Philippine Daily Inquirer, Mar. 15, 2006

Aurora closes info gap
By Tonette Orejas Inquirer

NO mountains like the overgrown Sierra Madre ranges are high and far enough to keep the power of information technology away from the reach of more than 13,000 farmers and fishermen in Baler, Aurora. Fringed by a horseshoe-shaped valley and the coast of the Pacific Ocean, the capital town of Aurora, 270 km northeast of Metro Manila, is being equipped to become the country's first digital village.

"By May, we're ready to move in for that pioneering enterprise," Sen. Edgardo Angara, the project's Baler-born proponent, told the Inquirer on Saturday.

This week, Angara said he would start the series of meetings with the other stakeholders: technology producers, like Smart Communications and Samsung, the Department of Transportation and Communications, the University of the Philippines' College of Engineering, and the Development Academy of the Philippines.

"What we're trying to do is continue to bring the expertise to and support for Aurora," he said.

Angara has pooled an initial capital of P20 million to jump-start the project.

The heart of the digital village is going to beat in the nipa palm-ringed Barangay Buhangin. The former submarine cable center of Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co. there, which covers five hectares, will house the facilities and the training center that will help farmers get the information they need to improve agricultural production and marketing.

How will the weather be like in the next five days? How much does a 50-kg sack of fertilizer or animal feed cost at current prices? What are the selling price of coconut, copra, coffee or palay, fish, shrimps, livestock in the market? To whom do we sell at best prices?

Easy reach

The answers, said Angara, would be within easy reach of rural folk through the Internet. The access seeks to close the information gap.

"Lack of information leads to low productivity," Angara, a former agriculture secretary, said. He said the project would hopefully protect agricultural producers from unscrupulous traders.

Since phone connections are direly limited, Smart is being tapped to set up VSST (very small satellite telephones). Samsung, on the other, could install the computers.

Helping agricultural producers master the new technology is, of course, another matter. Angara is confident that they can adapt like their counterparts in India where digital villages are revolutionizing the sector.

"They can do it," he said, citing the experiences of farmers he encountered during a recent visit to Bangalore.

Angara said the project would pave the way for "genuine empowerment." Many of them, he said, were illiterate and became rich by adopting modern technology. Brazilian farmers, he said, have also joined the digital age.


"Come to think of it, Baler has produced a Philippine president (Manuel L. Quezon) and despite my being a senator, the development of Aurora is being neglected," he said of his increasing involvement in the province. "We need to catch up," he said.

The Angaras, reckoned as a political dynasty in Aurora, have helped put the infrastructures in place-roads, bridges, irrigation facilities, ice plants, schools and a state university.

But for a province still among the Top 20 poorest, there seems to be no end to the development work, the senator said.

In the current project, the challenge is how to make full use of limited agricultural lands where tenancy is largely the prevailing mode.

A total of 12,750 hectares are planted to palay, while 21,085 ha are grown to other crops mainly coconut. The rest, 73 percent of Aurora's 310,000 ha, are forest lands.

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