Rural Philippines, Long Neglected, Newly Appealing in Covid Times

LEYTE, the Philippines — For nearly all the pandemic, Marlen Zilmar woke up to the sound of roosters. Before the sun reached its fierce apogee, she’d swing a makeshift watering can made of a perforated plastic bottle over the garden in her family home, where she had returned after the coronavirus hit Manila.

The scene of okra plants, banana trees and harvesting the day’s crop might seem timeless. But Ms. Zilmar’s interest in returning to her rural roots is new. Historically, economic prospects in urban areas have lured Filipinos from the countryside in bigger numbers than the cities can handle. The pandemic shifted that pattern, and whether it can be sustained will depend on the nation’s ability and desire to reinvigorate the economically neglected hinterlands.

Since the 1970s, the era of Ferdinand E. Marcos’s dictatorship, every Philippine leader has encouraged rural development, in an attempt to alleviate overcrowding in Metro Manila, the dense patchwork of 16 cities that comprise the Philippines’ urban core. His son, Ferdinand R. “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., recently elected as the nation’s next president, echoed a similar theme in his campaign, invoking his father’s legacy.

Despite the many government efforts, the percentage of urban dwellers has generally risen as the nation has grown. Less than a third of the population was urban in 1970; 47 percent live in urban areas today. Metro Manila had less than four million residents in 1970; it has over 13 million today.

Commuters in Manila, one of the most densely populated cities in the world.Credit…Hannah Reyes Morales for The New York Times
Lining up for food in Metro Manila in 2020. Adult unemployment in the city reached record highs amid the pandemic.Credit…Hannah Reyes Morales for The New York Times

In this populous country with poverty at its most intense in rural areas, and a work force with more education than there are jobs, moving to the city or overseas to send money back home is often an economic necessity. It is also the sign of a fundamental imbalance: between urban and rural, between qualifications and opportunity, between the vision of the political elite and the realities of ordinary people.

The disparities have existed for decades, little changed by politics or policy. The trade-offs, though, suddenly looked a little different in the pandemic.

When work dried up amid lockdowns, for many newcomers, the appeal of city life faded, too. In rural places they still had ties to, there was at least food, a place to stay, and space for social distancing.

Ms. Zilmar, 50, had spent five years in Manila as a maid and a food court cashier to help pay the college tuition of five children. When the food court closed early in the pandemic, she moved in with her nephew, but couldn’t make ends meet. Her husband was too old to continue fishing, and none of her children had steady work. She began considering a return to Leyte, more than 500 miles from Manila, where her family is from.

Her timing was fortunate. In March 2020, Manila shut down, closing regional borders and halting public transportation between provinces for months. Subsequently, lockdowns and strict travel document requirements trapped many others.

Over the decades, the government had devised programs to encourage people, especially informal settlers, to move to rural areas. Ms. Zilmar nabbed a slot in a pilot phase of the latest version, introduced after Covid-19 took hold and signed into law in May 2020 by President Rodrigo Duterte.

Participants in the program, titled “Return to the Province, New Hope,” got start-up cash, livelihood training, relocation assistance and subsidies, and a one-way bus or plane ticket as part of the project’s resettlement effort. Ms. Zilmar also got some seeds; others received a pair of piglets.

Resty Zilmar, the youngest of Marlen Zilmar’s sons, at the Zilmars’ home in Leyte. During the pandemic, the family moved from Manila back to the countryside.Credit…Hannah Reyes Morales for The New York Times
A family making fish bait in Tanauan, where Marlen Zilmar and her family are from. Farming, fishing and construction drive the local economy.Credit…Hannah Reyes Morales for The New York Times

The initial resettlement phase of the program was short lived.

In the first 10 days, 53,000 people applied. But after an initial transport of 112 people to Leyte, the resettlement effort was suspended indefinitely, with the government explaining that it wanted to focus on Filipinos stranded in Manila during the lockdown — returning overseas workers, tourists, students — first. The program got around 100,000 applications in all, though some people were ineligible or have since lost interest. Currently a little under 10,000 are on a wait list, and small groups have periodically been sent over the past two years.

Without government support, families from the big cities face the same challenges in rural communities.

Endrita Jabaybay, who had lived in Tondo, Manila’s largest slum, for 12 years. When her husband’s work as a welder slowed early in the pandemic, they could no longer pay their rent or electricity bill.

Smokey Mountain, a residential community, with the skyline of Metro Manila in the background.Credit…Hannah Reyes Morales for The New York Times
Endrita Jabaybay at home with her daughters in Manila. The family tried to get government help to leave the city during the pandemic, but eventually went on their own.Credit…Hannah Reyes Morales for The New York Times

When the Facebook page for Return to Province went up, she joined those imploring the program staff to include her, petitioning every week, to no avail. She decided to leave the city anyway at the end of 2020. She and her husband now grow rice to get by.

In the Philippines, there has long been an urban-rural disparity. In Leyte, where Ms. Zilmar returned to, farming, fishing and construction drive the local economy; the nominal minimum wage is around 60 percent that of Manila’s.

Dakila Kim Yee, a sociologist at the University of the Philippines Visayas Tacloban College, in Leyte, said that his university offers a program in computer science, but there are no local jobs for graduates with that degree.

Without better economic prospects in rural communities, Ladylyn Mangada, a political scientist at the University of the Philippines Tacloban, said that the program itself is unsustainable, given its reliance on small cash payments or one-time allocations.

“How are you going to feed the piglet?” she said, referring to the promise of free livestock. How are you going to feed yourself?”

Fishermen near the Zilmars’ provincial home in Leyte.Credit…Hannah Reyes Morales for The New York Times
Fish laid out on bamboo. Drying fish is one source of income in Leyte.Credit…Hannah Reyes Morales for The New York Times

Beyond the resettlement effort, the creators of Return to the Province have outlined an ambitious development vision: new water facilities and expanded ports, high-speed internet and modern farming technologies, upgraded health centers and new loan opportunities, new economic zones and the “decentralization of powers and seats of governance.”

National and local governments would share the cost for the first two years, and then the program would rely on local funds.

Despite previous failures, planners are hopeful. The program has short-, medium- and long-term plans aiming to ensure “balanced regional development” and the “equitable distribution of wealth, resources and opportunities” Kimberly Tiburcio, who is involved in the program as part of the National Housing Authority, said this month.

Candidates in the recent election, as usual, made rural development and the decentralization of Manila prime talking points.

“Our infrastructure should spur rural development because right now, development is so much concentrated in Metro Manila,” Vice President Robredo, said in October, the month candidates filed presidential bids. She came in a distant second in the presidential contest.

Mr. Marcos, the winning candidate, boasted on his website of prioritizing agriculture for economic development, as inspired by the legacy of his father. (Although he has not spoken about the future of the current program, the Return to the Province policy was first introduced under the older Marcos’s kleptocratic dictatorship, which ended in 1986.)

A shanty community overlooking the skyline of Metro Manila.Credit…Hannah Reyes Morales for The New York Times
Endrita Jabaybay, left, walking with her family to their home in Manila.Credit…Hannah Reyes Morales for The New York Times

The Zilmars, among the 730 or so people to secure a spot in the program so far, loved their transition to rural life.

Resty Zilmar, Marlen’s youngest son, 24, would climb a tree to knock down a coconut for a snack. To get firewood for cooking, he’d hack down branches. Yes, their roof leaked, but there was no rent, no crowds, no pollution, no gas bill, no water bill.

But jobs were hard to come by, and late last year, he and his mother returned to urban life. He’s working as a pharmacist assistant in the city of Tacloban, about an hour from his provincial home, although he hasn’t given up on life in the countryside. Within the decade he wants to return and open his own pharmacy, filling a gap in his village’s access to medicine, he said.

Until then, he looks back to when his family relied on traditional pursuits to pass time in the early pandemic. During one full moon, the electricity failed, a common occurrence in the provinces, so the Zilmars gathered on bamboo armchairs outside and sang, strumming guitars underneath the moonlit banana trees.

Resty Zilmar near the Zilmars’ home in rural Leyte. He enjoys rural life, but eventually had to return to a more urban area for work.Credit…Hannah Reyes Morales for The New York Times

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