30 May 2007

The tragedy of Bikolandia

My column for last week's issue of Vox Bikol.

ONE OF the most fascinating lectures that we managed to arrange for the visiting graduate students from the University of British Columbia was one we never actually expected: it was leading Bikolano historian Danilo Gerona’s talk last Friday (May 18) on the Philippine and Bikol situation.

I saw Danny at Mister Donut in E-Mall the previous afternoon and still without a resource person on the topic, which is supposed to provide the larger context to the governance in Naga, I managed to cajole him to take on the offer. When I introduced him to the 30 or so UBC and Ateneo students at the audiovisual room of the Bicol Science and Technology Centrum the following morning, he was still unclear on what exactly his topic was.

But speaking off the cuff and with fire in his belly, Danny painted a breathtaking historical account of why Bicol has always been the odd-one out in Luzon, destroying a number of myths in the process.

One of these is the mistaken notion of self-sufficiency during the Spanish times, owing to the country’s rich natural resources. It is actually the opposite, Gerona said, explaining that Spain, through the famed Manila-Acapulco galleon trade, has actually subsidized its colonial operations here, to the point that they almost decided to give it up. Only the opportunity of christianizing China and Japan, using Manila as springboard, tilted the balance towards staying put. Today, one can argue that OFW remittances are effectively subsidizing Philippine society’s continuing viability and keeping our economy afloat.

Over a century ago, he added, Bicol is the richest region in the entire country, and Albay its richest province, owing mainly to abaca, which, together with sugar and tobacco, are the Philippine islands’ top three exports. No wonder, the website of the Tigaon municipal government calls the American occupation its golden years when the local principalia -- the Ceas, Molls, Gachitorenas and Fuentebellas -- contested political power, not only in the town but also at the provincial level.

Fast forward to the present, and those years become memories buried in the pages of local history books. And while the rest of Luzon belongs to the upper half of the country’s progressive regions, Bicol has been languishing at the bottom, in the company of war-torn areas in Muslim Mindanao.

Come to think of it, the tragedy of Bicol region lies in the continuing exploitation of its resources to fuel development elsewhere, without minding the need to develop local industries around these raw materials. For instance, not even one of the companies in the DA directory of abaca fiber processors and exporters is based in the region. (To its credit, Negros at least had its “sugar barons” who became a potent economic and political force in the country; all we had are the political dynasties who lorded it over Bikol for the past 100 years.)

First, it was the fabulous gold in the Paracale mines in Camarines Norte which attracted the Spanish conquistador Juan de Salcedo, followed by abaca in Camarines Sur and Albay from 1850 up the 1930s, and the geothermal resources of Tiwi from the 1970s up to the present. A more insidious form of exploitation, which Ateneo de Naga president Fr. Joel Tabora adverted to in his opening remarks, is the continuing brain drain that saps our human capital: unable to provide opportunities to the region’s best and brightest minds today, they end up fueling the growth of economies in Metro Manila and other parts of the world.

The persistence of this enduring tragedy makes me pause: is the cause of Bicol development then a case of what the French call "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose" -- that the more things change, the more they remain the same?


Filipinayzd said...

Nahiling ko si sir Danny. Nasa Emol man ako kadto. I did not recognize you sir Willy. Sayang. hehe

Willy B. Prilles, Jr. said...

Hi Irvin. Kindly drop me an email. There is a linguistics expert among our visitors, and your blog was among the topics we discussed. You may want to meet up with him.:)

Filipinayzd said...

In-e-mail na kita. / Na-e-mail na kita. (Filipino/Taglish)

I have e-mailed you. (English)

I e-mailed you na. (Inggalog, code-switching English to Tagalog)

Ikaw ay napadalhan ko na ng bilis-sulat*. (Tagalog)

*coined word (using the letters in ABAKADA) for "e-mail"

Willy B. Prilles, Jr. said...

Paki-check kan mailbox mo.:)