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The Alabat mystique

My last column, on the island-town of Alabat in Quezon, drew more feedback than usual. Readers took interest in how agribusiness, diversified farm activities and good linkage to value chains appear to have made the difference for Alabat, and brought its poverty level down, quite unusual for an island-town. There were inquiries from interested investors, which I would have to endorse to the town leaders. Our visit in fact coincided with that of a group bringing in a major investment in a fish hatchery in Alabat’s coastal area, envisaged to supply fingerlings to aquaculture farms that the firm is also setting up in other nearby Quezon municipalities.

Readers either from or familiar with the place extolled retired major general Fernando Mesa, the town’s two-term mayor, for whom we heard nothing but good words prior to and during our stay on the island, including from those in the two neighboring towns. Still other readers took interest in Alabat as a tourist destination, especially as it has figured positively in
recent blogs describing the unique rustic experience it offers the would-be visitor.

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All these were confirmed and experienced by my group firsthand. Agribusiness initiatives and deliberate initiatives to widen sources of livelihood for the farm populace indeed appear to have set Alabat apart from the adjoining towns of Perez and Quezon, which have thrice and twice as much poverty, respectively. Calamansi alone seems to have made a major difference. Alabat had traditionally been known as a major source of calamansi, the small green citrus fruit often described as the “Philippine lemon” and is part of many a Filipino lunch or dinner table. In years past, natural calamities and diseases had nearly decimated the crop, with only Alabat managing to keep a prominent chunk of the industry. Its break came when local calamansi farmers secured a contract to supply Jollibee with the product.

But there’s more beyond calamansi in the picture. We also saw cacao production and processing; coconut sugar production, which earns far more from the coconut trees than traditional copra production could; honeybee culture; and production of sili (hot chili pepper), bought by Mang Inasal and Chowking. All these have augmented the meager incomes traditionally derived from rice, coconut and fishing, and have helped keep the townspeople well-fed, such that underweight incidence in Alabat is only about a third that of its two neighbors.

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Mayor Mesa, who carries a limp from having been wounded three times in the battlefield during his active military career, proved every bit the exemplary leader we had heard him to be well before we met him. His leadership style reminds me of that of my former boss, President Fidel V. Ramos, which the mayor believes may have somehow rubbed off on him from years of association with FVR in the military service. We witnessed firsthand Mayor Mesa’s sharp and active mind in action, always thinking well beyond the current state of things, and seemingly seeing opportunities for his townspeople at every turn. “Challenge the status quo” is one of his mantras, and doing so has served his town well. It was in fact through his proactive push that many of the alternative economic activities in Alabat have progressed. But his deep spirituality and Christian faith could very well spell the greatest difference for his leadership. Mentored by the Fellowship of Christians in Government since his Army days, he has changed traditional mindsets in his own bureaucracy by offering its leadership enrichment seminars to his municipal officers, and soon, the town’s teachers and youth groups as well.

My group’s three-day visit proved not only enlightening but also enjoyable. A highlight was a “boodle fight” breakfast on a floating hut out on Lamon Bay arranged by the tourism office, which does a wonderful job ensuring that visitors experience the best of Alabat. Too bad work kept us from visiting the scenic waterfalls and rock formations, and exploring the quaint nooks and crannies of this charming town more closely. But now, having seen Alabat firsthand, I know this first visit will not be my last.

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TAGS: Alabat, Cielito F. Habito, Fernando Mesa, No Free Lunch
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