The road

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Tuesday, May 6, 2014

FOR the past month, I have had the chance to criss-cross Mindanao for work. These were trips to Southeastern Mindanao, into the heartland of Central Mindanao toward Western Mindanao and back for hours and hours of driving through occasionally smooth but mostly, pocked-marked, highways in various states of disrepair.

There is nothing like the visceral experience of seeing firsthand the wide expanse of productive agricultural land punctuated by bustling agricultural and retail trading centers such as Ozamiz, Oroquieta, Valencia, General Santos, and Davao City. But just like the highways that connect these cities to each other, the bad roads between them also indicate the barren unproductive portions where rickety shanties line the road. The roads, I believe, provide an allegory for the contours of the Mindanao political economy.

There are so much resources here that are clear. But the fact that these are concentrated for the benefit of the few land owners in these areas is also obvious. Just look at the people and vehicles using the road. These provide veritable lessons on the political economy of Mindanao.


The gas-guzzling and fast SUVs who are kings of the road are owned by hacienderos with big landholdings, traders who have profited from buying farm products cheap and selling these at high rates, and government officials with the latest pick-up truck models, exposed for their security details with long arms riding at the back. There are also the standard sedans of pharma, milk, and consumer goods agents and the few middle class employed in private and public sector.

They whiz and speed past the other occupants of the Mindanao roads leaving a trail of dust, smoke, and flying pebbles in their wake. Their velocity and their demeanor also represent their location in the social order.

And what are they that these modern gleaming motorized beasts of the upper class overtake? Ten-wheelers that haul the goods to and from the trading centers. These slow, huge and heavy, surplus trucks represent a vital component of the local political economy. These are either closed vans, or tractor heads that pull container vans that ferry consumer goods from the main ports of Cagayan de Oro and Davao toward the satellite trading centers such as Butuan, Surigao, Ozamiz, and Valencia who in turn bring these goods toward the interiors.

The open haulers, on the other hand, that carry sugarcane, corn, rice, pineapples, bananas, indicate the agricultural nature of the Mindanao industry. There are no trucks here that transport industrial products for trade in the ports. In fact, the reverse is true as China-made motorcycles, steel, and even consumer goods are imported for retail in these trading centers – a telling exposition of the nature of rural economy.

The rest of the traveling population representing the farm workers and migrants moving from their rural roots to urban centers, and the occasional tourist cramp themselves within and on top of converted jeepneys with beefed up under chassis of a six-wheeler double-tire. In urban centers serving the army of contractual workers in the malls and the few factories, you have the tricycle or the motorela – a motored tartanilla in case you missed it.

In recent times, the proliferation of cheap but high torque motorcycles have posed challenges to the economic viability of the rural jeepney. This explains the changing feel of the rural Mindanao roads to something akin to Vietnam and Thailand streets where the single motorbike has become ubiquitous and king.

The mighty habal-habal and skylab motorcycles with improvised wooden extensions in the front for the former, and on the side, for the latter are staples further into the interior, transporting people and goods from small farming communities away from the paved highways of trading centers, of course, still remain. They are small enough to navigate through deteriorated logging roads and can successfully negotiate the mudded trails during the rainy season.

Occupying the lowest and slowest tier among the mechanized users of the open road are the kuligligs. They often earn the ire of the SUV riders since they are slow on the road and difficult to spot from their elevated driving positions. These farm machines or pumpboat engines converted into modes of public transport are sad indications of the losing viability of both small-time farming and fishing in our rural areas. The farmer and fisherman turned kuliglig driver, buried in debt from the SUV-owning trader, have left these once productive occupations to rely on the transport fare of the few government employees in their rural town barely making ends meet.

Ethnography of the Mindanao roads not only reveals the agricultural nature of the economy but also the current political economy of the place. The chaos in the streets of Mindanao from this critical vista is also the site of daily class warfare among those who travel along its roads.

Published in the Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro newspaper on May 06, 2014.


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