THEY are the new breed of freedom fighters, waging a war not anymore against external forces but struggling to unfetter themselves from the bondage of hunger and poverty. This time, the call is not anymore to liberate the people from colonial rule but from oppressive structures that imprison the people from the vicious cycle of economic difficulties.

They come from all walks of life – farmers, fisherfolk, workers, indigenous people, vendors, drivers, OFWs, government employees, entrepreneurs, the youth, senior citizens, police, military, former combatants of the MNLF and even the handicapped. They have one thing in common: they all collectively adhere to the tenets of cooperativism to combat the number one enemy of the people which is, dehumanizing poverty, the Philippines from being one of the poorest countries in East Asia according to ADB, but is now fast recovering under the new dispensation with a GNP of 7.2 %, which is the highest in Asia.

With a critical mass of 14 million members, the twenty-six thousand six hundred cooperatives active cooperatives in the country have now become a micro-economy, advancing an alternative development paradigm that is member-owned, value-based and sustainable. What makes the cooperatives distinct is that they pursue their respective businesses not for profit but for service that is geared towards prosperity for all, giving high adherence to food security, ecological integrity, people empowerment and sustainability. No less than the State has recognized the cooperatives’ vital role that it relaxes one of its fundamental powers on them which is the power of taxation, cooperatives being generally free from paying taxes.

This is so because every cooperative’s raizon d’ etre is to advance the well-being of every member, to be unfettered from the vicious cycle of poverty. Cooperativism is a social justice measure to equalize opportunities and give every Filipino a fighting chance to seek his/her destiny. It is one to empower, to liberate, to cut that bondage perpetuated by a colonial culture that devastated people’s identity and values. It is the one to advance federalism as it promotes inclusive growth and democratic control.

How wonderful it is to see the poor farmers binding themselves, pooling their resources together, harnessing their collective potentials and experiences to free themselves from the clutches of the usurers, the compradors and the modern day encomienderos – the landlords. Through their cooperatives, they have empowered themselves to reclaim back the dignity of farming stolen from them by those who have profited from their own labor. In this country, everyone has benefitted from farming except those who have exposed themselves to the excruciating heat of the sun and from the harshness of the weather, the poor farmers.

How great it is to see the marginalized sectors drawing themselves into the mainstream of development processes to craft their own destiny through their respective cooperatives. This truism is showcased by our indigenous people who have been displaced by the loggers that have wantonly exploited the forest resources with utter disregard for nature and the future of the coming generations. By implementing community-based forest management agreements, our indigenous people are increasingly given the opportunity to have access and control over their resources.

While this may be so, we are aware of the continuing struggle of our indigenous people to fight for their land and resources which are fast slipping through their fingers. We are one with them in their advocacy to immediately stop their further displacement. Development aggressions and unjust intrusions in their territories which they have sustainably managed for thousands of years must be ceased. On the contrary, they should be allowed to harness their own resources through their respective cooperatives for their own benefit.

While the tillers of the land are increasingly empowered through their cooperatives, we are one with them in their struggle to debunk conventional agriculture which has only been successful in enriching the big agro-chemical corporations and in polluting our aquifers with toxic chemicals. In its stead, organic agriculture and natural farming must be pursued vigorously, making the farmers and the environment the priorities rather than profit and business.

Cooperativism has indeed come of age in a land where the culture of corruption, the culture of poverty and, the culture of the lethal combination of powerlessness, apathy and greed had been prevalent before but not anymore under the Biyaya ng Pagbabago of the new dispensation. The cooperatives, on their own right, are now trail-blazing the collectivist counter culture of participation, democratic control and social justice so that power should be returned to where it rightfully belongs – to the people.

It is only through people empowerment and participation as advanced by the Biyaya Program can the Filipinos be able to craft their own destiny and reclaim back the future for their children. We are fully conscious of the great challenges that lie ahead. Indeed, for those who have dreamt, struggled and even died for it, social change has been so elusive all these years, despite 14 years of Martial Law and two people-power revolutions. The structures and system that were breeding poverty and oppression were as formidable as ever.

But NOT ANYMORE. Today, the cooperatives have become a formidable force to combat poverty under the Biyaya ng Pagbabago. Poverty is rooted in the powerlessness of the people and as countervailing measure, they are now harnessing their collective power through cooperativism. Join Them!