28 MARCH 2007
i R E P O R T — B U K I D N O N ' S ' N O N T R A D I T I O N A L ' D Y N A S T Y
WITH VERY fertile soil, and an evenly distributed annual rainfall, Bukidnon is an important agriculture area for the entire country. Often called a "highland paradise," much of the province sits on a high plateau. It is the source of Mindanao's major rivers and watersheds. It has 1.1 million people and is home to the indigenous cultures of the Bukidnon, Manobo, Talaandig, Higaonon, Umayamnon, Matigsalog, and Tigwahanon.
Coring is indeed loved much like a mother. In her office in Manolo Fortich, people queue for hours to see her, not to ask for a favor, but to visit and thank her for something she had done for them earlier. She gets hugged a lot. "My mother is really my role model as a leader," says Neric. "She's very engaging, warm, she's motherly. But she's also rather savvy about things and characters."
Neric says that slowly, he is learning to "backslap and share a beer more often than previously." He is quick to add, though, that he was never completely alien to barrio life. After all, he says, he is an NGO worker, having helped his mother give birth to BINHI, or the Bukidnon Integrated Network of Home Industries, which extends micro-credit to poor women.
But mother and son obviously have different back stories: Coring is a self-made woman who was born in Mabini in Bohol, grew up during the war, and lived through hardship. "Losing a mother during the Japanese occupation, running around Bohol being chased by the Japanese — that was a totally different experience," Neric says of his mother's history. By contrast, he admits to having "had a very comfortable, middle-class life."
Coring Olaivar moved to Bukidnon in the late 1950s, and taught briefly at the Central Mindanao University before heading off to Iowa for a doctorate in food chemistry. It was in Iowa that she met her future husband, Juan Acosta. Afterward, Coring worked at the agribusiness giant Del Monte Philippines in Cagayan de Oro, but again only for a spell as, she says, she was foremost a teacher. Which, she says she would have rather continued to be, if not for what she describes as her "chance" entry into electoral politics.
In 1972, Juan, then a supervising scientist at Del Monte, was drafted to run as a local councilor in Manolo Fortich. But just when he was about to file his certificate of candidacy, Del Monte issued an order prohibiting its senior managers from participating in electoral politics. Coring was asked to take Juan's place — and she won. In 1979, Coring was appointed Manolo Fortich mayor. She was later elected to the same position in 1980, and then ran for Congress in 1987.
CORING ACOSTA now says she felt out of her element in Congress, and missed being a local official. That she had gone to the legislature at all was because Joe Zubiri had begged her to run against a member of the powerful Fortich clan. Zubiri himself recalls, "I told Coring and Juan, 'It's time we get involved in politics. They've been here for 50 years now and I think it's time for us.'" Zubiri poured his resources into Coring's campaign for Congress, pitting her against a brother-in-law of then Governor Carlitos Fortich. Zubiri himself vied to be the 3rd district representative against the governor's cousin, while he placed a candidate in the 2nd district to battle with a Fortich lawyer.
They trounced the old political clan. But not long afterward, Zubiri and Coring had a falling-out. Zubiri says the mayors in Coring's district — "beholden to me because I made them run and supported them" — complained to him about the lack of "progress" in their towns. He says he called Coring's attention, and "she did not like it." During the 1992 congressional polls, Zubiri put up a candidate — "token," he says — to contest the 1st district with Coring. He had the allegiance of the mayors and the kapitans, but Coring managed to hold her own. She won a second (and then third) term.
Coring says that after her first term in Congress, she realized that Zubiri was "this guy (who) wants to hold you as if you are always beholden to him." There were issues the two of them did not agree on, she also says, and she did not want to follow Zubiri as he jumped from one party to another.
While his mother entered politics by chance, Neric Acosta deliberately sought a place in it. He says he had felt restless after returning to Bukidnon in the early 1990s, with a PhD in political science. He won a seat in the Sangguniang Panlalawigan in 1995. By the time Coring had exhausted her three terms in Congress, Neric was ready to take her place there.
The Zubiris, however, are not the only ones in Bukidnon who aren't so happy with the Acostas. Mayor Coring, for instance, does not have a supporter in Marjun, who will vote for the first time this May. The 19-year-old Manolo Fortich native says he wants a new mayor for his town. "Just like in clothes, you'd much rather have new ones than the old," he says.
He also says that while Mayor Coring has some accomplishments, he finds the mayor's record far from exemplary. He points to his school, the Northern Bukidnon Community College, which was a project of the Acostas. "It's ugly," Marjun says. "It gets flooded."
Abelardo Yandug, a leader of an NGO that works with farmers and fisherfolk, is not that pleased with Neric either. Yandug compares the 1st district — Neric's turf — to the 3rd district, which is that of Congressman Migz Zubiri, and concludes: "Zubiri's district has more improvements than Acosta's." He points to better roads, bigger covered courts, more multipurpose buildings in Zubiri's territory.
Neric knows some of his constituents would rather have him "bring home the bacon" than elucidate in Congress over the merits of regulating air pollution. He says, "In rural hinterland lumad-dominated Talakag municipality, in Mt. Kitanglad, in the foothills of these mountains, what does the Clean Air Act mean for them?" He says that while his work on micro-credit banking program is "a concrete intervention," his public will look for "the hardware, something on a plate that (they) can touch and see everyday. That's the foot bridge, that's the daycare center, that's the school building, the road, the pavement, the well.'"
"While I've tried hard to address those as much as I could," he says, "I can admit that it wasn't really my forte. Maybe, philosophically, I was really wired more into policy work."
Neric may find it hard to find kindred spirits in Congress. In 1976, political scientist Remigio Agpalo found that 71 percent of representatives and 39 percent of senators spent five or more hours a day attending to callers asking for all sorts of favors in their offices. Agpalo said only 47 percent of congressmen and 61 percent of senators devoted more than half of their time to legislative functions.
In 2004, the PCIJ saw a similar situation in Congress, with the representatives acting first as patrons and brokers for their districts. Neric refers to this as being a bridge: "You want to make laws, or you should, but the majority of your colleagues think you're a power-broker. You bring home the bacon, you're a bridge from the national largesse to the district."
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