‘A poor man sitting on a pot of gold’By Jonas Soltes
Inquirer Southern Luzon
CAMARINES NORTE, Bicol – THERE IS no doubt that Camarines Norte province is poor. Why this is so is a sore point to local officials who lament that the province—the other half of the affluent Camarines Sur—has been cut off from its wealthy neighbors, literally placing it so near yet so far to progress.
The National Statistical Coordination Board, using 2009 data, estimates the poverty incidence in Camarines Norte at 32 percent. This means that three in every 10 families in the province live below the poverty line.
Camarines Norte has a population of 513,785 and an annual income, mainly from internal revenue allotment, of P220 million to P350 million.
On the other hand, the Department of Social Welfare and Development lists at least 23,000 poor families in the northernmost province in Bicol.
One of the reasons cited for the slow march to progress is its having been cut off from the roadway to Manila upon the completion of the Quirino-Andaya Highway, which virtually bypasses the entire province.
Full rehabilitation of the highway was completed in 2007. The road traverses the towns of Quezon province and leads directly to Camarines Sur though a very short segment passes by Barangay Tabugon in Santa Elena, Camarines Norte.
The road reduces travel time to Manila by three hours.
“Most of the buses, trucks and trailers that once passed by Camarines Norte were gone when the [Quirino-Andaya] Highway started operating,” San Vicente Mayor Joseph Stanley Alegre says.
The circumvention had affected trade and industry in the province. “The influx of money brought by motorists and passengers were sharply reduced. Spending and circulation of money in the province declined,” Alegre says.
The first to be affected by the bypass were the eateries that once lined the highway in numbers, according to Richard Talento, sociology and political science professor at Camarines Norte State College.
It did not take long before it took its toll on the suppliers of the eateries. “With no restaurants to sell their products, meat, seafood and vegetable suppliers also experienced business slowdown,” Talento says.
Transportation routes are structural veins of the economy. “So when the volume of traffic declines, commercial activities along the road are harshly affected,” he says.
It would be hard for business to boom because it is off the road, Talento says. “Investors would have to make extra efforts to be here.”
Alegre, whose town is among the poorest and least populous in the province, also laments the “little support” from the national government.
“For instance, we have been asking for only P40 million to rehabilitate our access road and develop our tourist destinations, but we get nothing,” he says. The 7-kilometer road that connects San Vicente to the capital town of Daet is broken by potholes, dusty in summer and muddy during rainy days.
“We get little attention. Perhaps, it’s because our town lies on a dead end and we have a very small voting population. Elected leaders would have nothing to lose in the next election even if they didn’t give attention to our town,” Alegre says.
He says efforts to alleviate the situation suffer setbacks because of shortage of funds.
Even the mining industry does little to uplift the economy despite the fact that Camarines Norte has one of the richest deposits of minerals, including gold, in the Philippines.
“Camarines Norte is a poor man sitting on a pot of gold,” says Talento, who is also a native of Capalonga, one of the northern and Tagalog-speaking towns of the province.
Record from the Bicol Regional Development Council (BRDC) website shows only one mining operation in the province, the Paracale People’s Small-Scale Mining Area in Paracale town.
Small-scale mining operations provide more revenue to the local government, Talento says, but these are “not sustainable.”
“Worse, it opens the door for child labor.” he says.
According to the BRDC website, Bicol has 10 metallic resources that are commercially available—gold, silver, copper, iron, lead, zinc, chromite, manganese, pyrite and magnetite sand. Gold can be found in Albay, Camarines Norte and Masbate.
Gold, silver and copper reserves are estimated at 34 million metric tons, with more than half of these reserves found in Camarines Norte, according to the council.
Iron, zinc and lead reserves are mostly found in Camarines Norte. Iron reserves in Camarines Norte, Camarines Sur, Albay, Sorsogon and Catanduanes are estimated at 18 million MT.
Many other factors pull down Camarines Norte, Talento says.
“There’s a problem with the value system of the people. For instance, many residents have engaged themselves in gambling, both illegal and legal. They take big risks despite very small chances of getting something in return.”
“Instead of investing in worthwhile activities, they rely on games of chance,” he says.
Camarines Norte has been a casualty of too much centralization of the government, he adds. “We get little support from the central government because it is not sensitive to the needs of the locality.”
Talento says one thing that could boost the economy of the province is the construction of a road that connects the coastal towns of Santa Elena, Capalonga, Jose Panganiban, Paracale, Vinzons, Talisay, Daet and Mercedes.
“The national highway passes by a few towns only, so virtually, Camarines Norte had been ‘bypassed’ even before the construction of the [Quirino-Andaya] Highway.”
A coastal road, Talento believes, would spur economic development in the seaboard. “Trade and industry in the coastal towns have been hampered by lack of good road network.”
The provincial government is laying its cards on two things for prosperity. First is tourism.
Gov. Edgardo Tallado says the provincial government plans to put up a structure in Barangay Tabugon in Santa Elena town that will serve as show window for all “that is good and beautiful” in Camarines Norte, hoping it would attract tourists on their way to Bicol from Manila.
“We will have stalls for our native products and galleries for photographs of our tourist destinations there,” Tallado says.
He says the provincial government will also step up the promotion of the white sand beaches of Calagua Islands. “We will also market Bagasbas Beach as a haven for surfers and kite boarders.”
This summer alone, a number of tourists had flocked to Calagua Islands, which is part of Vinzons town. “As much as 300 tourists per day visited the islands last summer. It is promising,” the governor says.
Tallado says the increased tourist arrivals prompted the provincial government to explore ways to upgrade the Bagasbas Airport in Daet, a secondary facility that has no commercial activity at present.
The plight of agricultural workers should also be looked into, Tallado says. “As an agricultural province, Camarines Norte will recover if the agricultural sector is taken care of. We need to extend additional subsidies to farmers such as fertilizers and seedlings.”
But the most important thing is good governance, he says. “Through the years, our province has fallen victim to corruption in the government. We should change that.”