LAMITAN, Basilan -- A profusion of yellow gumamelas, held at bay by recycled plastic cola bottles, strikes a colorful counterpoint against a row of red roses in a corner garden of the Claret School in downtown Lamitan.

The plastic bottles, cut in half to serve as garden dividers, are but one expression of the town's solid waste management campaign initiated by the local government unit (LGU) to combat environmental degradation.

It is a fight that both the LGU and citizens of Lamitan are willing to wage on a daily basis. At the backs of their minds the violent siege of Lamitan and the Claret School remains painfully etched still. By focusing on a battle to preserve the environment through citizen and multi-stakeholder participation, they not only hope to exorcise the ghosts of the past but also to forge a happier tomorrow.

Local leaders admit that the leading concern of Lamitan is how to keep the peace considering its proximity to other parts of Basilan that have gained notoriety for the presence of various armed groups. They believe that lasting peace is crucial to the development of the town.

"After the Lamitan siege in 2000 (by armed men believed to be members of the dreaded Abu Sayyaf), it is very important that we maintain the peace and order that we have now. Very, very important. We are really trying to maintain and sustain this. We don't want to experience that (siege) again. Right now, we are experiencing and celebrating the transformation of Lamitan from that very horrible experience in 2000. And that transformation you can see around," said Mayor Roderick H. Furigay.

Governance vs Politics

Today, it seems those efforts to maintain peace and order are paying off. Business is brisk and the economy seems to be perking up as evidenced by a mini construction boom, groups of traders examining wares, students happily walking along the business district.

"What we needed was good governance. And this is our brand of good governance," said Vice Mayor Arleigh W. Eisma.

The vice mayor was obviously referring to how he and Mayor Furigay, who is from another political party, were able to set aside their political differences for the sake of Lamitan and its people.

Both attribute this convergence to their formulation and implementation of the Comprehensive Development Plan (CDP) and the Executive and Legislative Agenda (ELA) that was supported by the Local Governance Support Program in Armm (LGSP-A) to aid local chief executives, local officials and community stakeholders formulate their development framework. The CDP-ELA was developed with the participation of different sectors and at various levels of governance including the barangay.

Key to this effort was the strengthening of communication, information and connectivity technology among government officials and citizens through "e-networking" as identified in the CDP-ELA. Through LGSPA support, 86 LGU staff members and officials were given basic computer training.

Partly through this technology, the Lamitan LGU made sure that voices from the margins were heard. The Municipal Council also regularly conducts sessions at the village level through eight cluster groups.

"We wanted to know what they want. We want to hear them and make them a part of the system. This government is not about officials holding higher offices but about people who want to be heard and felt. They have to be consulted, they have to be heard. The local government unit of Lamitan is going where the people are, closer to them," said Eisma.

Their presence in the barangay also allows them to assist village officials in crafting their budget and project implementation and in the process ensuring that government funds are spent accordingly and also eliminating opportunities for corruption. After each village-level session, the LGU also extends health assistance to local folk.

Lamitan has also institutionalized transparency in government allowing people easier access to information about budget, expenditures, and the like. The Local Governance Performance Management System (LGPMS) of the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) has rated as excellent Lamitan's level of financial transparency.

"The books are open to the public. Anyone who wants to check and inquire will have access to it, anytime. And we made sure that government offices in Lamitan are accessible to the public. Their questions and concerns will be responded to and given attention appropriately. The office of the Vice Mayor has an open cellphone line for the public to reach if they want to report or inquire about something...That is how transparent the LGU of Lamitan is," Mayor Furigay said.

Local Economic and Agricultural Development

With Lamitan's economic strength primarily anchored on agriculture and fisheries, the local government adopted a convergence strategy to promote the two industries by partnering with at least 17 national and local government agencies and civil society groups. This partnership, according to Olivia Ablao, Municipal Agriculture Officer, has resulted in the effective delivery of appropriate support to farmers -- from irrigation, road rehabilitation, needed farm inputs, to technical assistance.

Through LGSPA's support, the LGU conducted a Local Economic and Competitiveness Assessment (Leca) and confirmed the strategic importance of rubber as a high-value industry. LGU and civil society representatives from Lamitan joined study tours supported by LGSPA to learn from the success of other rubber plantations in the Philippines.

Ablao said there are at least 24 existing rubber associations in Lamitan grouped into a confederation of rubber growers.

"The objective is to empower them, to capacitate them through exposures and trainings. We have already established four demo-farms and nurseries as we hope to increase the rubber production of the municipality. The focus now is rubber because many farmers in Lamitan are into rubber production," said Ablao. She added that coconut remains the leading agricultural product of Lamitan.

Spearheading the rubber development program of Lamitan is the Sta. Clara Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries Inc. Development Cooperative (SCARBIDC), the largest cooperative in Zamboanga Peninsula and the Armm. The cooperative allotted more than 4,000 hectares for a rubber nursery. The nursery is currently developing new clones to be distributed to Lamitan farmers.

Managing Waste, Preserving the Ecology

Realizing that while having other aspects of good governance imbibed by the LGU other challenges have to be addressed as well. One of this is having in place an effective Solid Waste Management (SWM) program that will not only focus on preserving the town's ecological balance but will also serve as livelihood source.

Thus, six "metro villages" in Lamitan were mobilized to lead the advocacy to promote environmental protection, waste segregation and recycling. Five of the six villages have also put up their respective material recovery facilities (MRF) which are being managed by the Barangay Solid Waste Management Committees (BWMCs).

In each of the MRFs, members of the committees turn plastic-based garbage into curtains, toys, photo frames, table runners, and other creative materials which have potential for becoming sources of livelihood. The plastic bottle garden dividers at the Claret School came from one of the BWMCs. Prior to this a Municipal Solid Waste Management Board was formed that now oversees the coordinated implementation of the town's ecological solid waste management initiatives.

Susan Mauricio, vice chair of the Lamitan Recycling Movement, a group composed of mostly women who salvage plastic garbage and turn these to handmade crafts, said the movement is facing a difficult challenge while admitting that "it's very worthwhile."

"We know that we are doing something good for the environment while honing our skills and creativity in the hope that it can be a good source of livelihood," Mauricio said.

Mauricio has attended trainings and seminars supported by LGSPA on solid waste management. She said that through the trainings, she was able learn new product designs and how to possibly market the products. Right now, her group has produced handbags made out of tetra packs, corn husk photo frames, paper bags, among others.

Councilor Jessica Flores, chair of the committee on health, said putting in place the solid waste management program not only provides people with the opportunity to earn from garbage and help conserve the environment but it also helps promote people's health.

"This is closely related to health. If we have a dirty environment, then we can expect the rise of diseases. Right now, what we find a little difficult is how to make people from the villages outside the six metro villages to appreciate the benefits of a clean environment. We are hoping that they will be able to see it," said Flores.

To convince the public that they are serious with the campaign, local officials practice what they preach: employees of the LGU segregate their own garbage. An SWM ordinance was also passed by the Municipal Council following a series of seminars and forums on the benefits of implementing a solid waste management program.

Recently, the Lamitan Tourism Council launched the cleanest and greenest barangay contest, apparently as part of the LGU's advocacy campaign.

"We are continuously campaigning for segregation, recycling... we already implemented this in 2003 but we became more focused in 2007. As mandated by Republic Act 9003, solid waste management has now become the primary concern of local government units around the country," said Teresita Araneta, the chairperson of the IEC Solid Waste Management Technical Working Group.

The SWM information and education campaign is also brought to households by members of the purok (sub-village) committees of the BSWMCs.

This "engaging in conversation" advocacy strategy appears to be working.

When Barangay Matibay took up the SWM campaign, the officials found out they had to deal not only with residents but with "outsiders" who daily flock to the market to do business.

Said Flor de los Santos, barangay secretary: "The public market is (located) here and people come and go leaving us with their wastes. We have been painstakingly educating them to respect not only the ordinance but the essence of the campaign, which is the protection of the environment. Right now, we are still fighting that fight and hopefully, the public will be able to appreciate and respect that."

But they seem to be winning. What used to be the village's murky Gubawan River--with all sorts of garbage and flotsam -- is now a clean body of water. The river is being used by residents of Tuburan, Sumisip and other parts of Basilan to get to Lamitan.

"The riverside residents fortunately responded to our call to spare the river from their wastes. Now, seldom do we see floating plastic bags in the river," she said.

Ruben Domingo, a resident of Barangay Maligaya, has set up a compost pit at his yard in response to the call of the local government to preserve the environment.

"We have a responsibility. We cannot just ask people to act on environmental degradation without doing our share. We have to walk what we talk," he said.