My plan for the Philippines… interview with the Mayor of Zamboanga

By GovInsider

An ongoing series of interviews with Philippine mayors.

Zamboanga city is rebuilding itself from ruins. The city at the southern tip of the Philippines was devastated in a 20-day militant siege in 2013 which took 200 citizens hostage.

Isabelle Garcia Climaco Salazar, more familiar as Beng Climaco, was then just three months into her Mayoral term. Today as she seeks a second term in the local elections in May, her top priority for the city is security.

In 2013, over 10,000 homes were destroyed and more than 100,000 people fled their homes. At last count in 2010, the city was home to 807,129 people, and thousands of lives are still being rehabilitated. Mayor Climaco has an ambitious vision to make Zamboanga “a haven” for future generations.

She wants to make it “a place where peace and development run parallel to our people’s ability to be competitive and on top of their craft”.

Priorities for the year ahead

Zamboanga has hired Filipino architect Felino Palafox to redesign itself into a safer city. “This Master Development Plan aims to update the infrastructure of the entire cityscape”, says Mayor Climaco, “with specific concerns in security and cultural preservation”.

The city will in October launch an operations center to monitor public safety and coordinate emergency responses.

“We want to have an ambitious command center. We will be the first city in the Philippines to implement that,” she said.

The government is spending 117 million Philippine pesos (US$2.5 million) to build the unit, which will also use facial recognition to track the city’s security. It’s not just physical security, but also the security of jobs and health that Mayor Climaco is concerned with.

The former high school teacher has made education and healthcare her top priorities. As houses are rebuilt, new skills will help residents of Zamboanga piece their lives back together.

“Our young people need to value education as the key to uplifting their lives,” says Mayor Climaco.

“Our young people need to value education as the key to uplifting their lives.”

In healthcare, the city is improving its maternal care as more children are stunted from malnourishment in their early years. “My health advocacy is that people must be given maternal healthcare and protection right up to birth. We must also ensure that there is a breastfeeding program,” she said.

Who is the Mayor?

Much like the city, the Mayor’s own story has been one of finding opportunities in the greyest of times. She lost her job as a part-time TV news anchor in 1998, after which she was asked to run for city councilor by then-Mayor Maria Clara Lobregat - who is also Climaco’s godmother.

“I said yes, and that began my journey to public service.” After six years as a city councilor, she went on to become the youngest and first woman to be elected to Vice Mayor of Zamboanga in 2004. And today, she launched a campaign to continue leading her city in the next term.

As for the city, much remains to be done. 56% of a target 6,500 new homes are yet to be completed, according to figures from the National Housing Authority.

“There are still so many things that need to be done and projects that seek completion, so our work continues to be able to truly build back better,” Climaco said. 

The Mayor has rebuilt her career, and now she must do the same for Zamboanga City.