Thirty-three years old Diana Abdula didn’t think that her feet would one day walk on the hard concrete wharf in their coastal village in Balabac, southern Palawan.

For the longest time, the only landing jetty they know in Brgy. Bancalaan was a 100-meter rickety, sometimes slippery and shaking assemblage of old wood where boats are docked to load and unload goods and passengers.

But Abdula and the rest of the Bancalaan Muslim community proved that they have the power to change their situation to make their life better.

Today, the concrete wharf is already in their village, proudly extending from the white sandy beach to the turquoise waters as a testament of their sweat, passion, and hard work.

The wooden wharf

Balabac is a municipality in southern Palawan just a few nautical miles away from Sabah, Malaysia. It is composed of an estimated 36 islands and islets mostly scattered in Balabac Strait that is known for its shallow waters because of numerous long and narrow sandbars.

Due to its geographical location at the westernmost point of the Philippines, the municipality has been deprived of easy access to government services and opportunities for growth and development.

To say that the journey to Balabac can be rough is an understatement. One has to leave Puerto Princesa City, the capital of the province of Palawan, in the wee hours of the morning – 2 a.m. is safe, 4 a.m. is a risk – to travel 272.5 kilometers away to Brgy. Rio Tuba in Bataraza town where the journey begins.

From the mining village, two boats depart daily at around 11:30 a.m. to bring passengers to Balabac. Immediately, its unspoiled beauty underlined by beautiful long stretches of white sand beaches and clear waters fills your eyes and erases the tiredness from a whole day of travel.

It’s no surprise why these days, Balabac is increasingly gaining attention from local and foreign travelers.

In the past, passengers and tourists were welcomed in Bancalaan by the poorly made and likely to collapse wharf.

Safety, as expected, wasn’t always guaranteed then.

“Yan dati kahoy lang siya, madalas ‘yong maintenance kasi madalas masira. Nasa tabing-dagat kasi ‘yan, kapag ‘yong pako kinalawang na, automatic ‘yon, luluwag na. Kapag lumuwag na, makakalas na ‘yong mga tabla, tapos madalas, may mga nahuhulog, nalulusot,” Bancalaan village chairman Rolly Reyes.

Reyes said that maintenance cost used to be a challenge because if a plank of wood or a nail gives in, the entire wharf has to be repaired.

The wood planks were not available in Balabac, they had to order them from the mainland adding more logistical cost.

The price was P1,000 per piece, which at many points, they could not afford in the barangay.

“Kapag may nasira doon, [kapag] nabulok ang kahoy, hindi naman puwedeng ang papalitan mo ‘yon lang. Kailangan totally buuin mo lahat kasi mabilis lang din masisira,” he added.

Cementing the wharf

Home to about 14,500 residents, 99 percent of whom are Muslims, the village of Bancalaan is composed of two islands.

The wharf that costs P4,831,623.70 to be exact is located on the major island which is considered to be the gateway to Balabac town, he said.

Reyes said that it serves as “the face” of Balabac and gives the tourists their first impression of what their place has to offer.

When the Kapit-Bisig Laban sa Kahirapan-Comprehensive and Integrated Delivery of Social Services (Kalahi-CIDSS) of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) reached their town, Reyes said the people of Bancalaan did not think twice about what proposal to make — a better and definitely safer wharf.

When it was finally completed in May 2019, it did not only look so much better, it also helped Bancalaan stir economic activities for residents.

Residents in the village and the town used to pay P30 each per sack of goods that had to be loaded and unloaded by stevedores from where the boats dock to the beach area no matter the weight.

Now, that burden is over, said Abdula.

Born and raised in Bancalaan, Abdula recalled how hard and expensive it had been for them to transport goods from the neighboring town of Bataraza.

With the involved costs, she said that the prices of goods in their place is also high.

“Kapag galing pa sa Rio Tuba, namasahe ka na sa passenger tapos nagpa-estiba ka pa d’yan tapos namasahe ka pa sa motor. Kaya medyo mahal ang paninda dito,” said Abdula.

Community involvement and legacy

Reyes said that Bancalaan and its residents are considered the heart of Balabac.

If not for the volunteerism that the community displayed during the project development, the concrete wharf would take long to complete before it benefits the other residents of the municipality.

“Kapag involve ang tao, syempre mas aalagaan nila ang proyekto. Kapag involve ang tao, concerned sila. Kapag may nakita silang mali, magre-react sila. Kasi syempre dapat merong makialam, merong makikiisa para magawa ang proyekto ng tama. ‘Yon ang advantage ng community. Saka sa lahat ng proyekto ‘yon ang tama, i-involve mo ang community,” Reyes pointed out.

In the Kalahi-CIDSS process, the beneficiary community is in the frontline. Community volunteers are chosen to execute the processes the project requires for completion.

Decisions are made by the members of the community in order to ensure that what is being implemented is what they need.

For Reyes, this gives the community a sense of ownership to take care of the wharf that means a lot for their livelihood.

“Amin ‘yan. Kami ang gumawa n’yan. Pinaghirapan namin ‘yan. Involved kami d’yan. Alaala namin ‘yan,” he said.