When a mayor inspires
I’d like to focus my last article for this trying year on a small part of the country that inspires in us hope that with good and competent leadership, good things can happen and lives can be uplifted.
Just before Christmas, the Association of Local Social Welfare and Development Officers of the Philippines Inc. bestowed their Gawad Parangal on Mayor Fernando L. Mesa of Alabat, Quezon. It was yet another recognition among many already received by the good mayor for the near-miracle he has pulled off in his town, one of three located on Alabat Island within Lamon Bay, off the eastern coast of Quezon Province. I wrote of Alabat more than two years ago, after a poverty research group I led witnessed first hand “the Alabat mystique” (5/8/18), leading me to describe the municipality then as “an island outlier” (5/4/18). The town, after all, had defied the general rule that island municipalities in the Philippines count among the poorest and most depressed. It seemed a story too good to be true, and too good to last. So I thought I’d write an update, and am even more impressed to learn that things have only gotten better.
Alabat, as I wrote earlier, is positive proof that island municipalities need not be poor. I cited how the town’s poverty incidence, estimated by the Philippine Statistics Authority to be 13.4 percent of the population in 2012, was just over half of the nationwide figure of 25.2 percent, while the province-wide figure was nearly three times (34.1 percent). Latest data (for 2015) show Alabat’s poverty down by nearly half (to only 7.6 percent) within three years, and the contrast with national (23.5 percent) and provincial poverty figures (24.4 percent) is even starker.
Remarkably, Alabat has pulled even further away from the island’s two other towns sandwiching it, Perez and Quezon. The former’s 2012 poverty incidence of 37.7 percent only inched down to 33.6 percent, while the latter’s 26.4 percent barely budged to 26.2 percent—more than four and three times that of Alabat, respectively. As they all possess similar natural endowments, there’s clearly something Alabat is doing right that its neighbors haven’t quite caught on to yet, and the secret could well be in the town’s exemplary leadership.
We witnessed how Mayor Mesa had aggressively leveraged partnerships for economic diversification, in an island where rice farming, coconut production for copra, and fishing had been the traditional livelihoods—the same occupations where we find the poorest of the Filipino rural poor. Mesa pushed for agribusiness initiatives and deliberate efforts to widen sources of livelihood for the farm populace. We sampled the chocolate produced by a pioneer cacao producer and chocolate tablea maker, whose products now reach other parts of the globe. At last count, 220 farmers now grow the crop on 169 hectares of land. Calamansi is now produced by some 58 farmers on 33 hectares, and sili (hot pepper) by 45 farmers on 10 hectares, with both products bought under a supply contract with the Jollibee group for its various restaurant chains. Alabat’s unique stingless honeybee culture, enabled by technical support from UP Los Baños, now involves triple the farmers we saw in 2018.
Coconut sugar earns far more for farmers than traditional copra production could, and now involves 13 farmers on some 40 hectares of coconut land, while gainfully employing an additional 61 farm workers. By 2022, the mayor’s Makapuno Project involving 13 farmers with 2,644 embryo-cultured makapuno (full fleshed) coconut plants will see its first fruit. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t stop the local government from organizing and training 281 mostly women farmers for a village-level virgin coconut oil mill.
All these have augmented the meager incomes traditionally derived from rice, coconut, and fishing, and have helped keep the townspeople well fed, with malnutrition only about a third of that of its two neighbors.
I find Mayor Mesa’s success a great inspiration on how, with excellent leadership and good governance, we can overcome whatever old and new challenges 2021 would throw in our way. A blessed New Year to all!
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