NAGA CITY - In August 2 last year, loud voices from two men filled the Naga City Coliseum. They attacked each other with harsh and biting words, surrounded by television cameras and thousands of people cheering for and jeering at each of them.
The two men, both politicians, were debating a proposal to divide Camarines Sur and create a new province that would be called “Nueva Camarines." Their exchange during that Senate hearing was so intense one wouldn’t think Rep. Luis Villafuerte Sr. and Gov. Luis Raymond “Lray” Villafuerte Jr. are father and son.
“This issue cannot be resolved through shouting and intimidation. What the people of Camarines Sur want is love,” said Gov. Villafuerte in a funny but sarcastic tone.
“I haven’t seen you for months, and now you’re talking like a sissy!” Rep. Villafuerte shouted.
The coliseum erupted in cheers and boos.
Five months earlier, at the session hall of the Senate, Gov. Villafuerte and Rep. Villafuerte also faced off on the issue, hurling tirades against each other in front of senators.
|A streamer promoting one side of the divide. Photo by Rem Zamora for ABS-CBNnews.com|
The elder Villafuerte has been pushing for the passage of the measure, arguing that Camarines Sur would reap economic benefits and enjoy better governance if it becomes geographically smaller. Camarines Sur is the Bicol region’s largest province in terms of area and population, and one of the poorest in the country.
According to data from the National Statistical Coordination Board, poverty incidence in the province—which is computed based on household incomes vis-a-vis prices of basic goods—increased from 2003 to 2009. NSCB releases its poverty incidence study every three years.
“Dividing a province will bring local government closer to the people,” Rep. Villafuerte said. “The control is more effective and the resources can be applied more equitably.”
Under the House Bill 4820, Camarines Sur’s 4th district will be separated from the province and be named Nueva Camarines.
More than 300,000 live in the district, which covers the towns of Tigaon, Garchitorena, Goa, Lagonoy, Presentacion, Sangay, San Jose, Siruma, Tinambac, and Caramoan.
Economic decline, gerrymandering
Opponents of the Nueva Camarines bill believe dividing Camarines Sur would result in economic decline. Among the towns that will be included in the proposed new province, for instance, is Caramoan, a pristine island whose growing tourism industry is a source of income for Camarines Sur.
“Studies have shown that larger provinces have a bigger chance of being progressive,” Gov. Villafuerte told ABS-CBN News in an interview, citing Cebu and Pangasinan as examples. “If you’re a bigger province, you’d have more resources for progress.”
Dean Antonio La Viña of the Ateneo School of Government, in an earlier interview, explained that dividing Camarines Sur will do more harm than good.
“You make it poorer. You make it less able to deliver services to everyone,” he said. “And you have two poor provinces instead of one.”
Gov. Villafuerte also believes the proposal is nothing but gerrymandering, the practice of manipulating geographical boundaries for political purposes or to ensure certain groups maintain their hold on power.
Rep. Fuentebella, author of the Nueva Camarines bill, belongs to the 4th district’s most prominent family.
|The other side of the fence. Photo by Rem Zamora for ABS-CBNnews.com|
Billboards and banners from both sides of the debate are all over the province today, and the people themselves are divided on the issue.
Gina Gapuz, a resident of the 4th district, supports the proposal because it would bring essential services closer to them.
“We won’t have to go to Naga City anymore for our medical needs. That’s good for us,” she said.
Billy Pongpong, however, believes it’s not the solution to Camarines Sur’s problems.
“The government should just find a way to improve Camarines Sur instead of splitting it,” he said.
After both houses of Congress approve the measure, the people will have to vote on it in a plebiscite.
The House-approved version of the bill includes both the 4th and 5th districts in the new province, but the 5th district was removed in the version that the Senate local government committee approved.