March 2007
New Political Dynasties

Bukidnon’s ‘nontraditional’ dynasty

J.R. NEREUS Acosta is completing his third and final term in Congress and is aiming to become provincial governor. [Photo by Vinia D. Mukherjee]

SHE BEGAN her political career by accident, but when Socorro ‘Coring’ Olaivar Acosta ran for Congress in 1987, she was part of a strategy to topple the Fortich political dynasty in Bukidnon, a province in the heart of Mindanao. Then her son J. R. Nereus or Neric took her place in the legislature while she eventually went back to her old mayoralty post in Manolo Fortich town. Now Coring Acosta is considered by many as part of yet another new political dynasty. The other part being Neric, of course. Mother and son say, however, that they can hardly be compared with traditional politicians, even if they have formed a political bloc of sorts in Bukidnon and are not about to give up their respective political careers anytime soon.

This May, Neric, who is completing his third consecutive term in Congress, will go for the Bukidnon gubernatorial post, which means he will be up against incumbent governor Jose Ma. ‘Joe’ Zubiri Jr., patriarch of the province’s other political family and former ally of his mother. Coring Acosta, meanwhile, is running for re-election as Manolo Fortich mayor, although it had also been bruited that she was going to try for Congress again, if only to block the bid of controversial ex-elections commissioner Virgilio Garcillano for her son’s old seat.

Both Coring and Neric claim a “reluctance” in swimming in the pool of politics, mostly because they do not enjoy the customary wheeling and dealing. They speak wistfully of other things they would rather do more of — teaching, studying, development work. But Neric says, “Politics attracts me because it is still the arena where you’re able to engage people on new ideas and new ways of doing things and initiate a flow of inspiration. It’s where I’m able to integrate the world of theory with the concrete, where the rubber hits the road.” Coring, speaking of being in politics in her septuagenarian years, says simply, “I need to square off what I’ve started.”

Location map of Bukidnon courtesy of Wikipedia

Acosta supporters point out that unlike many traditional politicians, Coring and Neric went into politics armed with considerable credentials. They have since built an unusual political base in Bukidnon through a nongovernmental organization (NGO) they set up there years ago. Neric has also acquired a reputation as an exemplary legislator — to the detriment of his district, some of his constituents say. Indeed, the irony is that while the Acostas pride themselves in being “nontraditional politicos,” many of their constituents would really rather they were more like, say, the Zubiris.

Which is probably why Governor Zubiri is unfazed by the news that Neric Acosta, a darling of the NGO circuit in Manila, will be among his challengers for the gubernatorial post in just a few weeks. “I will beat Neric even in his own district,” declares Zubiri, who comes from a landed family in Kabankalan, Negros Occidental.

At 66, Zubiri has been in politics for decades. He was a member of the Batasang Pambansa in 1984 after managing the Bukidnon Sugar Company owned by Marcos associate Roberto Benedicto. After Edsa 1, he was elected representative of Bukidnon’s 3rd district. His son Juan Miguel or ‘Migz’ took over his congressional post in 1998 — the same year Neric replaced Coring in the Lower House.

AT THAT time, Congress was undergoing a “generational shift,” as many three-term representatives gave up their seats for their kin. Most “replacements” were offspring of the former legislators, as in the case of the Acostas. Political scientist Julio Teehankee notes that in 1998, sons and daughters of 21 incumbent legislators facing term limits ran as representatives in their parents’ districts. Eighteen of them won, a success rate of 85 percent. In its 2004 book The Rulemakers, the PCIJ observed that though generally better educated and more media-savvy, “the younger batch of representatives has often proved to be the same species of political animal as their parents and grandparents.”

MEMBERS of the Spice Boys, a young generation of politicians most of whom inherited their parents’ seats in Congress. [PCIJ photo]

Several of Neric’s contemporaries in Congress served merely as “benchwarmers,” taking over their relatives for one term, after which those who had sat there previously made a comeback. Neric, however, was not a benchwarmer — and neither, it must be said, was Migz Zubiri, now a senatorial candidate. Still, the younger Zubiri joined many of his and Neric’s peers in Congress in what Norman Patiño of the Institute of Popular Democracy (IPD) calls political “gimmicks,” such as forming groups like the Spice Boys (which Migz Zubiri was part of) or Bright Boys. Neric did not.

“As soon as he came in, he created his own niche,” Patiño says of Neric Acosta. “Socorro had nine years, yet it took Neric just one term to establish his name, and beyond Bukidnon even.” By the time the 11th Congress adjourned in 2001, Neric had steered to legislation the Clean Air Act, the only rookie legislator in that term to have passed a proposal into law. Neric has since been the principal author of laws on solid waste management, biodiversity, protected areas, caves resources management, coastal resources, and plant variety protection. He has also taken “unsafe” positions on controversial issues such as reproductive health.

Patiño calls Neric’s style “progressive without being left” and marvels at his skills as a legislator. Patiño says, “Just proposing a bill requires a lot of research, and you also have to be able to articulate it. How much more if you’re able to pass a law? That means you know the nitty-gritty of lawmaking, and those are completely different skills, too.”

A “tightrope walk” is how Neric calls those skills — “learning not just diplomacy but to play hard ball, to ensure that you don’t become a pushover but you are also able to take a knock or two when needed.” Over the years, he says, he has learned the “balancing act” and is now convinced that “there is no such thing as a total victory. You learn to live with what is possible, not just with what is ideal.”

Nine years after inheriting his mother’s seat in Congress, Neric has made his own mark. In fact, in an advertorial aired over Manolo Fortich’s local radio, Coring describes herself as “Neric’s mother.” A pleased Coring tells PCIJ, “He has a lot of achievements that were never done by the mother.”

IPD says that Coring was “low-key” in Congress. Coring herself is most proud of having authored the Magna Carta for Small Farmers in her time in Congress. She also passed legislation for the establishment of national high schools in all eight towns of the first district.

WITH VERY fertile soil, and an evenly distributed annual rainfall, Bukidnon is an important agriculture area for the entire country. Often called a “highland paradise,” much of the province sits on a high plateau. It is the source of Mindanao’s major rivers and watersheds. It has 1.1 million people and is home to the indigenous cultures of the Bukidnon, Manobo, Talaandig, Higaonon, Umayamnon, Matigsalog, and Tigwahanon.

Manolo Fortich Mayor Socorro Acosta (right) has been in politics for over 30 years. [photo by Vinia D. Mukherjee]

Neric knows Binukid, the language of the Bukidnon groups. Its use has declined over the centuries; language experts say Binukid speakers now number a mere 100,000. Neric says, “When I go up to the uplands, it’s a thrill that they hear me with more than a smattering of Binukid. It means a lot.” But he rues that while he may be “admired,” his mother is “loved.” “Some might think I’m aloof,” he says.

Coring is indeed loved much like a mother. In her office in Manolo Fortich, people queue for hours to see her, not to ask for a favor, but to visit and thank her for something she had done for them earlier. She gets hugged a lot. “My mother is really my role model as a leader,” says Neric. “She’s very engaging, warm, she’s motherly. But she’s also rather savvy about things and characters.”

Neric says that slowly, he is learning to “backslap and share a beer more often than previously.” He is quick to add, though, that he was never completely alien to barrio life. After all, he says, he is an NGO worker, having helped his mother give birth to BINHI, or the Bukidnon Integrated Network of Home Industries, which extends micro-credit to poor women.

But mother and son obviously have different back stories: Coring is a self-made woman who was born in Mabini in Bohol, grew up during the war, and lived through hardship. “Losing a mother during the Japanese occupation, running around Bohol being chased by the Japanese — that was a totally different experience,” Neric says of his mother’s history. By contrast, he admits to having “had a very comfortable, middle-class life.”

Coring Olaivar moved to Bukidnon in the late 1950s, and taught briefly at the Central Mindanao University before heading off to Iowa for a doctorate in food chemistry. It was in Iowa that she met her future husband, Juan Acosta. Afterward, Coring worked at the agribusiness giant Del Monte Philippines in Cagayan de Oro, but again only for a spell as, she says, she was foremost a teacher. Which, she says she would have rather continued to be, if not for what she describes as her “chance” entry into electoral politics.

In 1972, Juan, then a supervising scientist at Del Monte, was drafted to run as a local councilor in Manolo Fortich. But just when he was about to file his certificate of candidacy, Del Monte issued an order prohibiting its senior managers from participating in electoral politics. Coring was asked to take Juan’s place — and she won. In 1979, Coring was appointed Manolo Fortich mayor. She was later elected to the same position in 1980, and then ran for Congress in 1987.

CORING ACOSTA now says she felt out of her element in Congress, and missed being a local official. That she had gone to the legislature at all was because Joe Zubiri had begged her to run against a member of the powerful Fortich clan. Zubiri himself recalls, “I told Coring and Juan, ‘It’s time we get involved in politics. They’ve been here for 50 years now and I think it’s time for us.'” Zubiri poured his resources into Coring’s campaign for Congress, pitting her against a brother-in-law of then Governor Carlitos Fortich. Zubiri himself vied to be the 3rd district representative against the governor’s cousin, while he placed a candidate in the 2nd district to battle with a Fortich lawyer.

They trounced the old political clan. But not long afterward, Zubiri and Coring had a falling-out. Zubiri says the mayors in Coring’s district — “beholden to me because I made them run and supported them” — complained to him about the lack of “progress” in their towns. He says he called Coring’s attention, and “she did not like it.” During the 1992 congressional polls, Zubiri put up a candidate — “token,” he says — to contest the 1st district with Coring. He had the allegiance of the mayors and the kapitans, but Coring managed to hold her own. She won a second (and then third) term.

Coring says that after her first term in Congress, she realized that Zubiri was “this guy (who) wants to hold you as if you are always beholden to him.” There were issues the two of them did not agree on, she also says, and she did not want to follow Zubiri as he jumped from one party to another.

While his mother entered politics by chance, Neric Acosta deliberately sought a place in it. He says he had felt restless after returning to Bukidnon in the early 1990s, with a PhD in political science. He won a seat in the Sangguniang Panlalawigan in 1995. By the time Coring had exhausted her three terms in Congress, Neric was ready to take her place there.

The Zubiris, however, are not the only ones in Bukidnon who aren’t so happy with the Acostas. Mayor Coring, for instance, does not have a supporter in Marjun, who will vote for the first time this May. The 19-year-old Manolo Fortich native says he wants a new mayor for his town. “Just like in clothes, you’d much rather have new ones than the old,” he says.

He also says that while Mayor Coring has some accomplishments, he finds the mayor’s record far from exemplary. He points to his school, the Northern Bukidnon Community College, which was a project of the Acostas. “It’s ugly,” Marjun says. “It gets flooded.”

Abelardo Yandug, a leader of an NGO that works with farmers and fisherfolk, is not that pleased with Neric either. Yandug compares the 1st district — Neric’s turf — to the 3rd district, which is that of Congressman Migz Zubiri, and concludes: “Zubiri’s district has more improvements than Acosta’s.” He points to better roads, bigger covered courts, more multipurpose buildings in Zubiri’s territory.

Neric knows some of his constituents would rather have him “bring home the bacon” than elucidate in Congress over the merits of regulating air pollution. He says, “In rural hinterland lumad-dominated Talakag municipality, in Mt. Kitanglad, in the foothills of these mountains, what does the Clean Air Act mean for them?” He says that while his work on micro-credit banking program is “a concrete intervention,” his public will look for “the hardware, something on a plate that (they) can touch and see everyday. That’s the foot bridge, that’s the daycare center, that’s the school building, the road, the pavement, the well.'”

“While I’ve tried hard to address those as much as I could,” he says, “I can admit that it wasn’t really my forte. Maybe, philosophically, I was really wired more into policy work.”

Neric may find it hard to find kindred spirits in Congress. In 1976, political scientist Remigio Agpalo found that 71 percent of representatives and 39 percent of senators spent five or more hours a day attending to callers asking for all sorts of favors in their offices. Agpalo said only 47 percent of congressmen and 61 percent of senators devoted more than half of their time to legislative functions.

In 2004, the PCIJ saw a similar situation in Congress, with the representatives acting first as patrons and brokers for their districts. Neric refers to this as being a bridge: “You want to make laws, or you should, but the majority of your colleagues think you’re a power-broker. You bring home the bacon, you’re a bridge from the national largesse to the district.”

ACTUALLY, IT’S a wonder that the Acostas have lasted this long in politics, considering their rather maverick approach toward it. In truth, Coring remains unassured of her council’s loyalty this late in the game. Similarly, Neric lacks the political infrastructure that other politicos have — the mayors and barangay kapitans (chiefs) who will do the work to ensure their patron gets elected. “No one believes I actually won three terms without mayors, except for my mother,” he exclaims.

GOV. JOSE Maria Zubiri Jr. wanted to break the grip of the Fortich clan in Bukidnon politics 20 years ago, and begged Socorro Acosta to run with him for Congress. Today, the Acostas and Zubiris are fierce political rivals. [photo by Vinia D. Mukherjee]

Yet while they do not have the traditional machinery of mayors, kapitans, and kagawads, they do have their NGO, which both Coring and Neric admit can be a “political instrument.”

BINHI was set up in 1989 by members of the Acosta family — including Coring, Juan, and Neric’s aunt Nemia Bornidor — and a few other friends. Its flagship project is Bulig (Visayan for “help”) a district-wide microlending program patterned after a pioneering initiative in Bangladesh called Grameen Bank. Bulig now has some 7,000 beneficiaries, most of whom are wives of poor farmers. Its loan portfolio is estimated at P18.7 million.

Poverty remains significant in Bukidnon, where incomes are substantially low in the traditional forms of agriculture that dominate in the province. The Research Institute for Mindanao Culture also says that the seasonal nature of farm work “leaves much of the labor force without employment for a substantial part of the year.”

Neric was Bulig’s project director for three years before he entered Congress, and he continues to be an advisor. In the Grameen approach, membership in an organization is a prerequisite for credit. This requirement therefore enables the NGO to establish a long-term relationship with beneficiaries. Coring herself calls BINHI their “strong base”; the women become their political machinery, their “foot soldiers.” She adds that while BINHI members are told not to “mix yourselves in politics,” eventually they would retort, “‘My God, Ma’am, we have to volunteer!'”

Felix Cagande, who has worked on the Bulig program since 1991, sees it this way: “Bulig was the first NGO that went to the barangays. Before there wasn’t an NGO like Bulig. When the people saw they could take out loans to buy carabaos, to buy pigs that they could then raise and sell…a sense of gratitude (was created).” IPD’s Patiño agrees, saying, “If they’re hungry and you feed them, they will appreciate you. They (the Acostas) were able to provide livelihood to people in need. Filipinos know how to repay debts of gratitude.”

Patiño hazards to add that unlike typical politicos, the Acostas have maintained a “socially organized capital” in the form of the microlending NGO. Being organized, Patiño says, it is more sustainable “than, say, doleout or pork barrel.”

Official documents show, however, that the younger Acosta recognizes the importance of those discretionary funds in his role as district representative. Between 2003 and 2005, Neric allocated two-thirds of his P20-million-a-year Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) to “priority programs and projects” of Manolo Fortich town. With 22 barangays, Manolo Fortich is one of the two biggest municipalities among the eight in Neric’s turf.

The Bukidnon Crusade Against Crime and Corruption (BCACC) says that Neric Acosta also used part of his pork-barrel funds in 2002 to finance BINHI, with the Manolo Fortich mayor’s office as conduit. BCACC filed a graft case against Neric, Coring, Juan, and Bornidor in 2004 at the Ombudsman. The case refers to BINHI as the Acostas’ “lending company.”

Neric says the case is merely a political demolition campaign; the Acostas think Governor Zubiri is behind it. But while BCACC head Fr. Venancio Balansag Jr. says his sister is married to a nephew of the governor, he insists that his group has always “rallied against corruption” and that it has filed other graft cases against other Bukidnon officials. He adds that BCACC once organized a rally against Migz Zubiri, who had taken a position in favor of the use of genetically modified corn.

Joe Zubiri for his part admits the BCACC lawyer is also one of his own. He says, though, “I had nothing to do with the filing (of the graft case).”

The Office of the Ombudsman denied PCIJ’s request for copies of documents submitted by BCACC. But in an interview with PCIJ, the Acostas’ lawyer, Elmer de la Rosa, says the Manolo Fortich municipal government “did what it is legally allowed to do,” which is to source funds for BINHI. De la Rosa says the town council gave Mayor Coring “concurrence” on the use of the funds from Congressman Neric’s pork barrel. At that time, de la Rosa says, the vice mayor and the rest of the Sanggunian were still allied with Mayor Coring.

In this country, a province could be too small to accommodate more than one power clan.