ZAMBOANGA: THE WORLD IS SIBUGAY'S OYSTER

MANILA, March 22, 2004 (STAR) By Lynette Lee Corporal - Looks can really be deceiving. Take the oyster. It doesn’t really have the smooth, brilliantly colored shell of say, a mussel or a scallop. Its dirty gray, uneven shaped shell is just plain ugly by all standards. Ah, but this unattractive talaba is home to the lovely, precious pearl, not to mention the juicy, tasty meat with its supposed aphrodisiac property. And here lies the beauty of the oyster.

In the province of Zamboanga Sibugay, the oyster has just been elevated to a higher level when its residents decided to promote its No. 1 product – the oyster – to the world via a kilometer-long talaba grill when it celebrated its 3rd Foundation Day dubbed "Sibug-Sibug Festival" last Feb. 24. This is not surprising since the Kabasalan municipality is known as the home of the country’s "most delicious, juiciest, meatiest and biggest oysters." Residents claim that their talaba can grow as long as 12 inches in length. In contrast to the way other communities in the country farm their oysters, the Kabasalan oysters are not grown on sticks but instead are buried in mud and left there to grow to maturity.

The first of its kind in the country, the grilling feat was an attempt to vie for a slot in the Guinness Book of World Records, the result of which will be released five months from now. Held in Ipil at the site of the new Capitol Building overlooking a scenic view of Sibugay Bay, the 3,000 pieces of talaba, some measuring as much as seven inches in length, were grilled to its succulent perfection by sundown. At the sound of the alarm, the grillers composed of government employees, residents and even military men lighted the more than a kilometer-long grill before placing the shells and furiously fanning the flames. Before long, the sweet, slightly salty smell of the oyster permeated the 20-hectare area and soon enough, mouths began to water and eager hands started opening the sizzlingly hot shells. Not wanting to be left out of the fun, we along with our Department of Tourism hosts lined up for our share and, true enough, it was the freshest, juiciest oyster we’ve had in our lives. And this one we could vouch for – the bigger the oyster, the better tasting.

If you think about it, Zamboanga Sibugay, like a pearl yet to be discovered, could be one of Mindanao’s best-kept secrets. Divided into 16 municipalities, Sibugay at first glance, doesn’t seem to have anything much to offer. At present, a trip to its capital town, Ipil, from Zamboanga City takes anywhere from three to four hours over alternating patches of smooth, rough and very rough road, the Zamboanga City-Pagadian City national highway. Upon reaching Ipil, however, one could glean from its eight banks, business centers and several hotels that this former sleepy town that was once raided and razed to the ground by terrorist groups in 1985 has, literally and figuratively speaking, risen back from the ashes.

Three years after being proclaimed the country’s 79th province, the youngest so far, Sibugay is slowly coming out of its shell and is setting record upon record in various departments. According to Zamboanga Sibugay’s information officer Debbie Balingcos, in a complete turnaround from its former image of being a danger zone, Sibugay has been declared as "the most peaceful province in the Philippines" according to the Philippine National Police for having the lowest crime rate in the country.

Apart from this, the province also has the distinction of being the "Calamansi Capital of the Philippines." The town of Siay reportedly produces the "largest, most succulent calamansi in the country." Planted on a 1,500 hectare of former ricelands, the calamansi is shipped directly to Manila every week.

As if these weren’t enough, Sibugay is also starting to be called the "Paje Capital of the Philippines." Giant paje, or freshwater prawn (ulang in local parlance), grows abundantly in the estuaries of Siay. In fact, Kabasalan is also being groomed for lapu-lapu farming, with the fish growing by as much as 2 1/2 kilos each.

And here’s one more. Sibugay is also the site of the second oldest rubber plantation in the Philippines, the oldest being in Menzi, Isabela. It’s also where the first rubber exporting company in the country holds office – the Philippine Rubber Project Co. At present, there are 2,000 hectares of reforested land planted to around 34,000 rubber trees, easily overtaking the 17,000 and 29,000 trees produced in Cotabato and Basilan, respectively.

"Not many people know this but we have a lot of investors here but they’re very low profile and would rather remain incognito. In fact, 90 percent of businessmen from Zamboanga City invest here," says Balingcos. In fact, Kabasalan’s famous talaba has reached Japanese and Taiwanese dining tables.

With a 4,000-km. stretch of shoreline and 13 coastal towns and 78 barangays developing agar-agar farms, Sibugay may just claim another record yet as the largest agar-agar producer in the country.

Balingcos admits that they have yet to attract a fair number of tourists to their province owing to the negative image Mindanao has both locally and abroad. So far, only a few people have seen Sibugay’s eco-tourism potential. Apart from wildlife sanctuaries, Sibugay is home to future resorts not unlike those of Boracay and Palawan. "We have Pandilusan Island in Payao, which is 1 1/2 hours away from Ipil, where we have a coral reef sanctuary. The water there is so clear and the sand is so fine that it reminds you of talcum powder," says Balingcos.

Sibugay Gov. George Hoffer is also leading the province in developing 1,000 hectares given by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources as an integrated livestock and eco-tourism park. "The governor has planted mahogany trees to 25 hectares of land. When you go to that place, you’ll see a waterfall, small rivers and wide meadows for grazing animals. It’s beautiful there," states Balingcos.

Having been blessed with such richness in natural resources, it’s no wonder Sibugay is fondly referred to by its residents as the "emerging pearl of the southern seas." Teeming with potential, Sibugay residents have all the right to say, "Sibug-sibug ari bagay"(come nearer, friend) and explore the possibilities.


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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