MANILA, Philippines?As a young girl growing up in the coastal town of Las Piñas, Rep. Cynthia Villar was used to seeing groups of men clad in camisa de chinos harvesting salt from irasan or salt beds near the riverbanks.
Because salt was only produced during summer, several hectares of salt bed farms would be converted to fish ponds at the onset of the rainy season, providing residents with a steady supply of fresh fish and seafood.
And at Christmas time, colorful lanterns of different types and sizes?made by residents and sold to passersby?festooned the streets of Las Piñas which, at that time, was still a municipality.
?Our town was even featured on the front page of the old Manila Times magazine. Our town?s picture on the magazine was so beautiful that it made me really proud,? the 58-year-old lawmaker recalled.
But the rustic landscape of the old town quickly vanished due to urbanization and the rapid economic development brought about by the construction of the Manila-Cavite Tollway (now called the Coastal Road) in the 1970s.
The once busy irasan of Las Piñas were turned into subdivisions and commercial establishments.
The lantern makers, on other hand, were forced to find other sources of livelihood as they started losing to competitors from Pampanga province.
As the years went by, the rural scene that had endeared the town to Villar and other residents became just a distant memory.
In a bid to save Las Piñas? cultural heritage, she embarked on a mission to restore the age-old industries when she ran for and won a seat in the House of Representatives in 2001.
?One of the first things I thought of then was to revive the salt-making industry and then help the parol makers. These [aside from the world-famous Bamboo Organ], set us apart from other places,? Villar told the Philippine Daily Inquirer, adding:
?As you grow old, you start recalling your childhood memories and look for the old ways of your town. How can you be proud of your future and be nationalistic if you forget your old ways, old culture and old traditions??
With the assistance of other government agencies, Las Piñas residents once again saw how salt was produced with the establishment of a 3,000-sq m salt bed in Barangay Pulang Lupa on Dec. 13, 2005.
?It was a joyous time for it felt like welcoming back the return of a precious thing which we thought we had lost forever,? Villar said.
Lantern makers were also given a new lease on their creative craftsmanship with the introduction of better designs and skills.
The dying fishing industry in the city also received a boost when, with the congresswoman?s help, a 300-sq m fish port was built to help hundreds of fishermen minimize the cost of selling their catch.
This was after Villar observed that the dredging along Coastal Road had barred even small fishing boats from going out to Manila Bay.
According to the congresswoman, the revival of the irasan and lantern-making industries actually happened serendipitously.
For instance, she accidentally bumped into experts on salt-farming when she spoke at a forum in Pangasinan State University.
Before that, the lawmaker sought the assistance of the Department of Agriculture in rebuilding salt farms but her request was turned down as the agency said it did not have the technology needed for the job.
And when she looked for funding for the construction of the fish port, then Agriculture Secretary Leony Montemayor immediately offered her his assistance.
Montemayor, she said, happened to be a former colleague of her husband, Sen. Manuel Villar.
The congresswoman went on to say that a series of ?fortuitous? events also led to the introduction of other livelihood programs for residents.
During her many sorties to underprivileged villages in Las Piñas, Villar noticed groups of women patiently weaving cloth strips into rags.
?If we were to offer our town as a tourist destination, we should be doing more than rags,? she recalled thinking at that time.
She then came up with the idea of making handwoven blankets after noticing that her senator-husband used to buy China-made mats from Divisoria in Manila which he distributed to typhoon victims.
A visit to the shop of a fellow Zonta Club member further reinforced her idea. She later purchased old handlooms from Lacub, Abra, which she distributed to some of the women.
On the other hand, a parent who attended her ?Sagip Ilog? project in 2002 inspired her to pursue a project teaching residents to make baskets, slippers and bags from water lilies which were clogging rivers in the city, leading to floods.
Right now, these new ventures provide a steady source of income for at least 150 families who sell their products to companies owned by Senator Villar.
Despite her impending departure from politics (she is on her third and last term), Villar said she would continue to promote handicrafts making and protect the historical heritage of Las Piñas.
?My journey is not likely to end anytime soon,? she said, ?because the arts and crafts industry is something dear to my heart.?
With the help of her friends, Villar shared her exploits?and triumphs?in bringing to life the cottage industries that had supported Las Piñeros since the Spanish period in a book she launched last December.
?This book is my attempt to chronicle my journey of trying to go back in time, trying to revive traditions ? More importantly, the tale is about crafting opportunities and helping people make a living,? she wrote.
Aptly titled ?My journey in the Las Piñas Arts and Crafts Industry,? the 58-page book showcases the different livelihood projects and ?best practices that people can learn from.?
?I hope we can inspire (other local governments) to look for ways in creating livelihood opportunities for their people,? Villar said.