Some four kilometers southwest of Lianga and right smack in the middle of a long stretch of desolate yet scenic coastline lies a wide expanse of flat and compacted dirt totally enclosed by a perimeter concrete fence. From what was once a rocky seashore, a long, massive, L-shaped concrete pier reaches into deep water like a beckoning finger at the far horizon.
The whole thing, more than P30 million pesos worth of construction (if my figures are right), is what is supposed to be the much anticipated port of Lianga and one of the major infrastructure projects on which the town is hoping to anchor its bid to become one of the more economically progressive municipalities in eastern Mindanao. That is, if someone can figure out what to do with it now that its has been supposedly completed and ready for use.
Until almost the last quarter of the last century, Lianga had always been a major transportation and trading hub in this part of the country. It was a coastal town with excellent harbor facilities for the small, wooden ships of that time and in the absence of an existing road network (which only came into existence in the 1960's), the brisk trade in copra, abacca fiber and rice was done by sea. The intrepid ships and boats of that bygone era carried people and cargo all over eastern Mindanao to as far as the Visayas.
Despite the boom in the local logging industry during the 1950's and 60's, the inter-island shipping industry shifted their attention to the emerging seaport of Nasipit in Agusan del Norte, and the more modern harbors of the cities of Cagayan de Oro in the west, Surigao in the north and Panabo and Davao City in the south. The ships finally stopped coming to Lianga and its small port languished then fell apart from disrepair. By the time I was a small boy in the 1970's, the old pier on the north of the town where the ships used to dock was already a ghostly ruin, a mass of broken and rotting timber noted only for the good fishing that can be had there.
But the dream of economic prosperity triggered and boosted by a busy local port servicing local trade refused to die and many Lianga politicians over the years have made lobbying for the construction of such a facility an integral part of their campaign promises. In the 1990's a small pier was constructed in Pugad, just a kilometer or so west of the town but despite all the hype, nothing came out of that project. The Pugad pier never came into its own, bogged down by constant silt buildup, lack of support infrastructure like modern roads and a sick local economy that could not support much less have any actual use for it.
Then in 2006, Prospero "Butch" Pichay, then on his third and last consecutive three year term as congressman for Surigao del Sur's 1st district to which Lianga belongs, wrestled public funding for a new port but this time located in Barangay Baucaue just a short distance from the Pugad pier. Construction went into high gear during the 1st term of Philip Pichay, his brother, who replaced him in Congress after the 2007 national elections and all essential construction was completed or presumed completed just recently.
As the new port lies idle, forlorn, seemingly abandoned and visited only by occasional sightseers and avid anglers who see the new pier as merely another exceptional fishing spot built for their fishing pleasure, a myriad of questions have been asked by many concerned residents of Lianga.
If the port complex has indeed been completed then why has it not been made operational? If construction has not been completed then why has all the work stopped, all construction equipment removed and the whole place abandoned? Why has the local government not been advised of the actual status of the port and why has nothing been heard about its supposed role as an integral part of an honest to goodness development plan for the town?
What about reports that the new pier is basically useless as a harbor for modern cargo ships because of the relatively shallow waters in the shipping channel giving access to it which could not accommodate their draft? Did the Philippine Ports Authority really approved its construction after conducting the necessary preliminary planning and feasibility studies? And what about the critics who have pointed out to alleged design flaws in the layout of the new port? Is the new port just another white elephant like the one in Pugad, another multimillion peso infrastructure extravaganza conceived and implemented solely for lucrative kickbacks from the congressional pork barrel and nothing else?
And, of course, there is the most important question of them all. Is the dream of a bustling seaport for Lianga still one anchored in reality or already just useless daydreaming and harping on the faded glories and the obsolete geo-economic realities of a distant past?
I have visited the new port several times in the past weeks and despite the magnificent scenery one can enjoy while promenading on the concrete pier especially during sunsets and the early evenings, there is an air of neglect and apathy about the place, a sense of things unfinished and unfulfilled. One, of course, can weep and mourn for the millions of pesos sunk into this probably useless complex of dirt, metal and concrete but such sentiments are insufficient in themselves.
Instead, one is beset by great anger and extreme frustration. Under better circumstances, the new port could be Lianga's ticket to economic revival and progress. Or the money could have been used more effectively in other ways and other more feasible and truly useful or needed infrastructure projects. Yet, as it is now, the Lianga port is just a jumble of concrete structures, another incongruous man-made anomaly in the middle of nowhere, meaning, signifying and promising absolutely nothing.