MASBATE, Philippines - Hoping for an abundant catch, fishermen at a coastal village in the town of Placer in Masbate set out to sea even before the sun rises. They leave their families for an entire day, and return as night already sets in.
It is tiring, says Robert Atendido, a man in his late 20s who has been fishing since he was below 10 years old.
“It’s still dark when we leave our houses, and it’s dark again when we return,” he says.
|A busy commercial center in Masbate island. Photo by Rem Zamora for ABS-CBNnews.com|
Because Robert doesn’t own his boat, he gets less than half of the earnings from his catch. But it’s the only way he knows to raise his three children, and he’s working hard so they would not have to be like him when they grow up. He hopes for a better life for his family even if his own has hardly changed through the years.
His is a story shared by fishermen and other ordinary folk who continue to live below the poverty line despite being in a province that’s rich in marine life and other resources.
Rich but poor
It’s one of the biggest ironies in Masbate: Despite its natural riches, its economy has not taken off, with many people like Robert still struggling to get by every day.
Data from the National Statistical Coordination Board show that in 2009, 42.5 percent of the people were poor or whose income, if any, was not enough for them to meet their basic needs. The poverty rate has decreased from over 50 percent in 2003, but the province remains one of the poorest in the Philippines.
This is the situation in a province that geologists described as sitting on a “pot of gold” because of its mineral resources, a place dotted by scenic pasture lands, beautiful beaches, and rich fishing grounds.
The culprit, experts say, is the province’s politics—and the violence that always comes with it.
“Political leaders in Masbate use their political capital for violence rather than developing the area. Politics in the province is commonly used for political gain rather than the good of the people,” says Professor Prospero de Vera of the National College of Public Administration and Governance at the University of the Philippines.
Authorities have often declared Masbate an election hotspot, or a place where tense political rivalries have led to violence.
The province is included in this year’s election watch list. Months before the 2013 elections, several incidents seemed to validate it.
|Security check points dot the violence-plagued island. Photo by Rem Zamora for ABS-CBNnews.com|
In December 2012, a barangay captain who’s running for councilor in Aroroy town was shot to death in front of his house by a gunman at close range.
Three months later, two local officials were killed in separate incidents within 24 hours. On March 2 this year, Isagani Lupango, a candidate for vice mayor in Mobo town, was shot and died the next day. Hours after his death, a barangay councilor in Balud was gunned down, andtwo of his companions were injured.
“One has to be brave, always on the lookout for an enemy lurking around the corner,” says Rosario Romblon, a local historian.
Incidents like this happen even if the Masbate police has confiscated hundreds of firearms,and arrested a leader of a private armed group this year.
Senior Supt. Heriberto Olitoquit says two private armed groups with around 40 members are currently active. The police are on alert should more groups emerge in the run-up to the elections, he adds.
He refuses to name specific politicians who have private armies, saying the police is still conducting investigations.
Violence has been a perennial problem in Masbate that when the elections draw near, people begin to be fearful and cautious.
On the first day of the Kampanyaserye team in Masbate, our guide asked us to wear a bullet-proof vest. Better safe than sorry, he says.
For some, however, the elections are an opportunity to earn a living—by selling their votes.
One Masbateño, who refused to be named because he fears for his life, says almost everyone sells his or her vote. Residents of the province who work in other places like Manila even make it a point to go home for the elections to make sure they will receive money from vote-buying politicians.
“The problem is, when we soon demand better services from them, the politicians shrug off our pleas. They say that after all, we have been paid,” he says.
Will the coming elections bring change to a place that has seen little of it for a long time?
Three candidates are vying for the highest position in the province in the 2013 elections.
Incumbent Governor Rizalina Seachon-Lanete is running against Rep. Antonio Kho, a former governor of the province and whom she accuses of ordering the killing of her brother.
A newcomer in politics, Fr. Leo Casas, joins the race for the gubernatorial seat. Unlike Lanete and Kho, he has not held government positions.
With two months to go before the polls, many are watching closely if any of these candidates can address the twin problems of poverty and violence that have always hounded Masbate, or if history will just keep repeating itself.
(To be continued)