LEYTE, the Philippines – During almost the entire pandemic, Marlen Zilmar woke up to the sound of roosters. Before the sun reached its bright peak, she swung a makeshift watering can made from a perforated plastic bottle over the yard of her childhood home, where she had returned after the coronavirus hit Manila.
The scene of okra plants, banana trees and harvesting the harvest of the day may seem timeless. But Ms. Zilmar’s interest in returning to her rural roots is new. Historically, the economic prospects in urban areas have lured Filipinos out of the countryside in greater numbers than the cities can handle. The pandemic has changed that pattern, and whether it can be sustained will depend on the nation’s ability and desire to revive its economically neglected hinterland.
Since the 1970s, the era of Ferdinand E. Marcos’ dictatorship, every Philippine leader has encouraged rural development in an effort to reduce overpopulation in Metro Manila, the dense patchwork of 16 cities that make up the Philippines’ urban core. His son, Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr., known as Bongbong, recently elected the country’s next president, echoed a similar theme in his campaign, drawing on his father’s legacy.
Despite the many efforts of the government, the percentage of urban residents has generally increased as the country has grown. Less than a third of the population was urban in 1970; 47 percent now live in urban areas. Metro Manila had fewer than four million inhabitants in 1970; it has more than 13 million today.
In this densely populated country with the highest poverty rate in rural areas, and a workforce with more education than there are jobs, moving to the city or abroad to send money home is often an economic necessity. It is also the sign of a fundamental imbalance: between urban and rural areas, between qualifications and opportunities, between the vision of the political elite and the reality of ordinary people.
The differences have existed for decades, little changed by politics or policy. However, the tradeoffs suddenly looked a little different during the pandemic.
As work dried up during the lockdown, the appeal of city life also faded for many newcomers. In rural places where they still had ties, there was at least food, a place to stay and space for social distancing.
Ms. Zilmar, 50, had spent five years in Manila as a maid and cashier at a food bank to help pay for five children’s tuition. When the food court closed early in the pandemic, she moved in with her cousin but couldn’t make ends meet. Her husband was too old to continue fishing and none of her children had steady work. She began to consider returning to Leyte, more than 500 miles from Manila, where her family is from.
Her timing was lucky. In March 2020, Manila closed, closing regional borders and shutting down public transportation between provinces for months. Subsequently, lockdowns and strict travel document requirements trapped many others.
Over the decades, the government had developed programs to encourage people, especially informal settlers, to move to rural areas. Ms Zilmar secured a spot in a pilot phase of the latest version, introduced after Covid-19 set in and signed into law by President Rodrigo Duterte in May 2020.
Entitled “Return to the Province, New Hope,” participants in the program received seed funding, livelihood training, relocation assistance and grants, and a one-way bus or plane ticket as part of the project’s resettlement efforts. Mrs. Zilmar also got some seeds; others had a flock of piglets.
The initial resettlement phase of the program was short-lived.
In the first 10 days, 53,000 people signed up. But after an initial transport of 112 people to Leyte, the resettlement effort was suspended indefinitely, with the government explaining it wanted to focus first on Filipinos stranded in Manila during the lockdown — returning foreign workers, tourists, students. The program received a total of about 100,000 applications, although some people did not qualify or have since lost interest. Currently there are just under 10,000 on a waiting list and small groups have been sent periodically over the past two years.
Without government support, families from the big cities face the same challenges in rural communities.
Endrita Jabaybay lived for 12 years in Tondo, the largest slum in Manila. When her husband’s work as a welder slowed early in the pandemic, they were unable to pay their rent or electricity bills.
When the Facebook page for Return to Province went live, she joined those begging program staff to include her, petitioning unsuccessfully every week. She decided to leave the city at the end of 2020. She and her husband now grow rice to make ends meet.
There has long been an inequality between urban and rural areas in the Philippines. In Leyte, where Mrs. Zilmar returned, agriculture, fishing and construction drive the local economy; the nominal minimum wage is about 60 percent of Manila’s.
Dakila Kim Yee, a sociologist at the University of the Philippines Visayas Tacloban College, in Leyte, said his university offers a program in computer science, but there are no local jobs for graduates with that degree.
Without better economic prospects in rural communities, Ladylyn Mangada, a political scientist at the University of the Philippines in Tacloban, said the program itself was unsustainable, as it relied on small cash payments or one-time allocations.
“How are you going to feed the piglet?” she said, referring to the promise of free livestock. “How are you going to feed yourself?”
In addition to the resettlement efforts, the makers of Return to the Province have outlined an ambitious development vision: new water facilities and expanded ports, high-speed internet and modern agricultural technologies, improved health centers and new loan opportunities, new economic zones and the “decentralization of powers and seats of government.”
State and local governments would share costs for the first two years, after which the program would be dependent on local funds.
Despite past failures, planners are hopeful. The program has short, medium and long-term plans that focus on “balanced regional development” and the “equitable distribution of wealth, resources and opportunity,” Kimberly Tiburcio, who is involved in the program as part of the National Housing Authority said this month.
Candidates in the recent elections were, as usual, the main topics of discussion for Manila’s rural development and decentralization.
“Our infrastructure should boost rural development because right now, development is so concentrated in Metro Manila,” Vice President Leni Robredo said in October, the month candidates submitted presidential bids. She came in a distant second in the presidential contest.
Mr Marcos, the winning candidate, boasted on his website that he prioritized agriculture for economic development, inspired by his father’s legacy. (While he hasn’t spoken about the future of the current program, the Back to County policy was first introduced under the elder Marcos’ kleptocratic dictatorship, which ended in 1986.)
The Zilmars, of the approximately 730 people who have made it to the program so far, loved the transition to rural life.
Resty Zilmar, the youngest son of Marlen, 24, would climb a tree to knock over a coconut as a snack. To get firewood for cooking, he cut down branches. Yes, their roof was leaking, but there was no rent, no crowds, no pollution, no gas bill, no water bill.
But work was hard to come by and late last year he and his mother returned to city life. He works as a pharmacy assistant in the town of Tacloban, about an hour’s drive from his county house, although he has not given up living in the countryside. Within ten years he wants to return and open his own pharmacy, filling a gap in his village’s access to medicines, he said.
Until then, he looks back to a time when his family relied on traditional pursuits to pass the time during the early pandemic. During a full moon, the electricity went out, a common occurrence in the provinces, so the Zilmars gathered outside in bamboo armchairs and sang, strumming guitars under the moonlit banana trees.