Villa Verde Road to bridge gap between two cultures separated by distance

SAN NICOLAS, Pangasinan — In little more than two years and if there is no change of plans, the Villa Verde Road, a former mountain trail carved by the Red Arrow 32nd Division of the U. S. Army and their Filipino counterparts while chasing the retreating Japanese Army towards the end of World War II along slopes of the vast Caraballo mountain ranges bordering the provinces of Pangasinan and Nueva Vizcaya, will soon be a reality.

Not only will the new road, 23 kilometers of it is in the Pangasinan side and the rest in Nueva Vizcaya side, will serve as the second roadlink between the Ilocos Region to Cagayan Valley, the first being the road from Laoag to Aparri, Cagayan via the treacherous Pattapat road, but it will also bridge two cultures in the area, that of the Ilocanos and of the indigenous Ibalois long time isolated from each other.

Started in 2015, the new road is expected to be connected to the already completed Nueva Vizcaya side in Imugan, Sta. Fe by 2018 with a few more gaps along the way to be closed and a few more bridges to be built, the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA) said in early 2016.

Once completed, it will definitely bring the Ibalois of Barangay Malico, an upland community with the same climatic condition as that of Baguio City, nearer to the town of San Nicolas and the mainstream society in Pangasinan, where they really belong.

Then Board Member Ranjit Ramos Shahani, top exponent for the construction of the Villa Verde road, an initiative he started when he was still congressman of the Sixth district of Pangasinan, lamented that the Villa Verde Trail would have been constructed earlier had the government used the money given by the United States government as U.S. Bases Rental.

Instead, it was used by the administration of then President Corazon Aquino for the construction of the Rosales-Sta. Maria-Tayug-San Nicolas highway up to the foothills of the Caraballo mountains, a project completed during the administration of Shahani’s uncle, President Fidel Ramos.

The late Marcos’ Information Officer Gregorio Cendana, a native of San Nicolas, even when he was already out of office, also lobbied for the construction of the Villa Verde Road, which he saw as a vital life line from Cagayan to Pangasinan to serve as an alternate to the landslide-prone Dalton Pass in Sta. Fe, Nueva Vizcaya.

Records showed that Malico can still be reached from San Nicolas by land up to the 1970s via the old World War II trail which soon slowly vanished, especially when some of its portions were covered by landslides triggered by the July 16, 1990 earthquake, that exacerbated Malico’s isolation from the town proper.

Ibalois from Malico, only if they have pressing engagements in the central part of the town, travel by circuitous road more than four hours, passing Sta. Fe through its barangay Imugan where another tribe, the Ikalahans have established a settlement, then to San Jose City and Lupao, all in Nueva Vizcaya, then to Umingan, San Quintin and Tayug in Pangasinan.

This is better than travelling on foot to San Nicolas along dangerous and slippery mountain paths overlooking deep gorges where birds, trees and plants live in wild abandon thrive, and passing many flowing rivers, that could zap one’s energy as it requires non-stop trek lasting for almost a day.

It was learned that construction of the project’s Phase I was almost discontinued when the Ikalahans led by the late Pastor Delbert Athur Rice mounted a protest, claiming that the project will disturb the plants and the birds teeming in tne area, a claim later debunked by an Impact Assessment Study (IAS) conducted by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

Unlike the IKalahans. the Ibalois wanted the road built as it will bring them closer to the markets of San Nicolas and Tayug than to Sta. Fe. Working in the Ibalois’ favor is the fact that for many years now, they have an IP (Indigenous People) representative in the town council of San Nicolas who articulates their concerns, dreams and aspirations.

The Ibalois who are traditional garden farmers, producing highland crops such as lettuce, sayote, carrots, Baguio beans, broccolli and even “boyboy” brooms from tiger grass teeming in the area, now appear to be closer to Ikalahans, whom they often intermingle with if they bring their products to Sta. Fe, than the rest of the people of San Nicolas.

Because of its temperate climate and its pine-clad hills, Mayor Rebecca Saldivar calls Barangay Malico as “Little Baguio”, which she said can be developed soon as “summer capital” of Pangasinan.

Many were in fact salivating that once the road is extended to Malico, they will buy real estate which are exceptionally cheaper yet, where they intend to build vacation houses which they can offer for rent to tourists who would like to nourish the beauty and cold climate of Baguio without really going to the summer capital.

But the more important thing other than tourism is the provision of another access road to Manila to make way for the farm products of Cagayan Valley to the Balintawak and Divisoria markets, as San Nicolas is also only about half an hour drive to the Tarlac-Pangasinan-La Union Expressway (TPLEx) exit in Tumana, Rosales.

Many of these farm products usually rot and thrown as feeds to hogs if closure of the Dalton Pass due to landslides occurring most often during the rainy season takes months.

DPWH Assistant Regional Director Ronnel Tan admitted before the Sangguniang Panlalawigan (SP) that the Villa Verde Trail project on the Pangasinan side had been allocated Php300 million in 2015, which was spent for the construction of a 63-lineal meter bridge and the concreting of 13-kilometer portion of the road.

The project is still continuing as another Php280 million was allocated in 2016 for the construction of the rest of the roadway, about 10 kilometers, and the construction of three additional bridges.

Many are hoping that DPWH central office will still consider the Villa Verde Road as a priority project and will continue to allocate funding in 2017 and 2018, the year it is targeted to be finally completed.

With the opening of the road in 2018, it could trigger an unprecedented economic boom never before seen in both Region 1 and Region II and consequently uplift the lives of not only the Ilocanos, Ibaloism, Ikalahans, Ilongots and other IP communities in the north. Leonardo Micua/PNA/