Our Gani of all seasons

When I think of Isagani R. Serrano, I recall one of the most beautiful lines from the Bible, from the Book of Ecclesiastes: “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; A time to love, and a time to hate; A time of war, and a time of peace.”

Gani lived in all these times – with a mind as brilliant and rigorous as anyone in the world, with a will that was as strong, resolute, and determined as the best of our leaders facing our country’s social and political challenges from Marcos to Duterte, and yes with a heart that was consistently kind, compassionate, generous, and gentle even in situations of extreme adversity. This last quality is not easily found as a good and compassionate heart is usually seen as a hindrance to being a tough and effective leader.  But Gani proved with his life that you could be a visionary and leader who cared for people.

For sure the mind was incisive, critical, and visionary. Personally, Gani’s writings on civil society in the 1990s shaped my thinking on many issues. Having co-founded with Marvic Leonen, Gus Gatmaytan, and Nonette Royo, the Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center in 1987, a human rights organization that put itself at the service of indigenous peoples and rural communities with law as the tool and service we could provide, we struggled to frame properly our role in the evolving socio-political landscape at that time. Gani’s thinking was the clearest even then, grounded on both theory and practice.

Gani was a leading thinker on the role civil society not only in the Philippines but globally. His 1995 address during First World Assembly of CIVICUS in 1995 in Mexico City has become a classic. Entitled Humanity in Trouble but Hopeful, Gani invoked the song Imagine of John Lennon and challenged all of us to work for a better world. He described the euphoria then among civil society organizations: “The emergence of civil society as a worldwide force, embodying the voices from below, is now duly recognized by states and the corporate community. Many of the heresies of yesteryears attributed to them have landed in the official rhetoric and policy. Global civil society has arrived, and at a time when its voice was most needed.”

I was also greatly influenced by Gani’s writings on sustainable development. I saw his thinking evolved from the original conception of sustainable development as one where the needs of the present generation are met without sacrificing the interests of the future generations to an emphasis on environmental and climate justice. And so in 2005, in a speech to the United Nations entitled “It’s About Fairness In Our Troubled World”, Gani did not mince words and condemned poverty as a moral aberration, an assault on our common humanity – “And that it can be ended soonest. There’s more than enough to feed, house, educate, save and lengthen lives, permit wider freedom of movement and leisure for every woman, man and child now living, even those yet to be born. We only need a fundamental change of mindset and firm resolve to make a more just and fair world happen.”

Gani did not stop at making commentaries about our troubled world. He acted on this knowledge and became a leader of many organizations and movements that challenged the status quo, that have worked hard and continued to work hard so another world would be possible. He co-founded, led, and/or convened many of our best efforts to imagine a better world: The Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement, Earth Day Network Philippines, Social Watch Philippines, CREST (Center for Renewable Electricity Strategies), Sustainable Development Solutions Network –Philippines (SDSN-PH), Go Organic! Philippines, La Liga Policy Institute; Global Call to Action Against Poverty-Philippines; Earth Day Network Philippines, Philippine Network on Climate Change, Aksyon Klima, Philippine Movement for Climate Justice, Philippine Greens, Freedom from Debt Coalition, NGO Forum on the ADB, Conference Against Poverty, Green Forum Philippines, Congress for a People’s Agrarian Reform, National Coordinating Council on the Local Government Code, Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, among others.

For the three decades I watched Gani exert his own particular brand of servant leadership. He was a tough leader. He called things as he saw them. He  dealt with crises many times, stayed above the fray when the quarrels were petty and personal, or when our fights were about tactics rather than strategies, but he engaged fully when what was at stake was more fundamental such as principles and values or where the consequences to people and the poor were serious.

I worked with Gani the most on climate change, a very challenging space both here in the Philippines and abroad. Many times, we have been tempted to give up this fight. But Gani always reminded me that was not an option.

As strong willed and opinionated a leader Gani Serrano was, there was a softness in the man that came out regardless of the situations he was into. In the decades I have known him, I have never heard Gani raise his voice. He condemned injustice for sure but it was always in a way that made dialogue still possible. This is why when Gani passed to a new life, people from all walks of life and different persuasions gathered together in his home in Bataan and the PRRM headquarters in Quezon City to honor his memory. Jose Maria Sison sent his tribute honoring Gani’s role in the revolutionary movement. John Cavanagh and Robin Broad – our common friends from Washington DC – wrote about being pulled in, hypnotized by Gani’s gentle wisdom. Ed de la Torre in the Bataan wake and then in the final day of the week of remembering Gani in PRRM led the singing of Imagine, with the original lyrics of Lennon and the translation by Pete Lacaba.

Gani, being a man of all seasons, will surely outlive his death. Lisa Dacanay, his life partner and my close friend and collaborator, is inviting everyone to join her, Gani’s children, and the Serrano family  in transforming collective grief into a productive initiative of setting up an NGO cum social enterprise in his honor – Remembering Isagani Serrano (RISe) Inc — that would be based in their farm in Bataan and pursue his many imaginings of a sustainable future alongside the many organizations he founded and led in his lifetime. According to Lisa: “RISe shall mobilize family, relatives and friends from all over the world and work with PRRM, Social Watch, Earth Day Network and other groups he led and founded in his lifetime to transform our farm and our feeling@home inn and café into: a learning center for farmers and advocates of sustainable agriculture and social enterprise in agricultural value chains espousing sustainable consumption and production; an agri-ecotourism destination linked to a national and global network of learning centers and destinations; and, a vibrant hub for imagining glocal initiatives (local initiatives with a global perspective, a termed coined by Gani) for a sustainable future.”

RISe will be launched on Gani’s 40th day on April 2, 2019, at 4PM (with a mass at 3PM). I cannot find a better way of honoring our Gani of all seasons.

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