NatGeo writer answers critics, Cebu friends

Posted on September 28, 2012

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UNDER fire for linking Cebu and its Sto. Niño devotion to the illegal ivory trade, the National Geographic magazine was criticized by the Cebu Archbishop , some readers and local heritage advocates who were interviewed for the article.

The US writer, Bryan Christy responded in the NatGeo blog as well as a personal e-mail to a Cebu history writer, Trizer Dale Mansueto, whom he had befriended.

One reader, identified as Louis Christoper of Cebu, said  the article “Ivory Worship” unfairly “paints a picture of Cebu as a place where illegal ivory trade is teeming”.

“I’ve lived for more than 20 years here, have visited every church and every home of a religious icon collector and so far I’ve only seen less than a dozen statues with heads made of ivory that are usually less than the size of an egg,” said Christoper.

Christy, who spent two years travelling around the world to research on ivory smuggling, which brought him to Thailand, Africa,  China and the Philippines replied:

“The story is not intended to paint Cebu as a place where illegal ivory trade is “overflowing” but rather as a place where devotion to the Sto. Niño is deep, and where many people maintain religious images, and some, in the form of ivory. What is legal or illegal depends on the circumstances.”

But it is to friends he made in Cebu, where he visited several  times, and persons he interviewed that Christy had to answer some tough questions about  not telling them of the real purpose of his research.

In an Sept. 26 e-mail to Christy after the article was released, Mansueto told Christy he was “caught off guard” and was “sad” about the  October cover story which  “has now created some storm in the country and in Cebu.”

“We have been expecting that you’d write about the Santo Niño and our cultural traditions but we are disappointed that after all, we Filipinos would be portrayed as fanatics, idol worshippers, smugglers, etc. in a rather appalling story.”

“On the spiritual side, you know that not all Filipinos worship idols (in this case in ivory) but we venerate them. Although I don’t have ivory images myself I would like to clarify that Cebu has never been a transhipment point for smuggled ivory. Everything is done in Manila and Cebuano enthusiasts only buy them from the capital. “

Christy was a Washington-based certified public accountant and lawyer before he turned full time to writing.  He replied

“As you know, I spent a great deal of time to understand the deeper meaning of holy images in Cebu and the Philippines.  It was important to me that I tell a story that was honest to the people and their religious beliefs. I tried very hard not to bring any judgment to the story but to let those in it reveal their own motivations.

While much is being made of the smuggling part of the story, I also think the main point of the story is to get people to think about the many kinds of devotion – to God, to wildlife, to ecosytems, to legal systems. It is only by global understanding that the world can improve.

“I hope there is now an opportunity for Catholic leaders to press the church’s core values of honoring life to protect those who are subjected to corruption caused by the ivory trade, which is causing so much harm around the world not only to elephants but also to rangers, African citizens, and honest Filipinos.”

Christy ended saying he was “extremely grateful for your friendship and for your educating me” and “hope we will have a chance to meet again”, naming four other mutual friends. Christy spent three days in April last year in Bantayan Island where he observed its famous Holy Week procession and other religious activities.

He travelled there with a group of local heritage advocates and stayed in Mansueto’s house.  He introduced himself as “Paul” although the byline of the article states “Bryan Christy”.

“He’s very kind, simple, easy going. You would not expect nga lain diay iyang tuyo. (his motive was different),” said Mansueto, one of several  persons interviewed by Christy for his investigative report.

“Apparently, he was interested to find out about religious observances of Filipinos. Of course, who would not want Cebu to be featured so I helped him,” said Mansueto.

Instead of staying at an inn, Paul accpeted Mansueto’s invitation to stay in his home. The visitor ate with his hands, like a local, and “enjoyed eating fish as we did not serve meat since it was Holy Week,” Mansueto said .

Mansueto first met Christy in 2010, who introduced himself as “Paul.”

He joined a lecture Mansueto gave at school about the Santo. Nino and showed interest to write about it.

Anthroplogist Jojo Bersales, in his CDN column published yesterday said he met the journalist at least twice, in Museo Sugbo in January 2011 where he visited and the second in last year’s Holy Week in Bantayan.

“He never asked me about ivory.  I think he sensed that I dont like to collect them as someone involved with museums… He was asking about the Sto. Nino devotion. He asked me as an athropologist, why do people join the Sinulog procession,” said Bersales, who heads the Cebu Provincial Heritage Council.

Bersales, too, said he though the NatGeo writer would write about Filipino religiousit and the “seemingly inexplicable devotion to the Sto. Nino.”

But Bersales said he understands this is how investigative reporters gather data.

“I dont feel I was tricked. I’m happy that this has come out. Once and for all, this should be a topic that people should discuss for authorities to address,” Bersales said.

He said Christy wrote “about the tip of the iceberg. How about excavated ceramics? I hope this is the beginning of cleansing of conscience of antique collectors. At the end of the day, let us look at the article for what it talks about. That there is this ban and the elicit trading is going on,” he said.

“Let us look at the article for what it talks about. That there is this ban and the elicit trading is going pn. At the end of the day, we can say that we did nothing wrong. If in examining their conscience, they bought things that resulted in the death of a creature of God, then that is a reality. The ultimate result of the article is for people to open up and realize that,” he said

Mansueto, in his e-mail to the NatGeo writer, said he understood now that Christy’s  forte was environmental advocacy.

“Although I take certain things differently from the rest but I am also cautious not to offend people’s sensibilities. I understand where you’re coming from but at least you should have tempered your story a bit,” he said, especially in mentioning the past case of Msgr. Cris Garcia: “sensationalizing the entire story was uncalled for. “

Mansueto said they all knew Christy was from National Geographic but didn’t check his  background in more detail to find out that he specialized in wildlife investigations.

“We should be cautious next time and find out people’s intentions. His past stories could have served as warning to all of us,” he told CDN./Corresopndent Jessa Chrisna Marie J. Agua

The Kabilin Crew of Sugbo TV together with Paul Christy (center) of National Geographic€” with during the fiesta in Bantayan in 2011. He is flanked by (from left) Dennis Tanoc, Trizer Mansueto, Jojo Bersales Ken Abrasado, Ludette Ruiz Cambal, Jessa Chrisna Marie Agua and Gerard Desquitado.(Facebook grab from Jobers Bersales)

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