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With or without a position, Barbers is always there for the people of Surigao del Norte because public service is all about will, not political titles.


By Helen B. Hernane-Palapag


Surigao del Norte was still dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic when it was hit by Typhoon Odette, a double whammy that current Governor Robert Lyndon S. Barbers claims the previous provincial government failed to adequately address.

On December 16, 2021, Odette (Typhoon Rai) entered the Philippine Area of Responsibility (PAR) and by the next day, the United States’ Joint Typhoon Warning Center (JTWC) classified it as a Level 1 typhoon. As it first made landfall in Siargao, however, Odette rapidly escalated to a Category Level 5 super typhoon and destroyed the provinces in its path up until it departed the PAR on December 18. It is the second costliest typhoon in the history of the Philippines, next only to Typhoon Yolanda in 2013.

“When [Typhoon] Odette came to Surigao del Norte, I was not yet the governor-elect. For the first two weeks, in all honesty, walang provincial government na gumalaw (the provincial government did nothing). I’m not saying this because we’re rivals or anything like that, wala naman talaga silang ginawa (they really did nothing). So as a private person, in my own capacity, I rallied my friends, families to help our fellowmen. We took charge of clearing and relief operations, things that the provincial government should have been doing. Private people ang gumalaw (did the work), private organizations,” Barbers reveals.

“Our friends also from Metro Manila helped with the relief operations. We provided the basic needs—canned goods, water, and rice. We distributed throughout the entire province and I was not in office. Everything we donated came from me and my brother, Congressman Ace, if not from friends and private organizations. The relief mission lasted for months because calamity recovery is not an overnight objective.”

When Barbers was elected in the 2022 elections, the tragedy was at the top of his mind, and he was determined to minimize the impact of such disaster on the people of Surigao del Norte as typhoons are meant to happen again.

On August 27, 2022, the province hosted the 1st Caraga Climate Change Summit with the theme “Adaptation and Resiliency.” With government officials, political leaders, and various other stakeholders in attendance, Climate Change Commissioner Albert de la Cruz vowed their commitment to supporting the provincial government’s big-ticket, climate-sensitive programs.

“Last year, our province, together with our neighboring provinces in the region, was hit by Typhoon Odette. I am a living witness to its wrath and the devastation it left behind,” Barbers said in his speech during the event.

He adds that, of course, typhoons will happen again, citing Typhoon Nitang of 1984. But the benefit of hindsight is learning from the errors of the past. Barbers revealed that 71 percent of their provincial investment plan is climate-sensitive, including infrastructure projects that will provide over 20,000 jobs and will incorporate renewable energy (solar and wind) to government buildings which is expected to save roughly 30 percent on electricity.

During his interview with LEAGUE, he shares that they are strengthening their Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office (PDRRM) by adding calamity monitoring equipment. They will also establish an Emergency Operations Center (EOC) that is expected to aid in the monitoring efforts to shorten the response time of emergency services.

On September 19, 2022, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) of Germany and Finland chose the province as the pilot center worldwide for the Early Action Protocol: Shelter Strengthening Installation program. This was formally launched by the United Nations (UN) during the two-day Joint Simulation Exercise on Tropical Cyclone Anticipatory Action in Surigao.

For the program’s first cycle, the beneficiaries include over 16,400 households and 7,000 families from 13 municipalities—San Isidro, Sison, Gigaquit, Malimono, Tagana-an, Bacuag, Burgos, Mainit, Socorro, Del Carmen, Claver, Tubod, and Sta. Monica.

Barbers’ battle cry during his 2022 campaign can be summed up in an acronym made up of his initials—Responsable, Lig-on, Sinsero, may Baruganan (Responsible, Strong, Sincere, Principled). Aside from this, he also presented a 10-point agenda that continues to guide his programs and projects, now that he has been elected to the position.

Every day is a challenge, especially being the highest official in the Province of Surigao del Norte. Aside from the major issues that come our way, I also consider the problems of my constituents, personal or otherwise, as my problems as well.”

His 10-point agenda encompasses: Inclusive Health Services; Productive Agricultural Program; Sustainable Livelihood Program; Strengthen Education, Culture and Arts Promotion; Institutionalize Youth and Sports Development Program; Ensure Peace and Order and Public Safety; Promote Eco-Tourism Activities; Environmental Protection Services; Instill Disaster Preparedness Program; and Provide Adequate Infrastructure Development.

With this admittedly tall order, the governor is not afraid to admit that not all may be achieved in one term, but he is hopeful that the people will again elect him in the future for him to continue his projects. After all, Barbers reveals that he has plenty of plans that he wants to push to further improve the province and help Surigaonons. “We can only do so much and it really depends on the local government units (LGUs) and of course, the funds. You can’t allocate all of your funds to only one aspect as there are plenty of other things that need funds,” the 54-year-old governor shares.

However long or short his time in office may be, Barbers is determined to make the most of it not only by relying on the national government, but also by partnering with international organizations. Last September 27, 2022, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) turned over supplies and equipment for disaster response, COVID-19 vaccination, and other health services.

USAID turned over rapid antigen test kits, laptops, Wi-Fi routers, thermal scanners, blood pressure monitors, pulse oximeters, oxygen tanks, high-flow oxygen concentrators, canopy tents, and generator sets.

The provincial government also ensures that no Surigaonon will be left behind when it comes to health services. Through the efforts of the Provincial Health Office, the provincial government has been conducting medical and dental missions, as well as feeding programs in LGUs, going as far as Bucas Grande Island (which takes two hours of land travel to Hayanggabon port from Surigao City plus a 1.5-hour ferry ride to the island).

In the program in Bucas Grande Island, they were able to provide circumcision services, dental consultations, and general checkups. They also implemented the Renal Disease Control program and provided ready-to-use therapeutic food to children.

The governor reveals that with the help of his late father, former Senator Robert “Bobby” Barbers, and brother, Congressman Robert Ace Barbers, their provincial hospital was also recently transformed into a regional facility—the Caraga Regional Hospital.

Among his priorities, the province was also quick to respond to agricultural calamities such as the African swine fever (ASF) epidemic which swept across three towns. Over 300 pigs were culled within three days and various activities to prevent further spread were implemented—vaccination; vitamin and mineral supplementation; deworming; disease surveillance; artificial insemination; and provision of animal breeder stocks.

Financial assistance was extended to the farmers affected by the outbreak and the provincial government distributed egg machines to augment their livelihood. Providing jobs is another priority of the governor, sharing their program for women: “Sa Kuko Mo, Mabubuhay Ako (With Your Nails, I Will Live)” which provides training focused on nail care services such as manicure and pedicure. They also have another training program focused on massage therapy. Barbers is also aiming to invite business process outsourcing (BPO) companies to their province to generate more jobs for the people.

“Instead of giving them fish, I’m teaching them how to fish para mas ma-sustain sila (so that it’s more sustainable for them),” the California State University alumnus explains, using the old Chinese proverb.

“Every day is a challenge, especially being the highest official in the Province of Surigao del Norte. Aside from the major issues that come our way, I also consider the problems of my constituents, personal or otherwise, as my problems as well,” Barbers says.

“It’s not something you should avoid. People will come to you with all sorts of problems, even down to their electricity and water bills or their children’s tuition fees.” But as Barbers’ father advised him when he entered public office, the governor aims to be accessible at all times. Barbers stresses the importance of being present for the people especially in times of crisis. Even without any incidents though, the governor maintains an approachable nature, going so far as opening his office even on weekends. As long as the gates of the provincial capitol are open, then his doors are also open for his people. “You are on-call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. That’s the hard part [of being a public servant]. People have high expectations, especially for a governor like me,” he admits. And none of it comes easy, as the governor says that pleasing everybody is impossible and some decisions he will make will be unpopular. But he accepts criticism as long as what he chooses benefits the majority of Surigaonons. He quotes former US President Theodore Roosevelt, “Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” “People look to me as their leader, as the father of the province, so I continuously emphasize that my administration will not be one driven by fear, intimidation, or personal profit. My late father inspires me to be the leader I am today because mahal na mahal niya itong probinsya namin, aming mga kababayan (he loves our province and our provincemates so much). We’re here to serve, not to be served,” Barbers adds. But to quote an iconic song, “Too much love will kill you,” and it nearly did Barbers in when he was hospitalized for overfatigue. During this time, he was forced to rest and spend his time watching movies, joking that he would wrestle with his wife, Joyce, over the television.

It is no question that the governor loves his job, even if it means working himself to the point of exhaustion. Beyond helping people and improving the province, he reveals that getting to interact with people from different walks of life is another perk for the extrovert.

“I’m not an introvert, I’m a people person. So the job of being with my people is just being me. Being a governor is just a title. I want people to see me as a regular person like them, not just as a governor that they could go to in his office, but someone they could also interact with when he steps outside it,” he says. “Enjoy akong kumakain sa karinderya kesa sa hotel, kumain ng fishball diyan sa may sidewalk, tumambay ng (I enjoy eating in the carinderia instead of a hotel, eating fishball from sidewalk vendors, and hanging out in the) tennis court, sometimes having a few beers with the tennis players because I used to play tennis. To be simple, to be a regular Juan dela Cruz,” he reveals.

His passion for the province and his fellow Surigaonons, whether consciously or unconsciously, has always guided Barbers in life. After graduating with an Associate in Arts in Liberal Studies degree and a Bachelor in Arts in Political Science degree, he came home to the Philippines and worked in Congress as his father was a congressman then. When the elder Barbers was appointed as Secretary of the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), the dutiful son followed.

After several months in DILG, he shifted to the Department of Tourism (DOT) under then Secretary Mina Gabor and after a year, he was appointed by then President Fidel V. Ramos (FVR) as the DOT National Capital Region (NCR) Director. Barbers shares that during the time of FVR, they were tasked to come up with branding for possible local destinations. Surigao del Norte was not a part of the determined top 25 destinations in the country, but was considered as a satellite destination of one of the top 25, which was Cagayan de Oro.

“We held a workshop and I thought of surfing. When I became governor in 2001, with my experience in the DOT, I promoted and marketed the province as the Philippines’ surfing capital and the idea stuck. Now when we say surfing in our country, people think of Surigao del Norte or Siargao,” he shares.

In fact, during his first term, Barbers invited the Australian Surfing Association to visit the province to further cement their branding as a surfing destination. To this day, thousands visit the province, especially the island of Siargao, for surfing and to attend surfing competitions hosted in the province’s dozens of surfing spots. With the rave reviews and strong waves, over 14,000 tourists arrived in Siargao Island in 2022 alone. “Walang pinagkaiba ‘yan sa mga products eh (It’s no different from other products). It’s all about how you market it,” Barbers stresses. As the province opens its doors to tourists, the governor admits that the effects of the pandemic and the loss of business strongly felt by the tourism industry resulted in some issues regarding the sudden influx of tourists.

“Medyo naging relaxed tayo since for two years, wala talaga masyadong tourists. Ngayon unti-unti nang bumabalik yung sigla ng turismo sa aming probinsya (We’ve been somewhat relaxed since for two years, there were hardly any tourists. Now, the tourism industry in our province is reviving) and we’re striving to be strict in overseeing the tourism industry to benefit both our people and the tourists that visit our lovely province,” he shares. With his expertise in tourism and success in putting Surigao del Norte on the map, Barbers was appointed as Vice President for Tourism by the League of Provinces of the Philippines (LPP) last August 2022.

As he aims to achieve so much for the province, the only request the governor has of his people is for them “to continue praying for me that I will be guided accordingly by our Lord to be able to help the province progress and to help our fellow Surigaonons in improving their lives.” Barbers shares that there were few moments in his life that had him wishing for a simpler life and was led to a life of public service instead. On the other hand, there were also times that he wanted more and went down a different path instead. “There are always ups and downs. [Things happen in] His time, not our time. It’s a calling, and it depends if people want you there. Their overwhelming support is what drives me forward,” he says. When asked if he has plans to run for higher office, the governor merely says: “Everything is for the people of Surigao del Norte. Wala akong planong tumakbo for (I have no plans of running for a) higher position, period.”

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