(originally published in Otober 2004 on www.mindanews.com)
by Jean Claire Dy
Peñaplata, IGACOS— For a first time visitor here it will be surprising to see that there’s hardly a trace of what people typically expect of an urban city: no shopping malls, no movie theaters, no fastfood restaurants. Peñaplata, the heart of the city, boasts of a small “downtown area” located near the wharf. There one can find a Freedom park, a church, a few stalls selling “ukay-ukay,” one or two carinderias, some sari-sari stores and a fishmarket characterized by an antiquated two-storey wooden structure with apparent Spanish influenced architecture.
Yet after one walk around the center of Peñaplata, it does not take long for one to be taken by the island city’s quaint charm. Lying in the heart of the Davao Gulf, this city is an agricultural and coastal paradise and a home to several indigenous tribes. And it only takes one visit to see that it is a community slowly understanding the past and grappling with the demands of the present.
The Island Garden City of Samal (IGACOS) can be considered a “young” city. Perhaps this is why five years after it became a city, people in the island are still struggling with the concept of “cityhood.”
Ask a tricycle driver what an ordinary day in the Island is, he’d grin and with a shrug say “like this” referring to him sitting on a wooden bench eating merienda in a stall along the road. “There are no other recreation in our place aside from karaoke at night, spending leisure afternoons at the freedom park, and gambling,” he adds. And with a slight smirk comments, “ Mao ni city? This is not yet a city.”
Those who were born and raised in this island recall that when the island became a city, people had mixed reactions. Some expected drastic changes like “more jobs, more buildings built around the place” while others were disappointed and wary that the city would go down the drain.
These perceptions are precisely what City Administrator Cleto Gales said the local government hopes to change. “Behavioral changes don’t happen overnight, but they are possible,” he noted, adding that IGACOS is different from other cities in the country because it is “a garden, an island, and a city.” He further revealed that the LGU has many plans for the city and one of this is to make it an “urban center in a rural setting.”
Considered as the first case of municipal amalgamation in the Philippines, IGACOS was officially proclaimed a city in 1998. From then on, it adopted the term “IGACOS,” which comes from the Visayan word “to embrace” to reflect the vision that IGACOS Mayor Rogelio Antalan wants to instill in his constituents.
Gales added that the mayor sees the community as “angels with one wing” and continuously encourages his constituents to work closely with government because “with one wing, we cannot fly but if we embrace together, we can fly high.”
Whether the city has flown high or not, it is still early to tell. But clearly, a lot of changes have happened through the years.
“After the three municipalities were megred into one city,” Gales recalled, “we inherited a city with so many problems from basic infrastructures to lack of LGU resources and outdated development plans.”
To reinvigorate the newly formed city, the new administration under the leadership of Mayor Rogelio Antalan at the time decided to create a new comprehensive development plan directed towards the city’s sustainable urbanization.
Five years later, the city already has new sets of plans for a comprehensive development and land use, a coastal resources and marine water zone plan, an investment and incentives code, to name a few.
Delivery of basic services also improved through the years. “In fact in 2002,” Gales said, “there was 177% increase in the infrastructure projects implemented compared to the previous year.”
For Barangay Tagbitan-ag health worker, Emma Lecarte this improvements matter the most because they are part of the community’s survival. She noted that “finally there is water and electricity supply in their area” unlike before when they practically “lived in darkness” and had to get water from a well. Also, asphalt roads have been built from Tagbitan-ag to the neighboring barangays making travel less cumbersome. Recently, a health center was installed near the barangay hall.
How the LGU’s plans fare in terms of implementation is another matter.
“But there are so many things to be done and government couldn’t address them all,” Gales said. “That is why people’s participation is encouraged.” According to Gales this is where the concept of transparency and accountability in governance comes to the picture.
“Governance is not a one-way street and one approach to changing people’s attitude towards government is to empower them, and make them participate in the process,” he added.
Engineer Jaime Lozada of the newly formed IGACOS City Coalition for Transparent and Accountable Governance (CCTAG) echoes this perception saying that citizens should not be just “watchdogs of government,” rather they should see themselves as stakeholders and partners of government.
Every month, here in the heart of the city, the coalition composed of various sectors meets with officials of the local government units to discuss efforts to advance transparent and accountable governance.
Formed sometime in August last year and described as “a noble project” the City Coalition for Transparent and Accountable Governance (CCTAG) is seen as sign of hope that participatory governance can be a reality in this city.
Lozada, who is also the current president of the IGACOS Chamber of Commerce said the coalition helps ensure that “the business sector is well-represented in the critical functions of government, such as, the bids and awards committee and the local development council (LDC).”
Hur Ridondo of Lawig Foundation and a member of the CCTAG, observed that the coalition also serves as a forum where reforms are discussed.
Ridondo hopes however, that the quality of participation of people’s organizations (POs) to the CCTAG and the LDC would improve in the future. He said the reason why most members of POs often fail to attend meetings is because they live very far from Peñaplata where these meetings are held and trips to this part of the island would cost them a fortune.
“But the LGU has promised to convene POs to discuss this matter,” he said. He added that the LGU has also promised to support coalition activities among POs.
With Mayor Antalan winning another term in the recent May elections, it is expected that his vision for the island city will be carried further in the next four years. In this regard, Gales said, “the presence of leader-champion is also vital to people’s adaptation to changes.”
With the leadership of Antalan and with the people’s active participation in governance, it is possible that the city will become what Gales calls an “urban center in a rural setting.” By then, perhaps its people might soon understand that it is worthy of “cityhood.”