Rural, long-neglected Philippines newly attractive in times of Covid-19

For most of the pandemic, Marlen Zilmar woke up to the sound of roosters. Before the sun reached its fierce peak, she was swinging a makeshift watering can made from a perforated plastic bottle over the garden of her family home, where she had returned after the coronavirus hit Manila.

The scene of okra plants, banana trees and the harvest of the day’s harvest may seem timeless. But Zilmar’s interest in returning to its rural roots is new. Historically, economic opportunities in urban areas have drawn Filipinos from the countryside in greater numbers than cities can. The pandemic has altered this pattern, and its sustainability will depend on the nation’s ability and desire to reinvigorate the economically neglected hinterland.

Since the 1970s, the era of the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship, all Philippine leaders have encouraged rural development, with the aim of alleviating overpopulation in Metro Manila, the dense patchwork of 16 cities that make up the core Philippine city. His son, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., known as Bongbong, who was recently elected the country’s next president, echoed a similar theme in his campaign, invoking his father’s legacy.

Despite many government efforts, the percentage of urban dwellers has generally increased as the nation has grown. Less than a third of the population was urban in 1970; 47% now live in urban areas. Metro Manila had less than 4 million inhabitants in 1970; there are more than 13 million today.

In this populous country where poverty is most intense in rural areas and a more educated workforce than there are jobs, moving to town or abroad to send money to home is often an economic necessity. It is also the sign of a fundamental imbalance: between urban and rural, between qualification and opportunity, between the vision of the political elite and the realities of ordinary people.

Fishermen in the countryside of Leyte, Philippines, more than 500 miles from Manila. (Hannah Reyes Morales/The New York Times)

The disparities have existed for decades, little changed by policy or politics. The trade-offs, however, suddenly looked a little different in the pandemic.

When work dried up amid the lockdowns, for many newcomers the allure of city life also faded. In rural areas where they still had connections, there was at least food, shelter and space for social distancing.

Zilmar, 50, had spent five years in Manila as a maid and cashier at a food court to help pay school fees for five children. When the food court closed at the start of the pandemic, she moved in with her nephew, but couldn’t make ends meet. Her husband was too old to continue fishing and none of her children had a stable job. She began to consider a return to Leyte, more than 800 km from Manila, where her family is from.

His timing was lucky. In March 2020, Manila shut down, closing regional borders and halting public transport between provinces for months. Subsequent closures and strict travel document requirements trapped many more.

Over the decades, the government has devised programs to encourage people, especially informal settlers, to settle in rural areas. Zilmar landed a spot in a pilot phase of the latest version, introduced after COVID-19 took effect and signed into law in May 2020 by President Rodrigo Duterte.

Smokey Mountain, a residential community, with the Metro Manila skyline in the background. (Hannah Reyes Morales/The New York Times)

Participants of the program, titled “Back to the Province, New Hope”, received seed money, livelihood training, resettlement assistance and grants, as well as a one-way bus ticket or by plane as part of the project’s resettlement effort. Zilmar also got seeds; others received a pair of piglets.

The initial resettlement phase of the program was short-lived.

In the first 10 days, 53,000 people applied. But after an initial transport of 112 people to Leyte, the resettlement effort was put on hold indefinitely, with the government explaining it first wanted to focus on Filipinos stranded in Manila during the lockdown – returning foreign workers, tourists, students -. The program received approximately 100,000 applications in total, although some people were not eligible or have since lost interest. Currently, just under 10,000 are on a waiting list, and small groups have been sent periodically over the past two years.

Without government support, families in big cities face the same challenges in rural communities.

Endrita Jabaybay had lived in Tondo, Manila’s largest slum, for 12 years. When her husband’s work as a welder slowed down at the start of the pandemic, they could no longer pay their rent or their electricity bill.

When the Return to Province Facebook page was created, she joined those pleading with program staff to include her, petitioning weekly, to no avail. She still decided to leave town at the end of 2020. She and her husband now grow rice to get by.

In the Philippines, there has long been a disparity between urban and rural areas. In Leyte, where Zilmar returned, agriculture, fishing and construction drive the local economy; the nominal minimum wage is about 60% that of Manila.

Fishermen in the countryside of Leyte, Philippines, more than 500 miles from Manila. (Hannah Reyes Morales/The New York Times)

Dakila Kim Yee, a sociologist at the University of the Philippines Visayas Tacloban College, Leyte, said his university offers a program in computer science, but there are no local jobs for graduates with the degree.

Without better economic prospects in rural communities, Ladylyn Mangada, a political scientist at the University of the Philippines Tacloban, said the program was not sustainable, given that it relied on small cash payments or one-time allowances.

“How are you going to feed the piglet? she said, referring to the promise of free cattle. “How are you going to feed yourself?”

Beyond the resettlement effort, the creators of Return to the Province have outlined an ambitious development vision: new water supply facilities and expanded ports, high-speed internet and modern agricultural technologies, modernized health centers and new lending opportunities, new economic zones and the “decentralization of powers and seats of governance.

National and local governments would share the costs for the first two years, after which the program would depend on local funds.

Despite previous failures, planners are hopeful. The program has short, medium and long-term plans aimed at ensuring “balanced regional development” and the “equitable distribution of wealth, resources and opportunities”, Kimberly Tiburcio, who is involved in the program as part of the National Housing Authority. , said this month.

Candidates in recent elections, as usual, have made rural development and Manila’s decentralization the main topics of discussion.

“Our infrastructure should boost rural development because right now development is so concentrated in Metro Manila,” Vice President Leni Robredo said in October, the month candidates filed for president. She came second in the presidential contest.

Marcos, the winning candidate, bragged on his website about prioritizing agriculture for economic development, inspired by his father’s legacy. (Although he did not discuss the future of the current program, the return policy to the province was first introduced under the former Marcos’ kleptocratic dictatorship, which ended in 1986.)

The Zilmars, among some 730 people to have secured a place in the program so far, have loved their transition to rural life.

Resty Zilmar, Marlen’s youngest son, 24, was climbing a tree to chop down a coconut as a snack. To get firewood for the kitchen, he cut branches. Yes, their roof was leaking, but there was no rent, no crowds, no pollution, no gas bill, no water bill.

But jobs were hard to come by, and at the end of last year he and his mother returned to city life. He works as a pharmacy assistant in the town of Tacloban, about an hour from his provincial home, although he has not given up on life in the countryside. Within a decade, he wants to return and open his own pharmacy, filling a gap in his village’s access to medicine, he said.

Until then, he looks back on when his family relied on traditional activities to pass the time at the start of the pandemic. During a full moon, the electricity went out, a common occurrence in the provinces, so the Zilmar gathered in bamboo chairs outside and sang while strumming guitars under the moonlit banana trees.

About Andrew Estofan

Check Also

Protests force Eskom in South Africa to extend power cuts

June 24 (Reuters) – South Africa’s state-owned electricity company Eskom said it would be forced …