Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Gov't agents accused of sabotaging Bicol transport strike

By Ephraim Aguilar
Southern Luzon Bureau
First Posted 12:21:00 07/30/2008
Read from INQUIRER website.

LEGAZPI CITY-- Bicol drivers accused government agents and "opportunist transport groups" for sabotaging their two-day transport strike, which started Tuesday to press for the lifting of the value added tax on oil and scrapping of the Oil Deregulation Law.

"Tumba-tumba" or metal spikes that could deflate tires were seen on the streets but Joel Ascutia, chairman of the Concerned Drivers and Operators for Reform (Condor-Piston-Bikol) denied they were behind these.

"The strike is a success even if government agents threw "tumba-tumba" [spread] and black propaganda on the streets to discredit us," said Ascutia.

He also showed pieces of crumpled paper thrown at them on the picket line.

"The paper contained jeers accusing us of being terrorists or part of the New People's Army, when we are a recognized as a national organization. This is the style of government agents," Ascutia said.

Ascutia said drivers were able to identify and photograph a green van with plate no. XKJ 643 as behind the scattering of spikes.

He said they did not expect the police to investigate those responsible for the spikes and the propaganda materials.

Superintendent Eliciar Bron, Bicol police spokesman, said roving policemen were able to recover spikes on the road but directly accused the striking drivers to be behind this.

"They are doing this to gain support by hook or by crook," Bron said in mobile phone interview.

On the first day of the strike, 98 percent of vehicular traffic in four provinces was paralyzed, said Ascutia.

Masbate drivers only held mass protests and vigils while those from Catanduanes were expected to join the strike Wednesday.

As of 10 a.m., classes were suspended in all levels in Catanduanes province and a protest march of drivers and activists were moving towards Virac town, Ascutia said.

Naga City drivers in Camarines Sur did not join the strike.

Ascutia blamed politicians, mostly from the administration, for pressuring some drivers to withdraw support.

Condor-Piston-Bikol is being supported by other local transport associations and militant group Bayan-Bicol (Bagong Alyansang Makabayan).

Public transport strike paralyzes Bicol

By Ephraim Aguilar
Southern Luzon Bureau
First Posted 12:12:00 07/29/2008
Read from INQUIRER website.

LEGAZPI CITY -- Even more disgusted by the State of the Nation Address (SONA) of President Macapagal-Arroyo Monday because it failed to address "real issues," public utility drivers in the Bicol region started their two- day transport strike Tuesday dawn.

As of 10 a.m., public transportation system has been paralyzed by 99 percent in Sorsogon, 99 percent in Albay, 97 percent in Camarines Norte, and 75 percent in Camarines Sur, according to Joel Ascutia, chairman of the Concerned Drivers and Operators for Reform (Condor-Piston-Bikol).

Condor-Piston, an affiliate of Piston, began the two-day strike on 12:01 a.m. Tuesday to protest the unabated increases in the prices of fuel.

The group is being supported by transport group Fedvitoda (Virac Tricycle Operators and Drivers Association) and militant group Bayan-Bicol (Bagong Alyansang Makabayan, New Patriotic Alliance).

Masbate drivers staged mass protests and vigils while Catanduanes drivers would join the strike on Wednesday.

The strike covered jeepneys, air-conditioned buses, vans, and tricycles.

The Department of Education (DepEd) has issued a memorandum suspending classes in the elementary and secondary levels while it was discretionary for the heads of the colleges and universities.

Ascutia said Arroyo's SONA was "shallow and deceiving."

He said Arroyo was proud to defend the expanded value added tax (EVAT) when it was a heavy yoke on drivers, who were now earning a daily average of P200 for 14 hours of driving.

The boundary or the amount being paid by the drivers to operators here is around P700 while every driver consumes around 30 liters of gas or P1,200 daily, Ascutia said.

"We don't even know where the EVAT is going. The cost of President Arroyo's subsidies or dole-outs is small compared to the entire EVAT revenues," he said.

Ascutia said what the drivers needed were long-term solutions.

"While it is true that there is a global crisis, we hope that our government will have its own measures to defend its people from poverty," said Ascutia.

The drivers are pushing for the lifting of the VAT on oil and the scrapping of the oil deregulation law.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Despondent man kills 3-month-old son in Legazpi City

By Ephraim Aguilar
Southern Luzon Bureau
First Posted 14:36:00 07/28/2008
Read from INQUIRER website.

LEGAZPI CITY, Philippines -- Fed up with his sister’s needling about his inability to care for his three-month-old son, a resident of Barangay (village) San Roque in this city stabbed the infant dead Sunday afternoon.

"I regret what I did. I'm ready to face any punishment because he is my son," the suspect, who is detained at the Legazpi police station said.

The father admitted he was drunk and “lost control myself” because of his sister’s constant complaints about taking care of the baby.

"My sister would always complain about taking care of my son. We would always fight. I lost control of myself," he said.

The suspect said his wife died giving birth to the baby boy in May but he could not take care of the child because of his work as a construction worker.

The suspect’s sister said the baby was stabbed once in the chest.

The infant was rushed to the Bicol Regional Training and Teaching Hospital but died there.

The sister’s 13-year-old daughter, who witnessed the stabbing, said in her swron statement that she was watching the baby when her uncle told her to leave the room.

"I went out of the room but peeped though the door and I saw my uncle pull out a knife from his waist and stab [the baby] on his chest. He pulled out
the knife and I saw it soaked in blood," the witness said.

Caramoan finds fame on YouTube, French ‘Survivor’

By Ephraim Aguilar
Inquirer Southern Luzon

POWDERY WHITE SAND, CRYSTAL blue waters, lush vegetation, rock formations, marine life and yes, fabulous sunsets—these are scenes from “Koh-Lanta Caramoan,” the French edition of the popular TV reality game show “Survivor,” shot entirely in the Caramoan Peninsula in Camarines Sur and now showing on YouTube.

Another website features a breathtaking view of Caramoan from a helicopter—the contestants’ first glimpse of the peninsula. Other tourist spots in the country are featured like the Mayon Volcano in Bicol, the Banaue Rice Terraces, the Chocolate Hills in Bohol, and Donsol, which is promoting itself as the butanding (whale shark) capital of the world.

Caramoan has been getting a lot of attention since the French edition of “Survivor” started airing in the first week of July. Already, tour packages to the peninsula’s white sand beaches and pristine islands, have proliferated on the Net.

Internet-savvy Kristina Gadaingan, who hails from Bicol but works in Manila, has already seen some episodes of the latest season of “Survivor-France” on YouTube.

She is excited to see the show because it was shot entirely in Caramoan, touted as the next Boracay.

“I’ve always wanted to go to places like Boracay or Palawan. I never knew there’s such a beautiful place close to home,” says Gadaingan of Legazpi City.

“Koh-Lanta Caramoan” started airing this month in French-speaking countries across Europe and in Canada. At least 10 million people are expected to watch “Survivor-France.”

Filipinos, who may not be able to see the French edition of the reality game show, are turning to the Internet to access what they can through the popular video-sharing site, YouTube.

Early post

A quick search of YouTube listed several interesting videos—some are trailers of the French reality game show while others are clips from actual episodes.

One of the earliest clips which was posted by user “kohlanta20081,” a week after the pilot episode aired in the first week of July, has been suspended, probably due to copyright infringement.

Another user, “kohlanta20083,” has posted two 30-second teasers of the latest episodes last Tuesday. No one knows, however, how long this could evade copyright watchdogs.

Longer clips

If you prefer longer clips showing more of Caramoan’s beauty, then check out The blog has more clips of “Survivor-France” and more information on the contestants, however, since the site is in French, it may be a little difficult to navigate.

Another site, WMV9_464Kbit_etf1_169.wmv, opens with aerial views of Caramoan shot from a helicopter. Again, it is in French.

If you’re lost in translation, the site,, translates foreign web pages into English and vice versa.

Virtual tours

Try googling “Caramoan” and you will find many references and links. First on the list is

Click on the link and this is what you get: “Need a worry-free, fun, exciting and adventurous stay at Caramoan? Been wanting to experience Philippine’s Secret Paradise? Eager to explore Camarines Sur? We can help you make your travel special. Please get in touch with me and let us start planning on your stay.”

YouTube user “danymous” has posted random video clips of Caramoan, added some music and the result is a music video showcasing the peninsula’s scenery—a musical virtual tour, so to speak.

YouTube user “TomFRules” has listed 10 of the peninsula’s best islands and beaches in his clip titled “10 reasons to go to Caramoan.”

Poor town hopeful

With all the exposure Caramoan has been getting, Mayor Constantino Cordial Jr. says he foresees his fourth-class municipality achieving second-class status within five to 10 years.

According to Cordial, Caramoan residents are also looking forward to the P320-million infrastructure projects pledged by President Macapagal-Arroyo through the Camarines Sur provincial government.

According to the mayor, the amount will cover expenses for the road networking, seaport repair and airport construction.

“We are in favor of all the development projects. But we have only one plea—that nature be preserved at its best,” says Cordial in a mobile phone interview.

Gota beach, which was closed to the public by the provincial government last summer because of the “Survivor” taping, has been reopened to the public.

However, Caramoan residents are now charged an entrance fee of P150 and tourists, P300. Cordial says the amount is quite expensive especially for the locals.

Camarines Sur Gov. Luis Raymund Villafuerte has said that once development projects are in place, the entrance to Gota beach may not always be free.

He also says Caramoan residents will benefit from the development of Gota beach in terms of employment opportunities.

Second time

Tourism Secretary Ace Durano, during his visit to Caramoan on May, said this was the second time “Survivor-France” chose the Philippines for its location.

“Survivor,” a popular TV reality game show produced in many countries, isolates its contestants in the wilderness to compete for cash and prizes. They are divided into tribes and they vote off other contestants until only one is left.

The show is known to choose locations in exotic environments.

Last year, “Survivor-France” was shot in Palawan and after it was aired, the number of French tourists arriving in Palawan increased by 23 percent, Durano said.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

10,000 Bicol drivers plan strike

LEGAZPI CITY—AROUND 10,000 drivers of public utility jeeps, vans, air-condition buses, and tricycles in the Bicol region were expected to hold a two-day transport strike starting Tuesday dawn, a transport group announced yesterday.

Joel Ascutia, Condor-Piston-Bikol chair, said his group aims to paralyze up to 95 percent of transport routes in the region.

He said this was preparatory to a more massive strike planned by Piston between September and October.

The group plans to start the strike early on Tuesday, hours after President Macapagal-Arroyo delivers her State of the Nation Address.

“The drivers never felt the progress President Arroyo has been talking about,” Ascutia said.

He said Congress, as it opens next week, should put oil companies in check.

“They have been taking the public for a ride,” said Ascutia.

He said, however, that some drivers haven’t made a commitment to join the strike.

Some, he said, were “being pressured by politicians.”

“There are drivers who withdrew their support because of pressure from politicians, mostly those who belong to the administration,” said Ascutia, who refused to elaborate and name names.

Condor-Piston is demanding the scrapping of the expanded value-added tax on oil and the oil deregulation law and Ms Arroyo’s ouster.

Drivers in Tagbilaran City went ahead with a strike yesterday.

At least 40 percent of small utility vehicles were off the streets in the city.

Amidst the strike, at least 1,500 tricycle drivers and operators demanded a P1 increase in their minimum fare.

Dondon Valiota, spokesperson of the Dao-Terminal Operators and Drivers Association (Datoda), said only 80 small utility vehicles out of 145 units were seen plying regular routes.

Before the oil price increases, drivers were able to take home up to P250 per day in income. After the increases, this income was reduced to as little as P60, barely enough to feed the drivers’ families. Ephraim Aguilar, Inquirer Southern Luzon and Kit Bagaipo, Inquirer Visayas

Friday, July 18, 2008

Napocor takes over Albay power co-op

LEGAZPI CITY—THE NATIONAL POWER CORP. has taken over the operations and management of the Albay Electric Cooperative (Aleco) following the cooperative’s failure to pay a P1.4-billion debt to the state-owned power agency.

Napocor officials said the move was made to rescue the Aleco from bankruptcy.

Napocor and Aleco officials yesterday signed an operation and management contract that allowed the suspension of Aleco’s debts, give it a chance to rehabilitate and provide a transition period for privatization.

Albay Gov. Joey Salceda said an operation and management contract with the Napocor was the most viable and efficient solution to Aleco’s financial woes.

“Under the contract, there will be no disconnection. It will offer Aleco access to the financial resources and management expertise of the Napocor,” Salceda said.

He said while the debt payment would be suspended under the one-year contract, the Napocor would also enforce a rehabilitation plan for the ailing power cooperative.

The plan seeks to ensure reliability of supply and the lowering of power rates.

Salceda said the Napocor sought to reduce systems loss, or electricity lost to pilferage and defective equipment, by 14 percent and to modernize its 30-year-old power distribution facilities.

The governor said once Aleco becomes financially viable, private investors would be interested to buy it.

He said though privatization was a long way to go, it would make debt payments easier and allow Aleco to earn and reduce technical losses.

Also, Salceda said he was concerned with Albay’s reputation, so he proposed that a partnership be sealed in the contract between the Napocor and Aleco.

“Rather than a creditor-initiated court proceeding against Aleco, there is an orderly and systematic way of fixing the problem and that is through partnership,” Salceda said.

“Cooperation is better than adversarial relations,” he added.

Bicol militants, however, opposed the takeover.

Tessa Lopez, Bicol spokeperson of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan), said it was part of President Macapagal-Arroyo’s policy on the privatization of the power sector.

“The thrust of this policy is to first control the electric cooperatives though takeovers then, eventually, to sell them to the private sector. It is also very dubious that President Arroyo’s relatives are in the energy sector,” Lopez said.

She added that it seemed the Arroyo family was planning to carve a niche in the power sector with Aleco as its “test case.”

“What is needed is for Aleco to be made a genuine cooperative,” Lopez added. Ephraim Aguilar, Inquirer Southern Luzon

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

7 decomposing bodies found off Sorsogon

LEGAZPI CITY—SEVEN BODIES believed to be those of passengers of the ill-fated MV Princess of the Stars were recovered on the shores of several coastal towns of Sorsogon on Sunday, a Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) official reported yesterday.

Ensign Jeffrey Collado, PCG-Bicol operations assistant, said three of the bodies were found at Barangay Behia in Magallanes at around 9 a.m. One of the bodies was headless, while another was that of a woman.

Three others were recovered in Barangay Macalaya in Castilla. One was identified through documents in his wallet as Carlito Balunan, 26, of San Isidro, Leyte; another was a woman wearing a life jacket; and the third was a man wearing a bracelet.

At around 10 a.m., a decomposing headless body was found at Barangay Marinab in Bulan and was later buried at the municipal cemetery.

The Princess of the Stars, owned by Sulpicio Lines Inc., capsized and sank off Sibuyan Island in Romblon on June 21 when the ferry sailed into the path of Typhoon “Frank” with more than 800 passengers and crew.

Retrieval mission

The National Disaster Coordinating Council report says more than 50 passengers have been rescued. But the latest list of the Philippine Coast Guard contains only 32 confirmed survivors and over 100 bodies retrieved off Sibuyan Island and in nearby provinces.

On Saturday, a woman’s body was buried in Minalabac town in Camarines Sur. The victim, about 25 years old, was found wearing a blouse with spaghetti straps on Friday night, according to Chief Insp. Benjamin EspaƱa, Minalabac police chief. Her head was severed from the body.

Three more bodies—all in advanced states of decomposition—were recovered by the Navy from the shore of Pasacao town in Camarines Sur on Thursday afternoon, Ensign Elmer Sumunod, spokesperson of the Naval Forces Southern Luzon, said on Friday. The bodies were immediately buried.

Fish scare

Search and retrieval operations were launched on Friday after four more bodies were sighted floating at sea.

Vice President Noli de Castro visited Pasacao on Thursday to partake of “cocido” (boiled fish) and steamed fish with town officials to prove that fish caught in the sea were safe to eat.

De Castro distributed cash to villagers whose livelihood was affected by the fish scare.

Dennis B. del Socorro, regional director of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, said that fish caught in the area was safe to eat “as long as they are fresh and well cleaned of entrails.” Ephraim Aguilar, Roy Gersalia and Publio M. Peyra III, Inquirer Southern Luzon

Monday, July 14, 2008

Steep steel prices cut into cutlery makers’ pockets

Text and photos by Ephraim Aguilar
Inquirer Southern Luzon

TABACO CITY—CUTLERY MAKERS IN this city, who provide blood to an industry built by tradition, are bleeding profits due to skyrocketing prices of primary raw materials such coconut charcoal and hard steel.

For nearly a century now, blacksmiths in Barangay Cobo here have honed their craft to gain a reputation as the “best cutlery producers in the Bicol region and, probably, in the country.”

From its early days in 1919, cutlery-making is still very much alive in Barangay Cobo today.

One could hear the pounding and sharpening of steel in workshops adjacent to houses, where seasoned blacksmiths work at such speed and precision to be able to mass produce their products.

Emily Boncacas, 40, of Barangay Cobo has been in the cutlery business for 23 years now. She says her parents were her main influence in the business venture.

“I grew up seeing my father make scissors. It was our main livelihood. Through cutlery-making, he was able to send us to school,” says Boncacas.

Now married, Boncacas also put up her own cutlery shop. She has four workers who make scissors and grass cutters for her.

However determined to pursue this line of business, Boncacas says cutlery-making is being challenged by the country’s down economy.

She says the prices of raw materials have tremendously increased.

Steep prices

Hard steel from junk shops used to be P16 per kilogram during the 1990s but now, it ranges from P35 to P40 per kilo.

Coconut charcoal used to be P64 per sack but now it is worth P240 per sack.

Boncacas says gone are the glory days of their cutlery business.

“We could not just increase our prices because our buyers would run away,” says Boncacas.

She adds if they could only develop direct market links and even export, their industry might prosper again.

However, Boncacas says, they have no capital to be able to expand their production and to export.

She says cutlery-makers would now commonly rely on the “byahero,” a middleman who sells their products to other provinces in Southern Luzon, Visayas, and Metro Manila.

Russell Nieves, trade and industry development specialist of the Department of Trade and Industry in Albay, says cutlery makers should be able to tap the market directly.

Merchants vs producers

“Prices of cutlery are controlled by merchants. Cash and material advances are given by wholesalers to suppliers, thus, the latter are tied up and could not demand for higher prices,” Nieves says.

He adds that the wholesalers usually get a margin of between 30 and 50 percent, leaving manufacturers a small profit of 5 to 10 percent.

Nieves is the coordinator for the Tabaco cutlery under DTI’s One Town, One Product (Otop) program. Cutlery is Tabaco City’s town product and is celebrated annually through the city’s Tabak Festival.

“Tabak” is a native word meaning “bolo,” from which the city’s name was derived.

The Cobo blacksmiths or the Samahan ng Manggagawang Panday sa Tabaco Inc. (Samapat) is composed of 31 producers of handcrafted cutlery.

Nieves says the association’s monthly product capacity is 7,570 pairs of scissors, 4,980 bolos, 50 samurais, 10,560 knives, 100 pieces grass cutters, and 500 razors.

He says the industry association employs at least 144 workers and the asset size of every cutlery shop ranges from P20,000 to P400,000.

Nieves says the association produces the finest handcrafted cutlery in Bicol, but local producers need to learn product and market development.

He says there is a need for new ethnic designs for scabbards, a generic trademark or brand, fiber glass-based handles, and a common production center where products could be standardized and branded.

The city government has given P100,000 for raw materials and more than P400,000 for the construction of a common workshop facility. The association also plans to put up its own display center.

Edgardo Cedro, president of Samapat Inc. and owner of ABC cutlery, says one thing that keeps Tabaco’s priced industry alive is quality.

“Our local cutlery is better than imported ones, which are cheaper but are not durable,” says Cedro, who recounts cutlery-making was already a running tradition when he was born. The 48-year-old man believes he shall never see its demise.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

P18-per-kg rice disappears from markets

LEGAZPI CITY—SUPPLY OF the cheapest government-subsidized rice, the P18.25-per-kilo variety, has been gradually disappearing in urban markets in the Bicol region since Thursday.

Lawyer Jose Guevarra, assistant regional director of the National Food Authority in Bicol, said the NFA was removing the low-priced variety from commercial markets to focus its distribution among the “poorest of the poor.”

He said starting July 14, only the P25-per-kilo variety will be sold in public markets here.

Distribution of the P18.25-per-kilo rice variety will be limited to poor beneficiaries identified by village officials and the Department of Social Welfare and Development.

Guevarra said only the NFA rolling stores, DSWD Kalahi stores, Tindahan Natin, and Tindahan sa Parokya will be authorized to distribute the P18.25-per-kilo rice variety.

Guevarra, however, dismissed reports that a shortage was forcing the NFA to remove this type of rice from public markets.

“The public market is a converging point of all kinds of consumers. We want to limit subsidized rice distribution to those who really need it,” he added.

He added that Bicol was a priority recipient of monthly rice shipments from Vietnam and Thailand and has a supply of 1.6 million bags to last for 88 days.

“We have received early arrivals of rice imports in the first two quarters of the year since Bicol is calamity-prone. The remaining months are expected to be the typhoon season,” Guevarra said.

Guevarra said the prices of commercial rice still ranged from P33 to P42. He said rice prices were the result of prices of fuel and other basic commodities. Ephraim Aguilar, Inquirer Southern Luzon