Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Underground river leads online poll

30 September 2008
By Ronnel W. Domingo in Manila and Ephraim Aguilar in Southern Luzon

THE PUERTO PRINCESA SUBTERRANEAN RIVER NATIONAL PARK in Palawan is topping the New 7 Wonders of Nature online poll, according to the live ranking results on its website yesterday.

Tourism Secretary Ace Durano said that as of yesterday four of the country’s natural havens had again shown a strong presence in the online poll: Bohol’s Chocolate Hills was ranked No. 4, Palawan’s Tubbataha Reef, No. 5, and Bicol’s Mayon Volcano, No. 11.

The New 7 Wonders of Nature is an ongoing campaign of the Switzerland-based foundation, the same group behind the New 7 Wonders of the World search last year. The results are determined by the number of votes cast by logging on to the website ( Voting is until Dec. 31.

“We are pleased with the current rankings but as the deadline draws near, we should be more persistent in urging Filipinos to vote and actively promote our candidates,” Durano said.

Great tourism boost

Although the competition mandates that only one nominee per country would be included in the official final seven, having four strong nominees at this stage was a great boost for Philippine tourism, he said.

The other top placers are: Ha Long Bay in Vietnam; Cox’s Bazar Beach, Bangladesh; Al-hasa Oasis, Saudi Arabia; Ganges River, Bangladesh and India; Ali Sadr Cave, Iran; 9 Sundarbans Forest, Bangladesh and India; and Lake Saiful Maluk, Pakistan.

“The whole world is tuned in to this competition. Even if only one of our candidates remains in the final seven, we have gained so much publicity for our country as a destination with diverse natural sites,” Durano said.

Eduardo Jarque Jr., tourism undersecretary for planning and promotions, said nominees in the search must be a natural site, a natural monument or a natural landscape.

“There must be no human interference involved in the creation of the sites,” he said.

77 sites in next round

The nominees that make it to the top 77 sites will be eligible for the next round. Voting will continue until July 7 next year, according to the website.

A panel of experts under professor Federico Mayor, former director general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco), will review the top 77 nominees and choose 21 finalists, which will be declared on July 21 next year.

The finalists will then be put to a popular vote.

The finals will run from 2009 to 2010, with each of the 21 finalists having a chance to be presented to global voters through the New 7 Wonders World Tour.

The Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, features a limestone karst mountain landscape with an 8.2-km navigable underground river.

According to the New 7 Wonders website, “The underground river is reputed to be the world’s longest. At the mouth of the cave, a clear lagoon is framed by ancient trees growing right to the water’s edge. Monkeys, large monitor lizards and squirrels find their niche on the beach near the cave.”

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Lagman laments moot attacks vs reproductive bill

27 September 2008, A15
By Ephraim Aguilar
Inquirer Southern Luzon

LEGAZPI CITY—ALBAY REP. EDCEL LAGman deplored the “irrelevant attacks” on the reproductive health bill thrown by opposing lawmakers during deliberations in Congress on the controversial population measure.

Lagman, principal author of House Bill No. 5043 on reproductive health, referred to the long-winding debates, which were mostly queries or objections on the procedure and technicalities of the bill’s approval at the committee levels.

The bill was approved by four committees in the House of Representatives—health, population and family relations, appropriations and rules.

Deputy House Speaker Raul del Mar raised alleged “technical defects” in the approval of the bill by the health committee and the population and family relations committee, which jointly approved the bill without a dissenting vote.

Del Mar questioned the legitimate funding support and reproductive health advocacy of the Philippine Legislators’ Committee on Population and Development Foundation Inc.

In a statement sent to the Inquirer, Lagman said he was confident the bill would still be passed despite the “dilatory tactics” of those opposing the measure.

“Delay is not victory,” he said.

Lagman’s daughter, Tabaco City Mayor Krisel Lagman-Luistro, also defended the bill from Parañaque Rep. Roilo Golez who proposed that discussions on the bill be deferred.

Golez said the bill not only divided the country but also took away focus from the more important task of addressing the world financial crisis.

Lagman-Luistro said that when “financial crisis” was on the table for discussion, so should “population” and “quality of life.”

“We have to understand that the reproductive health bill is not only a measure on population management but also a way of uplifting the Filipinos’ quality of life, especially in these dire times,” she said.

Lagman-Luistro also hit lawmakers who said the bill was not necessary since artificial contraceptives were already available in stores.

“Availability does not necessarily mean access. This bill will eventually have funds to ensure people’s access to contraceptives,” she said.

She added that there were now at least 99 lawmakers supporting the measure.

When Lagman-Luistro represented the first district of Albay in Congress in 2001, she authored House Bill No. 4110 or the “Reproductive Health Care Act,” which served as the basis for her father’s HB 5043.

The bill promotes the use of both artificial and natural means of family planning, among others, which is being opposed by the Catholic Church, religious groups and even President Macapagal-Arroyo.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Legazpi, Naga join drive for smoke warning

25 September 2008, ATN-A14

LEGAZPI CITY—WEARING A native Cuban hat, a now skinny and slouched Paquito Diaz unlikely resembles the stalwart villain he used to be in old Filipino movies.

For several decades, Diaz battled onscreen with action superstars like Joseph Estrada and Fernando Poe Jr.

But eventually, his real-life battle was his badly deteriorating health due to smoking.

In 2004, Diaz suffered a stroke and underwent major brain surgery. For his faster recovery, his wife Nena Soler-Diaz transferred him to her hometown in Daraga, Albay, where the actor now lives a healthy lifestyle.

“I brought him here for the fresh air. Here, he could take a walk whenever he wants to. But above all, he has quit smoking,” Soler-Diaz said.

The couple were present in the launching of Project Death Clock, a campaign pushing for the passing of a law requiring graphic warnings on cigarette packs to cut down tens of thousands of deaths and billions of pesos in public health spending caused by smoking-related diseases.

“Had he not quit smoking, he could now be playing cards with FPJ in the afterlife,” Soler-Diaz said in Bicol, eliciting laughs from the audience.

Legazpi and Naga unveiled their own “death clocks” on Wednesday, a campaign which accumulates the number of tobacco-related deaths each day the Graphic Health Bill is not passed in the House of Representatives.

The Albay “death clock” on 16-feet-by-30-feet billboard stated 66,960 tobacco-related deaths since Dec. 20, 2007. The figures will change as 1,680 new deaths are added weekly.

Dr. Maricar Limpin of the Framework Convention on Alliance Philippines said 10 Filipinos were dying every hour due to tobacco use.

She said the tobacco industry only brought P92 billion worth of revenues but the government spent P276 billion in medical services addressing four of the most common smoking-related diseases.

Limpin said around 80 congressmen were now supporting the bill, which was authored by Northern Samar Rep. Paul Daza. The bill aims to accurately depict “real-life debilitating diseases caused by tobacco smoking through strong warning messages in pictures.”

Limpin said a study by the Philippine College of Chest Physicians revealed that 96 percent of smokers admitted that picture-based warnings against smoking would most likely make them quit compared with text warnings. Of the 1,307 survey respondents, 41 percent said text health warnings had no effect or were not enough to make people quit smoking.

But what takes it so long for the bill to be passed is that it is still being deliberated upon and strongly opposed by the tobacco firms.

“Tobacco companies are using tactics to kill the bill by influencing members of the House of Representatives,” Limpin said.

“Many tobacco farmers are shifting to other crops because of the low-profitability of tobacco at P30 per kilo,” she said. “What will benefit tobacco farmers most is to impose increased taxation on tobacco products. We are supporting any bill that will push for that.”

Apo Gonzales, 48, of Legazpi, a smoker for 31 years, said graphic warnings might help lessen smoking-related deaths but it might not be enough to make him quit.

“What we need are support systems, like our friends, workmates and families. When we are able to reform basic institutions, like the family, it might be the time when ash trays will just become collector’s items,” Gonzales said. Ephraim Aguilar, Inquirer Southern Luzon

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Bicol drivers mull strike if 'Big 3' refuse rollback

By Ephraim Aguilar
Southern Luzon Bureau
First Posted 16:47:00 09/20/2008

LEGAZPI CITY, Philippines -- The transport group Condor-Piston in the Bicol region is threatening a strike by its 10,000 public utility drivers if the country's three biggest oil companies do not heed its call for a "one-time-big-time" oil price rollback.

In a statement e-mailed to the Philippine Dily Inquirer on Saturday, Condor-Piston-Bicol chairman Joel Ascutia questioned big industry players Shell, Chevron, and Petron for not lowering prices at the pump by bigger amounts and as fast as world prices are coming down.

"Why is it taking so long for oil companies to reduce their prices big time? Unioil was able to reduce oil price by P3, what more the big players?" Ascutia said.

A day after all its competitors cut fuel prices by P1, Unioil Petroleum Philippines Inc. followed suit with a bigger reduction of P3 a liter for gasoline and P2 a liter for diesel and kerosene.

"But as always the Big 3 is thinking of maximum profits which approximately amounted to P12 billion last year," Ascutia said.

He added that while Bicolano drivers would have to make do with less than P200 a day of earnings, the big oil companies are wallowing in money.

"They have obviously made a killing because of the runaway oil prices then and they were very fast in jacking up the prices. Now they should be faster in lowering it because their consumers are already reeling in poverty," Ascutia added.

Condor-Piston-Bikol (Concerned Drivers and Operators for Reform) and the Bayan-Bikol (Bagong Alyansang Makabayan) are calling for at least an P11 rollback and the scrapping of the value added tax (VAT). Both demands can slash P20 from current oil prices.

Tessa Lopez, Bayan-Bikol spokesperson, said President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo should act now in pressuring the Big 3 to roll back fuel prices and scrap the VAT rather than giving out doles.

Ascutia said they plan to stage another transport strike if their demands are not met. In its past transport strike, the group was able to paralyze much of public land transportation in the Bicol Region.

200 Bicol passengers stranded as ‘Nina’ strengthens

By Ephraim Aguilar
Southern Luzon Bureau
First Posted 14:27:00 09/20/2008

LEGAZPI CITY, Philippines -- Nearly 200 people have been reported stranded in the ports of Tabaco City in Albay and Virac in Catanduanes as of noon Saturday after tropical storm Nina gained more strength as it moved closer to the eastern coast of Luzon.

Apprentice Seaman Jecosalem Berces of the Philippine Coast Guard here said sea transport to and from Catanduanes was halted after the weather service raised public storm signal No. 1.

He said seven trucks, four cars, and four buses were also stranded in the Tabaco and Virac ports.

At 10 a.m., Nina was about 610 kilometers east of Virac.

The storm was moving west-northwest at about 13 kilometers per hour, with maximum sustained winds of about 85 kilometers per hour near the center and gusts of up to 100 kilometers per hour.

The Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration, in its 11 a.m. bulletin, said Nina was expected to be 350 kilometers east of Virac by Sunday morning and 295 kilometers east of Casiguran, Aurora, by Monday morning.

It was forecast to be 110 kilometers east of Tuguegarao, Cagayan, Tuesday morning.

120,000 Bicol farmers didn’t get veggie subsidy, says group

LEGAZPI CITY—AT LEAST 120,000 PEASANT farmers in the Bicol region did not receive any vegetable seeds from the government, the militant Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas said Wednesday in the wake of the P135-million vegetable scam revealed by the Commission on Audit.

In the absence of lists identifying the farmer beneficiaries, the COA expressed doubt whether the seeds were actually distributed under President Macapagal-Arroyo’s “Gulayan ng Masa” program implemented by the Department of Agriculture.

Felix Paz, KMP-Bicol chair, said the group would go straight to the intended farmer beneficiaries to ferret out the truth.

He said that among members of the KMP alone, around 120,000 were not able to receive the vegetable subsidy.

Election funds

Paz said leaders of the group believe that, just like in case of the P728 million fertilizer scam last 2004, the funds used for purchasing the vegetable seeds were used for the 2007 elections.

He said in a statement that it had become a modus operandi of the Arroyo administration to use the plight of the peasants to justify release of funds for corruption and to bankroll the election of pro-administration candidates.

“So we expect more of the same scams in 2010 when no big fish is being punished now,” Paz added.

“We testified in the Senate investigation on the fertilizer scam and we are willing to do it again on the vegetable scam, but this time we hope that those responsible will finally be held accountable,” he said.

Poverty alleviation

At least 10 regional offices of the agriculture department spent a total of P135.3 million last year on various vegetable seeds and planting materials for the program intended to augment the income of farmers during the gap in planting seasons of rice and corn to reduce rural hunger and malnutrition.

These regional offices were in the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR), Ilocos, Cagayan Valley, Central Luzon, Southern Tagalog, Bicol, Western and Central Visayas, Northern Mindanao and Caraga.

Of the amount, P66.55 million was spent on vegetable seeds while the rest on planting materials.

The beneficiaries in Southern Tagalog, Bicol and CAR were not named, according to the COA report.

The list of names of farmers who were supposed to have benefited from the program, however, carried no addresses, and other details that would show judicious use of the funds. Ephraim Aguilar, Inquirer Southern Luzon

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

All 29 cops in Albay town relieved

By Ephraim Aguilar, ATN
Inquirer Southern Luzon

OAS, ALBAY—FOR responding too late to a robbery-holdup that resulted in the death of two security guards, all 29 policemen in this town, including their chief, were relieved for retraining.

“How could a crime happen just a few blocks away from the municipal police station under broad daylight?” an irate resident, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Inquirer a day after Nolasco Mini-Mart was robbed on Sept. 10. The store was just 100 meters away from the police station.

Killed were Elmar Issagira and Edmundo Romero, both of this town. The store’s owner, Ajerico Nolasco, was wounded after he hurled a bottle, wounding one of three bonnet-wearing robbers before they fled.

Senior Supt. Joel Baloro, provincial police director, said the Oas police were relieved after being found to be “inefficient” in responding to the people’s security needs.

The robbery, Baloro said, occurred at 6:45 p.m. and police presence then could have been prevented it.

Before the relief order was released, Chief Insp. Mario Medios, Oas police chief, denied the lack of police visibility in the town proper.

“We have two checkpoints and our police are augmented with local public safety officers,” he told the Inquirer in a mobile phone interview.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Go to grass roots, Lagman daughter tells Church

14 September 2008, inside page
By Ephraim Aguilar

TABACO CITY, Philippines—If there is one staunch advocate of the controversial reproductive health bill in Congress aside from its principal author, Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman, it would be Krisel Lagman-Luistro.

Aside from being the lawmaker’s daughter, she is the mayor of this city and a nurse by profession.

As a local official and health worker, Lagman-Luistro says she operates in the grass roots, where the problems that the bill seeks to address lie.

“Every time I wed couples, I ask them how many children they want to have. Most couples say two,” Lagman-Luistro said.

The average family size in the region, however, is around five.

Lagman-Luistro said the government can and should help couples bridge the gap between their desired family size and its attainment.

On Friday, ahead of the plenary debates on her father’s proposed reproductive health bill, the mayor called on the Catholic Church to listen to the problems of poor families.

She said the Catholic Church would be rendering itself “irrelevant” to its flock by continuously opposing the measure. She said an overwhelming number of Filipinos “strongly approve of the government’s allocation of funds for modern contraceptives.”

“If the Catholic Church wants to continue to be significant in the lives of the faithful, it must listen to its flock or risk becoming irrelevant,” she said.

The Church opposes the use of contraceptives.

Lagman-Luistro said parish priests who meet with the people face-to-face should tell their superiors of their community’s problems regarding unwanted pregnancies, the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, overpopulation and poverty.

“But the problem with the Catholic hierarchy is that it has become even more political than the government,” she said.

Lagman-Luistro said that contrary to the claims of the Church, the reproductive health bill or HB 5043 does not promote abortion but hopes to prevent unplanned pregnancies.

“We simply want to give people more choices on family planning,” she said.

Lagman-Luistro said they also support natural family planning as one option but it does not work with all couples.

Lagman-Luistro said the Church and the government should allow people to choose other legal, safe and effective means to plan their families.

“I cannot, as a leader, choose for my people. In the same way that the Church leaders should not choose for their flock. We are promoting choice,” she said.

When Lagman-Luistro represented the first district of Albay in Congress in 2001, she authored House Bill 4110 or the “Reproductive Health Care Act,” which served as the basis for her father’s HB 5043.

“When opposition to HB 4110 arose, it’s signatories withdrew one by one. The bill only reached the committee level,” she recounted.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Lack of equipment hounds Pagasa, Phivolcs in disaster-prone Albay

By Ephraim Aguilar, A15 (Southern Luzon page)
Legazpi City

FOR THE FIRST TIME in almost a year, the state-run weather station in Legazpi City had its Internet connected, but an employee had to step up to pay for it with her personal money.

The phone line itself was about to be disconnected due to unpaid bills. When the station was called for updates, the phone line was connected, but the call was mysteriously cut off mid-conversation.

The employee being interviewed was just stating that the phone line was cut off last weekend. She was about to say how they fixed the problem when the call was cut short. Attempts to call back were met with a busy tone.

Similarly, the land line of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) observatory in Daraga town has been inaccessible for the past months.


A wireless telephone occasionally works, but an employee said more often than not, it is disconnected.

Attempted calls are met with a machine-recorded female voice stating, “The subscriber you dialed is powered off.”

Considering the unstable phone line, the observatory staff can only dream of having a fax machine connected for easier distribution of volcanic and earthquake bulletins to those that need these pieces of vital information.

Both disaster agencies lack not only proper communication facilities but equipment crucial in lessening the impact of calamities.

Albay is prone to typhoons, floods, “lahar,” volcanic eruption and earthquakes.

In January, the Department of Science and Technology installed an upper-air receiving equipment worth P18 million but this has not been in use, said Corazon Samar, chief meteorological officer of Pagasa-Legazpi.

She said it was due to the lack of transmitters.

The transmitter of the upper-air receiving equipment is a small device attached to a big balloon, which could be launched into the air daily to gather real-time information from an altitude of up to 12 kilometers.

At least one transmitter could be launched every day and four during typhoons at a cost of P30,000 for every launch.

Samar said the station’s microbarograph is under repair while the aerovane is malfunctioning.

The microbarograph reads barometric pressure in real time while the aerovane determines wind direction and speed.

Samar said the station now only relies on a barometer which, unlike the microbarograph, has to be read hourly to get results.

Pagasa-Legazpi lacks personnel. Samar said it has only six employees and three security guards.

It also works with a monthly subsidy for operational expenses of only P1,995, excluding water, power and communication expenses.

Samar said her office always receives notices of disconnection due to unpaid bills because of the delay in processing payments from the central office.

Eduardo Laguerta, senior science research specialist of Phivolcs-Bicol, said the lack of seismic sensors around Mt. Mayon makes it hard to locate volcanic earthquakes.

He said since the government has limited resources, most equipment installed for Phivolcs-Bicol were funded by the Japan International Cooperation Agency.

“There are only three stations bearing sensors around Mt. Mayon. If just one of these sensors does not function well, our monitoring will be greatly affected,” he said.

The location of volcanic earthquakes is important in determining signs of magma ascent inside the volcano. The lack of sensors, Laguerta said, makes it impossible to detect low-frequency earthquakes.

He said more sensors would make their findings on volcanic and seismic activities more refined.

Laguerta said there had been cases when villagers living near vital installations would steal station batteries, steel and phone lines.

He said that in places like Hawaii, there are more than enough sensors and other equipment, but people do not pilfer them.

“Here in our country, before you can even turn your back, the equipment is gone,” he said.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

4 nabbed in 'jueteng' den raid in Sorsogon

By Ephraim Aguilar
Southern Luzon Bureau
First Posted 11:15:00 09/04/2008

LEGAZPI CITY -- Four persons were arrested as joint elements of the Crime Investigation and Detection Group and the municipal police raided a "jueteng" den in Sorsogon province Wednesday, police said Thursday.

The Bicol police identified those arrested as Renato Pura, 27; Antonio Españo, 30; Romulo Españo, 25; and Santos Palle, 29 of different villages in Gubat town.

Confiscated were betting money worth P1,354 in different denominations and illegal gambling paraphernalia.

Anti-gambling witness Sandra Cam attacked four Bicol governors -- Joey Salceda of Albay, Luis Raymond Villafuerte of Camarines Sur, Sally Lee of Sorsogon and Jesus Typoco Jr. of Camarines Norte-linking them to the resurgence of “jueteng,” an illegal numbers game likened to lotto, in the region.

She also said in the statement published in some tabloids that governors were being protected by "high-ranking officials of the Philippine National Police and the Department of Interior and Local Government."

She said other politicians were banking on jueteng money to fund their campaign in the 2010 elections.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Mayon, Taal volcanoes continue to simmer--Phivolcs

By Ephraim Aguilar
Southern Luzon Bureau
First Posted 13:40:00 09/02/2008

LEGAZPI CITY, Philippines -- Mayon and Taal volcanoes in Southern Luzon are still tightly watched by state volcanologists as they continue to show signs of restiveness.

For the past 24 hours, 10 volcanic earthquakes were detected around Mt. Mayon in Albay. White steam clouds drifting towards west-southwest and crater glow at intensity 1 could be observed, the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology reported Tuesday.

Phivolcs reminded the public to stay away from the 7-kilometer-radius extended danger zone at the volcano's southeast sector and the permanent 6-kilometer-radius permanent danger zone due to threats of sudden explosions and rock fall.

Taal Volcano in Batangas registered three weak volcanic earthquakes over the past 24 hours. The main crater area remains off-limits because steam explosions may suddenly occur.

Alert level 1 remains hoisted over both volcanoes.