Chuck Baclagon

Roberto Verzola, Obet to his friends and comrades, passed away last May 6, at the age of 67, leaving behind a legacy of contributions for the advancement of human rights, ecological sustainability, renewable energy and information technology advocacy.

He has been hailed as the father of the Philippine email, a stalwart in the environmental movement, a Martial Law survivor, a public intellectual and a pioneer in the constellation of advocacies that he has been part of.

I remember him standing tall yet unassuming, his simple attire a very sharp contrast to his accomplishment as a revolutionary, an intellectual and a fine example of a human being that has lived what Socrates calls an ‘examined life’.


Society, Ecology and Transformation

I first learned of Obet through his volume of reflections that synthesized what he calls a ‘green worldview’ into a compendium entitled “Society, Ecology and Transformation“, or simply SET to those who have been part of the Philippine Greens, his cell of environmental activists who, like him, also dared to imagine not only a socially just world but also one that is ecologically sustainable and spiritually fulfilling.

SET landed on my hands at a crucial time in my mid-20s when I decided to leave corporate work and pursue a career in the nonprofit world. The departure was a product of personal burnout from deadlines and the need to reclaim my broken radical enthusiasm from my involvement in student activism.

What challenged me at the time was that everyone else from my collective in Anakbayan has already pursued careers, started families or risen up to bigger responsibilities in the movement. The only people I could connect with were the ragtag anarchists that I met during my earlier involvement in punk subculture, and it was one of them who lent me a copy of SET.

Obet (in the blue shirt), speaking with anarchists who visited the anti-GMO hunger strike at the Department of Agriculture in 2002.

It was from SET where I learned about the relationship of the multiple ecological crises and its intersections with justice under a system that fails to evenly distribute resources, rights, access and opportunity. More importantly, I also learned about the need to propose solutions that can extricate us from the deadly embrace of a system that is killing our natural world and our fellow human beings.

SET was also my gateway to the works of E.F. Schumacher, Rachel Carson, Barry Commoner, Aldo Leopold, Edward Abbey and Murray Bookchin, all supplementing my Marxist-Lenninist-Maoist upbringing from my student activism. Those readings led me to defining my career decisions that found fulfillment in becoming a staff of Greenpeace in 2005 as their first digital campaigner in Southeast Asia, a role that I held in the organization for a decade.


No to BNPP

I finally was able to meet Obet personally in 2009, in a convening meeting of organizations working against the proposed revival of the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP)

It was in that campaign that I witnessed Obet disarm the most hostile proponents of environmental ruin in his usual calm manner. In a Committee on Appropriations hearing at the House of Representatives in 2009, the chief proponent for the BNPP, then-congressman Mark Cojuangco, condescendingly questioned his credentials to be a resource person in the hearing. Obet responded by simply stating “I am Roberto Verzola, I am an electrical engineer, a math teacher and a former member of the Presidential Committee on the Philippine Nuclear Power Plant that was tasked to study the legal options available to it in connection with the decision to mothball the nuclear plant.” 

It was enough to immobilize Cojuanco’s assault on his opponents at that hearing. 


Advancing science and technology for the people

Obet helped bring the Internet to activists in the early 90s towards the start of the millennium by providing email services to NGOs, helping them link up with their global network of supporters and funders around the time when email was a privilege only to those who could afford the technology to set it up.

When Bill Gates came to the Philippines in 1998, Obet donned a suit to play him in an action organized by the Philippine Greens against information monopolies.

In 2004, he published Towards a Political Economy of Information, where he explored in detail the globalization of information economies  and boldly championed the ethos of the Open Source movement by declaring that “knowledge shared is knowledge doubled.” 

He believed that the information sector should naturally give rise to cooperation and sharing, challenging the dominant forms of ownership today that are highly monopolistic and, through intellectual property rights, raised the selling price of non-material wealth by illegalizing the free sharing of information and thereby creating artificial scarcity.

The pioneering work he did in the area of digital rights served as a voice of conscience that has informed my career specialization on digital campaigns and organizing for the past 15 years.

He was also part of a failed month-long hunger strike against the Department of Agriculture, which eventually approved the planting and sale of YieldGard, Monsanto’s Bt corn, in spite of risks of genetic contamination within one of the world’s most biodiverse plant communities. He moved on to what he called positive advocacies like the system of rice intensification, a low-water and labor-intensive method aimed at increasing the yield of rice produced in farming, which he advocated to farmers and augmented with the deployment of an SMS alerting system that would guide the farmers throughout the process.


Walking the talk

I remember sitting at a forum on Bookchin’s Social Ecology organized by the Polytechnic University of the Philippines’ (PUP) Center for Environmental Studies where Obet, along with Fr. John Leydon, served as a panelist that guided the students and faculty to reconcile Marxist and anarchist thought through Bookchin.

After the talk, me and another activist friend, LJ Pasion, struck a conversation with him and he asked us if we like to join him on his way back to Quezon City from Manila.

We were surprised that he suggested that we walk all the way from PUP to the light rail train station in V. Mapa. While walking he talked to us about his experience of walking in the same streets that we walked in because he said the office of Ibon Foundation, that he also used to be a part of, was located in that vicinity back in the 80s.

On the train ride, he shared about his experience in campus journalism and his foray into student activism as a member of the College Editors Guild of the Philippines and the Samahan ng Demokratikong Kabataan. LJ alighted the train at Cubao station and I stayed with Obet until Anonas station, and to my surprise, after we got off the train, he suggested that we just walk all the way to Sikatuna where he lives.

That was in 2015, a day before the first activity I organized as part of in the Philippines — the beginning of my full-time involvement in the climate justice movement.

After that, we met in a few more chance encounters, mostly at forums where he shared about the revolutionary potential of micro renewables in justly transitioning energy systems — not only in terms of mitigating carbon emissions, but also in guaranteeing a more democratizing means of distributing ‘power’, especially to those in the rural margins of society, through his work with the Center for Renewable Energy and Sustainable Technology.

What stood out to me about Obet was his conscious deference to simplicity and his avoidance of the grandiose — proving that wisdom is found in the ordinariness of life and in taking pleasure in simple things like walking.

It also proved how the world might be a better place if we find beauty and insight in simplicity and mindfulness — an example of the life that Obet lived and was generous enough to share to generations of activists who had the chance to have met him.

The only photo I have with Obet (standing behind me wearing a checkered shirt) , taken at a vigil for the Fukushima Power Plant meltdown in 2011. Photo: Jenny Tuazon