In one of history’s strange twists and accidents, the biggest natural disasters to befall the Philippines have happened when an Aquino was on watch as the president of the Republic. To yellow loyalists, this happenstance is fortuitous, perhaps a stroke of luck. To non-admirers and independents, it is fateful and ominous, a twist of fate and run of bad luck.
On June 15, 1991, Mt Pinatubo, a volcano located at the tripoint of the provinces of Zambales, Tarlac and Pampanga, erupted and produced the second largest terrestrial eruption of the 20th century, exceeded only by the 1912 eruption of Novarupta in the Alaska Peninsula.
The eruption was felt worldwide. It ejected roughly 10,000,000,000 short tons or 10 km3 (2.4 cu mi) of magma, bringing vast quantities of minerals and metals to the surface environment. It injected large amounts of particulate into the stratosphere—so much that Global temperatures dropped by about 0.5 °C (0.9 °F).
So massive was the eruption and the damage that the United States literally ran from Subic Bay Naval Base and Clark Air Base.
Corazon Cojuangco-Aquino was president of the republic at the time. She served as president from 1986 to 1992.
On November 8, 2013, Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan internationally), a powerful tropical cyclone, entered the Philippine area of responsibility and devastated many islands of the Visayas, particularly Samar and Leyte. The deadliest and most destructive typhoon on record, it killed as of the last count some 6,201 people in the country alone, and caused damage estimated at well over a hundred billion pesos.
Benigno S. Aquino 3rd, son of Corazon Aquino, is now the president on watch, sworn into office in 2010, with his term expiring in 2016.
The character of the two events—unprecedented in scale and nearly incalculable in impact—is what naturally draws them together. The fact that our leaders in these events are so closely related is circumstantial.
What is compelling is the contrasting records of the two Aquino administrations in dealing with their respective catastrophes, and their sharply different approaches in the process of recovery and reconstruction.
While the mother, a native of Tarlac, helped in shaping the government’s vigorous response to Pinatubo, the son has been slow and diffident in responding to Yolanda.
The rebound of the most devastated regions from the two catastrophes has been an even starker study in contrast – spectacular in the case of Pinatubo, lifeless in the case of Yolanda. While Central Luzon rebounded quickly and was able to rebuild, especially from the abandoned base facilities in Subic Bay and Clark Air Field, East Visayas has been very slow in getting back on its feet, hampered severely by the lack of a clear and purposive government program for recovery and rebuilding, despite massive international help and commitment to the process of regeneration.
I juxtapose the two disasters and the contrasting recovery records because they bring out in bold relief what is sorely missing in East Visayas today and why the future is so bleak for the over four million people of the region.
In a word, it was enlightened legislation that seeded the impressive rise of Subic and Clark as economic zones; and it is the lack of legislation for East Visayas recovery and development that keeps it distressed and in the shallows
Recovering from Mt. Pinatubo
Immediately after the haze cleared from Mt. Pinatubo’s eruption, the national government, together with Congress and the local governments and communities of Central Luzon, got to work to pass a law that would enable the affected areas to recover and build the foundations for a better future.
This visionary response was embodied in the passage of Republic Act No. 7227, the Bases Conversion and Development Act of 1992.
This landmark legislation is notable for its enlightened policy to accelerate the sound and balanced conversion into alternative productive uses of the Clark and Subic military bases, and its desire to promote “the economic and social development of Central Luzon in particular and the country in general.”
The law created three major authorities:
First, the Bases Conversion and Development Authority, a corporate body tasked with designing a comprehensive and detailed development plan for the conversion of the base lands and military camps in Metro Manila.
Second, the establishment of the Subic Special Economic Zone, for the conversion and development of the Subic Naval Base, and the creation of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority to serve as the operating and implementing arm of the BCDA.
Third, the establishment of the Clark Special Economic Zone, for the conversion and development of the former air base. The law authorized the president to establish the governing body for the Clark special zone.
The act also mandated the BCDA to lead and manage the conversion of other former US facilities and the sale of Metro Manila military camps.
The Bases Conversion and Development Act (BCDA) of 1992 was signed into law by President Corazon Aquino on March 13, 1992—some 22 years ago.
No doubt, the dawning presidential election of May 1992 helped in speeding up congressional and presidential decision-making for the BCDA.
Two decades after its passage, like the decision of the Philippine Senate to reject a new military bases agreement with the US, the impact of the law is clear for all to see.
The conversion and development of Subic and Clark have been nothing short of spectacular. Not only did we build on what the Americans left behind; we built in their wake dynamic economic zones that are havens of investments and productivity today.
Rebuilding from Yolanda
In saddening and enraging contrast to the Pinatubo response, the response to Yolanda has been halting, confused, politicized, and incompetent.
In contrast to the swift clearing of lahar and the quick adoption of a development plan for Subic and Clark, the government was slow in collecting the bodies of the dead, slow in providing relief and aid to survivors, slow in providing provisional shelter, slow in restoring vital utilities, slow in keeping public order, and slow in restoring government services.
But the gravest shortcoming of all is the lack of a plan for recovery and reconstruction.
What passes for a plan, according to my colleague Rigoberto Tiglao in his column of Feruary 17, is a 21-page document lifted from the Asian Development Bank’s documents for a $500 million loan.
“What stands for a plan are three and half pages of mostly motherhood statements,” he wrote.
Former senator Panfilo Lacson, whom Presient Aquino designated as his point man for the post-Yolanda rehabilitation effort, it turns out, has no authority whatever.
What passes for a call to action on Lacson’s end is a slogan, “Build Back Better,” high-sounding but meaning exactly nothing.
The government is groping because it absolutely has no vision of the future it wants to see emerge in the region. Where there is no vision, no amount of coordination can make varied agencies cohere into a whole.
Centrzal Luzon could move forward quickly because everyone cohered quickly around the vision of converting Subic and Clark into special economic zones, which was embodied in an act of Congress.
In the case of East Visayas after Yolanda, the 15th Congress, which took office in July 2013, has yet to pass one single law to assist in East Visayas recovery and reconstruction.
I believe that it is time for government to get into the act —to lead in passing legislation analogous to what was done for Central Luzon after Pinatubo.
I believe Congress should pass a law called the East Visayas Recovery and Development Act, which will specifically affirm as national policy the comprehensive recovery and development of East Visayas, and establish an East Visayas Development Authority as the agency that will make it happen. The plan should embrace every key sectore vital to the region’s development, shelter, agriculture, manufacturing, power and utilities, education and social development—in short, a comprehensive plan.
East Visayas is sizable and not without resources. It is an energy powerhouse because of its geothermal resources and has rich mineral and fishery resources. It has a sizable population of over four million.
And a land area of 2,156,285 hectares, with a population of 4,101,322 people.
There is an area in Leyte, close to historic San Juanico Bridge, in the junction between Samar and Leyte, which is most suitable for the establishment of a special economic zone that can serve the two islands and its six provinces. It is close to where a new port is now being built.
The situation of East Visayas today—130 days after Yolanda struck—is a textbook case in the study of leadership and social transformation.
The region thirsts for an act of will and leadership to forge the future and avert its slide to economic depression.
Congress, with legislators hailing from East Visayas in the lead, should grab the moment to perform an act of creative leadership and statesmanship by passing legislation for the recovery and development of East Visayas. Economists, development planners and engineers can flesh out the vision. The important thing is that the work of planning begin at once.
Congress can be the key, if it grasps the urgency of the need for change, sees its possibility, and envisions its direction.
It’s said that a vision is a portrait of the future to which you can commit. Let this be the future for East Visayas to which we all commit, President Aquino included.