Desperate to survive, Surigao folk ready to trade votes for aid
(Last of two parts)
TAGANAAN, SURIGAO DEL NORTE—Candelario Agan, 60, a village watchman in Barangay Union here, did not mince words when asked how his vote on May 9 is shaping up. He said he had decided to trade his sacred choice in the ballot to the whims of anyone who could alleviate his family’s misery.
“We will always be indebted to whoever will help us rebuild our home. Whoever comes first to help us, we will vote for this person. I don’t see it as vote-buying but the act of kindhearted people helping poor people like us,” Agan said.
His wife, Gloria, fully agreed with her husband’s decision, which was borne out of their desperation.
Among the few still staying in the barangay evacuation center, the Agan family lost their home to the fury of Typhoon “Odette” (international name: Rai) on Dec. 16 last year.
Although they received some materials that can be used to begin rebuilding their house, they could not do so as the owner of the land did not allow them to start construction. Hence, they have been making do with tarpaulin sheets as their makeshift shelter for close to five months now.
The slow pace of rebuilding in typhoon-stricken areas, especially of the livelihood and income sources of displaced residents, are making them vulnerable to being manipulated through aid, making them easy targets of politicians vying for public office this Monday.
According to Union village chief Felix Servasquez, villagers are still dependent on aid due to limited means to earn cash, which they need for daily subsistence and for rebuilding their homes.
Odette felled almost all coconut trees in the village, hence farmworkers are left without work.
In coastal Ipil village in Surigao City, Martha Gasta, 55, expressed desperation over delays in the rebuilding efforts.
“We have been waiting for help, all we got were two pieces of tarp and five pieces of roofing material. These are not enough to make our homes at least safe from rain and another storm,” Gasta said. “If there is a candidate willing to help us, that candidate will definitely get our votes.”
Vicente Vicero, 60, a caretaker in a local school, said his family waited long for shelter materials to rebuild their house but these never came. Even food aid was scarce, forcing him to exert more effort to earn by peddling candies, cigarettes and drinks.
“If a politician helps us erect our house again, we don’t care if they exploit us during the elections. What is important is we rebuild our house,” Vicero said without hesitation.
Danilo Adorador, a community journalist based in Ipil, Surigao City, said politicians would definitely exploit the hardships of typhoon victims.
“It’s a ripe environment for them, they don’t have to make excuses. They can easily lure voters in the guise of relief goods, housing materials and all. That is how it is here,” Adorador said.
A postdisaster assessment done by the government estimated that some P87 billion was needed to rebuild areas in Surigao del Norte (including Siargao Island), Dinagat Islands and some parts of Surigao del Sur and Butuan City devastated by Odette, said Liza Mazo, regional director of the Office of Civil Defense in the Caraga region. Some 384,000 families in the region were affected by the typhoon.
The resources are mainly for restoring housing, public infrastructure such as hospitals and schools, and livelihood sources.
“The question is, ‘Where to get the funding?’” Mazo added.
Surigao City Vice Mayor Ernesto Matugas Sr. said adding desperation to the people were unkept promises from politicians, lamenting how President Duterte never kept a pledge of P1-billion aid to the city after the 2017 earthquake, and P2 billion after Odette.
“It gives false hopes to our people. It also breeds doubts and suspicion among our people. Many believed the [promise of] money, but in reality, those were verbal pledges that we have not received,” Matugas said, adding that in hindsight, it should not have been announced until it was up for release.
But several people vowed to managed to rise above practical consideration and uphold the value of their votes.
Couple Edilberto and Emma Escudero of Taganaan, Surigao del Norte, said their gratitude to donors would not color their choice in the ballot.
“If they (candidates) will help us, we will be grateful because they went to the extent of helping us, but, we will vote according to conscience,” said Escudero, whose wife had a nervous breakdown and had developed hearing problems after Odette. “If they are government officials, what they are giving us are people’s money, anyway,” he added.
Not wanting to be deceived by political interests, Escudero said they made sure to have the right information, especially in deciding on their choices on May 9.
After the closure of broadcast network ABS-CBN two years ago, residents interviewed by the Inquirer said many people here turned to social media, especially Facebook, for news. Many said they double check reports and commentaries on local radio as these were known to be partial to some political camps.
Adorador said the local people’s dependence on social media made them vulnerable to the spread of false information.
To hedge against these, residents always refer to their village officials, especially if these pertain to supposed official actions and policy.
Among some families, their younger members are playing a significant role in fact-checking.
According to Frederick Bonilia, 41, of Barangay Ipil in Surigao City, he would always ask his daughters to verify information he would come across, especially if he sensed these contained outrageous claims.
Bonilia said news sites, such as those run by GMA-7 and the Inquirer, were helpful in fighting fake news they encounter every day.
(Editor’s Note: This story was produced with support of Internews Philippines.)