What is land? Land can have many different meanings. Land can mean wealth, profit, prosperity, privilege, prestige, power, control, status, accomplishment, satisfaction, success, fame, respect, honor, dignity, safety, security, stability, continuity, contentment, freedom, happiness, hope, joy, beauty, love...
Land, for most people of the world, means wealth. Wealth, like beauty and love, is in the eye of the beholder.
For me, land was never wealth. Wealth was always money, money in the bank, money in a bankbook, a bankbook safely in hand or in a box in a locked drawer, money invested in stocks, bonds, and mutual funds. Land was always an illiquid asset of uncertain value with high property taxes, constant insurance, repairs, trespassers, and troubles: land is an almost completely useless investment. The only land that I ever owned was a plot: 6 feet long by 3 feet wide by 6 feet deep.
Every person I know in the Philippines either rents or owns their property outright. For the average Filipino, there is no mortgage system of credit. In fact, I know few people who own a credit card. The Philippines, at least in the rural Philippines where I live, is a cash-and-carry, or, more often, a barter-and-carry, economy.
This is one of the main reasons why the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) figures for “developing” countries are often so low. GDP measures the above ground economy of wages and income; it does not measure the underground economy of cash and barter. Particularly at a local level, GDP is a misleading number. Many of the people I know here in the Philippines live on almost nothing, except their own homegrown food, and the products that they barter for goods and services. This is how we, and most people of the world, live.
Anna rents a tiny, storefront sari-sari shop (a one-room cinder block grocery and convenience store). Behind the counter of the sari-sari shop, there is hardly room enough for Anna to move around or sit. She has rented it for 10 years, since her husband, Ronaldo, went overseas to live and work as a mechanic in Saudi Arabia. He sends money when he can and he comes back to their barangay (village) for 2 weeks every year around Christmas time. They have three children, a 9-year-old boy, an 8-year-old girl, and a 6-year-old girl.
Behind the sari-sari shop, and next to the elementary school where her young children go to school, is a little piece of land. Every day for the past 10 years, Anna has looked down the dirt footpath from the sari-sari shop at that piece of land.
This morning, Anna did not open the sari-sari shop. Instead, she went to town, to the local bank, and withdrew all her money. Her oldest son, the 9 year old, took the day off from school to accompany her.
Anna and her son are now sitting in a lawyer’s office. The office is spacious, with soft modern furniture, and air-conditioning. The lawyer is a big, talkative man. He’s making chitchat, as he goes through his piles of papers. Anna, a small, thin, quiet woman, is sitting with her hands tightly grasping a well-folded brown paper bag. In the bag are 285,000 Philippine pesos: all the money that Anna and her family have saved for the past 10 years; a lot of money for a poor Filipino family.
285,000 Philippine pesos are about 6,500 U.S. dollars. For this, she will buy a piece of land that is 343 square meters (28 meters x 12.25 meters) or 3,692 square feet (92 feet x 40 feet), about the size of the interior of a large American house.
This is, by far, the biggest purchase of Anna’s life. As she counts out, one-by-one, the 285 – 1,000 pesos notes, her hands are shaking. She is remembering every can of tuna fish, every bottle of cooking oil, every bag of sugar, every soda and every box of cookies, every piece of candy and every stick of chewing gum, she had sold over the past 10 years, through the 6-day weeks, the 12-hour days, to make this one stack of money, everything she owns, her life’s savings. She is remembering every trip to the bank, all the scrimping and sacrificing, everything she had done without, everything her husband and her family had done without.
The signing of the legal documents felt formal and foreign to Anna. She now held in her hands two, double-sided sheets of 8½ x 14 legal-sized papers. The papers did not make this feel more real. She was anxious to get to her land, to look out at her land, her real land.
Later that afternoon, Anna sat on a rock in the middle of her property, looking it over. The land sloped gently. There was a small seasonal stream at the bottom, which means that there would be water underground; and with a well, there would be water all year round. There was a full-sized coconut tree with 8 plump young coconuts. She would celebrate with fresh coconut juice from some of them, and then plant and start 3 or 4 more. There was a good-sized mango tree, for mangoes and shade. There was a patch of 6 bananas stalks, and bananas growing.
She planned on a vegetable garden with sweet potatoes on the high ground; then green beans, eggplants, cucumbers, peppers, onions, garlic, ginger, and tomatoes (she loved fresh tomatoes) on the slope; and then, near the stream, cabbage and watermelons (her children loved fresh watermelon), and, of course, flowers, lot of colorful flowers (Anna always wanted flowers).
For the first time in her life, Anna felt that she owned something. This land means that when times are bad and they have no money, they will not go hungry. It will mean hard work, but it will be her hard work, and there will be food for her family. From the materials growing on her land, bamboo poles and coconut leaves, she will build a bahay-kubo (a small native hut). This will be the first home of their own.
Land, this little piece of land, for Anna, means a home and harvest for her family, and a future.
I have bought a little piece of land. I didn’t buy it for an investment. It is an outright purchase. This piece of land is where I will plant tropical fruit trees. It will be my growing, future forest. It will never have any resell value because I will never sell it in my lifetime. I will probably be buried under a fruit tree on my land.