousands of staff members and assistants and district leaders and supporters), but by nature a parasite, hollowed out at the core.

* * *

Like many others (over 1,400 readers have already shared the column as I write this), I found colleague Oscar Franklin Tan’s provocative piece Monday very interesting indeed. It offers a seductive argument, especially for those of us invested in the quality of public discourse. Essentially, he protests the Inquirer’s decision to run retired Court of Appeals justice Mario Guariña’s commentary, titled “An Islamic state under the BBL.” But ultimately, his appeal for the Inquirer’s editors, of which I am one, to screen out controversial commentary like Guariña’s is untenable and misguided.

Some important caveats: I was not involved in the choice; I speak only for myself, not for the Opinion page I also work for; I agree with Oscar’s characterization of Guariña’s opinion; not least, I think the very idea of an “Islamic state” being smuggled through the back door of the Bangsamoro Basic Law is preposterous.

But the Inquirer is not a law journal, which requires of its contributors proficiency in or at least awareness of the latest in jurisprudence. It is only a general-circulation newspaper (to be sure, with a thriving affiliate website), and it has a direct stake in the formation of public opinion. That is reflected in the Opinion page, which tries to weed out the obvious cranks, but otherwise keeps itself open to all comers.

In my decade and a half with the newspaper, I have come to appreciate the simple impulse driving the choice of columns and commentary in the Opinion page. It is to create a public square, where all sorts of opinion can be shared. And as Oscar knows only too well, the amount of space available for commentary has even multiplied under Opinion editor Chato Garcellano.

Oscar asks: “Should editors not filter legal pronouncements by so-called experts as rigorously as they do normal sources instead of according law a deference it does not merit? Does it not diminish the free market of ideas when an editor automatically assumes that he has no right to gauge a justice’s legal pronouncements and that his duty to free speech is to publish them for another lawyer to refute?”

Like I said, seductive—but Oscar fails to see the distinction between reporting and opinion. Opinion writers and commentary contributors are not normal sources; that is precisely why they are allowed space on the page. And he assumes that only someone he is not impressed with contributes “outlandish legal propositions.” But even legal luminaries like former Supreme Court justices Vicente Mendoza and Florentino Feliciano (some of the profession’s very best) have unburdened themselves of stupid opinions, such as the wildly irresponsible notion that the draft BBL will lead to the area being absorbed by Malaysia. Should the Opinion page close itself to ideas like these?

The free market is not perfect (whether as metaphor or reality). But it flourishes only when it is open.

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