Modern Living

Pastoral pleasures at Isabela’s Bambanti Festival

JOYFUL HARVEST - Joy Angelica Subido, Joy Angelica Subido, Karla Alindahao - The Philippine Star

Perhaps it is a sign of urbanization. While young people in the big cities are more likely to associate the scarecrow with a DC Comics super villain, local farmers in the countryside see it as an ally to ward off pests and improve harvest yields. In a province such as Isabela that is working towards becoming the “Agro-Industrial Capital of the Philippines” in the coming decade, the scarecrow or bambanti has been adopted as a symbol for celebration, merrymaking and economic progress. Fittingly, one could not miss seeing a 12-foot scarecrow with its right arm beckoning at this year’s Bambanti Festival. Like the maneki-neko or lucky fortune cat favored by the Chinese, the bambanti figure invites visitors to explore Isabela’s various tourist attractions and business opportunities.

Fertile farmlands and promising investment opportunities

“Maddulu kamu” means “welcome” in Ibanag, the language spoken in Isabela. What welcomes the traveler on a road trip to the province is the sight of verdant farmlands predominantly planted to rice and corn. In recent years the Mindanao Grains Processing Company, an agribusiness company, opened a P500 million post-harvest facility in Isabela. The corn processing center, touted as the largest in Southeast Asia, is in the municipality of Reina Mercedes and is meant to enhance food security in the country.

However, food production is not the only business concern in the province. With Magat Dam in Isabela, power generation is likewise a key interest. The 360-megawatt Magat hydroelectric power plant in Ramon, Isabela owned and operated by SN/Aboitiz Power Group (SNAP), a joint venture between SN Power of Norway and Aboitiz Group of the Philippines, is a company that has received recognition for its safety, management and social responsibility programs.

Moreover, Green Future Innovations Inc. (GFFI) operates a US$120 million bioethanol plant in the municipality of San Mariano in keeping with the current demand for green fuel.  A joint venture between Japan’s Itocho Corporation, Taiwanese holding company GCO, and Philippine partners, the plant gives farmers within a 30-kilometer radius a ready market for their sugarcane crop. Aside from producing biofuel, the facility also has a 19-megawatt power plant that converts sugarcane residual material (or bagasse) to electricity. Estimates show that the power plant has the capacity to contribute up to 13 megawatts to the Luzon grid in the future.

Business breaks for start-ups & mom and pop ventures

Even without the backing of substantial investment capital of huge corporations, opportunities abound for individuals whose goal is to set up their own businesses in Isabela. The cities of Cauayan, Santiago and Ilagan are thriving economic hubs where even the smaller players can derive respectable revenues.  But while businesses pertaining to agriculture continue to do well, more infrastructure developments translate to opportunities in building supply and labor.

However, seeing that the food business is favored by many who are just starting out, we decided to check out the local food scene. In Cauayan City, we visited Aling Luring’s, a restaurant that has been serving local merienda fare of serkela(a soup of beef tripe and sweetbreads) palabok, goto, tokwa’t baboy,okoy  and other dishes to a steady stream of customers since 1985. We visited Sanitary Bakery, first opened during the 1930’s, and has remained a mainstay for pastries including old-fashioned baked goodies like camachile cookies.  We also met Josephine Alejandro of Burgos, Isabela who is into her second year of winemaking and sampled her unusual sweet, mildly potent calamansi wine — a still unnamed home-made tonic with promising economic potential.  We surmise that the success of Flor’s lechon eat-all-you-can for P100 in Ilagan is proof the Isabelinos are prudent with their hard earned money. For those in search of food exotica, there is buteng, a sea snail from Palanan. While chewy and tasty when served kinilaw (as a ceviche), the mollusk in its shell is a bit fearsome since it resembles a human eye. (Hence, we presume, its name since ‘buteng’ is the Ilocano word for fear.)

Tapping tourism potential

That the province has tremendous tourism potential cannot be denied. As home to the 3000-square-kilometer Northern Sierra Madre Natural Park, which is the largest protected area in the country, there are countless opportunities for eco-tourism activities such as bird-watching, trekking, kayaking or rafting and others. The remote municipality of Palanan is a coastal town where one can go scuba diving or snorkeling. One can watch out for dolphins cavorting in the water while enjoying 113 kilometers of fine white sandy shoreline. However, we only had a chance to go to the Ilagan Sanctuary with its nine caves, wild life park and waterfall during this visit. For the young thrill seekers in the group, the zip-line there proved to be a key attraction.

For the religiously inclined as well as those interested in architecture, there are 17th-century Spanish churches such as St Paul’s in the municipality of San Pablo, and the Tumauini  Church (or St. Mathias’ Church) which is made up of bricks and boasts of having the only cylindrical bell tower in the Philippines. Our Lady of the Pillar in Cauayan has been enlarged but part of the original structure has become the Adoration Chapel. And interestingly, we observed that the church’s resident bats continue to inhabit only the old portion of the structure.

But while tourism is still a fledgling industry in the province, local businessmen are gearing up for more visitors as interest in Isabela mounts. There is, for example, Theo Angelo Garcia who has diversified from his agricultural supply business to put up a boutique hotel. Just opened in late January of this year, Hotel Sophia is meant to provide safe, comfortable lodging to both traders and tourists.

“Isabelinos are inherently a hardy and resilient people,” confirms Isabela governor Faustino “Bojie” Dy III. “The scarecrow stands as a symbol of the industry, vigilance, dynamism and fortitude of our people. It represents the growth and progress derived from agriculture. For this reason, the Bambanti Festival is a celebration and thanksgiving for our economic stability and remarkable natural and human capital.”







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