ON MAY 10, THE Cerilles family of the predominantly agricultural Zamboanga del Sur seeks to further entrench a four-decade political dynasty, which derives strength from the growth of cassava throughout the province.
Outgoing Gov. Aurora Cerilles and her husband, Antonio, a two-term congressman of the second district, intend to swap posts to maintain their hold on power and skirt the three-term limit rule.
The couple faces no formidable opponent and the coming elections would just be a reaffirmation of their hold on power and the results a barometer of how they are able to maintain it.
In the 2007 elections, they solidified their grip on power. Apart from securing reelection, they had their only child, Ace William, elected as mayor of Dumalinao town defeating a veteran politician. He now seeks reelection unopposed, along with three other mayoral candidates allied with the family.
Also in 2007, the Cerilleses clinched victory for their allies in 24 of 27 mayoral races. Of the 284 local elective seats, only about 20 went to the opposition.
After severing a 2004 political truce with Rep. Isidoro Real Jr. of the first district, the Cerilleses engineered the victory of his opponent, businessman Victor Yu, whose current reelection bid is smooth sailing.
The dynasty started with Vicente Cerilles, a lawyer, who came to power in 1963 as vice governor, then governor in 1967. He gave up the governorship in 1969 when he won a congressional seat, but his term was cut short by martial law in 1972 when President Ferdinand Marcos closed the legislature.
Vicente returned to political office in 1977, this time, as a member of Marcos? Kilusang Bagong Lipunan, as appointed governor until 1984 when he became Batasang Pambansa assemblyman. When the parliament was dissolved after the 1986 Edsa Revolt, he retired from politics.
Although his family was identified with the Marcoses, Vicente?s son, Antonio, won as congressman of the second district in 1987 and was reelected twice. His wife took over in 1998.
Aurora, a banker, is scion of a political couple. Her father, Canuto Enerio, was congressman in 1957, while her mother, Vicenta, was vice governor from 1969 to 1977.
Antonio, a stalwart of the Nationalist People?s Coalition, played a significant role in the Mindanao campaign of Joseph Estrada during the 1998 presidential race, earning him the post of secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. It is considered one of the most powerful offices in government as it oversees millions of hectares of public land throughout the country.
Antonio became a controversial public figure because of a ?midnight issuance? of an Environmental Compliance Certificate covering his family?s rubber processing plant that sits within a 200-hectare rubber plantation in Lakewood town that it also owns.
After Estrada was deposed, Aurora ran for governor while Antonio sought to regain his old congressional post in 2001. Aurora won, but her husband lost to Filomena San Juan.
Cast in cassava
Following the defeat, the Cerilles couple built their political strength in 2001 by popularizing cassava farming. As governor, Aurora made cassava farming a major strategy of the provincial government?s poverty alleviation program.
The program was anchored on the voracious demand for cassava chips as raw material for producing alcohol and feedstock of the diversifying food giant San Miguel Corp. (SMC), the flagship business of tycoon Eduardo ?Danding? Cojuangco, who is also Antonio?s political boss.
The provincial government provided field technicians to teach farmers the rudiments of cassava cultivation and assisted in establishing the Malindang Planters Multi-Purpose Cooperative in the first district and the Baganian Planters Multi-Purpose Cooperative in the second district to take care of production financing.
These also provide cassava planters with links to markets at farm-gate levels.
Aurora entered into a supply agreement with SMC. A post in the provincial government website said that among others, the agreement bound SMC to buy cassava chips with a floor price of P2.50 per kg.
Between 2001 and 2004, the number of planter-cooperators, especially in the second district, became the principal gauge of the Cerilles political strength. This competed fiercely in terms of number of cooperators with the seaweed production program of San Juan.
That time, the extent of production and sale of cassava chips and seaweeds was synonymous with the potential votes for either Antonio or San Juan.
By 2004, the cassava program?s initial three-year gains brought Antonio back to his congressional seat, and had Aurora retain the governorship. It was the first time that the couple ran together and managed to win seats in the same election.
Dividends of loyalty
The Cerilles couple stood by President Macapagal-Arroyo despite her record low trust ratings. They used this relationship as leverage to funnel in more funds for infrastructure projects, especially roads and bridges, on top of those from bilateral and multilateral development aid agencies.
Improved roads brought down the cost of transport of people by 20 percent and of cargo by 25 percent between 2001 and 2009, official figures showed.
The couple also got the nod to establish extension campuses in 22 towns of the state-owned Josefina H. Cerilles Memorial State College?its creation was sponsored by Antonio in a bill in 1995. Hence, they were able to cultivate political capital out of ensuring closer physical access by the rural folk to a facility for higher education.
With co-financing from congressional pork barrel, Aurora embarked on loyalty-enhancing health insurance coverage for indigents, reaching 76 percent in 2009 from just 29 percent in 2005. This partly explains the jump in per-capita social services expenditure from P141 in 2001 to P337 in 2008.
Based on official figures, poverty incidence in the province of over 920,000 people went down from 34.4 percent in 2003 to 29 percent in 2009.
From 2007 to 2009, Zamboanga del Sur produced 13,691 metric tons of cassava or an annual average of some 4,500 MT. As of 2009, cassava was planted in close to 27,000 hectares of land by some 74,000 farmers.
Several years back, Antonio led a mission in Thailand to learn new techniques in planting cassava that ensures higher yield. The provincial government now promotes a new method that increases yield from 5-7 kg to 12-15 kg per tuber.
Dumingag Mayor Nacianceno Pacalioga, a sustainable agriculture advocate, even developed a method of intercropping organically grown cassava and corn, which increases its adoptability with farmers.