Many of the 62 passengers who perished in the sinking of MB Kim Nirvana-B last July 2 knew one another. They were neighbors and townmates in Pilar on Ponson Island, which, along with Poro, San Francisco and Tudela, make up the Camotes Group of Islands lying east of the Cebu mainland.
The town of Pilar has a population of only 11,564, according to the 2010 census, so it was a devastating loss to the community when so many of its residents died in one blow—victims of the only mode of transport they had that could ferry them from their remote island-home to Ormoc City in Leyte, an hour away, to buy their household goods and basic provisions.
It’s no longer a surprise to know that the wooden motorboat MB Kim Nirvana was overloaded with passengers and supplies when it set sail in the teeth of gale-force winds and rough seas, which eventually capsized it, killing scores of its passengers. That has been the unchanging story of every sea tragedy in these parts, the result of a criminally neglected maritime industry where unscrupulous boat and ship companies routinely pack their vessels to the gills in violation of the rules, with the Coast Guard wont to look away and passengers forced to bite the bullet in the absence of safer alternatives.
That has been the way of life for generations of Pilar folk, as narrated in Inquirer correspondent Jhunnex Napallacan’s poignant report in this paper last July 18. He wrote: “It takes just an hour by motorized boat to travel to Pilar from Ormoc and two hours from Danao City in Cebu. Unfortunately, only wooden outriggers can dock on the island because of its shallow waters and small, underdeveloped port, said Jason Roa, a councilor of Barangay Upper Poblacion.”
The reason for the underdeveloped port is not any special difficulty in the terrain or geography of the place, but simply government neglect. The town is small, far from the mainland, and presumably insignificant to the political wheeler-dealers in the nearby bigger islands to be given priority. “Government projects don’t reach us here. If there are projects intended for our town, these take a long time to get implemented because of the distance,” Roa was quoted as saying.
The result of that neglect and indifference is an island that has literally been left behind. Antonio Borinaga, a resident who left his hometown in the 1970s at 18 to try to find work in Cebu, laments that, four decades later, nothing much has changed in Pilar. There is still no hospital, only a clinic, and so residents with serious illnesses have to be transported to Ormoc. There are no gas stations, banks, or a college-level school. Residents stock up on fuel by buying from vendors that sell bottled gasoline. “Pilar has a public market but with only one vendor who sells ready-to-wear clothes, perfumes, shoes and bags. Fish and vegetable vendors prefer to hawk their produce around the neighborhood,” according to the report.
As for electricity, the town only has it from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. The island is prone to being cut off from the world during typhoons, when the sea around it becomes dangerous to cross. “During a dry spell, we had only yams to eat,” recalled Borinaga. “But during typhoons, we had nothing to eat because we could not fish and we could not go to Ormoc to buy our supplies because pump boats were not allowed to sail.” And so Borinaga’s family, perhaps like their other neighbors, would end up occasionally begging for food from other residents.
The fruits of modernity and progress that have made places such as Cebu and Iloilo, and Leyte before Supertyphoon “Yolanda,” gleaming showcases in the region have so far skirted Pilar and the rest of the Camotes Islands. City dwellers may think living in a remote island free of the hurly-burly of urban life, devoid of the gadgetry and the encumbrances that are the inevitable part of modern existence, is both romantic and desirable. Pilar on Ponson Island offers another side to that myth: a town unable to escape poverty and smallness, its residents forced to live according to their difficult circumstances, or, like Borinaga, to leave their kinfolk behind and seek their fortunes elsewhere.
The deaths of so many of its residents by boat—the only regular connection they have with the outside world, and the lifeblood of their meager economy and existence—is not only a reminder of the cost of government apathy in upgrading and regulating maritime services across the archipelago. It’s also an indictment of the hollowness of the country’s so-called economic progress.
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