BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Friday, June 22, 2007

Mapping the future through the past

Profile: Raphael P.M. Lotilla

When he’s not attending to the country’s crucial power requirements, Energy Secretary Raphael P.M. Lotilla is on a constant journey.

It is a quest that has brought him from the deepest waters of the South China sea and the southernmost tip of Borneo to the much-disputed Spratly Islands.

But don’t be mistaken. Mr. Lotilla isn’t neglecting his job for adventure travel. His journey is not really physical.
The energy chief, not many people know, is a passionate map collector, an interest that has brought him to different parts of the world.

Through these maps and charts — a mixture of antiquarian and modern cartographic pieces which he has collected through the years — he has traveled to many places and through different periods in history.

He has been able to embark on a mental journey through these rare cartographic masterpieces which he has found in as disparate places as Spain and his great-grandfather’s baul.

And through these experiences, he has learned previously undiscovered truths about the Philippines and untold stories about the Filipinos as a people. His passion may be likened to that of an insatiable booklover who can be totally lost in the pages of a good novel. "It’s something like an armchair adventure... a substitute for real travel. It challenges your mind to go beyond what you see," he told BusinessWorld one afternoon as he shared his passion for map collection.

Experts say most map collectors have a theme for their collections. Some might be interested in exploration, others in highly decorative maps, others still in those related to certain events such as the Civil War.
Mr. Lotilla, for his part, is interested in Philippine maps and charts that reveal something about the country and its history.

Other people collect examples of many cartographers or a single cartographer but Mr. Lotilla said this isn’t his style.
"My collection has a function. I don’t just collect," he said.

One piece in his valued collection is a sea chart of anchorages and ports in Mindanao. About this particular piece, which dates back to 1870, Mr. Lotilla raves about the different islands of Zamboanga del Norte.

Some of these rare cartographic treasures fill Mr. Lotilla’s office at the Department of Energy inside Bonifacio Global City in Taguig. Unlike the walls of other executive offices, Mr. Lotilla’s are not covered with paintings or photographs, but with navigational charts, maps and sea charts that are all framed and preserved elegantly.

And somewhere beneath his stack of energy-related documents, oil exploration contracts and confidential memoranda, one can find rolls of antique maps, sea charts and even the modern plastic-covered maps used in schools today.
Mr. Lotilla refuses to reveal how much he spends on acquiring maps or the value of his cartographic pieces. He simply says that maps can range from as low as "three dollars to a thousand dollars."

Experts say a host of factors can affect the value of a map. There are more collectors of maps of some regions than others, affecting the size of the market and thus the value of maps of those areas. World maps, for instance, have a universal appeal. Some areas that have small populations but that are vacation destinations such as Bermuda, Malta and some of the islands of the West Indies are popular.

The value of maps is also affected by their historical importance. Other maps might depict an important battle or similar event. Generally, the closer such maps date to the event, the more importance and thus value they have.

More importantly, it is how rare a map is that makes it more valuable.

For Mr. Lotilla, the value of a map also depends on what it means to the collector. "How much value you put on a map really depends on that personal link you have with it," says Mr. Lotilla.

As he says this, he carefully unfolds a discolored piece of old paper. He is careful not to ruin it or to leave even slight marks on the sepia-colored piece.

"It is a sketch of my hometown that goes back to 1850," he said, pointing to the possible location of the ancestral house of the Lotilla family in Sibalom, Antique. He never knew this piece existed until a cousin found it among his great-grandfather’s belongings. It is a hand-drawn sketch, with the dark blue ink still very distinct.

As such, he said, maps can be as interesting as a sketch.

"I mean, who knows how your hometown must have looked like before?"

Mr. Lotilla then showcases an old folding map made of linen material, which he bought in San Sebastian, Spain.
And to find out who really has a claim on the much-disputed Spratly Islands, one only needs to look at Mr. Lotilla’s maps which may provide answers to age-old questions that have brought countries close to war. Mr. Lotilla dismisses this observation in jest but agrees that there may be no territorial disputes if only people would look back to the past.
The Spratly Islands, which are surrounded by rich fishing grounds and potentially by gas and oil deposits, are claimed in their entirety by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam, while portions are claimed by Malaysia and the Philippines.
"If only people would look back... There’s a wealth of knowledge in maps which you can actually use to look to the future," Mr. Lotilla said. "All of these studies show and reinforce that the Philippines has an undeniable entitlement to the seabed in these areas," he added.

Mr. Lotilla started collecting maps in the 1980s when he taught law at the University of the Philippines (UP).
Life as a law professor, he said, stirred his interest in maps and charts because of the legal interests that go with it.
He served as vice-president for Public Affairs of UP in 1991 and as Director of the Institute of International Legal Studies of the UP Law Center from 1989 to 1996. He was appointed Professor of Law in 1995.
Mr. Lotilla has always been interested in history. He holds undergraduate degrees in Psychology and History.

He joined the government in 1996 as deputy director-general of the National Economic Development Authority.
He then headed the Power Sector Assets and Liabilities Management Corp. before being appointed as the country’s Secretary of Energy.

All through these jobs, Mr. Lotilla was passionately collecting maps and charts.

"When I deliver a paper abroad, I make it a point to try to look for maps," he said.
Still, he refuses to consider himself a collector.

"I don’t have a treasure chest of maps. What I can say is that my focus is on the Philippines and the South China Sea," he said.
And from years of collecting these cartographic treasures, Mr. Lotilla has discovered that in the past, people were more concerned with passages and navigation and not with who owned which islands.
"I collect in pursuit of something real, which is to understand things about the Philippines," he said.

Does it relax him just as much as reading a good book relaxes a booklover?

Mr. Lotilla finds it difficult to explain the high he gets while studying maps. What’s clear, he said, is that it challenges him to think about the past and the future, about what could have been and what might be; about what is the truth and what is perceived to be the truth.

"A sea chart or map represents a congruence of science and mathematics... Seacharts are unique that they have latitude and longitude... On the other hand, you also have the aesthetic part of it...There are things to discover," he said.

Of greater value to him is the geopolitical significance.

"What is important is to understand Filipinos as an archipelagic people. It explains the kind of values that we have... It defines many of our problems and provides many of the solutions for this country," he said.

All told, Mr. Lotilla’s map collection is his source of mental challenge when he is not busy cracking his brains thinking about the country’s energy needs. It is a kind of mind game that gives him a high.

It is thus no surprise that despite his difficult job as energy chief, Mr. Lotilla always looks relaxed and cool.

One only needs to look at the walls of his office to realize that he can readily, albeit momentarily, take a respite from the stress of his job, embarking on a journey that will bring him to another place, at another time.