DAVAO DEL SUR, PHILIPPINES—In 2003, Chona Leah M. Cabañero hated the commute from her home in Sta. Maria in Davao del Sur to Ateneo de Davao in Davao City where she was taking up law. From the sleepy little town where she lived, the commute took three to four hours on rough roads that were dusty on hot, sunny days, and muddy, slippery and dangerous during the rainy season.
“I remember riding the bus which had no air-conditioning, so I had to cover my hair with a bandana. But by the time I got to school, I looked like I had a lot of powder on my face!” Ms. Cabañero, now a lawyer and municipal administrator in Sta. Maria, recalls with a laugh.
But in those days, the treacherous Malalag-Malita road that snaked around the mountainsides was no laughing matter for those who travelled regularly from nearby towns to Davao City. Landslides happened regularly, much to the dismay of small traders, businessmen, students, workers and the occasional tourists. The Malalag-Malita road is major arterial thoroughfare in Davao del Sur. When it was flooded, choked or impassable, the province’s economy suffered.
Alexander Vic G. Sayson, district engineer at the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), said that when there were heavy rains, traders of bananas, copra, corn and livestock had to wait for hours before they could safely move their produce. Others had no choice but to turn back. "Farmers and fishers suffered heavy losses," says Mr. Sayson. "They lost their earnings, but they couldn't do anything because the steep slopes were too difficult to traverse safely."
All these changed after government constructed a Php 576-million road from Malalag to Malita under the National Roads Improvement and Management Project (NRIMP) financed by the World Bank. Road construction commenced in 2004; by October 2006, the 52.56-kilometer road was finished – five months ahead of schedule.
The scope of work involved roadway excavation, construction of embankments, drainage and road shoulders, a 25-meter bridge, masonry, setting up of guardrails, and even tree planting to reduce landslides.
The completed road is scenic in many areas, overlooking towns and villages and twisting and turning around the mountainsides. Small benches have been constructed near road shoulders to allow travellers to stop and enjoy the view. Since its construction, this road has energized the towns that it slices through.
Road users have nothing but praise for the project.
Rogelio Baribar, 64, is a fishpond and gas station owner in Malita, harvests milkfish and prawns twice a month and sells them in nearby Digos or Davao City at Php70 per kilo. He used to own the only gasoline station in town but he now has two competitors. Still, he says, his business has not suffered. In fact, it has improved.
“Since the road was constructed, going to Davao just takes two to three hours,” he says. “My gasoline station is brimming with business because road traffic has gone up.”
Selling 100,000 liters of gas per month used to be difficult for Mr. Baribar. Now he sells more than twice that volume as the paved road makes travel easier for residents of nearby towns.
He is hoping that tourists will soon come and make business even more brisk. Other residents believe that dream is almost at their doorstep. They are proud of their “Little Boracay” beach resorts, diving spots and other still undiscovered tourist destinations.
They point to one sure sign that road traffic is about to shoot up – the rise in the number of air-conditioned buses plying the route.
“Before, there was only one air-conditioned bus, and then others immediately followed. To us at DPWH, that means traffic is going to rise,” says Rodrigo C. Lorete, Assistant District Engineer at DPWH.
There are other signs of development activity aside from the air-conditioned buses. More private schools have begun to be built near the Malalag-Malita road. There are more commercial buildings, gasoline stations, and mini-groceries, supporting the finding that a good road network boosts school enrolment and commerce, which leads to more progress.
“Business permit issuances have gone up in our town. Investors have started to come in. The road has opened a lot of avenues for us to make our town more suitable and accessible to businesses,” says Mr. Lorete.
Sta. Maria is no longer a sleepy town.