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Bishops call for separate Samar administrative region


CATARMAN, Northern Samar – A group led by the three Catholic bishops of Samar Island is leading a campaign to declare the island a separate region from Eastern Visayas.

This group, backed bylocal government units in the island, will ask President-elect Rodrigo Duterte to issue an executive order creating a Samar Island administrative region.

The Samar Island Partnership for Peace and Development (SIPPAD), convened by the bishops of the dioceses of Catarman, Calbayog, and Catbalogan, has been soliciting support from different LGUs by asking them to pass resolutions to back up an earlier resolution calling for a separate region for the whole island.

The three church leaders are Bishop Emmanuel Trance of the Diocese of Catarman, Bishop Isabelo Abarquez of the Diocese of Calbayog and Bishop Crispin Varquez of the Diocese of Borongan.

“We already have a resolution of the provincial board of Northern Samar. Eastern Samar governor was there when we had the assembly in Borongan,” Bishop Trance said in an interview. He also said that Samar governor Sharee Ann Tan is also supporting this move.

“There is already a lot of support. At the moment, implicitly all the governors agree to us,” he said.

The group believes that development of Samar will be faster if it will be declared as a separate region. “The current region is big with both Leyte and Samar. Dividing the region will do a lot of help like what happened in Mindanao with the creation of Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao and recently the creation of Negros Island as separate region,” says Bishop Trance.

The three provinces are all listed among the top 20 poorest provinces in the country in the first semester of 2015 report of Philippine Statistics Authority.

In the said report, Northern Samar was listed as the fourth poorest province with a poverty incidence of 61.6 percent. Eastern Samar was ranked 11th poorest with half of its population considered poor while Western Samar was ranked 14th with poverty incidence of 49.5 percent. Leyte, another province in Eastern Visayas was ranked 17th with 46.7 percent of its population considered poor.

Fr. Cesar Aculan, chairman of the technical working group of SIPPAD for the formation of Samar Island Region, said they were able to secure  resolutions from the Philippine Councilors League of Samar, League of Mayors in Eastern Samar, the federation of Association of Barangay Captains and the Provincial Peace and Order Council supporting the creation of Samar Island Region.

The proposal for a separate Samar Island Region was first discussed in the SIPPAD assembly last year. In the last presidential campaign, presidential aspirants Mar Roxas and Grace Poe expressed their support to this proposal if they get elected to office.

Aculan said they submitted a resolution to President Benigno Aquino III imploring him to issue an executive order creating the administrative region of Samar Island but no action was made. He said they were told by the Presidential Management Staff that the president and executive secretary “made a default position of letting the incoming president make the decision.”

A separate open letter signed by the three Samar Island bishops was also addressed to President calling for the same.

Bishop Crispin Varquez of the Diocese of Borongan said that if President-elect Duterte will push for a federal system of government, they will ask to declare Samar Island as a separate state. He said that declaring Samar as a separate region will “maximize the assets of this island.”

Northern Samar Vice Governor Gary Lavin said the provincial government is in full to this proposal. He said Tacloban City, which is the regional center of Eastern Visayas, is too far for them.

“We have to ask our elected President Rodrigo Duterte to grant us a separate region. We should push for a separate region,” he said.

Lavin said one reason for the poverty of Northern Samar is because it is being left out in the planning of government projects. He said the regional office of National Economic Development Authority (NEDA), which approves all government projects, if too far for them to follow up projects for his province.

“I am now on my second term but I haven’t even met the regional director of NEDA. If we are a separate region, we will have and meet our own NEDA regional director up close and personal,” he said.

Lavin explained that the primary reason for the low income of people in Northern Samar is due to poor road network. He set as example Barangay Sumoroy, which is seven kilometers from the poblacion of Lope de Vega town, but it takes up to two days for the farmers to bring their harvest to the town market due to absence of roads and bridges that would shorten the travel time.

“The problem of poverty for many of our residents is the absence of farm to market roads. If these can be provided, our problem with poverty is lessened. If there are roads, farmers can bring their goods to the market at a lesser cost, and this means they will be able to send their children to school,” he said.

“This problem on absence of roads cannot be solved just by the LGU. The government needs P9 million to build a one kilometer road. If one barangay is 6 kilometers away from poblacion, it will need P54 million,” he added.

Northern Samar is the top producer of abaca, second in copra production, and third top producer of rice in Eastern Visayas region. “This is a big waste because we have a very big potential here in Northern Samar,” Lavin said.

Bishop Trance says that while the three Samar Island provinces are among the poorest in the country, he said declaring them a separate region will bring the issue of poverty to the attention of the national government. “Currently we have to compete with Leyte for projects in the region. Their priorities are not our priorities,” Bishop Trance said. — APG, GMA News

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