April 2007
Faces of change / Changeless places

War and peace in a Bohol barangay

MAGSAYSAY, once an NPA area, is the poorest barangay in Sevilla, Bohol. [photo by Avigail Olarte]

MAGSAYSAY, SEVILLA, BOHOL — Our security escort holding the rusty M-16 rifle grunted as the old, rickety ambulance we were riding leaped a few inches from the road. But he quickly regained his composure, and resumed his hawk-like position, his eyes darting, regarding the trees as though they were enemies.

We were on our way to Magsaysay, the farthest barangay in Sevilla, an interior town 36 kilometers away from the capital, Tagbilaran City. It would take an hour’s ride through a suffocating, rugged road from the town’s poblacion and through mountains south of Bohol before we would reach Magsaysay. It is a barangay so remote a priest visits it just once a month, and only one bus travels to and from it once a day.

As we reached the village — an enclave shrouded in tall trees of coconut and mahogany — the burly, dark-skinned policeman in civilian clothes seemed to relax a bit. Nipa huts dotted the clearing; a few meters away rested a military detachment atop a hill.

Magsaysay was once a hotbed for the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines. And though its residents say insurgents no longer roam their forests, the threat of a clash between the military and the NPA hangs in the air and slows down efforts to improve people’s lives here.

Just last February, a soldier died and two others were wounded when guerrillas from the NPA’s Chocolate Hills Command ambushed the 1st Scout Ranger Battalion of the Special Operations Command of the Philippine Army. Still, the military insists the NPA stronghold in Bohol has weakened, with only “20 NPAs” left operating in the province.

In areas like Magsaysay, where poverty fuels latent insurgency, not a few of its youth joined the underground movement, while many chose to live elsewhere. In the 1990s, in fact, nearly half of the barangay’s population fled to escape the hostilities. Many have since returned to Magsaysay, which now has about 900 residents. But their lives still mirror that of other villagers elsewhere in Bohol, which posted a poverty incidence of 57.3 percent in 2002 and was among the 40 poorest provinces in the country.

Magsaysay’s long-time village chief, 67-year-old Gerardo Barro, says that NPA or no NPA, the lives of the people here have hardly changed through the decades. It may even be that it was the NPA presence here that finally awakened local officials to Magsaysay’s plight. A literal battlefield, however, was hardly the ideal spot for any development efforts, and even now the weakest hint of possible combat or even a chase through the village can stop do-gooders in their tracks.

Location map of Sevilla courtesy of Wikipedia

TODAY A supposedly cleaned-up (read: no NPA) Magsaysay has a budget of just P500,000 a year; only P1,500 of which comes from real property and income taxes. And while at least they haven’t had to leave their homes in panic for quite a while now, Magsaysay ranks first in just about all poverty indicators (aside from having the largest population, with an average number of eight children per family) in Sevilla. The latest poverty survey in Bohol shows that 77 percent of the population in Magsaysay are below the food threshold and 90 percent are below the income threshold. It also has the highest child mortality rate and malnourishment, and ranks low in literacy and employment rates.

But even without these indicators, Municipal Planning and Development Coordinator Artemio Perin says Magsaysay can easily be identified as the poorest in Sevilla. A village located at the province’s northernmost tip, its rocky, inhospitable terrain prevents people from farming. What little patches of farmlands residents here own are planted with rice, corn, and vegetables, and usually just for their own consumption.

There are those who earn a living from selling firewood, crushed mountain stones sold to construction companies, and products like bakong, a small basket made out of coconut leaf backbone. People in Magsaysay earn an average of P600 a month.

Barangay Captain Barro says he has tried introducing livelihood opportunities, like a demo farm, where the villagers could try out new farming techniques and harvest the crops as one entire produce. But, he says, “they were just too lazy.”

Bohol Provincial Planning and Development Officer Roger Alegado offers, however, that “laziness is actually the result of desperation.” He explains, “The people keep on working themselves to the bone, but nothing happens. And so frustration develops, and through the years, hopelessness.”

THE village has the highest child mortality rate in Sevilla. [photo by Avigail Olarte]

Services must be demand-driven, he says, and that is why it’s important for the local governments to consult the community first before bringing in projects.

In Magsaysay, women were trained in tailoring, which was thought to be a good means of livelihood for them. But the women weren’t able to turn their tailoring skills into income because they had no capital. The farmers, meanwhile, say they have no way of increasing their produce because they can’t afford fertilizers. They also want more traders for their firewood, as well as for the root crops and fruits and vegetables they grow.

The barangay does have a few blessings — post-NPA — such as a paved road, as well as a new high school two kilometers away. Magsaysay also has its own primary school and a barangay health unit.

An international organization once wanted to work in Magsaysay but backed out after it was advised that the area might be too dangerous for its workers. Now the municipality of Sevilla itself is putting up a water reservoir and chlorination plant near Magsaysay’s Bugbuak Spring that will provide potable water for the people of the entire town in years to come. (Magsaysay has the highest number of children affected with diarrhea every year.) The funding will come from donations.

ANOTHER HYDRO project, however, is squeezing the town’s coffers dry. For the last three years, Sevilla had been giving P3 million of its P3.7 million development fund as equity to the Sevilla Mini-Hydro Project at the Upper Loboc River. The project is a joint venture worth P313 million and will supply water to five towns. Sevilla stands to earn 15 percent of the expected P20 million annual income.

CRUSHED mountain stones are sold at P8 per can. [photo by Avigail Olarte]

Perin says their payments will end this year, and after that, enough funds from its 20 percent-development fund will again be channeled for its other equally important projects: infrastructure, agriculture, health, education, environment, and social services (in that order of priority).

“That’s why we’ve been asking funding from politicians elsewhere,” Perin says, stressing that Bohol Governor Erico Aumentado had been helping Sevilla a lot, mainly through infrastructure projects.

The provincial government is bent on reducing poverty in Bohol. The capitol was frightened into action some four years ago — not by the NPA, but the alarming poverty incidence in the province — and thus aimed to reduce Bohol’s number of poor people families to 28.9 percent by 2012. Today, the province has a poverty incidence of only 29.2 percent, which means the capitol may yet reach its target.

The Bohol government reports that addressing poverty by infusing development assistance in conflict-affected places has helped weaken the armed insurgency. In its 2005 Galing Pook Award for its trailblazing program on poverty, peace and development, 16,928 new jobs were said to have been created, child malnutrition was addressed, and access to sanitary toilets, potable water sources, and education increased. Through this program, only one of the four fronts of the CPP-NPA reportedly remained in 2005.

Yet it seems unlikely that the residents of Magsaysay have been aware of such efforts, busy as they were dodging bullets and leaving their homes more than a decade ago. But for those who have come back, the relative peace is the biggest improvement in their barangay.

MAGSAYSAY mother and child [photo by Avigail Olarte]

Arturo Linguis, who had migrated to Cavite where he worked as a tricycle driver, made it a point to return to Magsaysay once he got married to Delia, a Caviteña seamstress. Now Arturo saves what he can in selling charcoal and firewood, and sometimes, corn.

Each day, his family — together with his 60-year-old mother and four-year-old son — eats the malunggay and kalabasa (squash) he grows, and corn mixed with some rice. Once a month, if they could afford it, they buy fish (at P80 per kilo) and meat.

Arturo says that in his village, one at least doesn’t have to worry where to get the meal the next day, unlike those who live on the fringes of poverty in Metro Manila. “Kahit wala kang pera, may kinakain ka (Even if you don’t have money, you can eat),” he says, almost too defensively.

“Mas maganda dito. Presko ang hangin, sariwa ang pagkain (It’s better here. The air is fresh, as is the food),” Delia says. She adds, “Walang gulo dito (It’s peaceful here)” — seemingly oblivious to the soldier fetching water nearby.

DELIA Linguis, a seamstress from Cavite, prefers life in Magsaysay to the city. [photo by Avigail Olarte]

Their neighbor, Felipe Sumadila, a Sevillahanon who grew up in Magsaysay, agrees. He says it has been 11 years since he last saw an NPA guerrilla in the area, even though in 2005, the 78th Infantry Battalion found M-16 rifles and ammunitions in an NPA camp in Bayawahan, which is just next door to Magsaysay.

Arturo and Delia hope Magsaysay would someday show improvement, but even now they believe it is the best place to raise their son. They would probably have no quarrel there with Felipe, who raised seven sons here and saw four of them finish college elsewhere. But his boys have long left the barangay, even though he keeps hoping they would one day come back and tend to their lands again.

“Sinasabi ko, maganda ang kinabukasan ng mga tao dito (I keep saying, there’s a bright future right here),” he says. But somehow his words are betrayed by the fear and sadness in his eyes.