Naval, Biliran—After months of hectic preparation, organizers of the Duaw Sto. Niño finally kicked off its program here and in Calubian, Leyte last week. The three-day series of religious activities saw local church officials, politicians, government workers, private sector groups and ordinary folks coming together.

On board a chartered boat courtesy of Roble Shipping, some 200 pilgrims from Cebu City arrived in Naval last Friday, Oct. 21. The organizers boarded the Philippine Navy vessel Emilio Aguinaldo for the trip to Naval while the navy boat Abraham Campo carried the image of St. Therese of the Child Jesus. The saint is venerated in the shrine in barangay Obispo, Calubian town where a grand fiesta was to culminate Oct. 22, the final leg of the Duaw Sto. Niño.

Under sunny skies and moderate weather, we arrived in Naval at 7 in the morning. Thousands of people lined the seaport carrying and waving flaglets in anticipation of the great festivity. As the images were brought down from the navy boats, students from Naval State University danced the Sinulog while the university brass band played in the background. I spotted Bishop Filomeno Bactol of the Diocese of Naval, Mayor Susan Parilla, Vice Mayor Redentor Villordon and NSU president Dr. Edita Genson among those who welcomed the organizers and pilgrims.

The images were then placed in beautifully decorated caros, signaling the start of a foot procession to the Naval Cathedral for a concelebrated Mass led by Bishop Bactol. In his homily, Bishop Bactol said the celebration had been preceded by a Caravan for Life, a lay program to drum up support for the anti-Reproductive Health bill movement. Bishop Bactol expressed amazement at the turnout, saying he had never seen so many people joining a religious event in his many years of serving the diocese, stressing the zealous devotion of the people of Biliran to the Sto. Niño.

After the Mass, the images were brought to the NSU gymnasium where another program led by Genson was held. Then it was time for Fr. Tito Soquiño, executive director of the Sto. Niño Augustinian Foundation for Social Development, to lead a symposium on ecological issues.

Eco-evangelization is the rationale of the program. In the duaw (visit), the Sto. Niño visits poor islands by way of rekindling the faith which He brought us in 1521. In the present time, the supernatural message of God’s presence is united to the urgent concern of protecting the environment. That is the basis of the duaw in a nutshell.

The visit of the Sto. Niño to Naval is very auspicious because of the energy project being undertaken by the Reykjavic Energy Investment (REI), a company based in Iceland, reportedly a global leader in the development of renewable energy with focus on geothermal. Geothermal energy is viable in areas with plenty of water and one of Biliran’s natural resources is water. The province is in the Guinness Records for having the sweetest water in the world, in particular, in Tomalistis, Caibiran town.

The $125-million geothermal project started in 2008 during the administration of former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo who then pronounced that Philippine energy requirements would need an additional 1,200 megawatts in 2013. Part of this will supposedly be provided by the REI project in Biliran. The contract between REI and the government was signed in July 2008.

The REI project is expected to generate 100 MW and will become fully operational in 2013. I’m not sure if the project proponent and the government conducted a full-blown public consultation on the geothermal project because if the project carries plenty of benefits, it also has many accompanying dangers.

Land subsidence, for instance, as a result of land taken up from the site, noise and noxious gases released to the atmosphere, etc. are just among the many social concerns. The company has been saying that the project does not pose any environmental risk and danger to the people, “since they have already conducted an extensive environmental assessment and study way before they undertook the project, like what they have done to similar projects in other parts of the world and even in Iceland.”

The time to dispute this self-serving pronouncement maybe long past, so for the sake of the people in Biliran, I hope REI has indeed put in place the environmental cover needed for the project because Biliran’s natural resources, if these have to be tapped, should have gone the route of sustainability. Foreign investments are good, but it can only be beneficial if poured into sustainable programs that do not harm the environment.

Apart from natural resources, Biliran has a dynamic educational institution which drives the local economy. The Naval State University has a population of 10,000 and has been producing quality graduates especially in the field of nautical engineering. Dr. Edita Genson has done well in transforming the former state college into a university but instead of supporting her administration, I heard some local politicians are trying to bring her down so they can replace her with somebody who will do the politicians’ bidding.

Biliran is in the cusp of a becoming a boom-town, so to speak. Its abundant natural resources coupled with a people who are innately creative and industrious should make this beautiful and rich province a case for winning the fight against poverty but 19 years after its creation as a province, it is still struggling.

There is hope because in the perspective of the duaw, human aspirations can only happen if political leaders cooperate and look beyond their selfish interests to serve the people.

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Rey Martinez, founder of the shrine in Calubian and member of the the Duaw Sto. Niño organizing committee would like to thank cooperators from public and private institutions for helping them put together the whole program. There were some hitches, but on the whole, it was successful.
Kudos, Dodong Rey and Fr. Tito Soquiño, OSA.


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