On July 5, the team of director Joyce Bernal and actor Piolo Pascual were denied entry to the town of Sagada in Mountain Province. Bernal and Pascual, co-founders of the production company Spring Films, were there to shoot scenes for the upcoming State of the Nation Address (SONA).
Pascual already explained his team’s side, saying the purpose of the visit was to get footage for the director’s “personal message/video before the start of the SONA, showing how the environment had changed positively because of the pandemic.”
Today, already the middle of July, we talk to the mayor of Sagada, James Bagano Pooten, Jr. over the phone for this profile. He explains their side with brevity and simplicity, like the way he does when talking about most topics.
“Meron kaming guidelines, protocols na pinapa-iral,” he tells ANCX. “Nag-stick lang kami doon mula nang nag-umpisa ang pandemic. Walang dahilan na gumawa ka ng exemptions. That is also an IATF [Inter-Agency Task Force for COVID-19] decision.”
In many of Mayor James’ stories, he appears to be the kind of man who will take the least complicated route available to him. As leader of around 12,000 residents, he says he makes decisions based on the opinions of his trusted constituents who belong to their basic pillars: the local government, school, church, and the town elders. He stands by the rules, and their core values, and protects his hometown. He leaves the rest of it to fate—or that word pop culture has come to attach with Sagada: tadhana.
“May goal ako na tumulong sa bayan namin,” he says. “Pero ako ’yong kind of person din na one day at a time.”
Go where the wind takes you
Mayor James was born in January 1963, in Sagada, at a period when only a few residents could revel in the dense mountains and the crisp air that the place is known for.
The youngest of six children, James was allowed by his parents, both public school teachers, to hang out with his friends in the hills once school is over. On weekend mornings, they would trek to the mountains to get the week’s wood supply, then play again in the afternoon. At the time, no one used LPGs (liquid petroleum gas) so instead, they used wood to make fire.
The abundant, natural world that surrounded him as a child is, he says, the reason nature conservation has become one of the major concerns in his agenda throughout his four-year political career. He explains, “Kung galing ka sa probinsya, ’tapos punta ka ng urban centers, ang mga kahoy nila wala na. Mapapaisip ka, ‘Sayang naman ’yong amin.’”
While politics was never in his mind growing up, leadership has always been a part of Mayor James’s life. In grade school, at the Sagada Central School, he was one of the cub scout leaders, and rose to a higher rank every year. In high school, at the St. Mary’s High School, he was co-commander for their Citizens Army Training (CAT) team. He also likes hanging out with people, specially the upperclassmen who supplied him little nuggets of wisdom.
“Kung galing ka sa probinsya, ’tapos punta ka ng urban centers, ang mga kahoy nila wala na. Mapapaisip ka, ‘Sayang naman ’yong amin.’”
His first course in college was dentistry, at the University of Baguio. For what reason did he pursue dentistry? “Nakuha ko lang sa barkada,” he says, laughing.
It didn’t take long for him to realize it was not his calling, so he took different routes and entered different schools until he finally graduated with a degree in commerce. In 1990, he left for London to help out his brother who owned a pizza restaurant there. James stayed in London for five years.
While he said entering politics had never crossed his mind, the path may have been laid out for him. His paternal grandfather was the mayor—then called el presidente—of Sagada from 1928 to 1935. While James was in London, his father retired from his job as a teacher, and tried to run for mayor of their town but lost.
As years went by, politics slowly became a viable career path, and he decided to try it out in 1997. However, his conservative neighbors thought he was still too young to hold a position. It was also the same time when his late brother was asked to run for mayor of their neighboring municipality of Besao, where his mother was born. James gave way to his brother, who took the seat for three consecutive terms.
In 2016, James finally ran for mayor and won.
The now 57-year-old may be fairly new to the job but he banks on his deep and innate connection to his own people and land.
As of press time, Sagada has zero COVID cases, which he says is all thanks to an already-solid team of policemen, local government units (LGU) of 19 barangays, and elders. This same team, he explains, handles logistics and policies when their town closes its gates to visitors a few days every year for their Igorot rituals. So when the quarantine was implemented, information and relief goods were readily distributed to their structured zones.
No decision can be made without consulting his people—one of the best things about Sagada, he says. “Critics ang mga taga Sagada,” he tells us. “Pero ma-e-enganyo ka makipag-usap. Hindi sila ’yong magsasalita ka ’tapos ikaw lang pinapakinggan. Kung may discussion, nakiki-discuss sila. May exchanges ng ideas, may criticism.”
These are the same people he has in mind when, in 2019, he pleaded with visitors to respect their home, as he launched the responsible tourism campaign.
He remembers his teenage days when he and his friends worked as tourist guides during their free time. Back then, it would take eight to ten hours on unpaved roads to get from Metro Manila to Sagada, and they would only take one or two foreigners —foreign tourists were few and far between. Most tourists at the time would go to Sagada only when Baguio City became too crowded.
In the early 2000s, more people began to discover the quiet, mysterious charm of Sagada. But Mayor James confirms it was after the film That Thing Called Tadhana (2014) premiered that the number of tourists grew exponentially.
The growth in tourism cultivated a number of businesses and gave employment. Mayor James, however, reminds his people not to blinded by any of this.
“We are only stewards of Sagada,” he says. “Kailangan makinabang din dito ang mga anak namin, mga apo.”
“Critics ang mga taga Sagada,” he tells us. “Pero ma-e-enganyo ka makipag-usap. May exchanges ng ideas, may criticism.”
Their land must remain their own, he declares firmly. “Kung merong nagbebenta ng lupain dito, they sell it to family first, then the community, then the government,” he says, his tone a little more vigorous than in the past several minutes. “Sa business, kung ano ’yong madatnan na mga business ng mga bisita, pasensya na kayo at ’yan lang muna. Kasi maliit na bayan lang ’to. Pag itong mga bisita ang mag-business, paano naman kami? Mawawala kami. Ang Sagada ang mag-de-determine kung ano ’yong daratnan ng mga bisita. Hindi bisita magsabi anong kailangan ng Sagada.”
Before the pandemic, they have already determined the carrying capacity of their tourist spots. And they have contained the tourists in those tourist spots so other areas of Sagada will remain untouched. When this pandemic is over, he plans to continue his tourism projects which according to him will keep to being environmentally sound.
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Speaking of post-COVID, Mayor James is looking forward to doing things he used to enjoy pre-pandemic —like playing golf in Baguio City. Golf is one of his few hobbies. But now all his attention is focused on his constituents. They call him Mayor Payko, his Igorot name, and the name of his grandfather’s brother. In their language, Kankana-ey, there is a phrase that bares this name, “ka payko payko ka,” which means “keep going” to “keep moving.” It’s a fitting name for a guy whose philosophy is to live one day at a time, for someone who will address the concerns of the present. After all, in Sagada, there’s always a magnificent sunrise that awaits.