By Marivir R. Montebon
New York – In more ways than one, the COVID19 pandemic in the tiny but populous city of Cebu in the Philippines have brought out the grit and bayanihan (community spirit) of its people. The crisis too has confirmed the nagging need to boost local agriculture and strengthen good governance more than ever.
In this time of unprecedented need, we see the likes of innovative leadership in Evelyn Nacario-Castro and her group called ImPACT (Ideas to Mobilize People to take Action in the Community Together) stepping up, along with the thousands who voluntarily pull their time and resources together, in what is locally called bayanihan.
Cebu is home to an estimated 5 million people on 1,908.78 sq.m. of land. About a million of Cebuanos live in the capital Cebu City, the oldest city of the country and the bastion of Catholicism in Asia. The premiere place for commerce, tourism, education, and the media in central and southern Philippines is reeling with the contagion. It is tailing Manila as having the most number of COVID19 cases, and with a notable rising rate of infections.
Nacario-Castro, a development practitioner with more than 20 years of engagement in sustainable development, is leading efforts in mobilizing people and resources to address different needs in relation to COVID19.
One innovation which ImPACT, where Nacario-Castro is president, is creating is a smart way of linking upland farming communities with that of the needy urban poor residents.
Called One Gift for Two Families, it made a sensible connection between rural and urban families by purchasing produce from small and medium-sized farmers and rationing these to thousands of urban poor dwellers.
In this approach, Nacario-Castro has shown what boosting local agriculture could mean to those in the urban centers who are reeling in this health crisis, or at any regular tough day, just to have food on the table.
Nacario-Castro has worked on the broad fields of environment and natural resources management, integrated conservation, youth development, education, community and social development, urban and rural development, citizenship, leadership and governance. The COVID19, has naturally, brought out the leader in her.
Her education: a degree in Marine Biology, Environmental and International Development, as well Leadership and Governance has made her widely knowledgeable in the field of science and government administration. For the past 20 years, Nacario-Castro have been well connected with the public sector (government: legislative, executive, local, regional; and academic) and the private sector (non-profit, for profit and research) and with linkages at the national and international levels ─ and thus able to understand and consider various perspectives.
Her experiences, expertise, education and exposure are useful in providing thorough analysis and deeper insight into local situations. Nacario-Castro who is also a consultant of government and private organizations sees that the contagion is meant for us all to be better persons and leaders.
Excerpts of our interview:
OSM!: You are into resource mobilization. How is it going right now in terms of the constant need for PPE and the level of donations you have received? Is it adequate already? Or is it still on critical / crisis levels?
NACC: ImPACT was one of the first groups who immediately called for help for frontliners in the health sector. We have direct information from frontliners on the need for PPE and other support – noting their hospital’s or group’s level of preparedness and the increasing number of admissions.
Our calls for help were not limited to Cebu’s needs, but covered the need for PPE of other cities and provinces in the Visayas and Mindanao. Our approach was for people to send in-kind donations to hospitals and groups and the response was overwhelming.
People from different walks of life brought whatever they had that were useful or bought PPE and other items like alcohol, other disinfectants, food supplies and gave to the hospitals. Different groups, businesses and other organizations responded as well and provided the needed PPE.
Others were encouraged to organize fundraising events, like a concert, film showing, and donation drives among families and friends. Other groups also mobilized production of PPE for donation.
While the call for help remains – considering that the need is not just constant but increasing – the response from the community is somehow diminishing. There are a number of reasons for this of course, one that includes the difficulty of sourcing PPE.
Indeed, the supply is inadequate, the inventory is declining, and the cases are increasing. I was informed – just a few minutes ago – that a public hospital’s supply of N95 masks is now less than 300, projected to last for two days at most. This shows, unfortunately, that the local situation is at a critical level.
OSM!: On the mobilization of farm produce from the highlands to the lowlands. Are the farmers able to provide sufficiently for lowlanders? Are they being paid and are appropriately earning from it?
NACC: ImPACT developed the “Usa Ka Gasa para sa Duha ka Pamilya” (1 Gift for 2 Families) campaign to address two sectors: the families of upland farmers and the urban poor, where the former had difficulties in selling their farm produce and the latter needing food supply in light of ECQ (Enhanced Community Quarantine) regulations.
Our team at ImPACT sought to bridge the gap and brought in help from the community through the “Php 350 for 2 families” support. Through the campaign, we buy and pay for the vegetables at prevailing farm gate or even higher prices and thus help the farmers earn.
Early on and prior to the campaign, the farmers had to contend with the lack of sale of their produce, and some just left their crops to rot on the field because of the inability to bring their goods to the market and sell.
Supply from the highlands in terms of vegetables (the product of choice for the campaign, as we want to promote good and healthy nutrition) has been somewhat a challenge. Procurement has been taxing, to say the least, as we encountered a number of pain points – including ‘competition’ from traders who want to cash in and make a profit (and thus cause price distortions), to decreasing volume of harvest (as summer season started), to having areas in the uplands subjected to localized containment and thus preventing us from sourcing our vegetable supply.
OSM!: What are the towns in Cebu that are productive and are able to supply food in the city?
NACC: In terms of vegetables, the traditional and continuing major supplier is the town of Dalaguete. Other nearby towns of Alcoy, Boljoon and Argao also supply vegetables to the city and Metropolitan Cebu. The upland barangays of Cebu City and Consolacion also supply vegetables as do Barili and Alegria but they do not produce as much as Dalaguete.
With Cebu’s population of around 5 million (the most populated province in the Central Visayas region) and limited land area for agricultural production – it remains a net importer of food supply.
For crops, Cebu’s sufficiency level is only at 2.3% (in 2015) and depends on vegetables supplied from Cagayan de Oro and Luzon.
OSM!: Social distancing is a major strategy to combat the spread of the virus. How is this being done in densely populated barangays like Luz or Labangon? What are the long-term measures to address urban blight?
NACC: The increasing number of cases of Covid in densely populated barangays (villages) of Cebu – particularly Cebu City – show that social distancing, while ideal and necessary in light of the pandemic, cannot be practised nor enforced. It is near to impossible to demand social distancing in these areas as people are packed in very limited spaces, in many cases, where a household is composed of 2 or more families.
Temporary measures may need to be taken to move or transfer some residents to other public places, but these same public facilities (like schools or gyms) are already being “converted” and used now as isolation areas for COVID positives with mild or no symptoms.
As has been our advocacy (with my previous organization and now as consultant and with ImPACT), planning – strategic and spatial (vision and roadmap development, rural and urban planning) – is critical to address urban blight and promote smart, inclusive, and sustainable development.
Beyond planning, of course, is execution and continuing innovation and improvement. Unfortunately, we lack both: planning and execution, so it should not come as a surprise that blighted areas in the past, remain as is; and with a growing population characterized by high poverty incidence, new slum areas or pockets of shanties emerge.
OSM!: This early, what realizations do you have in terms of local development and social progress? I mean, how does a social development worker and local leaders address massive poverty and COVID19 pandemic?
NACC: Actually, I would not refer to it as realizations, in the sense that these are not new. But as I observe and desire at this time of crisis, I would rather refer to them as “confirmations” or “affirmations” or “Exhibit A.”
There is a need for good governance: ensuring fairness, accountability, transparency, equity; and transformative and genuine leadership: people and service-oriented; accountable; open and transparent; responsive and decisive; fair and impartial; competent and effective; a model of integrity and spirituality; and consensus-builder.
There also has to be citizen and civil society engagement: drawing on their strengths and engaging them on a shared purpose; as well as public – private partnership: complementing competencies and resources for a common goal. I also see the need for inter – local cooperation: optimizing mutual interests for the common good.
Also, environmental integrity cannot be overemphasized: protecting the “sources of life” that sustain us; and food security: our survival depends on our self sufficiency.
We need education, health, social welfare and development: how can we thrive, even survive, in a world where everyone / every country is a victim?
OSM!: With huge public health crisis at hand, how can local officials surmount this, given limited resources?
NACC: We must also recognize that everything is “local”, hence, the strengthening of the local government is vital as it is the “face” of government and the interface between the “citizen” and the “governor.”
For our towns and cities to address present and future ills and challenges (e.g., poverty; pandemic), local government leadership must rise to the occasion – effectively coordinate resources vis a vis needs, solutions vis a vis problems.
They need to be with the people – serve their needs and represent their interests in a predominantly top-down culture of governance; promote oneness – draw people to a common ground. They need to start somewhere – take steps, no matter how small, innovate and don’t wait for others to lead.
At this time of the pandemic, immediate needs must be addressed: people are hungry, lack adequate or appropriate places to stay; promote public health and economic recovery at the same time; encourage transition to the new normal (masks, social distancing) etc.
OSM!: On a brighter note, do you have a hopeful message in this pandemic? What changes for the better are we seeing?
This period of “testing” affords everyone a time to reflect on what is essential and extremely important. It’s a season of “back to basics” — of family, of health, of cleanliness, of neighbourliness (i.e., caring for others) and helpfulness, of frugality, of self-sufficiency (in terms of food and other basic needs), of Godliness. May we not waste it, but learn from it and become better persons, better citizens, better leaders.