Tiger’s tale: Labor and love on Mindoro

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Tiger’s tale: Labor and love on Mindoro

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MINDORO ISLAND, Philippines ― People thought they knew Park Un-suh.
Mr. Park, better known as “Tiger Park,” is a former government official and leading businessman who got his nickname for his tiger-like willpower and drive. In 1994, he became Korea’s vice minister of trade and industry. After resigning from public office, he became president of Korea Heavy Industries & Construction, a former affiliate of Doosan Heavy Industries & Construction, and brought the insolvent company to life.
In 2002, he became the chairman of Dacom Corp. and brought the company back into the black after years of red ink. When he retired in 2004, he was hit with a barrage of pleas from businesses for him to run the companies. He refused them all, saying he wanted to rest.
Then one day he disappeared, leaving 1,650 square meters (17,760 square feet) of land in Yangpyeong, Gyeonggi province which was to be used for a new house, three golf course memberships that could be sold in an emergency (a typical retirement plan in Korea) and a beautiful wife.
Eleven months after he left Korea, this reporter found him working as a farmer in an unexpected place: a remote village in the Philippines, where the electricity is never on for long and there are no modern farming tools.
Mr. Park said that he had fallen in love with the people there and couldn’t live without them. Now 67, he said he had found a reason to live a healthy life until he was at least 80.
The JoongAng Ilbo took the long way to meet him, traveling by airplane, bus, ship, jeep and foot.
Mr. Park lives near Roxas, on the east side of the southern island of Mindoro. Mindoro is southwest of Luzon, where Manila is located, and is the seventh largest island in the Philippines. Nothing here ― not buses, nor ferries ― ever seems to arrive on schedule.
The weather here is scorching, so hot and humid it can be hard to breathe. Mr. Park, who is 174 centimeters (5.71 feet) tall, looked very tan and very thin. He said he used to be 65 kilograms (143.3 pounds). “But now, I weigh 55 kilograms. I think it’s because of the hot weather,” he said, laughing.
His love affair with the country started in February, 2005. “I went on a golf tour to the Philippines with my wife and friends. My wife is a pastor, so we visited the missionary places she had supported for two years,” Mr. Park said.
After looking around the Roxas Mission Church, they decided to also visit a mountain village of the Mangyan tribe. “To be frank, I was annoyed. It was hot, we had bad transportation and insects were flying at me. I got angry at my wife.”
But after driving on bumpy dirt roads for two hours and then walking for another three, he found himself in a world he thought no longer existed.
“A human being can’t live like that, they were [living] like dogs or pigs,” he said.
The Mangyan are native peoples who have lived in the Philippines since before the Spanish conquest in the 15th century. They suffered fierce persecution for 300 years under Spanish rule, 50 years under Japanese rule and another 50 under U.S. rule. Their suffering hasn’t ended yet: many Filipinos are still prejudiced against the Mangyan.
“All they eat are bananas, sweet potatoes and a little bit of salt. They live in dugout huts built out of bamboo leaves and palm tree leaves. They have a lot of children, but only one or two survive out of, let’s say, 10. Sometimes they leave newborn babies in the mountain, or bury them after killing the baby as soon as he or she is born because they have such hard lives.”
The average life span for a Mangyan is only 40 years. There are no schools, no land to cultivate and little hope for the future. The only time they contact the “civilized world” is when they sell broomsticks and bananas in the market in a nearby town, which they do in order to buy salt and lamp oil.
“When I looked at the pure eyes of children, a lot of thoughts came to mind. I thought, ‘We are all the same people, so why do they have to live like that?’,” he said.
Even after returning to Korea, he said, he couldn’t stop thinking about the Mangyan people. “I worked for myself and my family for about 40 years, and I thought it would be good to live for other people for the rest of my life,” he said.
In May 2004, he went back to the Philippines and established the Moriah Mission for Self-Support Inc. In July, he packed up and permanently moved to the village, his wife with him. They rented an apartment in the town of Roxas, but after 10 days, his wife collapsed because of the heat, insects and poor food. She left.
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After a thorough study of the fields, he decided to harvest rice. He wanted to use rice as the basis of his plan to turn young Mangyan couples into workers, and build schools, orphanages and hospitals. He bought 16 hectares of rice paddies and 1 hectare of fields for mango trees.
He stocked the farm with 500 water buffalos. He paved a road for 300 meters (984 feet) around the farm and built two bridges. All this was done with no help from experts or professionals ― it was purely a trial-and-error process.
In late September, he started building a guest house, using the blueprints that he had for the house he had planned to build in Yangpyeong. Getting the proper materials wasn’t easy, though. Even though he asked the manufacturer to make sure the bricks were tough, they wound up being so brittle as to crack under slight pressure. It wasn’t until Mr. Park took two truckloads of bricks back to the manufacturer and broke them before the man’s eyes that the company started making the bricks strong enough. He also put up nine electric poles to wire the village, and dug a well. He erected an antenna so the area could have satellite Internet access. All this infrastructure ― the bare necessities of modern life: telecommunications, roads waterworks and electricity ― was installed in only six months.
But not everything went as planned. While the Mangyan use his electricity and water and say they’re very grateful for Mr. Park’s help, they haven’t actually started farming yet. The basics come first, Mr. Park says, and they’ll be ready to become farmers in a few years, after they get used to the new farming methods. In the meantime, Mr. Park has had to bring in three poor Filipino farmers to help him. He built houses for them and their families on the farm. Those seventeen people ― if the children are included ― became his new family.
“Here, most people sow seeds directly in the fields. I thought that transplanting rice seedlings would be better. Rice planting requires a lot of labor, but I’m the kind of guy who makes jobs,” Mr. Park said.
By transplanting rice seedlings, the village wound up producing 3,400 bags of rice, each weighing 45 kilograms, a year, through two harvests. (The Philippines can typically produce two crops a year.) Farmers in neighboring villages were amazed.
He has also used an incentive system to increase production. “I promised my full-time workers that I would add 80 percent to their wages if they produced more than 100 bags of rice per hectare. They went to the fields at 4 a.m.,” he said, laughing.
But the most important thing he did was to stop the conflicts over the Tinawagan plain, half way up the mountain. “It’s 720 hectares of land. The government rented the land to a landowner for 50 years. But the Mangyan people consider the area to be their lands, which they inherited from their ancestors for generations,” Mr. Park said. Not surprisingly, small battles between the landlord’s private guards and the New People’s Army (NPA), a Maoist rebel group considered friendly to the Mangyan, kept erupting.
After deciding to become a mediator in the region, he managed to negotiate a truce with all the parties: the landlord, the government, the Mangyan and the rebels. He paid $6,000 to the landlord to give up the rights to the land, and the local government agreed to cede ground to the Mangyan in the long term. With peace having returned, the Mangyan, who lived deep in the mountains, are slowly moving toward the plains.
But during all this, Mr. Park said, there were moments in which he wanted to give up everything. “I packed three times. Sometimes, everything seemed impossible. But then my family gave me encouragement, and their prayers were a big help.”
His son, Chan-jun, 37, and daughter-in-law, Jeong Hyo-kyung, 33, who were working in Vietnam, joined Mr. Park late last year, at his request. His son took time off work and is planning to go back to Vietnam in October.
Mr. Park is now something of a celebrity in Mindoro. People show up at his house begging for help. He donates to a number of churches, schools and the Mangyan village, but says he has a firm principle: “No work, no pay.”
“I can’t help those who don’t work. I tell those who want to use the road on the farm to bring at least a stone, saying that nothing is free,” he said. “True self-support is not determined by your livelihood, but in the establishment of the spirit.”
“I sometimes miss the comfortable life, but most of the time I’m satisfied with my current life. What would I be doing if I were in Korea right now? I’d probably be playing golf, drinking a lot, eating dog meat since it’s summer, or complaining about the government and the politicians. It’s a good thing that I can keep my mouth clean [of dog meat and curses for politicians].”
Having found himself in the Philippines, he’s laying plans to build a foundation for the self-support of lower-class people in China. A missionary Korean-Chinese couple who are close to Mr. Park has already started work on the project. He’s planning to work on the project in China after October, when his wife is scheduled to come back to the Philippines.
“Well, won’t I live until I’m 80? I won’t let my two arms and two legs have a holiday until the day I die.”


by Lee Na-ree
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