Profile of NICANOR “NICKY” PERLAS

PCDForum Paradigm Warrior Profile #4
Release date November 1, 1996

Interviewed by David C. Korten

Nicky Perlas heads the Center for Alternative Development Initiatives (CADI) based in Quezon City, Philippines and manages Ikapati Farms, a bio-dynamic agriculture demonstration farm run as a for-profit commercial enterprise. In an earlier incarnation, Nicky farmed a 200 hectare chemical intensive farm producing vegetables for the Manila market, until pesticide resistance forced levels of pesticide use so high that his conscience would no longer allow him to sell his cabbages for human consumption.

He dropped out of farming temporarily to earn a Ph.D. in economic geography. His graduate studies were interrupted when the Marcos dictatorship blacklisted him for his opposition to construction of the first and only nuclear power plant in the Philippines. He went on to become a leading international advocate and local practitioner of bio-dynamic sustainable agriculture, and an influential opponent of nuclear power plants and biotechnology. Among his many accomplishments, he has been credited with convincing the Philippine government to ban the use of some 30 pesticide formulations for which he received UNEP's Global 500 award.

This interview was conducted on September 5, 1996, one day after the successful completion of a major national NGO Conference he had convened with the co-sponsorship of six major NGO networks on "Civil Society: Creative Responses to the Challenge of Globalization."

Korten: When I left the Philippines in 1992, you seemed totally focused on promoting sustainable agriculture. Your current focus on economic globalization seems quite a departure. What happened?

Perlas: It all started with my participation in a conference on biotechnology and sustainable agriculture held in Malaysia in July 1993. That is where I first learned about the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), including its provisions increasing the toxic residues allowable on food for human consumption to a level that would effectively wipe out the protections of the bans on use of toxic pesticides to which I had devoted 20 years of my life. There was also discussion of the GATT provisions on intellectual property rights that would tighten corporate control of the food system by creating farmer dependence on patented seeds.

I became so concerned that I spent much of the next year studying the agreement and exploring its various implications. Only once I had read the whole document did I began to see its full implications. It would undermine the work of virtually every civil society group in the Philip pines: the church, women, coops, fisherfolk, farmers, labor, everyone. The damage to our economy and social fabric could well be irreversible. In August 1994, I began a five month effort to convince the Philippine Senate to reject the ratification of the GATT agreement. By 1995 I found myself with a few others at the center of the GATT debate in the Philippines.

I now consider economic globalization to be the most important problem we face. It informs everything we are doing now at CADI.

Korten: When did other Philippine NGOs begin to get involved in these issues? I recall that with the exception of the work of the Debt Coalition and some policy studies by PRRM, very few concerned themselves with issues of national economic policy, let alone the trade negotiations.

Perlas: When we began the campaign against Senate ratification of the GATT, the bulk of civil society groups still had no understanding of the issues and couldn't come up with any consensus. The only popular groups that really mobilized on the GATT issue were the Communist groups. But even they did not fully understand the issues. There really wasn't enough time for popular education at that point. We had to concentrate on educating the Senators. While we came within three votes of a victory, in the end we lost. I was quite depressed for the next six months.

The matter is not yet settled, however. Those of us who led the opposition have a case pending in the Supreme Court challenging the Senate ratification on the grounds that the agreement conflicts with important provisions of our constitution and the Senate ratification, in the absence of a constitutional amendment, is therefore illegal. For example, the Constitution gives to our House of Representatives the power to set tariffs. The ratification of the GATT preempts this authority. Our constitution also specifies that the national economy should be controlled by and for the benefit of the Filipino people. The GATT primarily serves the interests of foreign corporations and therefore its ratification violates this provision.

At the same time as we challenged the constitutionality of the agreement we also launched an immunization strategy to help people protect themselves from the consequences of the agree ment. While we recognized the need to act on this at the national, as well as the local, level, we felt that before engaging with the government again we must first build a common understanding of the problem among the leaders of civil society. This was pretty lonely in the beginning. I gave talk after talk in both national and local forums trying to convince the network leaders that the GATT posed an important threat to their own work and objectives.

For all its difficulties, this process was greatly facilitated by a dense fabric of strong civil society networks that have been built up throughout the Philippines as a result of the work of people like Dinky Soliman. Of 78 provinces, 70 have at least one NGO/Peoples Organization network. Some provinces have as many as seven. All 14 regions have their own networks. Most of the national networks have their own regional and provincial organizations which are commonly joined together by regional or provincial alliances. These interlinking structures penetrate deeply into the society and greatly facilitate the rapid dissemination of information and ideas quite independ ently of our mass media. They made my work a joy. Everything was in place and they heard my message. It all led up to the "Conference on Civil Society: Creative Responses to the Challenge of Globalization" we just completed. Now, for the first time, most of civil society, including the NGO community shares a similar framework and understanding on issues relating to the neoliberal doctrine of growth, the market, and globalization.

Korten: How wide is the reach of the organizations that participated in the conference?

Perlas: Six major NGO networks joined in co-sponsoring the conference. With a total of some 5,000 individual member organizations, after eliminating duplications, these networks represent the largest and most diverse aggregation of NGOs in the Philippines.

  • CODE NGO is itself a network of nine national and four regional networks that in turn represent some 3,500 organizations, including many coops. It is our largest network of networks.
  • The National Peace Conference is a broad alliance of labor church, peasant, and other groups that came together in response to the seven coup attempts against President Cory Aquino. They work to focus attention on the underlying causes of social conflict in the Philippines.
  • The Philippine Community Organizers Society (PHILCOS) has some 300 individual members. Together the organizations in which these individuals work field community organizers in over 3,000 baranguays throughout the Philippines. PHILCOS members have been engaged in their own two year process of self-reflection analyzing the results of more than twenty five years of community organizing experience in the Philippines. They came to conclusions regarding national economic policy similar to my own. Corazon "Dinky" Soliman, who facilitated the conference, heads PHILCOS.
  • The Women's Action Network for Development is also a network of networks.
  • The Green Forum Philippines is our major environmental alliance.
  • The Philippine Sustainable Agriculture Coalition addresses the cultural, human develop ment, economic, public policy, scientific, and technical aspects of sustainable agriculture. The membership of PHILSAC consists of networks, as well as a number of donors with national programs in sustainable agriculture. I chair both Green Forum and PHILSAC.

Representatives from a number of rural banks also participated in the conference.

Before we were just responding to local issues on the basis of gut feel. The conference affirmed that we are now working from a shared analysis and framework. Now our work is being informed and supported by an understanding of the forces that really create the problems we are dealing with at both the national and the local levels. It is a major advance. For some time, we had strong network structures, but the substantive content of their communications was limited to more specific issues. Now we have the frameworks and the content, a coherent critique and vision, to match the structures.

In the end you might say that globalization has contributed to a substantial strengthening of Philippine civil society, including the NGO community, because it has brought us together in a massive engagement in the government's policy framework debates in a way we were not before. We now understand that we must fight trade agreements and other policies that favor the interests of predatory and often highly subsidized corporations over those of local producers.

Korten: It seems that the NGO orientation is rather at odds with the established commitment of the Philippine government to growth through market liberalization. How has the government been responding?

Perlas: It was tough going at first. The government didn't want to hear any questions from us as to whether the kind of economic growth and market liberalization they were pursuing under their six year development plan would actually benefit the Filipino people. Everything was free markets, investment incentives, and free trade. They would tell us, "We are finally getting out of our sick man of Asia image. We are not going to turn back now. We have learned it doesn't work to created protected infant industries that remain infants after 20 years." So we made it clear that we are also against protection of inefficient national monopolies. However, we believe it is important to protect and empower the community-based enterprises, among others, that are essential to local self-reliance and prosperity.

The venue for much of our discussion with the government has been the Philippine Council on Sustainable Development (PCSD), which was established to carry forward commitments made at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED). Chaired by the head of the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA), the national planning body, it is comprised of representatives from government and the NGOs. The NGO representatives to the PCSD are elected by some 300 NGOs that have chosen to be involved in the PCSD process. Dinky Soliman and I are both among the current NGO representatives. The central task of the PCSD has been to draft a Philippine Agenda 21.

It hasn't all been smooth sailing. There have been many heated debates with the doctrinaire market liberals who dominated the government side. The PCSD carried out a one year "consulta tion process" that produced an initial Agenda 21 draft crafted primarily by the neoliberal doctrinaires with very little NGO input.

Once we saw the document we told the government that the process was inadequate and the document unacceptable. Finally the government agreed to put the draft on hold so that we could write our own version to be melded with the government's document. I was designated chair of the civil society technical working group responsible for drafting our version.

In March of this year we were still debating with the government on many issues. However, with time, a degree of trust began to emerge among us about the sincerity of those on both sides. The head of NEDA, Dr. Ciel Habito, made a real effort to understand what the civil society organiza tions were saying. I prepared thoroughly, because Dr. Habito is a brilliant economist and was known for his strong views supportive of conventional economies. In the end he adopted a more pragmatic stance towards conventional economics, using those instruments that worked empirically and abandoning those that did not. He also worked with us to put our concerns into language that would make them more acceptable to the government. Sometimes he proposed language even stronger than our own.

Finally, we arrived at the foundation of a consensus between civil society groups and government articulated in a final draft Philippine Agenda 21 outlining a development strategy with a strong focus on equity and sustainability responsive to the needs of the Filipino people. We expect President Ramos to sign it this month.

The trust level is now sufficiently high that we find our relations with government much easier and more open as we work with them to rethink the Six Year Plan, Philippine 2000, the govern ment's mid-term development plan, and Philippine government submissions to the Asia-Pacific Economic Community (APEC). Even the NEDA people are now saying that this is going to radically change how economic planning is done in the Philippines.

Up to this point business has not been represented on the PCSD and have not had a role in preparing the Agenda 21 the government will be signing. However, we had a meeting with business representatives just today to present our draft document to them. Ciel Habito, the Secretary General of NEDA, presented and defended the document. Sister Ida Velasquez and I were there representing the NGO position, but found Ciel defended our positions so eloquently, that there was no need for us to intervene.

The business representatives appreciated the fact that the document acknowledge the necessary role of business and generally agreed with our outline, model, and principles, though they wanted more time to look at the details. They are working on their own parallel process to produce a business Agenda 21. Recognizing their necessary role, we expect to bring them into the government-NGO process after President Ramos signs the document committing the government to the principles on which government and civil society have jointly agreed.

Once the agreement is signed, we will concentrate on working with the government to make it the framework for policies and plans at all levels, including the Philippine contributions to international bodies such as APEC and the Asian Councils of Sustainable Development. [Editor's Note: President Ramos has since signed the civil society endorsed Philippine Agenda 21 into implementation and accepted all the civil society proposals on APEC.]

The NGO networks that sponsored the conference are now developing a business plan to establish a national NGO daily newspaper. We would present the mainstream news to the public from a perspective now missing in most mainstream reporting. If only 50,000 of the over 2 million individual members represented by these networks were to subscribe, it would be the country's fourth largest newspaper.

Korten: I understand that your attention is already being refocused on the Philippine govern ment's role in APEC. I also understand that while some civil society groups in the Philippines are simply opposing APEC, your strategy is to work with the Philippine government to change its focus. Could you explain your position?

Perlas: There are important differences among the APEC members as to what the organization should be. Australia, New Zealand, and the United States want it to be GATT plus—out ahead of the GATT agreement in liberalizing trade and investment rules within the region. Some believe that the motive of these countries is to avoid being excluded from claiming a piece of the region's prosperity and also gain an advantage in access over the Europeans. Most of the Asian countries, by contrast, look to APEC as an informal consensus oriented discussion body through which the member states share thinking on common economic concerns. They do not want it to become another rule bound trade body that limits their control of their own economies.

So far the Philippine government has lined up with the Anglo countries in support of the GATT plus position. It has even submitted a paper committing the Philippines to reducing all tariffs to five percent by 2004, sixteen years ahead of the proposed APEC target.

The APEC will meet this year in the Philippines at Subic Bay with President Ramos as the chair. The host country normally provides the framework setting paper. If the Philippine government holds to the position outlined in its draft submission, it will place itself at odds with our Asian neighbors and strengthen the hand of the foreign corporate interests championed by the Anglo countries.

We are asking the government to withdraw its preliminary submission pending the results of a two year study on the implications of Philippine trade policy and to issue a new framework setting paper that would move APEC in the direction of a focus on economic justice and sustainability. There is already a strong APEC declaration on sustainable development, so our government can take that as a foundation.

How the government deals with this will be a real test of its sincerity in its relations with civil society. Our position is clear. If the government is prepared to support the position taken by the civil society organizations, then we will support the government's involvement in APEC. If not, we will go to the press with stories revealing how the government is telling its own people one thing and foreign governments another and join in holding mass demonstrations during the meeting. The government would be very embarrassed by such a show of opposition from its own citizens. The conference gave us a strong mandate to work with government on reorienting APEC, with the option of taking a strong opposing stand if the government backs away from what we currently understand to be its commitment.

Korten: I heard a lot of talk during the conference about an "associative economics model." Could you explain what that is and why you consider it important?

Perlas: I mentioned earlier our belief that we must immunize our local communities against the GATT. We seek to do this in part by developing local economies that function on the principles of what we call associative economics. In an associative economy, the individual producers function as part of a locally defined, self-managed economy. Though the firms are individually owned and operated, the community to which they belong also functions as an economic decision making unit in which prices are set through face-to-face interactions between representatives of organized producer, trader, creditor, and consumer sectors of the local economy. Market forces are one consideration, but are not allowed to be the sole arbiter of price and community values. Human needs, equity, community stability, environmental health and other considerations are also taken into account in price determination and resource allocation.

People learn that if they simply let outside market forces determine local prices, their local initiatives will ultimately be destroyed and they will end up at the mercy of more powerful economic players. They know that they can never compete head-to-head with highly subsidized global corporations. For example, Bataan province used to have several thousand self-reliant backyard poultry farms until a large agribusiness firm came in selling chickens priced below the farmers' cost, wiped them all out, and then jacked the price up by 10 pesos a kilo above normal.

We see evidence that a strong associative economy can withstand such a predatory assault. This is being demonstrated in the community that Philip Camara has assisted in developing a small holder poultry industry based on associative economics principles. So far the community has withstood for six months an assault by another large agribusiness firm similar to that launched against the Bataan poultry farmers.

This project links together some 18 or 19 different kinds of enterprise in an integrated system. The produce of corn farmers is input to a poultry feed producer. A hatchery enterprise produces the chicks. Another small firm makes roofing tiles from volcanic ash that are cheaper and more sanitary than galvanized sheet and help to protect the chickens from our sometimes extreme tropical heat. Local retailers sell the chickens to local consumers. Representatives of all the various buyers and sellers in this system sit together to negotiate prices face to face. If the price of corn or whatever is out of line, people talk together to agree on a price that will maximize the efficiency of the overall system. This usually yields a rather different result than when individual firms set their prices based solely on concern for their own individual profits. Given they all have an important stake in maintaining the system, they can collectively resist the predatory pricing of a powerful outside corporation intent on monopolizing their market. They know that if they allow themselves to become dependent on a large outside firm for any input, they become vulnerable.

We have had an initial discussion among representatives of a number of rural banks, coops, and NGO credit programs about pooling their assets to form a financial consortium for associative economics that would be able to leverage substantial financial resources in support of such initiatives.

Korten: Based on your experience, take a look ahead and share your thoughts on where you think the movement needs to go from here.

Perlas: I see two needs. First we must use organizations such as the International Forum on Globalization (IFG) to achieve a leveling off internationally in our frameworks, tactics, and strategies. We need to reach agreement on rules of engagement with our governments, the WTO, the World Bank, the United Nations, and other agencies to avoid being co-opted or being played off one against the other. For example, I believe we need to seek agreement among the main civil society players internationally as to whether APEC and WTO are appropriate forums for addressing environmental issues. Is the United Nations a better venue? Or is it captive to the corporate globalization interests as well? What other options do we have? There are similar issues relating to human rights. Should human rights in China be linked to trade, or does this simply provide new opportunities for the North to discriminate against the South? There are important differences between Northern and Southern groups on this question that we need to resolve.

We also need to move toward more nuanced strategies based on a refined understanding of the corporations, governments, and other institutions with which we are dealing. We must not fall into the trap of treating the business community as monolithic or assuming that all corporations have insulated themselves from accountability to national governments. While some business interests benefit from a globalized economy, others don't. This difference is important. It is equally important to recognize that while some corporations are truly footloose, the majority of firms remain more strongly linked to their home base than we may realize—a point brought out by Paul Hirst in his recent book Globalization in Question.

I felt paralyzed for awhile by the sense that corporations control everything. However, as I got into the GATT debate, I find it is not so clear cut. For one thing there are important national differences. In the United States they have eaten up the political space. In the Philippines, much of the power still resides with our municipal elites, the family dynasties, and a range of urban elites. It is a more localized control than control by national or global corporations. It is possible to play the power of one fiefdom off against another. Some of the top people on our national security council who define national sovereignty in rather broad terms have aligned with our positions. Thus we are able to build alliances with people within the government and among the power holding elites. Now as the government awakens to the realities of the WTO we must be able to suggest options for limiting its control over our economy.

As we develop a stronger empirical grounding in the corporate reality and a better understanding of the conditions that make them more or less footloose we may find we have more scope to work with our governments to hold corporations accountable to the public good than we realize.


Nicky Perlas is a contributing editor of the PCDForum and president of the Center for Alternative Development Initiatives (CADI), 110 Scout Rallos, Quezon City, Philippines, phone (63-2) 928-3986 or Fax (63-2) 928-7608. Interviewed by David C. Korten in Manila, Philippines on September 5, 1996.

 

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