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Getting along in Iloilo

“YOU KNOW what our secret is?” asks Senate President Franklin Drilon in the course of a press conference on developments in Iloilo (the province and the city) last week. “Our secret is that we all get along.”

No, he doesn’t mean that Ilonggos (native speakers of Hiligaynon, shortcut for people from Iloilo) sit around a fire holding hands and singing Boy Scout songs. What he means is that even before the 2010 elections, officials and politicians, including business folk and people from the academe, the church and civil society, had reached some sort of arrangement or agreement to work together to achieve progress for Iloilo.

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Iloilo City Mayor Jed Patrick Mabilog has an even more succinct explanation for how Iloilo has moved so far forward in just a few years: political will.

While consensus was building in the last decade or so, says Drilon, who is from Iloilo and keeps a sharp eye (and regular presence) in the province, the last two elections proved incredibly “unifying” for the political leadership. In 2010, not only did President Aquino prevail in the presidential election, almost the entire senatorial slate of the ruling coalition made it, with the sole exception of Sen. Nancy Binay who ended up in 12th place in Iloilo. Almost all local officials belong to the President’s Liberal Party, and the few outside the ambit of the LP, says Drilon, “have decided to cooperate with us.”

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Maybe the unusual political unanimity in Iloilo explains the bracing air of progress one gets a whiff of even just upon landing at the Iloilo airport. Once the subject of controversy, the Iloilo airport serves the entire Western Visayas region and hosts flights to and from foreign destinations. At the same time, together with the Iloilo City Port, it’s the gateway to a region and province that boasts rich agricultural produce (especially scrumptious fish and other seafood, vegetables—some of which are not found in Luzon—fruits and rice).

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AMONG the many notable infrastructure projects being undertaken is the Esplanade, a walkway and landscaped park that is actually built atop a flood protection dike undertaken by then Mayor (now congressman) Jerry Treñas. The Esplanade winds its way down both banks of the Iloilo River, providing space for ordinary folk to jog and exercise on mornings, and indulge in more romantic pursuits when the sun goes down. It is currently being expanded to cover more areas of the riverbank.

“This just shows you that when you use the environment as a peg, there are many things you can do,” declares Drilon. Cleaning up the Iloilo River and clearing the banks of illegal settlers and illegal structures (like a beer garden owned by a councilor and a ship-break facility that had been polluting the river for decades) helped greatly in restoring the river to the waterway that, Drilon recalls, he used to swim in as a child. But Mayor Mabilog notes wryly that “while the senator does what needs to be done, I’m the one who has to face complainants in court.”

The informal settlers on the riverbanks were relocated to a low-cost housing settlement in Lanit on the basis of “usufruct” agreements between them and the city government. The project is being managed by Gawad Kalinga.

Long-term environmental protection and preservation is assured by the maintenance of mangroves lining the river and estuary, although mangroves specialist Dr. Jurgene Primavera stresses the need to better inform the public and well-meaning but deluded officials on the “best practices” of creating and reviving mangrove forests.

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THE positive development and business environment in Iloilo weren’t overlooked by the business sector. From all directions, there are signs of boom times in Iloilo, such as malls and buildings built by Manila-based conglomerates.

But there are developments that promise a more permanent, long-term presence. Megaworld is in the process of building a township called the Iloilo Business Park located on the site of the old Iloilo Airport. The P35-billion project boasts condominium buildings, hotels, office towers and a huge mall. But its centerpiece is the Iloilo Convention Center. Drilon says the idea for the center arose out of the need to turn Iloilo into an important tourist and business destination, with Megaworld donating the land and the government underwriting the costs.

Not to be outdone, Ayala Land is developing the Atria Park District, integrating a residential development, shopping sites, a techno-hub, the Seda hotel, as well as Ateneo de Iloilo. We visited QualiMed Hospital that offers high-quality medical and health services in a unique arrangement, with group practices focusing on women’s and children’s health.

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HELPING in the planning of socioeconomic projects and in attracting investors to the city and province is the Iloilo Economic Foundation Inc. (ILED), chaired by businessman Dr. Alfonso Uy, with former tourism secretary Narz Lim as president. Among the ILED’s priorities is the Jalaur River Multi-purpose Project which, when completed in 2018, will provide Iloilo with enough water for irrigation, potable water supply and renewable power. Another project is the establishment of a coal-fired (“of the modern type,” insists Lim) power plant which has brought “stable and cheaper” power to Iloilo since it began operations in 2010.

Indeed, it’s the seemingly seamless cycle of cooperation and action between and among the local and national governments, the business community, academe and NGOs that most impressed our group of media people visiting Iloilo, where the past has not been forgotten even as it sets its sights on a glorious future.

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