The new guards: About 500 of Isabela’s youth joined in the Bambanti Festival street dance celebrations, making it one of the largest festival practices in the country, while displaying the creative and collaborative spirit of its budding generation.
Following the Yellow Brick Road at Isabela’s Bambanti Festival
John A. Magsaysay (The Philippine Star) - February 12, 2017 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - The path to progress isn’t always paved and golden. Sometimes, it is rugged and riddled with so many turns, which sure can take time. It also comes with harder choices and even more complicated consequences that have to be faced. On a midnight bus, sitting idly on a nine-hour trip towards Luzon’s northeastern tip, this is what I realized. That, for much of the journey, the roads can be dark and winding. But the first rays of dawn can display the hope that comes with the Philippines’ own Emerald City.

As swathes of farmland stretch from its rural towns to its bustling cities, it speaks volumes of the province’s down-to-earth nature. The cornfields offer a sense of simple optimism with ears thrusting towards the sunlight. The young green sprouts of rice swaying with the gentle winds quietly yearn for a rewarding harvest. Though picturesque, these aren’t exactly the sights that lure tourists here. But Isabela has long been known to turn its weaknesses into strengths.

THE GIFTS OF PRESENT     

A close inspection of the map shows Isabela’s geographical greatness. It is the largest contiguous province in the country, with a scale that can fit Bulacan, Pampanga and Tarlac, and still leave room for more. The verdant mountains of the Sierra Madre form its backbone, bordered by the roaring Pacific coasts.

But despite a seemingly strategic location, Isabela is also exposed to certain challenges. Last Oct. 19, Category 5 typhoon Lawin made landfall in its northern towns, its cyclone bringing destruction to an 800-kilometer span. It left behind three dead and damages of over P4 billion. Yet, for a disaster matching the size and strength of the historic Typhoon Yolanda in 2013, Lawin left behind seemingly tougher, more robust Isabelanos.

“After three months, we are proud to showcase how Isabela was able to completely rebound. Despite all the problems that Isabela has been faced, we still give thanks for the bountiful things that we can offer,” declares Isabela Vice Governor Antonio “Tonypet” Albano, in time as his province celebrates its annual Bambanti Festival. Make no mistake: the Vice Governor has also been reeling from the storm’s home-wrecking wrath since.

Bambanti means ‘scarecrow’ in Ilocano. The main role of a scarecrow is to ward off the birds that eat the harvest. The bambanti also spreads its arms left to right, as Jesus did (on the cross). For us, the bambanti is Christ protecting the land. We want to show that our figure is strong, resilient; that we will be able to rise above whatever tragedies we have,” Albano says.

And rise above, Isabela did. It posted record numbers in both corn and rice production last year, maintaining its position as the country’s top and second-biggest producers of the chief grains, respectively. It was also awarded the Gawad Kalasag for the Best Disaster Risk Reduction in the Philippines, a model for the country’s timely answer to the changing climate’s greater challenges.

These make for very colorful feathers in the province’s cap, best worn by the scarecrows that dominate the year’s festivities. Found just outside the provincial capitol in Ilagan City were 15 monolithic bambantis, each one fashioned from native materials, some taking the form of beauty queens, robots, farm beasts or mythical creatures. These giants guard individual chalets, displaying each town’s proud agricultural produce or eco-tourism suits: from corn to mung beans, hydro-powered dams to colorfully woven straw hats. 

“This is our way of promoting our cottage industries in different municipalities. It is our way of telling the world that, here in Isabela, you can actually do business, and there are certain products that are not only unique but comparable with the rest of the world. Hopefully, through these, we can attract not only visitors, but also investors to come do business here,” the Vice Governor explains.

This wouldn’t be the first comeback, however. As Albano points out, investments started pouring in with the province’s premiere festival seven years ago. It has witnessed the rise of industrial farming as large-scale players from across the country started investing in Isabela’s fertile valleys. It also encouraged widespread growth of organic farming and permaculture in the province, allowing small-scale Isabela farmers to enjoy the two sides of agricultural practices.

With this, Albano hopes that in the future, Isabela will have its reign as the top grains producer in the Philippines, despite past tragedies.

THE PROMISES OF THE FUTURE

“But development should be made in consonance with the environment. In preserving our environment and promoting our economy, there has to be a balance,” the Vice Governor reminds. 

Just half a decade ago, the province was an illegal logging hotspot, as the forests of the Sierra Madres offered stealth and wealth for illicit loggers, mostly immigrant hardwood industrialists. But the province witnessed a turnaround, and has since ditched the old logging path for a new, progressive track towards the future.

The government is currently building an 80-kilometer road to stretch from the provincial capital towards the Pacific-facing towns of Divilacan, Maconacon, Palanan, San Mariano and Dinapigue, opening these areas for more tourism potential as well as the more capable policing of forest poachers. “In Palanan, there’s one beach with a waterfall that directly hits the white sands below, and behind it is a backdrop of virgin forests. We also have the Honeymoon Island in Divilacan, an island in the shape of a heart with white sand all over and a lagoon in the middle. And then there are the surfing beaches of Maconacon which can rival that of Siargao’s.” Albano promises an even more breathtaking view of Isabela than its fertile farmlands.

Yet, the province knows caring for its environment doesn’t stop at preservation; it has to be sustainable as well. “We also have the biggest investment in renewable power in the country,” Albano says. In addition to the town of Ramon’s Magat Dam, the largest hydropower plant in the country, Isabela also has a 16-megawatt ethanol-powered plant in San Mariano, a 20-megawatt rice husk-powered plant in Alicia, a solar power farm in Sta. Maria, and a Korean-built hydropower plant in Cauayan City, all attributing to the province’s self-sufficiency in clean, renewable energy.

 “These are all ecologically-sound industrial companies that are entering Isabela, and that is what the Bambanti Festival brought in. The Bambanti is created from natural materials built to ward off pests. That is the mindset (we have), to use ecologically-sound solutions to complex problems,” Albano explains.

These energy advancements also helped empower Isabela’s future industries. The City of Cauayan, touted as the “Ideal City of the North,” currently prides itself as a smart city, with public Wi-Fi connectivity, and app-based public services. But soon, by forming a business processing triangle with the neighboring cities of Santiago and Ilagan, Cauayan is set to become the first fiber-optic cyber-city outside of Metro Manila.

As the province sways from a thriving agricultural locale to a vibrant industrial province, the scarecrow festival certainly has a lot to celebrate. Awarded as the Best Festival Practice by Aliwan Festival for two consecutive years, the Bambanti Festival gathers the most number of street dancers in any Philippine festival, filling its three-day festivities, held at the City of Ilagan Sports Complex, with a colorful, creative, and complex display of fierce acrobatic talent.

Fifteen towns battled it out this year for the honor of Best Streetdance and Best Festival Dance Showdown, each displaying the agile skill and self-confidence of the Isabela youth — a well-choreographed, collaborative display of a single, unified direction showcasing Isabela’s unique position, under the considerate watch of the resilient and diligent scarecrow. Judging from its tireless energy, the future of Isabela is brimming with dynamism, cooperation and self-assurance.

And while each of the festival’s showcases has its own winners, the real victors of the festivity are some 1.5 million people of the whole Isabela province, whose skills, pride and conscientious strides toward progress are finally reaping bigger rewards.

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