FAST BACKWARD: The municipality of Saug

A local publisher, who doubled as an author, once called it the “future rice granary with virgin agricultural lands.” It now bears the name Asuncion, a town in Davao del Norte,

Created during the Quirino administration, Asuncion was originally named Saug (Saog) after the mighty river that runs through it. The river is a vital resource of water for irrigation; it flows from the municipality of New Corella to Tagum City, down to Bincungan River in the town of Carmen, before emptying into the Davao Gulf.

In the 19020’s, it was known as barrio Cambanogoy. Under the Administrative Revised Code that preceded the establishment of Davao City under Commonwealth Act No. 51, it was one of the thriving communities in the undivided province of Davao, and was settlement that flourished to become what is now Asunction.

To the Jesuits, the old town was a halfway station and later hosted the American-established Farm School. In missionary chronicles, the town was led by Ganza, a bagani (native warrior) who would become ‘Presidente municipal de todo este distrito’ (the mayor of the whole area). Despite his being a ‘hombre malo’ (bad man), the priests were able to forge a good relationship with him, raising optimism and making conversions in the area without trouble.

On February 23, 1921, American Governor-General Francis Burton Harrison issued Executive Order No. 8, along with at least a dozen more areas around the gulf, making Saug a municipal district. The new territory comprised had five villages, namely Cambanogoy (Central), Limban, Canatan, Sagayen, and Napungas. The edict was subsequently endorsed by the provincial board of Davao under Resolutions 297 and 393.

Twenty-seven years later, President Elpidio Quirino issued Executive Order No. 156 creating the old Saug into a regular municipality, renaming it to New Leyte, inspired presumably by the huge migrant population from Leyte Province. That year, another executive order numbered 173, was issued, this time reverting the town’s appellation to its previous name.

In Bagobo dialect saog means “to sprinkle, as water or dust” upon anybody or anything. When religious conversion was at its peak in Davao region, the term was associated with the sprinkling of holy water. It is this religious influence that inspired post-war migrants to the area to change the town’s name to Asuncion, the Nuestra Señora de la Asuncion. The change of name was officially made under Republic Act 1675, enacted on June 20, 1957.

In post-war years following the decline of logging in the region, the displacement of laborers led to complicated social issues. Among migrants, cultivating the land was an option but many of the farmlands already in the hands of affluent families, the tillers had to work under tenancy. This arrangement would subject the residents to peonage and bondage and, over time, fuel discontent that gave birth to insurgency, with agrarian problem as main theme.

During the Marcos years, popular anger towards the government heightened until it turned into an armed struggle. Veterans of Manila protests hunted down by the regime started showing up in mountain lairs, indoctrinating tribesmen and migrants on the need to be heard by the state. As a result, those who were recruited to the cause joined the underground movement.

This rise of rural mistrust finally led to retrogression as entrepreneurs started eschewing areas where grassroots-based uprising was gaining ground. Today, the vestiges of that ugly chapter remain. The conflict between state and ideologues, despite overtures of peace, is ongoing.

Asuncion, a second-class town with a total land area of 41,152 hectares, lies on the northeastern part of Davao del Norte. It is bounded on the north by the Municipality of Laak, on the south by Tagum City and the municipality of New Corella, on the southeast by the municipality of Santo Tomas, and on the northwest by the municipality of Kapalong. In 2003, the town had twenty-six barangays but on June 26, 2004, six of these, namely Igangon, Kipalili, Sabangan, Sawata, Santo Niño, and Mamangan, were transferred to the new town of San Isidro.

Officially, the town, with a population of 50,731, now comprises barangays Binancian, Buan, Buclad, Cabaywa, Camansa, Camoning, Canatan, Concepcion, Doña Andrea, Magatos, Napungas, New Bantayan, New Santiago, Pamacaun, Cambanogoy (Poblacion), Sagayen, San Vicente, Santa Filomena, Sonlon, and New Loon.

The municipality is a rustic region with less than half of its territory under cover of forests. While official records say the town has 41,152 hectares in its jurisdiction, only 8,768 are considered timberland. The loss of forest cover has led to flash floods and the loss of biodiversity. Soil erosion, in part blamed to mono-crop plantations, has also become an environmental threat.

In recent years, in an effort to raise yield in farms and control flooding in low-lying areas and riverbank communities, the agriculture department pushed for the carrying out of the Saug River Multi-purpose Project (SRMP), first broached in 1996. The proposed initiative, which was part of a P7-billion mega project funded by World Bank and the Japan International Cooperation Agency, was primarily aimed to harness hydro-electric power to boost agriculture, but tribal opposition, in part due to non-government influence, rebuffed it.

The proponents of this ambitious undertaking originally targeted the irrigation of 8,000 hectares of idle lands by exploiting hydroelectric power in running light industries, lighting homes in the province, and as source of potable water for at least five areas, including Tagum City.