Dumalinao’s Continuing Journey to Progress
BY RAGIE MAE TAÑO-ARELLANO
A LEADER WITH A COMPELLING VISION IS BUILDING A RICH LEGACY IN THE QUAINT WESTERN MINDANAO TOWN OF DUMALINAO.
Dumalinao, Zamboanga del Sur Mayor Junaflor “Sweet” Cerilles’ political journey has not been pleasant, but her resolve to make her constituents’ lives a little more comfortable has guided her through her years of public service.
Affectionately called “Sweet,” Cerilles’s entry into politics came as no surprise, especially since her husband’s family is a known political family in Zamboanga del Sur. Answering with a big “no” when asked if it was her dream to become the mayor of Dumalinao, she admitted that, initially, running for an elective position wasn't primarily her ambition. "At first, it was like I didn't have a choice, and I had to run."
Her husband, Ace William Cerilles, was a three-term mayor of Dumalinao and also served as vice governor of Zamboanga del Sur. Her mother-in-law, Aurora Cerilles, served as governor of Zamboanga del Sur and subsequently as congresswoman of the province’s second district. Atty. Antonio Cerilles, her father-in-law, worked as Secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) under then-President Joseph Estrada and governor of the province thereafter. "My fatherin-law served Zamboanga del Sur well. He spearheaded various programs and advocacies, with education, health, and agriculture as his priorities." she says.
The local chief executive looks up to the former Cabinet member as her mentor as well as the person who inspired her to become a better public servant. From him she learned valuable lessons about public service, effective office management and maintaining a strong commitment to serving the people.
Now in her third term as mayor, Cerilles acknowledges the significant role of the Cerilleses in her entry into politics and eventual success as a public servant. However, she also thinks that her distinct personality, dedication and ability to really connect with the people plays a major role in her longevity in the political arena. She says that she always had a deep desire to serve the community because, since her college days, her focus has been on community service, environmental protection, and addressing relevant societal issues.
She sees herself as part of the masa (common people, or masses) and very approachable. Her ability to create bonds with people from all ages and from different walks of life makes her effective in what she does. “My foundation is rooted in the belief that, as an elected public servant, I have a mandate to help my constituents. However, beyond that, I also have a greater mandate, as a creation of God, to serve our brothers and sisters.”
Just like others, Cerilles had her fair share of challenges to deal with. For instance, she has to face the reality that partisan politics still rears its ugly head well after—or before—elections. Her political affiliation, she laments, resulted to receiving scarce support from other local leaders and her proposed projects not considered a top priority when it comes to budget allocation.
Nevertheless, Cerilles, despite these setbacks, was able to prudently apportion financial resources for her initiatives and projects. Her team has always judiciously used the town’s share of the national tax allotment or NTA (previously internal revenue allotment or IRA) for the said cause. She also successfully raised funds through collaboration with various partners, including the United States and New Zealand embassies, non-governmental organizations, private companies, and various individuals. In addition, she reaches out to national government agencies like the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE), the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA), the Department of Agriculture (DA), and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) to bring their programs and projects to the people of her town.
“So even if I am in the opposition, I can still implement many programs and projects,” she says.
Being a lady mayor, Cerilles’ commitment to women's empowerment is a cornerstone of her leadership. In 2013,
years before she became mayor, Cerilles initiated programs aimed at enhancing the capacity and rights awareness of women. The objectives were to empower women, encourage their active participation in government activities, as well as to ensure that their voices were heard. Over the years, the scope of these programs has expanded to include economic empowerment. Women were provided with livelihood programs and subsequently they also received training in financial management. This approach not only bolstered their economic independence but also equipped them with valuable skills. The projects received support from the United States Embassy, the New Zealand Embassy, SPARK! Philippines, and various other partners.
As time went by, it became evident that the needs of women encompassed more than just economic empowerment. The mayor and her team ventured into the legal and psychosocial aspects, recognizing that true empowerment involved addressing various dimensions of their lives. Cerilles adds that the women's empowerment programs, launched in 2013, continue to thrive and are now being implemented across the entire province.
She also supports the student empowerment project of Jay Keanne Donasco, the Sagip Kamag-aral (Save Our Fellow Students), where they enlisted the help of the youth, notably college students, to serve as “little teachers” to help students who are struggling readers from elementary and high school levels. The program, which was launched in 2019, targets a significant issue in the Philippines: declining reading and numeracy rates.
Cerilles is committed to improving education not only in her hometown but also in nearby communities. She quotes Jose Rizal, saying “Sabi nga ni Rizal, kabataan ang pag-asa ng ating bayan. (As Rizal said, the youth are the hope of our nation.) So how can the youth be competitive enough if we don't educate them well?”
According to Cerilles, recent World Bank statistics show that just 10% to 20% of basic learners receive satisfactory grades, while the remaining 80% to 90% struggle with reading and comprehension. The 65 “little teachers” of Sagip Kamag-aral visit houses, chapels, and barangay halls, rendering tutorial services and helping pupils who have below-par reading and comprehension skills. The Dumalinao local government is collaborating with the Department of Education (DepEd) on this initiative. Ateneo de Zamboanga University also reached out to assist in the modification of the modules used in the tutorial classes. Moreover, Cerilles also solicited the help of Senator Sherwin Gatchalian, chairperson of the Senate Committee on Education, to help municipalities facing obstacles in revamping their education systems.
Through her Hindi Ako Plastic (I Am Not Plastic) program launched in 2016, Cerilles, an environmental advocate, urges the people of Dumalinao to not only properly segregate waste but also to stop the use of sando bags as secondary packaging. Part of the said program is the upcycling of election campaign materials like tarpaulins. These materials are collected after elections and made into school bags which are then distributed to students needing the said school supply.
Cerilles also has a livelihood program for the marginalized sector, for instance, their fishermen. “Sila yung nagbibilad sa init, sila yung nagtatrabaho, pero sila yung walang kinakain. Sila yung [nanghuhuli] ng isda, pero sila yung kumakain ng sardinas. (They are the ones working hard under the heat of the sun, but they end up with nothing to eat. They're the ones catching the fish, but they're the ones eating canned sardines)," she laments. Earlier this year, she turned over to local fishermen milkfish fingerlings sourced from BFAR. The fishermen, according to her, earned more than Php200,000 in five months. In 2021, BFAR also gave 30,000 milkfish fingerlings to Dumalinao fishermen as part of the reward for the municipality being hailed as a regional awardee in the Malinis at Masaganang Karagatan tilt. Mariculturists belonging to the Dumalinao Fisherfolk Federation were the primary beneficiaries of this award.
Other livelihood programs that Dumalinao has are copra buying for coconut farmers; dairy buffaloes for women dairy farmers; and feed milling for yellow corn farmers who supply feeds to the women hog growers. These projects, she says, are very close to her heart.
One remarkable project that Cerilles is also happy about is the town’s water system. Indeed, she was able to grant the request made by her constituents during her inauguration in June 2016—the resolution of the water crisis affecting Dumalinao. Cerilles says that the lack of accessible spring sources in the area had deprived the locals of water for more than half a century. Each household once had access to a water supply for only two to three hours daily.
Knowing the extent of the water crisis in her town, Cerilles prioritized the expansion and improvement of the water system during her first term. With local funds insufficient, her administration secured funds from the DILG and the Department of Budget and Management through its Local Government Support Fund (LGSF). Additionally, the municipal government inked a joint venture with a Korean company to process additional water sources. With this, some areas in Dumalinao now have water supply 24/7. The town’s leadership is now expanding the project in the hope of providing all households in Dumalinao with an uninterrupted water supply under this 10-year plan.
SERVING BEYOND DUMALINAO
Cerilles’ dedicated service extends beyond her municipality as she reaches out to areas far beyond her home, such as Zamboanga del Norte, Iligan, and Misamis Occidental. "Whenever anyone requests that we visit their community to bring in different services to the people, as long as I have the time, I always go and try to heed the call," she reveals.
The mayor even visited so-called “red areas” to provide services to these communities in close coordination with the military. She feels that it is more important to achieve peace by nonviolent means rather than relying solely on armed force. “So, you also need to use a soft approach when reaching out to them,” she asserts.
Cerilles takes pride in not discriminating anybody as she performs her role as mayor. She says she extends help to everyone, even those who did not vote for her. “That's why every time after the election, I really cry. Because I know that there are so many people I've helped, even with our personal money and sacrifices. Some of them didn't even vote for me,” she shares.
AWARDS AND RECOGNITION
The above-mentioned projects are just part of the factors why Dumalinao won the Seal of Good Local Governance (SGLG) award at the national level for three consecutive years from 2017 to 2019. They were unable to bag the award in its latest iteration because they failed to meet the criteria on economic growth. Cerilles explains that their revenue decreased, in particular, due to the moratorium imposed on the payment of fees for tricycle operators and drivers as well as for securing business permits during the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021. The DILG however did not consider it. This year, focusing on growing the local economy, Dumalinao qualified for the SGLG after the DILG's national validation.
Except for one occurrence, Dumalinao's disaster preparedness program has ranked first in Region 9 since 2019. Other local governments are using this initiative as a model. The DENR has also recognized them as the best-performing LGU for their solid waste management program. Their environmental practices are also making significant impressions. Several professors from the Ateneo de Zamboanga University visited their park to learn about the technologies they are using.
With all her achievements throughout her stint as mayor, Cerilles does not rule out running for higher office.“If it is God’s will [then we will run]. Of course, we want to serve a greater number of people.” She adds, however, that she will require a considerable amount of resources to win. “If we get the support from people seeking good governance and clamoring for improvement in the province, then why not?”
Cerilles may be an opposition official in Zamboanga del Sur, but she claims that she has no bad blood with other government officials in the province. Dealing with them, she says, does not count among the most difficult aspects of her job. She does, however, have difficulty managing her time and juggling work between being a mother to her biological family and to members of her bigger family which is the people of Dumalinao. While she wants to give her family time after office hours and weekends, she sometimes has to give that up because of some pressing concerns that needs to be attended to. “I feel guilty as a mother, for I also want to witness every milestone of my children. But I cannot do anything about that for now because this is where the Lord has put me, and I still want to know what His purpose is for my life.”
Still, she is grateful for the opportunity given to serve the people of Dumalinao. “I am elated because I have a bigger family, a bigger family to serve. [That also means] a bigger family who will hopefully support me. I find fulfillment in that,” she declares.
Aware of the things that need to be done for Dumalinao, Cerilles calls on her constituents for help because good governance, she says, is not just the job of those elected to office but also of the ordinary people. “I cannot do everything for the progress of our town. But if we all do what we can, we can achieve many things. We will benefit from the better ideas coming from the people. I have to thank the people of Dumalinao who not only demand good governance but actively take part in achieving such,” she concludes.