Dipolog, Zamboanga Del Norte: I was expecting a city of shanties. A sprawling ghetto. A legion of beggars stumbling around a sagging town square. But I found none of these things in Dipolog City, the capital of Zamboanga del Norte, said to be the poorest province in the Philippines.
What I found instead during a recent visit to this city of 120,000 in western Mindanao was a prim, progressive place, full of bustle and ambition, and a fair number of residents mystified by their province’s number-one ranking on the poverty list.
“Yes we are poor but not that poor,” I heard over and over again. I heard it from business owners and town leaders and even a few journalists. I heard it from Zamboanga del Norte’s chief executive, Governor Rolando Yebes. The governor, in an interview, observed: “You have to wonder how the agencies come up with their rankings.”
The truth is you sometimes have to dig a little deeper – or in this case, drive a little farther – to glimpse at the not-so-pretty parts. The poor of Zamboanga del Norte, it turns out, live beyond Dipolog’s boundaries.
I’m a Filipino American journalist in the Philippines on a one-year fellowship. I went to Zamboanga del Norte as part of a project by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism called Suriin Ang Kahirapan or Audit of Poverty. Zamboanga del Norte was chosen to be on the PCIJ’s target list of five poorest provinces in the country because in 2006, the state-run National Statistical Coordination Board announced (based on 2003 figures) that it had a chart-topping 64.6-percent poverty rate. That meant two out of every three residents were poor. The agency’s report further stated that Zamboanga del Norte had the highest increase in poverty, a 17-percent jump from 1997.
Provincial leaders were initially so rattled by the report that they held an anti-poverty summit soon after, gathering representatives from all sectors to address the issue. But that urgency seems to have faded, and now there are local officials saying: “Look around. Does this look like the poorest place in the Philippines?”
Indeed, Dipolog’s town center is well-kept and orderly. A manicured central park, during the week, buzzes with the laughter of school children. Prosperous-looking shops line the park’s boundaries, and overlooking the square is a soaring, meticulously maintained church, said to have been designed by Jose Rizal himself. (The national hero spent the last years of his life in the province)
Where were the shanties and beggars? I expected squalor but found instead a handsome city full of forward-looking people. It would take several days for me to realize much of the show-me-the-poverty pose among Dipolog residents stemmed from equal parts pride and public relations.
First The Pride: Dipolog residents had good reason to be proud of their city, a place that prospered despite its location. The city lies on the northernmost tip of Zamboanga del Norte, one of three provinces that make up the Zamboanga peninsula.
The province snakes along the peninsula’s western shore, a long squiggle of land bordered on the west by Misamis Occidental, on the east by the Sulu Sea, on the south by Zamboanga City. The squiggle is home to 800,000 people, to verdant hills and rich fishing grounds, to rice paddies and coconut plantations stretching to the horizon.
But outside of the capital city, the province hasn’t prospered as much as it could have, in large part because of its proximity to the violence-ridden areas to the south, namely Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi – home bases for Abu Sayyaf bandits and Muslim insurgents.
When violence breaks out, the dateline used in news stories is almost always Zamboanga City. Now, to many people throughout the Philippines and the world, the name Zamboanga conjures up images of bomb attacks, kidnap victims, and high-caliber firefights. What tourist would want to go there? What investor would invest in a combat zone?
Here’s the public relations part: The people of northern Zamboanga del Norte, of which Dipolog is not only the political but also the financial capital, want us all to know that they are far removed from the fighting and killing, that their home is an altogether different Zamboanga than the Zamboanga in the news.
Toward this end, provincial leaders have pushed hard to informally rename their province ZaNorte. It is the name used in travel brochures, tourist handbooks, billboards, and investor guides. In promotional descriptions of ZaNorte, the operative word is “peace-loving.”
Governor Yebes, in the introduction to an investor’s handbook says, “Come and explore the potentials of our bountiful resources and friendly and peace-loving people.” Vice Governor Francis Olvis describes ZaNorte as a place “where peace-loving people live decently and harmoniously.” In one glossy pamphlet handed out to tourists, the welcome note used the word “peaceful” or “peace-loving” four times in two paragraphs.
Who can blame provincial leaders for trying to distance themselves from the violence and poverty, and for putting on their best face for visitors? That’s what Dipolog represents: the province’s best face, its happy gateway.
During The Second Day of my visit, poverty found me. While riding in the passenger seat of a large truck through the neighboring community of Dapitan, a young man crashed his motorcycle into the side of the vehicle, injuring his head and spilling blood in the street. It was quite a scene, with police and crowds full of stunned faces.
The next day, I and a local journalist, Michael Daniel, a stringer for GMA7, visited the young man in the hospital. His head and arms were grotesquely swollen. His name was Rogelo Bulaybulay, 31, a resident of a neighboring barangay. His parents were there, too. They were rice farmers who looked like they had just come from the rice field. They wore soiled, ragged clothes and looked haggard and devastated.
The parents said their son needed a CAT scan but they did not have the money to pay for it. They didn’t know what to do.
I looked around the room. Three other battered and bloodied male patients shared the small space. They lay in dirty, sheet-less, lopsided beds. A couple of the men with open wounds groaned in pain. I spoke with family members. These patients, too, were getting the only medical care they could afford, which was very little. Here was the poverty I had come to see.
I would learn later that all four of the patients in that tiny room were residents from barangays outside of Dipolog. And driving around the area over the next few days, I caught glimpses of the province’s ragged edges – shanties along the river, beggars in the street, young children with dirty faces selling God-knows-what to passers-by – just a little ways beyond the neatly manicured lawns of Dipolog.
Two hours south of Dipolog is the municipality of Siayan, where the poverty rate is 97.5 percent – the highest in the nation. That means that nearly every one of the 35,000 residents in the municipality live at or below poverty levels. The NSCB reports that only three out of every 100 Siayan residents eat one decent meal a day. Three out of a one hundred! The central and southern regions of the province are home to other municipalities similar to Siayan.
Here is the Zamboanga del Norte that you will not read about in the brochures.