These are not good days for democracy in the Philippines. Corruption has metastasized down to the barangay, or village level. So many trained people are leaving — 1 in 10 Filipinos now work abroad — that the political base is starting to hollow out. In the last election, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the president, was caught on tape trying to fix the vote count.
There has been political skirmishing in Manila, but among the populace the response has been a shrug. The nation that forced Ferdinand Marcos into exile in the People Power revolution of 1986 has just about given up.
One exception is La Castellana, a municipality of 60,000 people in sugarcane country on the island of Negros. Here, a local doctor by the name of Enrico Roa Elumba ran for mayor nine years ago, and since has shown a rare determination to make a difference in the lives of ordinary people. In the process, he has provided a lesson to ideologues in Washington of the need for flexibility if they truly want to play a constructive role in the world.
Elumba’s office in the municipal building is nondescript. But when you walk out back, it is evident that something different is going on. First there’s the garden plot, where he is growing seedlings of calliandra, a tree good for making charcoal briquettes. Oil prices have made cooking fuel too costly, so the mayor is providing an alternative.
Not far away is a tractor that the mayor bought for use by farmers who acquired land recently in land reform. And so it goes. I spent a day with Elumba not long ago, driving around the municipality in his sport utility vehicle. From the town center, with its public market and plaza, to the sugarcane and rice fields beyond, there are not many places that have not been touched by his energy and flair for improvisation.
Elumba spent 20 years as a surgeon in Cebu, the nation’s second major city. He came home at the urging of his father who said he had to give something back. He established a nonprofit clinic where people could pay their medical bills by planting trees, and where he still practices on weekends. (Today, fifth-graders in La Castellana have to plant a tree and nurture it for a year in order to graduate.)
As mayor he set the tone early on by doing something extraordinary in this land of back-scratching and nepotism — he fired a municipal employee who was a second cousin and friend. Then it was public health. He cleaned out the drainage ditches that were breeding mosquitoes, along with typhoid and dengue fever. He established a municipal trash collection, complete with source separation and recycling. Before, people just dumped trash by the river.
From there, it was one thing after another — mini-hydroelectric plants to bring power to the mountains; a municipal slaughterhouse to ensure sanitary meat (at the old one, “the bowels of the animals were mixed with the meat,” he says); a program to teach welding to drivers of trisikads — bicycles with sidecars that are the main form of transportation here — so they can repair and build their own. He’s even building a municipal tram up Mount Kanla-on so farmers there can bring their produce to market without trucker middlemen.
In person, Elumba has some of the caffeinated gung-ho quality of Jack Kemp in his congressional days, but with a Filipino politeness and reserve. (He grows his own organic coffee and drinks it often.) Unlike Kemp and other free marketeers, though, he is not given to ideology and abstraction. He sees problems and tries to address them in practical and concrete ways.
For example, when his environmental efforts helped La Castellana win a national “Clean and Green” award, he used the prize money — 600,000 pesos, or about $12,000 — to buy land by the river and create a kind of rural opportunity zone. Rising up there is the slaughterhouse, an ice factory, and also a municipal seed plot, to free local farmers from the grip of multinational seed companies.
There’s also Kasilingan Village, where 200 former squatter families are buying homes. The village actually is a stretch of makeshift structures along a dirt path by the river. You probably wouldn’t want to live there. But the families are buying this land — at a cost of 20 pesos (about 40 cents) a day for 1,000 days. It is hard to overstate the significance of that in a nation with millions of landless squatters.
Plus the municipality is making money: 4 million pesos from the village, plus 30,000 pesos a month from the ice plant, and 90,000 pesos from the slaughterhouse. “I want no debt,” he says. “We do everything with our own resources.”
In some quarters, this record might conjure images of a leftist threat to the established order. Yet Elumba is an evangelical protestant and a work-ethic man. He holds people responsible for improving their own lot, but holds himself responsible for extending a helping hand — the “rod and staff” approach of the 23rd Psalm. He uses government for ordinary Filipinos much the way the Bush administration uses it for global corporations — to create laws and institutions to help them succeed.
He’s also not afraid to make demands on people, as when he put up signs around town reminding them of why they pay taxes. For this he has won election three times, the last with 57 percent of the vote.
Elumba is limited by law to three terms, so this will be his last. I asked him how he would rate his own performance.
“Sixty percent only,” he said. “I did not provide sustainable work and livelihood for my constituents.”
It’s been a pretty decent 60 percent though; and the kind of practical grass roots change our own country should encourage.
Jonathan Rowe, who lives in Point Reyes Station, is contributing editor at the Washington Monthly.