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Life of Quiet Isolation in Forgotten Philippine Province

May 1, 1989 GMT

BASCO, Philippines (AP) _ The jail in this windswept provincial capital is empty, except for a rusting bicycle stored in one cell and potted plants in the other.

″There are crimes here, but only small crimes,″ said Sgt. Clementi Cantor, chief of the two-man police force in Basco, capital of Batanes, the forgotten province of the Philippines.

This year, Sgt. Cantor has investigated three ″crimes″ - domestic disputes and fights between neighbors. None was serious enough for the courts.

Only 23 crimes were reported in the entire province last year. The most serious, a murder committed by a soldier, was the first killing reported in 20 years.

″We’ve had judges come to hear cases and they say it’s like a vacation in the Bahamas,″ said Tess Castillejos, executive secretary to the mayor.

The low crime rate is one of many features that make Batanes, the smallest, most northerly and least developed province, unique in the violence-plagued Philippines.

Its 15,000 people, known as Ivatans, live in quiet isolation. They fish and raise crops and cattle on 10 small islands about 250 miles) north of Manila and only 140 miles south of Taiwan.

Few outsiders venture to Batanes, whose lush green fields, mist-shrouded hills and villages on rocky cliffs make it look more like the Welsh coast than the tropics.

Telephones? Forget it. The radio-telephone link was cut last year when communist rebels blew up a relay station on Luzon, the main Philippine island.

Batanes is not perfect.

It has the highest rate of alcohol consumption in the Philippines. Per capita income is only 416 pesos ($19.80) a month, so many of the brightest youngsters leave after high school in search of opportunity.

″We need government investments in cattle, fishing, garlic and root crops and to improve the seaport so our young people can find jobs here,″ said the provincial governor, Telesforo Castillejos.

″Most provinces have an overpopulation, problem but our growth has been almost nill because of emigration.″

Typhoons and and other storms batter the islands frequently and Ivatans live in square, fortress-like stone houses for protection from them, but there are no communist rebels, no armed gangs and no beggars.

Internal combustion engines do not pollute the air in Basco, a town of 6,000 people. All Batanes has only 120 motor vehicles and two-thirds are motorcycles.

If roosters crowing can be called noise pollution, it is the most common form.

Lt. Col. Jesus Poblete, provincial military commander, said ″I don’t feel very busy here.″

His major challenge is the occasional Taiwanese fishing vessel encroaching on Philippine waters. Otherwise, he said, ″All we do is run, train and have meetings. I don’t have much to do.″

″I think it’s the perpetual serenity which we don’t find in the metropolitan areas that keeps people here,″ said Tess Castillejos, an in-law of the governor and native of Batanes who returned with her husband after several years in Manila.

″In Manila, I spent the whole day taking my children to and from school and driving to stores. Here, I kiss them in the morning and they come home in the afternoon. I can walk everywhere.″

Because of frequent storms in the Balintang Channel, commercial ships do not run regular services between Batanes and Luzon, 140 miles to the south.

Most supplies come on LST landing craft, which the Philippine navy uses extensively for inter-island traffic.

They reach Batanes about every three months. One ran aground in the harbor during a storm last year and its hulk is still there, quietly rusting.

Philippine Air Lines provides the main link with the world, a daily flight often canceled because of bad weather.

A siren heralds the plane’s arrival and scores of townspeople usually go to meet it, since the airport is within walking distance of downtown Basco.

There is no television and residents can pick up Philippine state radio for only a few hours a day on a relay from Tuguegarao, 200 miles south.

That hardly matters because only a few hundred homes in Basco can receive the part-time electricity. When the juice comes on for four hours each evening, residents flock to makeshift theaters where local entrepreneurs show movies at 5 pesos (25 cents) a head.

Those who have seen the available movies watch or participate in pickup basketball games in the town square until the electricity goes off.

″Fishing, swimming, biking, that’s about all the recreation here,″ said Aniano Bata, 45, a lifelong resident. ″It’s good, clean fun.″