A Visit to the Middle of Nowhere

Aug 172009

This past week I traveled to the geographic center of the Philippines, Masbate, one of the wildest and poorest places in this poor and unruly nation. I met with widows of murder victims, with fish-less fisherfolk and destitute gold miners. I met with a governor who, though nice enough, seemed to take pride in being clueless. “I’m not even from Masbate,” said Governor Elisa Kho. “I’m from Marikina!”

Sad, rugged, dusty place, Masbate. But a handful of individuals there gave me hope for the province, the country. They inspired me. All were journalists. Scribes and broadcasters who challenge the establishment here end up dead or jailed, but still the journalists carry on. More on them a little later.

I'm on a one-year fellowship in the Philippines, working with the Philippine Center For Investigative Journalism - a small but mighty non-profit - to develop a network of journalists in the country's five poorest provinces. Masbate is near the top of the list. The trip was mostly a scouting mission: to get a sense of the place and to recruit participants to join our project.

From Manila, it took 45 minutes by plane to Legazpi and another two hours by boat to reach Masbate, an island shaped like an arrowhead pointed north. The island's only airport has been closed for renovation for six months. Nobody knows when it will re-open, and no one seemed distressed that an already-isolated island of 800,000 people had no working airport.

Except Governor Kho; it did rankle her. She mentioned that the closed air strip was a bit of an impediment to tourism. Governor Kho has been pushing the tourism agenda, and a quick look-about reveals why: once you get past the dusty roads and ragged crowds, you might notice that Masbate's landscape is quite beautiful.

Mounds of rolling green hills give way to lush mountains, all encircled by sandy beaches with hardly a soul on them. Waterfalls stream off limestone cliffs. Rice paddies turn fields into vast checkerboards. Cattle ranches sprawl and crawl through the interior, and once in a while you'll even run into a true-life cowboy. Masbate calls itself the Rodeo Capital of the Philippines. In towns and villages, there are bustling markets and stone churches old enough to have beheld the glory of Spain when Spain was still glorious.

Still, the tourists don't come in droves here. The other impediment to tourism, besides not having a place for planes to land, is Masbate's reputation as a lawless island. A place where violence can and does strike from out of the blue.

Particularly dangerous are the periods before major elections. Politicians hire private goon armies to do their dirty work, and no one disputes that dirty work is part of the fabric of life here. This year alone, as many as 32 people have been killed in suspected political murders, according to various sources. Gov. Kho herself was hurt in an assassination attempt in January along the island's main highway. Two roadside bombs shattered her windshield, and the governor and a security guard were injured by shards of glass.

There is indeed a longstanding culture of .45-caliber justice in Masbate, an ethos primed by widespread frustration and too many guns. Almost anyone can get their hands on a black-market weapon. "It's like walking into a store: you give them money, you get a gun," said Ramesis Sison, an associate editor of the Masbate Weekly Post

Much of the frustration stems from an entrenched poverty that seems only to be deepening. The Peace and Equity Foundation, a Filipino non-profit that monitors societal indicators, in 2007 named North Samar, Sulu and Masbate as having "the most pronounced conditions of poverty among the Philippines' 81 provinces"

Everywhere on the island I met people who lived on the edge of their lives, not knowing whether they would have food and shelter for another week, another day.

Masbate, Philippines. Here I'm talking with two women waiting for their fishermen husbands to return with the day's catch. In a typical day a family will earn about 100 pesos ($2). On some days, the fishermen catch nothing.

Masbate, Philippines. Here I'm talking with two women waiting for their fishermen husbands to return with the day's catch. In a typical day a family will earn about 100 pesos ($2). On some days, the fishermen catch nothing.

In Masbate City, Josephine Ovilla, a fisherwoman with a husband and four children, sat in an empty stall with no fish to sell. "Nothing yet," she said. "Maybe nothing today." She was waiting for her husband to come with the day's catch. Sometimes he brings fish, sometimes not. Very often he brings home just enough for gas money. The family is being evicted from their house, and Ovilla says she doesn't know what's going to happen to them.

In Arroroy, farmer Yolanda Meralles said a collapsed dike along the Panique River prevented water from reaching her rice fields. This year she will have no harvest. And the family doesn't have any money to fix the dike themselves.

Meralles is one of thousands of residents in the Arroroy area - near the tip of the arrowhead - whose livelihoods have been devastated by a new gold mine owned by an Australian company, Filminera Resources Corp. Filminera reportedly processes an average of 30 kilos of gold each day, but none of the money so far has benefited the locals.

The mine has displaced an estimated 15,000 small-scale miners whose families had been mining the area for generations. The mine has also wreaked havoc on the region's hydrology, in one instance diverting a long section of the Panique River and effectively destroying the livelihoods of more than 500 families who used the river for fish- and rice-farming.

"They play with the people as if they were toys," said Rino Velasco, an Arroroy town leader who has helped organize opposition to the mine.

Local journalists, like Ramesis and Post columnist Norman Laurio and radio reporter Angelo Labastida, are working to get the word out about Filminera and the plight of Arroroy residents. But media practitioners here face, at best, an uphill struggle and, at worst, the prospect of a bullet in the back on some lonely stretch of road.

That's what happened on June 12 to one of their compatriots, Antonio Castillo, 45, a columnist for the weekly tabloid Bigwas. While riding his motorcycle home that morning, gunmen shot Castillo from behind. The columnist died three hours later. During a visit with his family, Castillo's daughter Krisha showed me her father's jacket and the bullet hole in the lower back. Her father was the third Masbate journalist killed in recent years. No arrests have been made in any of the cases.

In Masbate, Philippines. A group of journalists meeting outside the house of slain columnist Antonio Castillo, 45. Castillo was shot in the back by unidentified gunman on June 12. (I'm the one at the very right with the blue shirt)

In Masbate, Philippines. A group of journalists meeting outside the house of slain columnist Antonio Castillo, 45. Castillo was shot in the back by unidentified gunman on June 12. (I'm the one at the very right with the blue shirt).

In my two decades as a reporter - at The Los Angeles Times and The Seattle Times - I have never written about journalists nor their plight, but the journalists on Masbate deserve mention. When they write a column or speak out on the radio, they risk life and livelihood. One of their colleagues, whom I met, journalist Joaquin Briones Jr., spent five years in prison on a libel charge brought by one of Masbate's powerbrokers.

Five years!

Yet every week these journalists do their work. Though under constant threat, they continue to be the only critical, if somewhat muffled, voice on a remote island where dynastic families do whatever they like with impunity.

Which brings us to Governor Elisa Kho. I've mentioned her several times. The last stop on my trip was a brief but highly enlightening interview with this chief executive in her office. She was polite and friendly. She offered cookies and coffee. And then she proceeded to show herself as blithely out of touch. (The interview was recorded).

The governor is the wife of Antonio Kho, a former governor himself and current congressman.

Regarding the spate of recent murders on Masbate, Gov. Elisa Kho dismissed them as "petty killings" that had nothing to do with politics. They were personal conflicts, she said, "but it's easy to say they were political." As far as she knew, she said, there had been only one political killing - that of columnist Castillo - but even that was still under investigation. "Under investigation" in Masbate generally means the case is destined to go nowhere.

Regarding the island's backwardness and malaise, Kho said she didn't know a lot about the history of Masbate. She emphasized that she's not native to the island and she didn't know the intricate ins and outs of the province's workings.

"I don't know anything about mines," Kho said regarding the situation in Arroroy. "I don't know the difference between an open-pit mine and closed-pit mine."

She had nothing to say about the 15,000 dislocated miners and the 500 families devastated by the Panique River diversion. Kho said decisions regarding large-scale mines are made in Manila and that she had no power to stop them.

Regarding dynastic families, the governor said this: "Yes, now they say there is a Kho dynasty. Whether dynasties are good or bad, it depends on the dynasty. Past dynasties suppressed development. We are trying to improve the image of Masbate. I think we are not a bad dynasty. I think we're positive. What do you think?"