Abolition of Negros Island Region: Good or bad news?

Firth McEachern
Abolition of Negros Island Region: Good or bad news?
'The Negros Island Region was probably not a good idea in the first place'

In August, President Rodrigo Duterte signed the Executive Order 183 to abolish the Negros Island Region (NIR).

Former presidential candidate Mar Roxas bemoaned the abolition since he pressured former president Benigno Aquino III to create it in 2015.

I think President Duterte made the right decision.

The Negros Island Region was probably not a good idea in the first place, for the following reasons:

Cost. It would be incredibly expensive to set up – P19 billion or roughly $371,000,000.

Numbers. It would only comprise two provinces: Negros Occidental and Negros Oriental. No other region in the country has only two provinces. What kind of “region” is that?

Contrasts within. The two provinces are completely distinct: Negros Occidental is mainly Hiligaynon-speaking, whereas Negros Oriental is mainly Cebuano speaking. Occidental has a much bigger population than Oriental. Occidental has a much higher income than Oriental.

Similarity with others. Negros Occidental has more in common with the rest of the Western Visayas region, from which it was temporarily severed, than with Negros Oriental. Likewise, Negros Oriental has more in common with the rest of Central Visayas, from which it was severed and now reunited with.

Language. Putting two provinces together that speak different languages is problematic. Regional offices would be forced to recruit people from both provinces, and staff would not be able to communicate effectively in their respective languages. They would form linguistic factions, or be forced to communicate in Tagalog or English with each other.

This situation could erode and marginalize their native languages, as has happened with the merger of Pangasinan province with the Ilocos region. The Pangasinan and Ilocano languages are both threatened by the Tagalog language, as the latter dominates media, education, and now the regional government. India avoided this problem by redrawing state lines along linguistic boundaries in 1956. Mar Roxas wanted to do the opposite, undermining the cultural and linguistic heritage of both provinces. 

Convenience. Supporters of NIR said that it would be more convenient for Negrenses. Their plan was to locate some agencies in Bacolod (capital of Negros Occidental), and some in Dumaguete (capital of Negros Oriental). But would it be more convenient actually? Although these cities are on the same island, they are actually really far apart.

One has to take an arduous bus ride of up to 6 hours and cross a mountain chain to get from one to the other. By contrast, Iloilo (the center of government agencies for the Western Visayas region) is very near Bacolod – less than an hour away by boat! Cebu City, meanwhile, is faster to get to from Dumaguete than to Bacolod. The fact that Dumaguete and Bacolod are on the same island does not mean that they are convenient for one another, especially considering that Negros is one of the biggest islands in the country and sea travel is often more direct than land transport.

Due process. It is ironic that Senator Bam Aquino said, “We are disappointed with the decision to abolish the Negros Island Region amidst the Negrenses’ appeal for unification.” What appeal? The truth is that Negrenses were largely ambivalent, if not skeptical, of the move to create NIR. NIR was created by Executive Order, not a democratic referendum.

The President was lobbied by powerful politicians, not the populace. These politicians collected signatures from residents to create an impression of public support. I spoke with an education administrator who was invited to one such signature collection drives. According to him, the program consisted of a few speeches, dances, songs, and free food, with no debate or Q&A for the audience. And what he thought was the attendance sheet turned out to be the petition, containing all their signatures!

Given this haphazard and possibly duplicitous campaign, I don’t think we can confidently say that the creation of NIR actually represented the people’s wishes.     

Who benefits? The governors of the respective Negros provinces pushed for the creation of NIR, as well as local congressmen. Did they fully consider the geographic, linguistic, and economic divides between them, or were they more attracted to the power and money that could be gained from the government agencies’ move to their backyard? They would have more influence over official appointments, what government projects were approved, who should be contracted to do them, how much should be spent, and more. 

Viable alternative. Keeping the regional government headquarters in Cebu and Iloilo does not mean poor service for Negrenses. A viable alternative is having provincial field offices established and/or strengthened in both Negros provinces so that more services can be delivered directly to the people.

Not too late. Little has been done since 2015 to make the Negros Island Region a functioning reality. Most government agencies have not yet created NIR offices, and those that have been operating with a skeleton, even volunteer staff.  Thus, it was wise of the President to make a decision now before the situation became more expensive, messier, and entangled.

The abolition of the Negros Island Region will, of course, be bad news to some, and will have some negative impacts. But, arguably, it was the most sensible decision. – Rappler.com  

Firth McEachern has lived in the Philippines for more than 7 years. He has worked as a consultant for local government and international development organizations, taught at the college level, and is frequently tapped as a resource person for education and management trainings. He has a Bachelor degree from Harvard University and a Masters degree from Ateneo de Manila University

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