No Free Lunch

Keeping an ear to the ground

Throughout my years in the government in the 1990s and after, I had made it a point, whenever I found myself in remote areas of the country, to ask common folk one particular question: If there is one thing you could ask the government for your community, what would it be?

One of my favorite stories is about a visit to an upland community of indigenous people in the province of Sarangani many years ago. The 7-kilometer mountain road to their area was so bad that it was a wonder how our van made it at all in one piece. So when I took aside the barangay captain, a farmer, and asked my question, I was so sure he would tell me he would like the government to fix that road leading up to their community. His answer surprised me at first: kabayo. He would ask the government for a few horses to help his community transport their produce to the market in town.


Having noted the lush green forests surrounding their little community, I realized the great wisdom in his reply. One, he had no illusion that any politician would devote the funds needed to repair a mountain road for a mere handful of voters in an upland community. And two, if that road were indeed fixed to permit easy access by motor vehicles including logging trucks, the lush forest around them would be gone in no time. Lesson learned: The best solutions need not be costly.

In a visit to a similar upland community in another part of Mindanao, this time Barangay Lopero in the municipality of Jose Dalman in Zamboanga del Norte, the only way to get there was to ride the habal-habal (motorcycles with extended seat). After a punishing ride up the mountain, we finally reached a clearing with greenery all around—not plants or trees, but tall cogon grass. I asked a farmer my usual question. His answer: kalabaw. They needed carabaos, he said, so they could till their obviously fertile land, up in the plateau where they had established their small barangay. This time I pressed him further: “So what have you received from the government?” He replied, “Fertilizers and hybrid seeds.” “What do you do with them?” I asked. “We take them anyway, and try to sell them.”


I turned to the municipal agricultural extension officer accompanying my group, and chidingly asked why she had not told the proper agriculture officials of their prior need. “But we’ve told them, time and time again,” she insisted. “All these programs come to us from Manila, and they’ve already made up their minds on what they want to give.” Lesson learned: Top-down governance in agriculture is bad governance.

On a visit to island barangays in Bongao, Tawi-Tawi, my team met Julficar Ladjahali, the “barrio” (barangay captain) of Barangay Pababag, who led the “Bantay Sanctuary” effort in their protected fishing grounds. Barrio Ladjahali had an admirable dedication to safeguarding the sanctuary and keeping fishers out, and told us of initial resistance and resentment from the municipal fishers, many of them his own residents. Their efforts paid off well. The sanctuary clearly helped sustain and multiply the fish population: The average catch per fisher of 1.5 kilos before the establishment of the marine sanctuary six years before had since tripled to 4.5 kilos. The fishers eventually appreciated fully what he and his “Bantay” volunteers were doing, and became very cooperative.

To my usual question, Barrio Ladjahali’s reply was: buoys. He wanted to be able to clearly mark the boundaries of the marine sanctuary, to remove any doubt when apprehending encroachers into the protected waters. How much would they cost? About P21 per buoy, he said, or an estimated P15,000-P20,000 in all. My companions from the Mindanao Development Authority, noting that the amount he needed was just the typical cost of hosting one meeting, were almost ready to give him the amount, except that they had no authority to do so. Lesson learned: Like in my first story, there must be countless such low-hanging fruit with great potential impact all over the country, crying out to be picked.

It is in common folk spontaneously speaking out their minds where we often find great wisdom about what the government can do better for our people. The government just needs to listen more.

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TAGS: Cielito F. Habito, governance, grassroots governance, No Free Lunch, sarangani
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