FAST BACKWARD: Davao City as central office

Historically, only few national offices have made Davao City as the home of its main office. The reason for this is that most departments under the Office of the President (Executive), Congress (Senate and the House of Representatives), and the Judiciary (Supreme Court and Court of Appeals) are in the national capital region.

This plan was further pushed during the Marcos regime when the national leadership, in reviving a moribund 1948 plan to create a national government center, started developing Constitution Hills (now Batasan Hills) as permanent home of the three branches of government, exclusive of government-owned and controlled corporations (GOCCs).

On April 22, 1975, during the martial law years, President Ferdinand E. Marcos issued President Decree 690, later amended by PD 1703 dated July 24, 1980, creating the Southern Philippines Development Authority (SPDA) as a state-owned and controlled firm. Given its corporate name, the agency’s coverage was exclusively confined to Mindanao.

SPDA, however, was deactivated by then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo under Executive Order No. 149 on November 18, 2002, and underwent “organizational enhancements” during under a task force created on March 30, 2003. Interestingly, three years later, the agency was reactivated on August 29, 2006, under Executive Order 560.

In 2011, Sen. Franklin Drilon called for the abolition of the SPDA, saying its functions are redundant and it has not brought substantial progress to the Mindanao area.

Under the presidency of Fidel V. Ramos (1992-98), the Office of the President, for the first time, opened a Mindanao bureau under Executive No. 7 issued in 1992, which it named as the Office of the Presidential Assistant for Mindanao (OPAMIN). The agency, though, was later abolished when President Joseph Estrada issued Executive Order No. 7 on September 30, 1998.

Under the Estrada edict, the Cabinet Officer for Regional Development (CORD) System created under Administrative Order (AO) No. 55, series of 1988, as amended by AO 95, series of 1988, was also abolished, and the presidential assistants renamed as presidential assistants for regional concerns (PARECO), with the same functions as their predecessors.

The first serious effort to transfer a state agency to Mindanao was on February 23, 2007 when President Arroyo issued Memorandum Order No. 240, directing the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) to transfer Davao City, with the SPDA Compound as its central office.

The reason for the ordered transfer was for the agency to be “more accessible to the provinces to better serve and immediately address the need of the stakeholders of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program in the countryside.”

In support of the Arroyo agenda, then DAR secretary Nasser C. Pangandaman, who was appointed DAR secretary on June 8, 2007, the strategy is part of the President’s thrust to develop Mindanao into “a super-region focused on agri-business.”

But the move elicited strong opposition from DAR employees who would be displaced. Instead of DAR, Presidential Adviser of New Government Centers Secretary Rodolfo del Rosario suggested instead to relocate the Department of Agriculture (DA), which was the original choice, to Mindanao, as the country’s good basket.

Nothing came out of the plan, though, because of incremental cost involved and the administrative ramifications involved, including the early retirement of bureaucrats who had always embraced negative impressions about their safety while assigned in Mindanao.

But then presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte took up the cudgels from past presidents left. During his campaign sortie, he floated the idea of transferring three departments, namely agriculture, energy, and environment headquarters to Mindanao, in particular Davao City.

The transfer of DA to Davao City elicited endorsement from the business sector given that 34% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) and 44% of the country’s national food trade come from southern Philippines.

Besides, Mindanao, which shares 39% of the country’s agricultural output, contributes 64% of the Philippine coconut production. Southern Philippines also underwrites 30% of national food trade and produces eight out of the top 10 agriculture export commodities.

But the transfer of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the Department of Energy (DOE) was opposed on grounds “the country’s growing environment and energy problems” are in Luzon. Actually, 70% of the Philippine power market is in Luzon.

Marriz Agbon, founding chair of Mindanao Business Council, in reacting to the transfer, pointed out: “In Mindanao, it will do well for government to pursue a distributed energy policy environment wherein distribution utilities are encouraged to develop or solicit power projects in accordance with their respective projections of local economic development.”

Until now, however, the agenda to dissipate government departments in various regions of the archipelago remains a plan.