A SOJOURNER'S VIEW: Madayaw Sur Surigao?

TANDAG, Surigao del Sur (December 8) — Are things really madayaw (good) in Surigao del Sur these days?  Across the province, one sees all kinds of tarpaulin signs that include the word MADAYAW that one is tempted to conclude that everything is fine with the people in that province which is located in the eastern coastal area of Mindanao.

Given the recent changes in the landscape of the province, especially in terms of the national highway that stretches from San Francisco, Agusan del Sur to Tandag, Surigao del Sur, which is now fully cemented, one could really exclaim – Madayaw na lagi ang Sur Surigao!  These days, it is such a pleasure to travel the road from Davao up to Tandag, especially if one is on a private vehicle. The ride – even at night – is smooth, speedy and simply delightful.

It wasn’t always like this.  I remember how this road was in the mid-70s to the 1980s when I travelled across this highway for the work I did first with the Philippine Business for Social Progress (PBSP) and, later, with the Mindanao-Sulu Pastoral Conference Secretariat (MSPCS).  Both PBSP and MSPCS staff had to visit the diocesan pastoral offices and parishes of the Diocese of Tandag, constituted by the various parishes of Surigao del Sur.

In those days, one had to travel the whole day from Davao to Tandag. There were only a few buses that went to Tandag, so one had to be sure to catch the first trip at dawn. It left Davao around 5:00 A.M. and reached Tandag past the Angelus hour. It took from 12 to 14 hours to reach this very isolated capital town.  It was not only because the roads were really terrible; in fact at some junctures – during the rainy season – the buses got stuck. It was also because the bus stopped at every small town and big barangays and waited for passengers despite the fact that the bus was already packed!  The joke was that it waited first for passengers to finish with their baths and dress up before riding the bus!

In both the PBSP and MSPCS office, no one would volunteer to go and visit Surigao del Sur especially if one had been there already.  One got “traumatized” by the very long, tiresome and boring trip that no one wanted a return visit.  The office manager had to assign someone from among the staff to go out to Surigao del Sur and not to accept any excuses of not going out there.  I, myself, did not volunteer.  Possibly because I thought it such a burden to go to Tandag, when I reached the place I got sick. It would take a day or two before I recovered. And I was only in my late 20s and early 30s then!

There was an occasion when all of us at MSPCS decided to hold our annual staff retreat in Tandag which was also used as an occasion to deepen our ties with the church workers of the Diocese who were faced with major difficulties.  It was also because the priest who was in-charge of Social Action in MSPCS was from there, so we knew we were in good hands.  That was also to make sure that everyone in the office had an experience of going to Tandag.  To make the trip enjoyable we played all kinds of games along the way, including counting the bridges from San Franz to Tandag.

In those years, not only were the roads horrible, but it was true also for the bridges. There are more than a hundred creeks, streams and rivers that flow from the mountains dividing Surigao del Sur from Agusan del Sur to the Pacific Ocean. During the rainy season, one can imagine that some of these could not be crossed owing to flash floods brought about because of the continuous logging in this part of Mindanao. Anyway, we counted the number of bridges which made us even more conscious as to how horrible the infrastructure system was.  With the small creeks, there were no bridges at all; vehicles dived into the water and the drivers prayed the engines wouldn’t conk out.

Where there were bridges, these were made of wood (naturally, as the DPWH tapped into the logging resource of the province). But the manner that the bridges were built made the passengers prayed intensely to their favorite saints as their vehicles crossed the bridges. There were bridges that were as light as a feather (I am not kidding!) and could collapse anytime. Some were so weather-beaten that the bridge could self-destruct even if only one carabao would cross it. Many had no sidings, just the bare floor of a bridge. All of us took a deep breath as our vehicle crossed such a bridge as one was not assured of a successful crossing. In many cases, passengers had to alight from the vehicles to prevent any major accident.

But those days are gone. Today the highway is one of the best in Mindanao, surely it is a better highway than the one from Davao to Cagayan de Oro, or from Cotabato to Pagadian via the Narciso Ramos highway. And at some junctures of the journey, one has a breathtaking view of the Pacific coast or a view of coves that invites the sojourner to stop awhile and take a plunge into the sea!

The story as to how this highway got built towards the end of PGMA’s reign is quite instructive as to what can happen if Church and State officials are not at loggerheads with each other. A highway can be built if the Local Church gently but consistently persuades the President of the Republic of the Philippines to deliver on presidential promises to provide good infrastructure to the citizens. From Marcos to PGMA it took 5 Presidents to occupy Malacanang before the people of Surigao del Sur got their paved highway!

But alas, no matter how madayaw the infrastructure is, a province’s development cannot be fast-tracked in a manner speedy enough for the people to experience being liberated from their age-old poverty. Not that the entire infrastructure across the province is at the same level as the national highway. If one goes to an interior town such as San Miguel, there the roads and bridges still await the government’s assistance. Even the road from Bislig-Mangagoy to Trento (which was opened up to cut down on travel time to Agusan Sur, since before the only route was through San Franz) still needs to be cemented.

The national highway may now be first-class across Surigao del Sur, but the standard of living of most of the people in the province is certainly that of the “no-class”. The United Nations’ Human Development Index may not rank Surigao Sur as being at the bottom (along with the ARMM areas and those in the Zamboanga peninsula) but Surigao Sur is certainly one of the poorest in the whole of Mindanao. This is rather ironic considering Philippine history. The Caraga region of Mindanao – that includes Surigao del Sur – was where the first Spanish settlements were established in the early years of the Spanish occupation of the islands. Apan nabiyaan sa panahon kining maong lugar (but time passed it by).  While other parts of Mindanao – some of which were only colonized just after the WWII – were transformed into dynamic trading centers and developed into vibrant towns and cities, Surigao Sur got caught biting the dust.

In a forum I attended at the Diocesan Pastoral Center recently which was organized by the Social Action Center, spearheaded by Sr. Lydia Lascano ICM, who is the Social Action Director, we listened to recently elected barangay officials report on the major problems of their villages.  It was like listening to GKK leaders from various parishes of Surigao del Sur in the 1970s reporting the issues affecting their communities during the martial rule, although there are some differences as to the nature of the issues. But, as a whole, they still spoke of the poverty affecting the majority.

Whereas logging was the main issue then, there is still logging (both legal and illegal) that takes place today; however, the major ecological issue has shifted to mining. The whole of Surigao has been identified as rich with mineral resources like gold and copper. However, if large-scale, destructive mining will go full-blast in Surigao del Sur, the people’s poverty situation will even worsen in the future. Mining operations – in the manner that they operate in Third World countries today which are largely in the hands of greedy corporations out to make the fastest buck in the lowest cost possible – have never been able to develop the local areas where the operations take place. Once the operations end, they exit leaving the local people in destitution.

Surigao del Sur is in a very delicate situation vis-à-vis mining. Most of the people still rely on agriculture and fishing for their livelihood. Thus, they are dependent on the narrow strip of fertile land between the mountain range and the Pacific Ocean as well as the bounty of the sea.  If mining operations are allowed to interfere with the delicate eco-system by digging up the minerals, the residue of these operations will inundate the plains and render the ricefields toxic. With all the waste going downriver to the sea, that part of the Pacific Ocean could no longer provide the fisherfolk in the manner that it did these past centuries.

It is a very simple case of cause and effect that ordinary folks can easily understand because in Surigao del Sur, it is so easy to see the connection between and among the mountain ranges, the water that goes to the ricefields, the fertile land and the sea that provides the people with food on their tables. The threat of mining to the whole delicate eco-system of the Diocese is so clear from the perspective of the Local Church that Bishop Nereo Odchimar (who is also the CBCP President now) has not wavered in his prophetic stance to denounce mining.  For a number of years now, the Diocese has sustained its anti-mining advocacy campaign. But despite the strength of their advocacy, mining operations are taking place in some parts of the province.

Interesting too, that the agri-business plantations are now invading the fertile lands of the province. DOLE has made its presence felt there and one sees the expanding plantations taking over the hills where once cornfields abounded. Watching the bananas growing across these fields at a time when the banana growers are meeting with Senators to deal with the artificial cut-down on the price of bananas in the international market (supposedly, owing to the sanctions against Iran) one wonders why this massive expansion in this province is taking place despite the ills besetting the industry.  Where the bananas are now thriving, could aerial spray be far behind?

A rather disturbing development as reported by the barangay captains has been the growing incidence of killings across the province.  A few could be linked to extra-judicial killings; others could be related to politics especially after the barangay elections. There is, of course, the usual criminality that arises in a location where society is undergoing tremendous changes. In San Miguel, the only oppositionist SB member was gunned down. In most if not all of these killings, the perpetuators are never identified, arrested and tried in court. The local police are helpless in dealing with such criminal incidence. In San Miguel, there is a reality of at least five armed groups operating: the NPAs, the Armed Forces of the Philippines, a Lumad group armed by the AFP, another group (made up of young Lumad men) calling themselves the Bagani (who, supposedly, are employed as defense forces of a mining firm) and bandits who roam the forests. With such a situation, one is not surprised with the reality of violence in this place.

Surigao del Sur, being in the margins of Mindanao, has but a thin layer of civil society actors who could make a difference in the field of peace and development. The Local Church has been a voice in the wilderness but its economic resources and social capital are too limited to aggressively push for radical changes in the body politic. There is hardly a militant media that could expose the local issues in a manner that generate a buzz in the public sphere. While a few international and local NGOs are locating themselves in the Caraga region, their collaborative efforts are still at a nascent stage. Civil society organizations have not developed a forceful voice that would make a difference in pressuring the local government to take a pro-active stance vis-à-vis peace and development issues. Unfortunately, most of the LGUs are in the hands of politicians belonging to or affiliated with political dynasties of the province who still have to transcend their eco-political interests to embrace the needs of the poor among their constituency.

So quo vadis Surigao del Sur?

Still, one cannot deny that a little bit of progress has reached the province. Tandag still has to be made a city (after two attempts) but it thrives with new business enterprises. Across the cathedral are internet cafes. There are beach resorts and the baywalk will soon be finished. There is electrification across the province. Hinatuan town won a national award as a recipient of the Zero Basura Olympics under the Philippine Carology Marathon. Bislig-Mangagoy has survived the closing of PICOP. And more tourists from the surrounding areas and as far as Davao City are now going to its famous resorts like the Enchanted River in Hinatuan and the Tinuy-an Falls of Bislig (more of these later).

And for those who need to travel, there are buses that go from Tandag to Butuan and Davao even at night!  This, naturally, because the national highway has been cemented. It may not solve Surigao del Sur’s social ills, but this road has certainly made a difference in the lives of those from Surigao del Sur who want to be connected with the rest of the island and those of us from elsewhere who wants to have good connections with this historic part of Mindanao.

Given that we are a people who are not spoiled by too much blessings that come our way, a little madayaw nga blessing does go a long, long way.  (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar of Davao City, former head of the Redemptorist Itinerant Mission Team and author of several books, including “To be poor and obscure,” and “Mystic Wanderers in the Land of Perpetual Departures,” writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English [A Sojourner’s Views] and the other in Binisaya [Panaw-Lantaw].)