Starweek Magazine

Basilan takes big steps with a small project

- Tina Cuyugan -

ISABELA CITY, BASILAN ,Philippines  – At Barangay Seaside, residents mill excitedly around the construction workers who are setting the foundation for a new boat landing.

Such boat landings – small wharves of reinforced concrete that make it easy to load and unload passengers and cargo, without the boats having to be drawn up on shore – are relatively simple infrastructure projects that can be completed in a few weeks, but help transform a community.

At the center of the construction activity in Barangay Seaside is a Muslim woman, clad in a traditional black abaya: Elaine Hayad, an engineer and manager for barangay infrastructure projects funded and built by the U.S. government in Basilan, including the new boat landing.

“People shouldn’t underestimate the effect of an orderly environment with good infrastructure,” says Hayad, who has observed the results of earlier projects she had overseen for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

In an underdeveloped coastal area, Hayad says, a boat landing can spark economic activity and have a ripple effect on residents’ quality of life.

Children gather at a footbridge built through USAID-GEM’s infrastucture project.

A short drive down the coast, in Sitio Tupay, Barangay Tabuk, storeowner Nadzra Hasim testifies to the changes brought about by another boat landing completed earlier in the year by Hayad’s team.

“More boats have been coming in, from as far as Lantawan, bringing fresh and dried fish, and pusit (squid),” Hasim says, adding that eateries and more stores have sprung up next

to the new landing, with pedicabs moving in and out of its small square.

Sheltered by the bright blue roof of the boat landing’s passenger shed, she describes other transformations. “Even residents from other barangays like to gather here in the afternoon now, to watch the sunset and eat and enjoy themselves.”

Hasim adds: “This boat landing has been a real blessing to the community, and not just because it brings in more income.”

Engineer Hayad explains that in such projects, the beneficiary communities have direct “buy-in”: the projects are built through a partnership agreement between USAID’s Growth with Equity in Mindanao (GEM) program and the local government, which provides at least a 25 percent counterpart contribution to the project.

With its partners and under the oversight of the Mindanao Development Authority, USAID-GEM has built more than 1,200 barangay infrastructure projects in the conflict-affected areas of Mindanao.

Store owner Nadzra Hasim says business has been brisk since the Sito Tupay boat landing was constructed.

These include bridges and footbridges, water systems, solar dryers, trading centers, irrigation facilities, and road renovations and upgrades, depending on each community’s needs.

“When local governments contribute to a project, they feel part of it, they are proud of their contribution and the service they are providing their people,” says Hayad.

Hayad herself takes pride in her GEM work which, in addition to project management, includes ensuring that subcontractors and local partners comply with their project commitments – a task requiring both delicacy and determination, as well as knowledge of the local milieu.

Her regular visits to the construction sites has made her a familiar if unique sight to Basilan residents.

“Women engineers in Basilan are rare, and are even more rarely field-based,” explains Hayad, who was originally from Jolo.

Her husband, an Islamic religious instructor or ustadz, tells her, “Even though you are not from Basilan, you have made a big difference in people’s lives here.”

In another barangay known as Kampurnah, where almost all the houses rest on stilts in shallow seawater, residents nod in recognition as Hayad walks briskly along the reinforced concrete walkway – another USAID project – that threads through the jampacked community.

“We have Samal, Yakan, Tausug, Badjao and Christian families all crowded together here,” says Carsumi Pierra, the former barangay chairman of Kampurnah’s Zone 3. “There used to be a lot of petty crime, and pedicabs would refuse to enter the area at night.”

Engineer Elaine Hayad walks along one of the USAID-GEM footbridges whose construction she supervised.

She recalls how the main walkway in Zone 3 used to be made up of old planks of wood, which had to be constantly replaced. The columns and girders holding up the walkway were in an advanced state of decay.

“Whenever a fire broke out or there was some other emergency, people would crowd onto the walkway and many would fall into the water. It was dangerous,” says Pierra.

Pierra reported the situation to the city government, which helped the barangay to request USAID assistance.

Within months, Hayad’s team had replaced the wooden structure with a concrete footbridge more than 230 meters long, a boon to the community of more than 3,500 residents.

Malaking tulong talaga ang GEM (GEM has been a big help). With this footbridge, people can move in and out easily and safely,” says Pierras. “We don’t have to worry about accidents, and residents can even bring in their motorcycles along the footbridge to their houses instead of parking them far away.

“After we added lights to the walkway, the community felt even more secure, and there has been more cooperation.”

Cooperation is also reinforced by commercial activity, such as that generated by the GEM-built trading center in Isabela, where every available space appears to be spread with dry goods, fresh produce, and carinderia displays of steaming food.

Madzda Kassam, a vegetable seller, says she could remember a time when there were almost no vendors in the area. Now, she says, they were competing for space.

“Good infrastructure fosters efficiency, speeding up the movement of goods,” Hayad points out. “A trading center draws more vendors, more income. A boat landing means a faster turn-around for deliveries, which are no longer hindered by tidal changes.”

Despite having been an engineer for three decades, Hayad is still excited by every GEM project she works on. “I can’t sleep the night before the start of a new project,” she confesses. “It is very satisfying to be able to solve a problem and see the finished product.”

USAID-GEM barangay infrastructure projects, or BIPs, have provided direct benefits to approximately a million residents in conflict-affected areas of Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago, helping to improve the quality of life and economic wellbeing of their communities.

BIP projects are complemented by GEM’s larger, higher-impact infrastructure projects, designed to support the economic development of a city, province or cluster of municipalities.

In Basilan province alone, these include the roll-on, roll-off (RORO) port facility in Lamitan; the new Cabcaban Bridge in Sumisip; the upgrading of the Campo Uno-Tuburan Road, Maluso Port, and Matarling Bridge; and the Busay and Banas bridges on the island-province’s circumferential road.

These projects serve as tangible evidence of the larger partnership between the U.S. and Philippine governments in accelerating economic growth and supporting peace in the region.

Back in Barangay Seaside, where the new boat landing is crowded with fishermen and traders even before the last coat of paint had dried, barangay chairman Franklyn Tan sees a clear correlation between economic activity and a conflict-free community.

“Peace starts with development,” Tan says. “And development emphasizes peace.”







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