The default perception about politicians using their positions to enrich themselves and lord it over the people was put to the test when the Ramon Aboitiz Foundation, Inc. (RAFI) Triennial Awards announced the finalists for exemplary individual category in April.
Three individuals are vying for the award –,Anita Castillon a teacher in Lake Sebu South Cotabato, Fr. Carmelo Diola, founder and executive director of Dilaab Foundation based in Cebu City and Lawrence Lemuel Fortun of Butuan City, Agusan del Norte. The winner will be announced on August 14, together with the outstanding institution to be selected from five finalists in the same category.
Launched on Dec. 6, 1996, the Ramon Aboitiz Foundation Inc. (RAFI) Triennial Awards is the premier service and humanitarian award in Visayas and Mindanao, which recognizes the philanthropic, humanitarian, and holistic efforts of individuals and institutions in the work of human development. The award celebrates what is good with humanity, to quote Roberto Aboitiz, RAFI president.
This year’s search is very interesting because a member of Congress finds himself in the company of community workers who, if not for the RAFI search process, would largely go unnoticed.
This is not to say that all congressmen and senators are bad and corrupt, but we have been so bombarded by scandals and shenanigans in Congress for many decades now that even members of Congress will be the first to admit their credibility is practically irredeemable.
Now comes Rep. Lemuel Fortun, a lawyer politician who does not belong to any political or business clan. During the presentation of finalists for the RAFI Triennials, he was introduced as “a rights advocate and lawyer of the poor”.
When I interviewed him after the event, my first question was how he won the congressional seat in the capital of Agusan del Norte, stronghold of the descendants of the late governor and congressman Democrito Plaza for many years. The opposing party is the family of the late Edelmiro “Edel” Amante who held sway during the time of former president Fidel V. Ramos. Amante served as governor and congressman of Agusan del Norte and later as Ramos’ Executive Secretary.
Before his election as congressman, Fortun served as councilor in 2007 and vice mayor of Butuan City in 2010. He almost gave up his political career because he was not able to accomplish any significant programs due to maneuverings of political rivals who blocked him from getting any development funds or even funds to run his office.
He was about to pack his bags and go back to Manila to re-establish his law connections in 2010 when Dr. Ferdinand Amante, nephew of the late Edel Amante asked him to be his vice mayoral candidate. Amante and Fortun challenged the Plaza dynasty and triumphed in the local races of 2010. To cut the long story short, Fortun found himself running for congressman in 2013 while politicians were locked in battle over local turf.
A stalwart of the Liberal Party, he defeated former Integrated Bar of the Philippines president Roan Libarios, a member of the Nationalist People’s Coalition NPC in the 2013 congresssional election.
Fortun stood on the platform of ending the prevalent abuse of the environment. The advocacy struck a sensitive chord with the electorate. Typhoon Sendong in 2011 and Typhoon Pablo in 2012, which badly hit Caraga region, delivered home the message that Butuan, once a timber city, has lost its former glory and is now vulnerable to extreme weather disturbances.
The change in the political setting of Butuan City comes with fresh ideas from the neophyte lawmaker who found out way beforehand that a significant number of people in his home province and city do not have birth certificates.
A birth certificate is a very basic document but many people don’t have one because they were not registered from birth and as adults, have no access to the government office charges for registering births, because of poverty. Eighty percent of children in the remote areas of Butuan City, according to Rep. Fortun, do not have birth certificates.
“There’s nothing more inhuman than not recognizing the existence of a human being,” Fortun said, adding that this is even more cruel compared to ill treatment of a person.
This basic document establishes one’s citizenship, determines one’s lineage and is the passport to gaining education and state benefits including the exercise of one’s rights like the right to vote. Because we are a Catholic country, a birth certificate also opens the doors for the faithful to receive the sacraments beginning with baptism.
Congressman Fortun did not state the national statistics, but he is right to say that the lack of birth certificates among citizens is bad for any government planning, because any program should start with correct population statistics. The Philippine population was last pegged at 100 million but after hearing Cong. Fortun hammer on his pet project, I doubt very much if that is a correct count.
The drive to register the marginal population of Butuan City and neighboring areas has evolved into a legislation penned by Fortun. He has a pending bill in Congress which provides for a mechanism that will mobilize barangay officials to assist in the registration of new births, including late registration.
The other contenders in the Triennial award for exemplary individual category are all worthy and this corners salutes Fr. Carmelo Diola and Mrs. Anita Castillon. But should Congressman Fortun emerge as winner, it could signal a reboot for the Philippine political system.
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