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Policy Initiatives toward Reclaiming Development in the Visayas

Policy Initiatives toward Reclaiming Development in the Visayas

Jan 14, 2012

Policy Initiatives toward Reclaiming Development in the Visayas

Buenaventura B. Dargantes
Cheryl C. Batistel
Maria Aurora Teresita W. Tabada

For the past two years, the Development Round Table Series for the Visayas have held discussions in an effort to generate insights into the complex developmental issues affecting central Philippines.  The process was initiated in the context of Executive Order Number 561 that created the Central Philippines Super Region as tourism destination.

The decision to create the CPSR was based on 2006 statistics showing that 29 percent of foreign tourists came to the Bicol Region and Western, Central and Eastern Visayas, and to the provinces of Romblon, Palawan, Camiguin and Siargao Island because of their unique and lush natural wonders as well as their warm and friendly residents. The CPSR was then targeted for the development of physical infrastructure, human capital and so-called peaceful communities.  The main goal was to achieve economies of scale, synergies and complementation.

Other considerations in the selection of the CPSR as tourism zone were:  a) the accessibility of Cebu, through the Mactan-Cebu International Airport, the country’s second major international gateway, and being the base to over 80 percent of inter-island shipping capacity in the Philippines; b) the presence of geothermal power plants in Leyte that supply electricity to the national grids (despite unresolved controversies on the high energy costs in Eastern Visayas); c) the accessibility of Kalibo, Aklan with its direct flights from Incheon-Korea and Taipei, and the presence of Boracay, an internationally known white-sand island resort and; d) the cultural heritage of the region manifested in such festivals as the Sinulog in Cebu, the Ati-atihan in Kalibo, the Pintados in Tacloban, the Sandugo in Bohol, and the MassKara in Bacolod.

These factors were supposed to be enhanced by investments in infrastructure for intra-regional and extra-regional travel, and in social and environmental projects, all of which were presumed to eventually spur the development of micro, medium and small enterprises, agribusiness ventures and other job generating activities.  These projects were to include the construction and/or improvement of 16 airports,   17 Roll-On Roll-Off ports, seven road networks, and the South railway.

For energy reliability, the 20MW Nasulo Geothermal Power Plant in Negros and the 200MW Coal-Fired Power Plant in Cebu were approved for construction, while the geothermal power plants in Negros Oriental, Leyte, Albay, and Sorsogon were privatized.  The bio-ethanol corridor from San Carlos City in the north to the Tamlang Valley in the south of Negros was established.  Environmental programs included reforestation activities, the addition of eight Protected Areas (564,135 hectares) to the 22 existing ones (473,442 hectares), monitoring of water quality in 17 major beaches, extensions of advice to local governments and resort owners on the improvement of waste disposal systems, and the completion of geo-hazard mapping.

Even Higher Education Institutions have aligned their thrusts with the foregoing strategy by producing and training a workforce specialized in tourism management and services, natural resources management, geothermal engineering, maritime and aviation, horticulture, computer science and information technology, and construction-related courses. A few institutions conducted research on food processing, water and wastewater treatment, solid waste management, organic farming and crop production technologies, and biofuel development. Some even actively developed campuses as tourism destinations, promoted tour packages, promoted and supported livelihood programs, provided technical assistance in land use planning and watershed preservation, and went to the extent of promoting discipline and etiquette in dealing with tourists.

Despite the investments that were poured into these projects/activities, the usual deterrents to tourism in the Visayas have persisted.  These include poverty, environmentally-destructive economic activities, continuing threat of geological and meteorological extreme events, deteriorating state of water supply and lack of access to improved water and sanitation facilities.  Interestingly, PDP 2011-2016 continues to view the CPSR as a “Strategic Destination Area for Tourism” and has even recognized the contribution of community-based and ecotourism approaches to poverty reduction, protection of the environment and gender equality.

Challenges and Issues
While central Philippines is being promoted as tourism destination and infrastructure projects are being built to meet this goal, the region is experiencing poverty incidence higher than national average; agrarian reform cannot be fully realized in its provinces; extractive industries such as mining harm livelihoods and environment and; rural communities have become more vulnerable to disasters.

Persistent poverty
Poverty in the Visayas has contributed significantly to a net out-migration trend and has furthered fueled the insurgency in some areas. For some time now, the CPSR has been neglected by the national government, and, in the island of Samar, many residents feel that they have been betrayed by their local leaders, thereby giving the communist insurgency a foothold in the ‘70s and ‘80s, even up to the present.  Such feelings of neglect and betrayal could have stemmed from income inequality in Central and Eastern Visayas, which has always been higher than the national average.

Looking at government measures of poverty, the Bicol region, Eastern Visayas and Caraga reported high levels of poverty incidence in 2006.  Even Central Visayas showed an increase in poverty incidence between 2003 and 2006.  Meanwhile, Northern Samar joined the 10 poorest provinces in the country while seven of the 40 poorest municipalities in the country were from Samar.  As of 2007, 18 of the 20 nutritionally depressed municipalities in Eastern Visayas were from Samar and Northern Samar. The National Statistics and Coordination Board predicts that the probability of attaining the Millennium Development Goal to eradicate extreme poverty is low.

Access to land and productive resources
According to the PDP 2011-2016 lower poverty incidence is a result of higher access to employment opportunities and basic services. In the Visayas, however, poverty is traceable to the people’s loss of access to a basic means of production—land.  Beyond poverty, such loss is seen as pushing households to hunger, which often they experience in silence.  For example, huge tracts of land devoted to food crops are now being used for bio-fuels.  In the year 2008, 900 hectares in the Tamlang Valley of Negros Oriental and 700 hectares in Samar were converted into Jatropha estates.

In San Carlos City, Negros Occidental, the San Carlos Bioenergy Inc., the first sugarcane-based ethanol and co-generation plant in Southeast Asia funded by a PhP3-billion loan from the Development Bank of the Philippines, is expected to help wean the Philippines from imported fuels.  The projection was for it to produce 40 million liters of ethanol annually, or equivalent to 10 percent of Philippine requirements as stipulated in the Biofuels Act of 2006.  In addition, the project has been considered to be a climate change mitigation measure leading to the approval of carbon credit offsets under the Clean Development Mechanism.  Operation of the plant was also expected to benefit sugarcane farmers and growers by creating some 500 industrial jobs and by supporting 8000 year-round jobs for farmers.

But when the government ordered an increase in the minimum wage, farmers were made to choose either to stop working or to increase wages but decrease the number of workdays.  They chose to work six days a week without an increase in wages, for which the cooperative was penalized when it did not implement the wage increase.  Regardless of this, by October 2010, the SCBI stopped producing ethanol, purportedly due to the failure of government to impose a 20 percent tariff on imported ethanol.  President Aquino, in a speech to Regional Economic Managers in Bacolod City, has highlighted the continuing government support for the production of bio-ethanol from sugarcane.

Even agrarian reform beneficiaries who followed government recommendations to produce crops for bio-fuels have reported receiving very little support from government agencies, including the DAR, in terms of legal services and economic development services.  On the aspect of legal services, a combination of high agency workload targets and the barrage of legal obstacles put in their way by landlords opposed to agrarian reform have prevented DAR personnel from effectively attending to the needs of ARBs.  The high agency workload targets were an offshoot of low fund allocation to hire an adequate number of field personnel who were sufficiently trained in providing legal and/or paralegal assistance.  So while DAR field personnel were pre-occupied with land tenure improvement responsibilities, they had to simultaneously fend-off harassment cases from landowners.  These coupled with physical and psychological threats, the DAR personnel (even those who were dedicated and idealistic) were only able to provide very limited legal support.  Eventually, ARBs had to obtain legal support from civil society organizations and/or private lawyers, which meant more expenses for the ARBs, who were already financially hard up.

ARBs could have benefited from technical and financial advice on the feasibility of their production systems, but in the absence of financial management skills to evaluate economic projections, they had to rely on their limited information as basis for making decisions.  ARBs also failed to gain economic benefits because such expenses as fees for the use of private lands where harvests need to pass.  Adequate infrastructure could have minimized these economic costs.

While PDP 2011-2016 has specified the provision of legal assistance to ARBs and the transformation of ARBs into viable entrepreneurs, the absence of legislation has resulted in incoherence in and non-convergence of the social, economic and environmental aspects of agrarian reform.  In the meantime, agrarian reform communities have to contend with continued fragmentation in the delivery of agricultural, agrarian and natural resources services.

Worse, there have also been cases when ARBs returned their lands to landowners, or rented these to investors, because they needed money for medical emergencies, for the education of their children, or for the payment of placement fees when they apply for work abroad. The policy to provide subsidies for biofuel instead of food production have led farmers to believe that agrarian reform and agriculture were no longer a major focus of government interventions.  This belief has been reinforced by the continued promotion of industrial mono-crop production of sugarcane to produce ethanol and of cassava for feeds instead of implementing capability building interventions.

Mining, land use conversions and environmental non-protection
ARBs are not able to use their lands to produce their food requirements due to exploration and mineral production activities, which government regulatory agencies and LGUs have permitted even if these were in prime agricultural lands. The Mineral Exploration Permits granted to the Nicua Mining Corporation and to the Strongbuilt Mining Development Corporation to undertake the Leyte Magnetite Project and the Leyte Ironsand Project respectively, in MacArthur, Leyte are two examples. Although the processing and approval of land conversion applications affecting rice lands considered as components of the Network of Protected Areas for Agricultural and Agro-industrial Development have been temporarily suspended, Nicua Mining Corporation managed to have its 2009 land conversion applications processed and approved.  The area devoted to rice production was reduced by 18 percent of the National Irrigation Authority serviced area of 276 hectares. This reduction affected 374 farmers and has resulted in a yield reduction of 924 MT of palay per year.  Moreover, the mining operations increased vulnerability to flooding, which in turn damaged crops worth PhP37 million.

Whether the reduction in rice yields resulted in farmers going hungry is yet to be documented; what has been reported was that those who still have lands to cultivate had to keep vigil over their newly harvested rice to ensure that these would not be stolen, purportedly by those who did not have anything to harvest anymore.  Tenants whose lands had been sold by the landowners had nowhere to earn a living, with only a few being hired by NMC.  Net income from rice farming could reach PhP5000 per month, an income level that is higher than what a laborer working at NMC for 22 days a month could earn.

Apparently, continued recognition of the dubious Mineral Exploration Permit granted to NMC does not conform to Pillar 1 of the “Payapa at Masaganang Pamayanan” program stated in PDP 2011-2016.  It stipulated macro-level interventions that will address threats to identity and marginalization, and that will contribute to resolution of conflicts arising from competing interests over natural resource.

The lack of congruence between tourism and environmental protection is exemplified in the case of the Central Panay Mountain Range.  As a key conservation site, and a known center of endemism, the CPMR is one of the world’s most critical biodiversity areas.  The Sibalom Natural Park, located within the CPMR, is home to many rare birds, amphibians, reptiles, mammals and plant species. The Maui-it Tipuluan watershed irrigates farms in the municipalities of Sibalom, San Jose, Hamtic, Belison and San Remegio.  Yet, despite its protected status, the SNP has been subjected to cutting of timber, gathering of non-timber forest products, hunting of wildlife, gemstone gathering and quarrying, invasion of exotic species and unregulated influx of tourists.

Another similar case is the Central Cebu Protected Landscape in Cebu, the center of commerce in the Visayas.  The Mananga Watershed and Forest Reserve and the Kot-kot Lusaran Watershed and Forest Reserve, which are components of the CCPL, have been declared as “critical” to the water supply of Metro Cebu, and home to many “highly threatened”endemic and indigenous species.  In 1999, the Sangguniang Panlungsod of Cebu City approved an ordinance creating the Trans-central Highway Commercial Strip, which reclassified 200 meters on both sides of the Trans-central Highway as a commercial zone.  The Trans-central Highway intensified urban expansion, migration, settlement, land speculation and commercial development in the CCPL, all of which have been encouraged by local governments, rural residents and landowners.  Urbanization contributed to a reduced recharge of the aquifers, leading to fears of water shortage in the near future.  Initial economic gains, however, have lured local governments to open up the watersheds to investors.

Disaster risk and climate-related vulnerability of communities
The completion of the geo-hazard mapping exercise which aims to support the tourism thrust will not change the fact that the Philippine Fault traverses the Bicol region, Eastern Visayas and Caraga.  As these areas get around 200-300mm of rainfall per month from June to January, the geologic characteristics of these regions combined with their meteorological conditions have increased the hazards of flooding and landslides.  Although barangay officials and community leaders actively seek information pertaining to local floods and landslides, share information and experiences, and consult municipal and provincial officials, very few actually got information from the project on “Hazard Mapping and Assessment for Effective Community-based Disaster Risk Management.”  Some barangay LGUs in Bicol were even made to pay up to PhP45,000 to get four copies of geo-referenced maps showing areas vulnerable to geo-hazards.

Unfortunately, PDP 2011-2016 focuses on engineering and infrastructure solutions to reduce the adverse effects of flooding.  Understandably, LGU initiatives in disaster preparedness, mitigation, relief or risk management have been similarly focused on flood control structures, drainage and sewerage systems, evacuation centers, relocation sites and housing projects.  Very little attention has been given to watershed and forest protection, and to climate-resilient livelihood systems.

Flood control and drainage structures range in design from sophisticated river channel improvements to simple gabion piles along critical river junctures.  More expensive structures tended to generate more confidence in people living near high-risk zones.  Locally-funded projects, on the other hand, were mainly seen as off-the-shelf designs, which usually did not include site-specific peculiarities based on on-site assessments of risks.  Although local officials concede that high volumes of run-off can inundate low-lying areas especially during periods of high tide, they have faith that improved drainage can minimize flooding damage.

In an effort to relocate people living in high-risk areas, LGUs have encountered difficulties such as finding safe sites for human settlements, mustering resources for the acquisition of identified sites, mobilizing scarce human, physical and financial resources for site development, coordinating with donors, facilitating the provision of electricity, water and transportation, and identifying beneficiaries.  Moreover, the relocation of households from high risk areas usually comes with restrictions in the implementation of traditional (usually land-based) livelihood activities.  As most livelihood projects involve the development of new skills among the beneficiaries, and of new enterprises, there is a pressing need to conduct in-depth analysis of livelihood systems.  Better still will be initiatives to design production systems that are resilient to natural disasters.

Policy Recommendations
Whereas LGUs can thoroughly review their respective programs on land use and food security, and determine alternative land uses that can provide compatible resource-use option (including tourism), national government agencies such as the DENR, DAR, DA, and NIA need to re-align their respective roles in the issuance of resource use permits, while ensuring that no violations get committed to the detriment of communities. To arrive at such a critical balance in the determination of alternative land uses, LGUs and communities need to come up with a good analysis of land use potentials as starting points in the design of land use optimization and/or productivity improvement programs.

If tourism eventually emerges to be a compatible resource-use option, LGUs should be provided ample assistance for them to address their erstwhile mandate “to promulgate appropriate ordinances and local legislations pertaining to the maintenance of tourist facilities and attractions, as well as regulation and supervision of business concessions… [and] to provide local incentives for tourism investments, preserve cultural heritage, and promote sustainable tourism practices and management.”  This mandate has been sidelined with the adoption of Tourism Economic Zones as “the main vehicle for focused development at a local level within priority destinations” wherein a Tourist Enterprise Zone Authority was responsible for managing the overall zone development policy and strategy.

Under this framework, tourism development makes LGUs mere participants in the process.  LGUs that found showcase value in their resource endowments persisted in their initiatives in eco-tourism and agro-tourism.  Scant attention has been given to socio-cultural and historical heritage as potential tourism attractions.  Unavoidably, this will require the technical support of the National Historical Institute and the National Museum, especially in the search for a Visayan identity as well as in reclaiming developmental initiatives despite the geographic diversity and social complexity that occasions the Visayas. n

(Published in Focus on the Philippines July 2011: http://focusweb.org/philippines/fop-articles/articles/538-policy-initiatives-toward-reclaiming-development-in-the-visayas-1)

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