pop goes the world: the secrets that we keep

UPDATE: Mr. Christy blogged about this column here. Thank you, Mr. Christy.

POP GOES THE WORLD  By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today,  27 September 2012, Thursday

The Secrets That We Keep

It took a foreigner to open the Filipino public’s eyes to the tragedy of illegal ivory trading in the Philippines.

Bryan Christy’s article on the topic for National Geographic’s October 2012 issue was posted online as early as last week, and broke on Twitter when the link to the story was posted by activist Carlos Celdran, who urged authorities to investigate the matter. The story was picked up this week by local newspapers.

According to Christy, he came to the country five times to “get a lead on who was behind 5.4 tons of illegal ivory seized by customs agents in Manila in 2009, 7.7 tons seized there in 2005, and 6.1 tons bound for the Philippines seized by Taiwan in 2006. Assuming an average of 22 pounds of ivory per elephant, these seizures represent about 1,745 elephants.”

His search led him to interview Monsignor Cristobal Garcia of Cebu Archdiocese, member of a wealthy family and a collector of religious art, whose extensive collection includes ivory pieces.

Christy says Garcia gave him tips on how to purchase ivory and smuggle it into the United States, among them this: “Wrap it in old, stinky underwear and pour ketchup on it,” [Garcia] said. “So it looks shitty with blood. This is how it is done.”

Filipino Roman Catholics worship religious statues in themselves as objects of spiritual power and magic, ascribing to them miraculous events and cures. There’s the Santo Niño de Cebu, said to be the oldest image in the country, given by Ferdinand Magellan to Rajah Humabon in 1521; and the Jesus Nazareno or Black Nazarene, carried around in a clamorous and sweaty procession on its feast day. While both of these are made of wood, the material of choice for religious images is elephant ivory, prized for its translucent glow and high market value.

The worldwide treaty that sets and enforces wildlife trade policy is the Convention on International/ Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), opened for signature in 1973, in force in 1975. CITES lists both African and Asian elephants as threatened species; a global ivory trade ban was adopted in 1989 to ensure that elephant populations worldwide recover from the slaughter by poachers for their tusks.

The Philippines is party to the treaty, which ensures that trade in plants and wild animals does not threaten their survival and offers protection to over 33,000 species.

The resources of CITES are limited; it deems the Philippines as merely a transit point to China for ivory, whereas the reality, as Christy discovered, is that it is also a destination because of the local demand for the material, which is sold mainly in religious image stores in Tayuman, Manila.

An antique ivory carving on display at the Yuchengco Museum.  I took this photo on a visit there in 2010, and blogged about it here. Only new ivory is banned and has been since 1989. 

The government recently reacted to Christy’s story and the subsequent public interest in the topic, saying that traders of illegally acquired ivory would be investigated and prosecuted if found liable; among the agencies working on this are the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Bureau of Customs, National Bureau of Investigation, and the Department of Justice.

Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said that the NBI was investigating the ivory trade even before Christy’s story broke, adding that Customs intercepted a P48 million shipment of rhino tusks just last week.

All this is good to hear – now. But why did we not hear about this sooner? Why did it have to take a foreigner to bring this to local public awareness?

Our country hides many secrets, and this was one of them. Now that the cover has been thrown back on this illicit activity, we realize that here is yet another issue that will bring us national shame.

“Embarrassing,” NBI Director Nonnatus Rojas called it, “[and] it puts us in a bad light.” He vowed that those “who will be found involved in the illegal trade will be immediately charged.”

We have taken for granted too long many cultural conventions that turn out to be against the law. And when a priest himself, a monsignor no less, gives someone else tips on how to buy and smuggle new ivory that was quite likely taken from illegally killed elephants, we should wonder about our much-vaunted morals and those who are supposed to teach them to us.

Christy revealed another secret about Garcia. Go online and check out his article. Find out for yourself what it is. Maybe it does need an outsider to tell us these things, because these are embarrassing things, things that will put us in a bad light, things that we would rather not hear for shame.  *** 

Photo of Mr. Christy here

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