BUKIDNON, Philippines – Her inner thighs began to numb, as her legs stretched like hooks suspended on a rusty motorbike.
The road was unpaved and unforgiving. Heavy rains have turned it into a thick mix of mud and stones. Such trips could probably go smoother and faster, if only the roads were better, Merenia Libog thought.
Merenia is one of millions of farmers in the country whose livelihoods are affected by bad road conditions.
Recently, the national government announced new programs that local government units (LGUs) can tap into for funding on projects to build roads. The question is how such programs can be insulated from politics, how corruption can be reduced and how better planning for road projects can be encouraged.
On her way to Barangay Barandias, where she works as an irregular farmworker in a sugarcane plantation, Merenia decides to rent a motorbike for P50 roundtrip, as her feet were still sore.
She normally walks a total of two hours to get to and from work. Barandias is about 8 kilometers away from her home in Pigtauranan, the 7th biggest barangay in Pangantucan, Bukidnon.
#OpenRoads: Rural roads in Bukidnon
For Merinia Libog, a sugarcane farmer, the impact of poor roads is costly because hiring motorbikes that are used for transporting goods is expensive. This means lower income and food security for families of farmers. What about you? What roads matter to you?Posted by Rappler on Thursday, January 14, 2016
Merenia is not alone in this daily ordeal. Other laborers could not afford a motorbike ride so they have to walk as early as 2 am.
Merenia leaves as early as 5 am. There are no street lamps, so she has to make do with her tiny flashlight. Sometimes she would trip on a rock or get her foot stuck in mud, but these are the least of her worries, she still has a long day ahead as a sugarcane laborer.
Merenia and her husband each earn P150 to P200/day. Work, however, is irregular.
They supplement their meager income by selling vegetables which they grow in their family farm.
To Merenia and other Pangantucan residents, poorly constructed roads often mean rotten vegetables, which typically leads to smaller income, hence less food on the table. (READ: Bukidnon: What poor kids eat to survive)
“Roads are the foundation of modern agriculture,” according to the Department of Agriculture’s (DA) farm-to-market network plan. Roads provide market access to farmers, which could then help them increase their production, income, and food security,
“They serve as catalysts in improving rural economy,” the DA added.
To sell her vegetables, Merenia has to hire a motorbike rider for P160/day, fees could go higher depending on the number of vegetable sacks tied to the bike. Usually, Merenia has two big sacks on each side.
She sells her vegetables for around P200/sack, making the trip to the central market in neighboring barangays either every week or every month.
On rainy days, it is nearly impossible to transport goods without a truck. This means bigger costs, something Merenia and other small-scale farmers could not afford.
(WATCH: Bukidnon farmers fight hunger)
Poor roads, poor farming communities
Yet Pangantucan, Merenia’s hometown, is even better off compared to other towns in the province of Bukidnon. All of its barangays, at least, have access to a nearby national road.
The map below shows barangays in Bukidnon province, classified according to level of access to national roads.
Those highlighted in green have direct access or are less than 5 kilometers away from the nearest national road. Those in yellow are situated more than 5 km away from the core (national) road network.
Orange barangays do not have direct access from the core network but can be connected through neighboring barangays.
Within the province of Bukidnon, 16 barangays do not have access to national roads and are therefore colored red in the map. These barangays have a total of over 25,000 residents, according to the 2010 census.
Another 32 barangays are colored orange in the map because they have no direct access and have to go through another barangay before they can connect to a reliable road network. These barangays have a total of over 46,000 residents.
It comes as no surprise then that Bukidnon is among the poorest provinces in the country, with a 43% poverty incidence as of 2009, according to data from the World Food Programme.
(READ: A farmer’s journey on the road)
The total number of poor households in the province are estimated at 116,614, the highest among the poorest provinces.
Second to Bukidnon is Zamboanga del Norte with an estimated 111,798 poor households.
Back at home, Merenia’s children prepare for school. The two elementary students would walk around two kilometers, while the other two have to walk at least two hours to get to their high school.
Since the walk was too long, Merenia decided to place them in a boarding house near school. This costs her P200/month, a big bite off her small salary.
Merenia’s family has to travel over 40 kilometers to get to a hospital, costing them around P400 to P800 in transportation fees.
There is a clinic 5 minutes away from their house, as well as a smaller hospital nearby; however, major illnesses can only be treated in the Bukidnon provincial hospital of Maramag.
According to former World Bank economist Rolando Dy, who is also the executive director of the University of Asia and the Pacific’s Center for Food and Agri Business, good roads have the following economic benefits:
- Reduced cost of farm inputs such as fertilizers;
- Increased farm prices;
- Higher productivity and the expansion of harvest areas;
- Increased access to education and health services; and
- Increased access to government services such as agriculure extension.
Who is responsible?
In the Philippines, the national government, through the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), maintains the core network or the national roads.
Local governments are responsible for 85% of the total road network.
This is easier said than done since most local government units (LGUs) do not have enough budget to maintain roads they are responsible for, much less construct new ones.
For example, the total Internal Revenue Allotment (IRA) for 2016 of barangays Migcawayan and San Isidro, both of which are classified as red in the map, amount to only P1,591,938 and P1,248,861, respectively. (Check our local election pages to see IRA per province, city and municipality)
These barangay allotments are nowhere near the standard cost of building roads as prescribed by the DPWH. The public works bureau estimates gravel to concrete road upgrade in Northern Mindanao at P15-P20 million per kilometer.
Reconstructing roads are more expensive.
In an interview, DPWH Planning Services Director Constante Llanes told Rappler that LGUs most of the times just “make do with what they have.”
Farm to Market Roads, BUB, Kalsada
In general, infrastructure in the Philippines remains “poor” compared to most countries ranked in the 2015-2016 Global Competitiveness Report by the World Economic Forum.
The Philippines is below everybody else in the ASEAN except for Myanmar. The Philippines is 97th among nations on the quality of road infrastructure, 10 notches down from the 2014-2015 report.
The Department of Agriculture (DA) invests every year on farm-to-market roads (FMRs). The DA, however, has earned a negative reputation over the past few years after being linked to corruption scandals such as ghost projects, the Malampaya scam, the pork barrel scam, fake special allotment release orders (SAROs), and the fertilizer fund scam.
Given lack of funding at the local level, the Aquino administration implemented programs which LGUs can tap into for funding on projects to build roads.
KALSADA, or Konkreto at Ayos na Lansangan at Daan Tungo sa Pangkalahatang Kaunlaran, is the performance-based devolution program launched by the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) to institutionalize good governance practices for local government units with respect to local road management.
The P6.5-billion program will rehabilitate and upgrade provincial road networks and transfer these assets permanently to provincial governments for maintenance. (READ: LIST: 74 provinces qualify for P6.5-B budget on road rehab)
LGUs can also propose road projects under Bottom-Up Budgeting (BUB), a program under the Aquino administration, where groups usually led by society organizations consult with the community and pick from a list of projects to implement.
For 2016, BUB will be funding 2,027 road projects nationwide, amounting to P5.55 billion of its P24.7-billion allocation in the national budget.
Budget Secretary Florencio Abad earlier said in a statement that “these allocations particularly target programs that will improve local service delivery and infrastructure.”
Bukidnon will enjoy about P90.8 million and P51.41 million in BUB and Kalsada funds, respectively.
Among the municipalities listed without access to the core network, municipalities of Damulog, Kitaotao, Quezon, and San Fernando have taken advantage of the program to fund their road projects.
Given scarce resources, the challenge is how to minimize leakage and waste through corruption and poor planning.
World Bank Senior Economist Kai Kaiser acknowledged that one cannot take politics out of road prioritization. “It is a political process. Leaders are going to decide which roads are gonna be built,” he said. (WATCH: Rappler Talk: What roads matter to you? #OpenRoads)
“So the road is built not because it’s the most important one for the community but because it is part of a political project. We’ve heard of roads to my farm,” the World Bank economist added.
According to Kaiser, areas of failure are usually due to short-term decisions. “In the Philippines, for lack of information and the political process, we’ve fallen short,” he said.
The World Bank has been pushing for tools such as the OpenRoads portal that aim to encourage local governments to plan better and be more transparent about road projects.
But with a month left before the elections, will voters choose leaders who will listen to the needs of their constituents and are capable of long term planning or will they fall once again to empty promises?
Join the conversation: #OpenRoads: Can we insulate road projects from politics? on April 5, at 10:30am. – Rappler.com