I think that I do not have to add more ideas and comments regarding the Wuhan coronavirus COVID 19. It is not that I do not and cannot, but It is because I would like to focus on other priorities as well. Still, it is difficult to completely escape the subject matter just as it would hard to imagine there is no war when, in fact, there is.
Together with co-workers in Gawad Kalinga (GK), I had the privilege of making a 3-day trip to Sulu. It had been 9 years since my last visit there as other priorities kept blocking my mental view of the work we had started in 2008. I was also assuaged of the sustainability of the GK communities in Sulu because local workers and LGU partners kept helping out. However, this time, the GK leadership felt it was time to expand the work beyond its traditional format of building houses and the communities living in them.
And the leaders were not wrong. Our first stop was in the municipality of Omar in the 2nd district of the province. We were working on a lead about the new mayor there and his determination to transform the economic activity in his town by being pro-active with agricultural initiatives and enterprises. That may seem simple for many but that is an ambitious vision for small farmers in Sulu. Yet, this is one ambitious vision that looks so much as truly doable.
The main reason is the mayor himself, Abdulbaki Ajibon, a native of the town who had gone to Basilan for many years to build his family and his business. With enough experience, including a stint as barangay chairman and vice-mayor of Basilan, he decided to return to his birthplace and take on the responsibility of opening paths of opportunity for Omar’s small farmers. Traditionally, Omar always had rich fishing grounds and is the main source of lobsters – both wild and cultured. That means that the many families by the shoreline engaged in catching and raising lobsters have had good income unlike most of their Sulu province mates. Then, the same coastal communities have also been engaged in seaweed production.
The mayor was more concerned about the upland farmers. They had traditional crops like abaca and coffee trees, but these were still grown mostly by just nature itself rather than aided by technology. In other words, the farmers could not earn a decent and dependable income. He studies with some of his farmers how cacao trees were planted and cared for, visiting areas already successfully growing cacao and marketing chocolate. He is confident that his area is perfect for cacao, too.
Knowing how politics had too often hampered sustainable programs in Sulu, Mayor Ajibon set out to prove his governance would be anchored on partisanship. He must have been credible because hundreds of farmers agreed to join his dream of agri-enterprises owned by the farmers of the farmers themselves. Technology-wise, however, he is way ahead and eager to learn more because he has mobility and a sizeable network. He also invited GK to help in the effort since he learned that GK was already experimenting with agribusiness.
While there, we were introduced to a farmer planting coffee and developing his own coffee brand. Three brothers with 5 hectares each run by the one brother we met have been recognized and assisted by the Dept. of Trade and Industry. Recently, his coffee blend has been judged the best in Sulu and the second-best in the whole Philippines. His income is growing steadily, and he sees his children can all go to college. In alliance with the mayor, the coffee farmer is determined to teach others how to care for coffee and share the know-how of the business, too. Again, this seems usual to many but a miracle in Sulu.
We visited barangays in Patikul, Sulu, whose residents have been evacuees although their farms are nearby. Three years ago, the Abu Sayyaf terrorists attacked the barangay and the military in the area to send the message to the communities not to cooperate with government. The residents had to abandon their homes and their children abandoned their school, too. Recently, the LGU and the military have cleared the area of hostile forces and encouraging everyone to return. GK wants to help rehabilitate the bullet-ridden classrooms so the children can go back to school after this summer.
Lastly, we were able to meet with a few young adults, fresh college graduates who are making it their mission to forego opportunities outside Sulu in order to share their talents and dreams for a very different Sulu in their lifetime. Some were more aggressive than others but all shared a common angst, a common dream. We encouraged them to pursue their dreams and promised them that GK would help and learn from them as well. After all, GK has many villages with Muslim residents, some deep in once very conflicted areas. We have their children dreaming of a different future, one full of hope, and we are affirmed that our work will not go to waste even beyond our time.
Sadly, though, as we moved from place to place to seek ways how we can help provide opportunities, the Wuhan coronavirus COVID-19 never allowed us to forget that we were inside another kind of war. In the evenings when cellular signals were available in the places we chose to stay overnight, our families and co-workers around the Philippines were updating us about the spread of the virus – plus the faster spread of the fear in people. The highs we experienced during the day were offset by the depressive news in the nighttime.
I can only surmise that the best and the worst is yet to come. That is the consequence of radical disruption, that it shakes what is and may even dismantle all sorts of status quos. But that nature of the beast we call change.