‘Manna From Heaven’  | Henry Empeño



IBA, Zambales—On June 28, after swearing into office the newly elected officials of Zambales and its 13 municipalities, Governor Hermogenes Ebdane Jr. announced to the public the first order of the day: Join him in creating inclusive growth and capacitating the community for self-reliance.

“A fresh start like today will eventually become a journey for all of us, and whether that journey takes us to a better place or bring us no further than where we are now would depend mostly on ourselves, the elected leaders,” Ebdane told the assembled officials.

A newly completed covered court in Barangay Panan, Botolan, Zambales.

“Things won’t get better by chance, but by purposive change that we have to introduce as leaders of our community,” he pointed out.

“We are here to start another term as servant-leaders who bring change and progress. That is the significance of this occasion today,” Ebdane reminded his audience. “We pledge to serve, and this is what we must do.”

It was a call for decisive action after all the rhetoric of the election campaign. Ebdane said he believed that accomplishments, rather than talk, should characterize public service. And because of this, he made sure the other officials get the direction his administration is taking. Right from Day One.

“The legacy I want us all to leave behind,” the governor stressed, “is a Zambales that could stand on its own—progressive, forward-looking, competitive, capable, empowering, and proud.”

The past and present

THE urgency with which Ebdane sounded the call for a sustainable community was borne by the “situation on the ground,” a phrase favored by the governor who was once a police general, and at one time or another secretary of the Department of National Defense and head of the Department of Public Works and Highways.

Tourists navigate the lahar terrain on the way to the Mount Pinatubo crater lake in Botolan, Zambales.

Zambales, which is the second largest among the seven provinces in Central Luzon, had historically thrived on farming, fishing, mining and tourism that found sustenance along its fertile plains, beautiful shoreline, as well as the mineral-rich mountains and bountiful sea that hemmed in the province.

As of 2020, Zambales had a total population of 649,615 people living in a land area of 3,630 square kilometers, giving it an average population density of 179 persons per square kilometer—the second lowest in Central Luzon. On the other hand, the economically productive sector aged 15 years to 64 constitutes about 64 percent of all Zambales people, thus providing the province with an able workforce.

This meant that not only did Zambales have enough room to grow, it also did have the manpower to make that growth happen.

In terms of income generation, meanwhile, Zambales often found its way to the list of the richest provinces in the country. In 2010 when Ebdane was first elected governor, the revenue record was P655.3 million, representing a 1.76-percent increase over the figures in the past year. This gradually increased to P786.4 million in 2013 and to P995.9 million in 2015, the last year of Ebdane’s second term.

After a brief hiatus in service when he lost in the 2016 election to long-time rival Amor Deloso, Ebdane staged a comeback in 2019, after which he identified another source of local income—the lahar deposits of Mount Pinatubo.

Since then, Zambales’s financial position further strengthened to the tune of P1.6 billion in 2019, then P1.9 billion in 2020, and finally P2.42 billion in 2021—a consistently upward trend that gave promise of local progress.

Lessons learned

THE Covid-19 pandemic, however, disrupted social and economic life in Zambales, as elsewhere. Ebdane said a lot of residents became jobless when businesses closed and the usual livelihood activities were not possible to pursue.

Worse, a lot of residents fell victim to the virus (11,788 confirmed Covid-19 cases in Zambales as of July 20, 2022), with some not making it out alive (700 deaths as of last count). A lot were also affected mentally and emotionally by the struggles and stress of coping with the disease.

Ebdane said the provincial government successfully managed the health crisis despite the lack of “on-shelf” solutions to the pandemic, but admitted that the experience was a huge setback to his development track.

In the past two years of the Covid-19 pandemic, Ebdane said, the provincial government had to spend some P771.5 million to purchase medicine and medical supplies, as well as for food packs and monetary assistance to Zambales residents, especially the economically dislocated.

This was aside from implementing a six-point strategy to effectively curtail the spread of the virus: establish border control points and health checkpoints; designate the provincial hospital as dedicated facility for Covid cases; put up quarantine facilities in all the 13 towns; enforce disinfection and health safety protocols in offices and public areas; inventory and stock food, medicine and essential goods in the province; and implement mass rapid testing among frontline workers and provincial government employees.

“Because of this pandemic, we realized clearly the need for cooperation, discipline, determination and caring for each other,” Ebdane recalled.

Also because of the experience during the pandemic, Ebdane said his administration has now set its eyes on five priorities: health, education, livelihood, shelter and infrastructure development.

10-point agenda for better public service

WHEN Ebdane first took over the helm of Zambales in 2010, he immediately initiated the formulation of the Provincial Development and Physical Framework Plan (PDPFP), a 10-point agenda that served as a guidepost for his administration’s pubic service program.

The PDPFP sought to: enhance revenue generation; improve social services like medical and pubic health; strengthen youth development through free education and sports; provide livelihood support and social enterprises for fisherfolk; supplement farming requirements; reinforce tourism planning, development and promotion; build more infrastructure facilities; upgrade technological infrastructure like digitalization; capacitate human resources; and establish effective good governance mechanisms.

“This overall plan is really ambitious, but I am preparing a blueprint for this—an updated blueprint of what we can do for Zambales,” Ebdane told the BusinessMirror.

“What is important here is to innovate, improve on the situation, and, of course, prepare the people who will come after, so that they can appreciate what they have. It would be a pity for us to do the hard work now, and not train the next generation. Because when their time comes, they should be ready for the job, too,” he added.

To build a self-sustaining community, Ebdane said his administration’s first priority would be a comprehensive health program that would bring about a state-of-the-art hospital with more doctors, nurses and other health personnel, so that patients won’t have to go far for medical help.

Already, a P100-million budget from the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation (Pagcor) will initially fund Phase 1 of the upgrading project. “In due time, upgrades for the two district hospitals, to include the Ospital ng Santa Cruz, will be done,” Ebdane said.

Ebdane’s second priority is free education for college students. This would be realized, he said, by improving the facilities and capacity of the President Ramon Magsaysay State University. The local tertiary school, he said, should offer courses relevant to local needs like tourism, agriculture and fisheries, as well as technology.

Ebdane revealed the provincial government recently provided some P46 million worth of financial assistance to 23,000 college students in the province with funding from the Office of the President and some senators, and additional funds from the provincial treasury.

In terms of livelihood development, the third priority Zambales should aim for, according to Ebdane, are bigger and better equipment, and the latest technical innovations and applications to modernize agriculture.

“There has to be a paradigm shift in this generation if we are to survive as a people,” he pointed out. “We must provide more inputs in terms of mechanization and technological application, so that we can modernize agriculture and make it work for us.”

Ebdane also considers housing a priority and deems it necessary to provide safe and decent homes for residents, especially the informal settlers. He asked municipal officials to identify and plan for the establishment of resettlement areas for those in need of housing.

Lastly, the governor said that infrastructure development should be prioritized to further enhance commercial activities, provide access to production sites, enhance revenue generation, and promote supply and market distribution.

Creating inclusive growth

ON July 13, in his message during the opening session of the Sangguniang Panlalawigan ng Zambales, Ebdane reiterated the urgent need to promote equity and inclusive growth.

He recalled that in his first two terms of office, government priorities were directed towards the most urgent needs of Zambales residents: health, education, livelihood, employment and infrastructure.

“It was our desire and intention to help our constituents that shaped these priorities,” Ebdane pointed out. “I must admit that these social services were propoor in nature. However, when providing social services, the priority is always given to the less fortunate and the underprivileged.”

“But what challenges our leadership now is not the equitable distribution of our meager resources, but how we can achieve inclusive growth, providing every Zambaleño the instruments needed for self-reliance, social mobility and economic sustainability,” he added.

Ebdane said that on top of his administration’s agenda is strategic revenue generation for the province’s economic recovery program. This is through Department Administrative Order 13, series of 2019, of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, which allowed the dredging of three major river systems in Zambales that have been clogged with lahar materials since the Mount Pinatubo eruption in 1991.

The order facilitated the restoration of the rivers to their past glory, the reduction of risks to life and property by increasing their hydraulic capacity, and, at the same time, the tapping of what Ebdane called “manna from heaven”—the lahar that initially made Zambaleños’ lives miserable, but later proved to be a blessing for their revenue-generating value.

Ebdane said that with DAO 13, Zambales posted environment revenue collections at P75.2 million in 2019, P118.5 million in 2020, and P201.8 million in 2021. This increased the province’s general fund from P1.47 billion in 2019, to P1.74 billion in 2020, and P1.87 billion in 2021.

For this reason, the Bureau of Local Government Finance cited Zambales as the top performer in Region 3 in 2020 and No. 4 at the national level for year-on-year growth in locally sourced revenues, he stressed.

He added that the revenue derived from dredging activities benefits the national government, the province of Zambales, as well as the respective towns and barangays where the projects are located.

“The revenue generated from the commercial disposal of dredged materials will bring about substantial increase in our revenue collection, which can fully subsidize expenses on social services, including adequate health services, scholarship programs, community livelihood projects, and employment,” Ebdane said.

“As our revenue collection continues to shoot up, I believe we are on our way to building a self-sustaining community,” he added.

Image credits: Hijodeponggol | Dreamstime.com



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