By Rhona Canoy
SO… We went on a cross-island road trip a few days ago. Every once in a while, these trips remind me of so much that we take for granted. I live on this magnificent island. Mindanao. There is no way to describe it briefly. Heartbreakingly beautiful. Heartbreakingly taken for granted. Heartbreakingly rich in resources. Heartbreakingly poor. Heartbreakingly breathtaking. Heartbreakingly home.
The beauty of it all is overwhelming. So green, yet lacking in lushness. Mountains reaching out to the sky, yet missing its crown of trees. Steep slopes covered in grass and brush. Rivers and streams that meander through the valleys in between. Roads that meander along the mountainsides, making the drive tedious and slow. But that’s what affords you the time to see all the things we normally ignore.
Passing through hectares and hectares of rice fields, one wonders why we have a rice shortage. There is enough flatland and gently sloping terrain ready to nurture the grain. But these abundant fields are mostly owned by the richer few, who own vast tracts of land. The smaller rice farmers make me wonder if they earn enough to make money off the crop, or just enough to sustain their needs. I’m not an agriculturist, but it seems to me we have the capacity to fill Mindanao’s rice needs and still have much left over to trade.
It is harvest time for some crops. Cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, bokchoy, chayote, carrots, lettuce, squash. People working in the fields to reap what was sown. Piles and piles of produce being loaded onto cargo trucks and container vans, headed for places unknown to me. It makes me wonder why our children are malnourished, why our farmers remain poor. There seems to be enough to make sure everyone is fed and earning well. Fruits being sold along the roadsides on rickety wooden stands. Fields and fields of banana plants starting to bear fruit.
And yet, in the midst of all this abundance, you see the hovels that serve as homes for these farmers. You see children of all ages walking along the country roads to schools which are quite some distance away. You hear their chatter, occasional laughter, their smiles as you wave at them. It made me feel guilty that we didn’t have room in the vehicle to offer them a quick ride. It made me feel even guiltier to know that this is their daily reality. So far from what we city dwellers know as ours. And it made me wonder even more what dreams these kids have for themselves, what they believe is a better future.
It makes me sad that these people, young and old alike, who work so hard to provide for our food–these very important people who give us what we need–live in abject poverty. It is so easy for them to be swayed by people who tell them that violence is the only way to improve their situation. Call me naive. Call me delusional. Call me ignorant. But if we took better care of our own, then this political issue and the activism that comes with it would not be an issue at all.
We drove past communities where the rich traders live. Big houses with pick-up trucks in the driveways. Satellite TV dishes on their roofs. Concrete and iron fences securing their properties. The obvious disparity is disturbing. But I had the opportunity to have a lengthy conversation with Davao del Norte Governor newbie Edwin Jubahib, who comes from very humble beginnings. He is passionate about his dreams to improve conditions for farmers, to give them trade leverage, to help them stand up and move forward on their own, rather than to be palm-up dependent on the government. His vision is clear, and powered from the heart. I hope he doesn’t fall to the dark side.
We spent some time in the capital city of Tagum. And we were impressed. The attention and thought that went (and still goes) into the growth of the city and the province gives me hope. There is actually a place in Mindanao where public hospitals have a no-billing policy. People leave the hospital without paying a single centavo. I don’t know how they do it, but they do. Dialysis is free–something to note for those who need it. Support for the province’s agricultural sector is balanced, and available for all.
I’m not saying that Tagum and Davao del Norte is an exception, because there are things that I know nothing about. That’s for sure. But it makes me see our Cagayan de Oro in a different light. We come up so short. And in viewing the bigger picture, to see the possibilities and the shortcomings of Mindanao leads to the need for discussion on how we can make things better.
The poverty alongside the affluence disturbs me. The availability of resources alongside the lack of development disturbs me. The political ambition alongside the lack of attention to what is needed disturbs me. Yes, our road system is vastly improved. Over the last three years, I’ve travelled enough through our island for me to see the progress of roadways. Paved roads where there used to be none. Wider roads where they used to be so narrow. Continuous work on improving road conditions. We have much to be thankful for.
But we have much yet to do. If we don’t improve our agro-economy, farmers will lose their children to the bigger communities and the cities. And only those who have no way out will stay and work the land. Which is shameful because their work is important. To all of us. And because my predilection for any kind of food keeps me interested in the subject, I shall always be concerned for those who work so hard to provide it.
My Mindanao. I love it still. And I always will. Everything and everyone on it is special. Thank you for reminding me.