Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Joseph and that Unforgettable Loboc River Cruise

I was with my family on a river cruise in the famous Loboc river when our boatman and tour guide Joseph made striking remarks and critical questions that every person thinking about development, whether in local, national, or international spheres, must ponder on. Joseph, to most of us in that brief boat ride, embodied every soul that is forcefully and unjustly included in the ‘development’ process, and even those that are, without choice, excluded from its supposed benefits.

“I used to walk along this riverbank to be able to go to school. I come from a barangay near the ‘busay’ (the waterfalls) that we are about to see in a short while”., Joseph told us as we were cruising the river upstream in a motorized banca (boat). “I am the first person in our village that finished high school. Maybe it’s our poverty condition that prevented most of us to go to school, or just the plain difficulty of walking along this river especially during the rainy season.”, he continued. He mentioned that most of the people in his village rely on farming and firewood gathering as means of livelihood, the latter being prohibited by local authorities due to its supposed effects on the environment. He further told us that it was only recently that they were able to have electricity, thanks to the project facilitated by World Vision.

Joseph pointed to us a new addition to the riverbanks he used to walk on. Surprisingly, these were electric lampposts erected very close to river. He commented that these were a perfect mismatch to the scenic appeal of the river and would halt the firefly watching tours that they normally conduct in some select evenings. Besides this, he also pointed out its impracticality, as the Loboc river is noted for its frequent flooding during the rainy season, which increases water level to as high as four feet beyond the normal, just enough to reach around 40% of the height of some posts.

He said that the lampposts were donated by a certain Mr. Chan, a Chinese investor, and were part of the project of the current mayor to illuminate the river banks during the evening and facilitate the evening river cruise. He however questioned the motivation of the donation, as he opined that businessmen, especially Chinese, normally do not put money for plain selfless reasons. “Those mountains (referring to the mountains serving as majestic backdrop to the waterfalls) have many caves. Caves are rumoured to have treasures. Some people might be after them.”, he sadly remarked.

As we approached the ‘busay’, he pointed at one of the cottages in the riverbank near his home, where around 50 people wearing green shirts and carrying ukuleles congregated. He told us that this was the first riverbank entertainment organized by the local people to participate in the booming tourism business and help improve local economy. But two other groups downstream were organized, heightening competition, and even creating conflict between an influential person in the town and a tour guide.

Joseph presented us with a lot of implicit questions through his narrative, with hardly any answers. “Why did it take too long for us to get electricity and too fast for the lampposts to be erected? What role do local people have in the tourism program of the local government? Who is benefiting largely in this tourism business? How do we increase access of local people to education and other basic social services? Who protects local interests when these are threatened by foreign prospectors?” To me, these questions are very important in every community’s pursuit of local development.

Sadly though, one very important question above all else is “Who is hearing Joseph?”