The changing face of change in Nueva Ecija
The face of change in Nueva Ecija, described as the Philippines’ rice granary, could be that of a woman.
Results of the 2019 elections raised this likelihood as a record number of women rose to positions of power in the traditionally male-dominated political landscape of the province.
The province’s two major cities elected women as mayors—Adrianne Mae Cuevas of Palayan and Myca Vergara of Cabanatuan.
Now occupying seats in the House of Representatives following their 2019 election victories are Estrellita Suansing (first district), Micaela Violago (second district), Rosanna Vergara (third district), and Maricel Natividad-Nagaño (fourth district).
Nine other women are now at the helm of municipal governments as mayors, too—Sylvia Austria (Jaen), Nerivi Martinez (Talavera), Mary Abad (Carranglan), Flor Paguio (Cuyapo), Anita Arocena (General Natividad), Femy Domingo (Licab), Trina Andres (Rizal), Vina Lopez (San Isidro) and Imee de Guzman (Santo Domingo).
Two members of the Sangguniang Panlalawigan, or provincial board, are women—Tess Patiag and Joy Pascual.
The emerging female face of Nueva Ecija’s politics and government is arriving at a time when change is badly needed in the province, not only in the gender of its leaders but also in the substance of its leadership.
In the article “Rich provinces, poor provinces” in the Inquirer in June 2018, former World Bank economist Rolando T. Dy, currently executive director of the Center for Food and Agri Business of the University of Asia and the Pacific, wrote that some provinces’ poverty rates are difficult to explain if viewed alongside their neighbors’.
In Central Luzon, he wrote, “what is baffling is the high poverty of Nueva Ecija (22.6 percent), which borders Pampanga (4.9 percent) and Bulacan (4.5 percent).”
This, despite Nueva Ecija being considered as the Philippines’ rice granary and “a high rice yielder,” Dy wrote.
In a report also in 2018, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism said Nueva Ecija had the “highest magnitude of poor population in Central Luzon with 547,711.”
Magnitude of the poor meant the number of families or the segment of the population that has annual per capita income falling below the poverty threshold. In 2018, according to government data, that threshold was at least P7,000 per month. Families or individuals earning less than that are classified as poor.
According to the Philippine Statistics Authority poverty incidence in Nueva Ecija spiked to 10.3 percent between 2015 and 2018, just a few points lower than the poverty incidence in Central Luzon which was 12.2 percent.
At one point during the same period, poverty incidence in Nueva Ecija surged to 28.2 percent and leveled to 13.3 percent.
Following those periods of high poverty rates, it would have been expected of the provincial government to embark on projects to bring the economy to life and bring down incidence of poverty. But in 2019, a Government Procurement Policy Board list showed that the provincial government proposed to invest heavily on “multipurpose” structures in different villages, a total of 36 in all and costing more than P100 million.
There are no available data to measure the impact of these multipurpose structures on poverty alleviation in the province.
Two years after Dy wrote his piece, Nueva Ecija continued to struggle with poverty among its farmers. Farm incomes fell largely along with the decline in farm gate prices. Soon, farm gate prices of unhusked rice, or palay, plunged to as low as P7 per kilo and would hover to not more than P20 per kilo.
The solution to the paradox of a land abundant in rice harvest but teeming with poor farmers or rice producers had eluded the traditional leadership in the province—male, except for short bursts of female dynasty presence, and rooted in clan relationships.
While there is no empirical proof that women as leaders bring the kind of progress that had eluded their male counterparts, the sheer number of women in positions of power now in Nueva Ecija, unimaginable as recently as 10 years ago, could be a source of encouragement.
In the not-so-distant past, political fortunes in the province had been decided by male protagonists who, like characters in poor Western movies, would resort to a distorted measurement of manhood to settle disputes—through acts of violence that are more akin to hooliganism.
From one dynasty to another, the province saw political faces circling the stage of governance without changing the play. The poor remained so and their numbers either stood still or grew.
But a stream of women stepping on the plate to take the reins of leadership in many Nueva Ecija communities is offering hope for a change that would carry substance, not bravado. Talk in the province is that from this growing army of women in power would emerge the most viable challenge to the current provincial leadership, which had grown old and unreliable in the eyes of many in Nueva Ecija after 15 years.
Tony S. Bergonia is a former reporter and deskman of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
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