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[SPECIAL REPORT] From Totoy to Nonoy: Bukidnon’s political dynasties thrive on cattle, cane

MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews / 02 May) – Bukidnon’s legendary governor, Carlos Ozamiz “Totoy” Fortich opted to retire on February 2, 2001, a few months before his third term ended, reportedly to bolster Vice Governor Nemesio Beltran’s political stock for the polls that year. Fortich was also preparing to run for mayor of Valencia City, and many thought he already had victory in hand even before the battle could begin. 

However, the two (now both deceased) lost in the 2001 polls, Fortich to a neophyte, retired police colonel Jose Galario Jr., and Beltran to former congressman and sugar baron Jose Maria R. Zubiri Jr., his patron when he first ran for vice governor in 1992. The outcome cemented Zubiri’s reputation as a kingmaker and signaled the rise of another dynasty. 

Zubiri, a Spanish mestizo from Kabankalan in Negros Occidental, amassed his fortune as executive vice president from 1975 to 1988 of the Bukidnon Sugar Company, which was controlled by the late Roberto Benedicto, a Marcos crony. Like the Fortich family, he obtained more lands for sugar cane plantations. A management graduate of De La Salle University, he also managed some business firms before entering politics. These included Urban Green Inc., Rancho Mercedes and Valle Escondida Farms.

He may not have declared it in public, but Zubiri, a.k.a. Nonoy Joe, had always wanted to topple Fortich. In a casual conversation with members of Bayan Muna and other groups which supported him in 2001, Zubiri confided that Fortich’s wife Amor de Lara-Fortich had approached him to ask if he and her husband could talk. “You know, Joe, some people really wanted to see Totoy out,” he quoted Amor as saying. “My dream!” he exclaimed, not at her but before his amused all-male guests.

Bukidnon Provincial Capitol in Malaybalay City, the seat of power, has been controlled by political dynasties for decades. MindaNews photo by H. MARCOS C. MORDENO

Zubiri had wanted to run for governor earlier, upon the end of his term in 1998 as representative of the province’s 3rd District, but for whatever reason postponed his plan and avoided a head-on clash with Fortich. But old timers said that although Fortich was an astute politician, it would have been difficult for him to match Zubiri’s main weapon during elections – money. 

“Tihik man nas Totoy (Totoy is a scrooge),” they would say of Fortich. In contrast, Zubiri is known for splurging cash during campaigns to win the support of local officials including the lowly purok leaders, the late former Catholic priest Vicente Abrogueña who campaigned for him in 2001, said.

In fact, it is  public knowledge that Zubiri bankrolled the candidacy of Ernesto N. Tabios when the Marcos-era provincial chair of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan ran for governor in 1988 under PDP-Laban. “I need Zubiri’s gold,” Tabios replied to fellow activists who asked him why he allied himself with a known Marcos ally, who had by then joined Senator Jovito Salonga’s Liberal Party (LP).

Zubiri also funded the candidacy of Socorro Acosta when she ran in 1987 as representative of the 1st District. In the 1992 election, however, Acosta chose to remain with the LP, resulting in a split with her erstwhile backer.

Tabios won as governor and his elder sister, Violeta Tabios-Labaria, as representative of the 2nd District. But in the 1992 election, they parted ways with Zubiri. They jumped to the Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino of the late House Speaker Ramon V. Mitra while Zubiri switched to the Nationalist People’s Coalition of the late Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco, arguably the top Marcos crony.

The Tabios siblings lost. Fortich regained the capitol, beating the incumbent and Zubiri’s protégé, the late Eusebio Aquino, a human rights lawyer since martial law who was elected to the provincial board in 1988.

To enjoy the inherent advantage as administration candidate, Tabios had wanted to run under the Lakas-Christian Muslim Democrats (Lakas-CMD) which fielded eventual winner Fidel V. Ramos, President Corazon Aquino’s anointed. But his sister’s decision to cast their lot with Mitra prevailed. Fortich saw an opportunity and lost no time wooing Ramos to anoint him as Lakas-CMD’s bet for governor. 

Fortich defeated Aquino and Tabios, and won again in 1995 and 1998.

“Sayang, I got sick two weeks before the (May 1992) election, so I failed to campaign for Sebyo (Aquino) in some municipalities,” Zubiri recalled during a press conference in Malaybalay sometime in 2000 where he announced his plan to seek the governorship in the 2001 election which he won.

Overall, though, Zubiri’s candidates for mayors practically swept their rivals in 1992. He managed to maintain their loyalty preventing Fortich from swaying them to his side. This became evident during the formal ceremony marking the former governor’s retirement in February 2001 – most officials of the province’s 20 towns and two component cities snubbed the affair; capitol employees mainly comprised the attendees.

Meanwhile, Acosta finished three terms in Congress, ran for mayor of Manolo Fortich town in 1998 but lost to Benjamin Albarece, an ally of Zubiri’s. However, her son Nereus Acosta replaced her in Congress after winning against town mate and former mayor Johnny Albarece, Benjamin’s brother. He went on to finish three straight terms as congressman (1998 to 2007). Socorro won again as mayor in 2001 and got reelected in 2004.

As for Fortich, his defeat in the 2001 election marked the end of Bukidnon’s longest dynasty so far. 

Some considered it rather ironic that he met his Waterloo in Valencia, the supposed fulcrum of his family’s political enterprise.

A Fortich century

“By the end of his (Carlos Fortich) term, the Fortich family shall have ruled this province for practically 100 years,” Beltran would say in several public events between 1999 and until the 2001 election.

He was right, the Fortiches dominated local politics during the previous century starting from the American colonial era when Carlos’ grandfather Manuel (Manolo) Sr. was appointed as lieutenant governor of the province and served from 1914 to 1921. Members of his family also sat in the legislature starting with Manuel himself who was a member of the National Assembly from 1934 to 1941 and in the Commonwealth Congress until his death in 1943.

Bukidnon Governor Carlos Fortich with one of his grandsons outside his residence in Valencia, Bukidnon in 1997. MindaNews file photo by BOBBY TIMONERA

In 1946, Carlos A. Fortich Sr. was elected to Congress but died in office in the same year. His wife, Remedios Ozamiz-Fortich, replaced him and served until 1949.

Cesar Fortich was elected to Congress in 1949, and reelected in 1953 and 1957. His term was supposed to end in 1961 but he resigned in 1960 on appointment as Agriculture secretary. The House post remained vacant until he was reelected in 1961 to serve until 1965.

Benjamin Tabios briefly interrupted the Fortich reign when he represented Bukidnon in the Sixth Congress, from 1965 to 1969. Cesar again won in 1969 but President Ferdinand E. Marcos dissolved the legislature upon the declaration of martial law in September 1972.

For the governorship, it wasn’t until 1968 that another Fortich, the younger Carlos, would assume the position. After his grandfather Manuel Sr., four others had served as governor – Antonio V. Rubin (appointed), Marcus A. Reciña (the first elected governor), Lope R. Damasco, and Teodoro L. Oblad.

For his part, Ernesto Tabios had perennially challenged Carlos Fortich for the governorship during the martial law era. But he was no match against his neighbor’s (their residences in Malaybalay stood just around 200 meters apart) cunning ways, not to mention Marcos’ support. Besides, as recounted by old town inhabitants, in his younger days as politician, the Spanish mestizo loved to flaunt his family’s power by lugging a machinegun aboard a topdown jeep and roaming the streets. “Motago gyud tawn nas Boy (Tabios) inig kakita niyang nagbitbit nag machinegun si Totoy (Boy would hide whenever he saw Totoy brandishing a machinegun),” one of them said.

In 1978, Fortich, who had served as governor since 1968, was elected to the Interim Batasang Pambansa under the monolithic Kilusang Bagong Lipunan (KBL) formed by Marcos. Zubiri and the late Lorenzo Dinlayan Sr. succeeded him in the rubber stamp legislature until 1986, also as KBL members.

Fortich returned to the capitol in 1980 and remained there until December 1987 after which Vice Gov. Esmeraldo Cudal was appointed as governor until February 1988. Fortich avoided being replaced by a caretaker governor after the EDSA People Power uprising by switching allegiance during the four-day historic event that ousted Marcos. He burned an image of the dictator and his wife Imelda at the plaza in Malaybalay and made sure the media captured the show.

Governor Carlos Fortich of Bukidnon in 1997. MindaNews file photo by BOBBY TIMONERA

Almost everyone thought there was no way he could regain power after EDSA. But the realignments in 1992 proved providential to the last torch bearer of the Fortich family. He would serve for three more terms as Governor, and had wanted to extend his political life as mayor of Valencia City but suffered an upset loss in the hands of Galario Jr. 

Humbled by that loss and bowing to Mother Time, he opted to retire from public life until his death in 2019 at age 83.

Shortly after Fortich’s exit, Teofisto “TG” Guingona III, son of Senator Teofisto Guingona Jr., (who would be appointed Vice President in 2001 when President Joseph Estrada was ousted and Vice President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo assumed the Presidency) appeared on Bukidnon’s political landscape. He ran and won as 2nd District representative in 2004 and got reelected in 2007. The younger Guingona, who is related to the Fortich clan on his mother’s side, placed 12th in the 2010 senatorial election but lost his reelection bid in 2016. He has since bowed out of politics.

The Guingonas trace their lineage to a Spanish friar who sired a son with a native woman but abandoned her and went home to Spain, according to a leaflet distributed by Guingona III’s campaign staff when he first ran for the House of Representatives. They established their presence in Bukidnon when Teofisto Guingona Sr., the ex-vice president’s father and a native of Guimaras Island in the Visayas, was appointed as acting governor of the Department of Mindanao and Sulu and as senator for the 12th Senatorial District comprising the same geographical area during the pre-war years. These positions enabled the official to acquire landholdings in Bukidnon including a ranch that practically encompassed the entire town of Impasugong and another one in Wao, Lanao del Sur. 

World War II erupted and the Guingonas lost all their cattle to the invading Japanese troops. But the family still owns agricultural lands in Barangay Dalwangan in Malaybalay which are being leased to Del Monte Philippines.

Enter the Zubiris

Governor Zubiri, now 81, has never tasted defeat since joining politics in 1984 as a member of the Martial Law-era parliament. Starting that year, the only time he was out of public office – discounting the period from February 1986 until the holding of the first legislative elections under President Corazon Aquino in 1987 – was from July 1998 to June 2001, after his three terms as congressman ended and before the start of his first term as governor.

His third son Juan Miguel Zubiri replaced him in the House and went on to finish three terms before running for senator in 2007, getting the 12th and last spot in an election marked by allegations of widespread irregularities particularly in Maguindanao which was then controlled by the powerful Ampatuan family. 

Gov. Jose Maria R. Zubiri Jr. and Senator Juan Miguel Zubiri award a plaque to then Tourism secretary Ace Durano during the Kaamulan celebration on March 7, 2009. MindaNews photo by H. MARCOS C. MORDENO

In a privilege speech on Aug. 3, 2011, Juan Miguel announced his resignation from the Senate in the face of mounting evidence of fraud that attended his victory in the 2007 polls, at the expense of Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III. But he said he was resigning not because the fraud allegations were true but because he wanted to defend his and his family’s “honor, integrity and dignity.”

“I am resigning because of the unfounded accusations against me, and this issue has systematically divided our nation and has cast doubts in our electoral system which has affected not only myself, this institution but the public as well,” he said.

Senator Juan Miguel Zubiri during his oath-taking ceremony in July 2007. Seated with him are wife Audrey Tan-Zubiri, eldest brother Jose Maria Zubiri III, and his father Gov. Jose Maria R. Zubiri Jr. MindaNews photo by H. MARCOS C. MORDENO

Pimentel said he was disappointed that Juan Miguel had labeled as baseless the fraud allegations. “All the evidence is there…The election returns from Maguindanao are fake.” 

Juan Miguel lost in his second try for the Senate in 2013 but finally won in 2016. He is seeking reelection in this year’s elections under the UniTeam of former senator Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr., the presidential candidate endorsed by his father.

The Zubiri patriarch served for three straight terms as governor, from 2001 to 2010. In 2010 he became vice governor while his former vice governor, Alex Calingasan, replaced him as governor. He was again elected as governor in 2013 and shall have completed another 9-year term in June this year. He is seeking to regain his old post as representative of the 3rd District in the May 2022 elections against provincial board member Arlyn Ayon, a broadcaster who narrowly lost to Rogelio Quiño when she ran for vice governor in 2016.

Gov. Zubiri’s eldest son, Jose Maria Zubiri III, succeeded Juan Miguel as 3rd District representative starting in 2007 until 2016. Afterwards, Manuel Antonio Zubiri, the second son, replaced his elder brother, was reelected in 2019 and is now running for governor with 4th District Rep. Rogelio Neil Roque as his strongest opponent.

In Malaybalay City, the governor’s nephew Ignacio Zubiri, a son of his younger brother, served as mayor from 2010 to 2019, and before that, as vice mayor from 2004 to 2010. He ran for 2nd District representative in 2019 but lost to Jonathan Keith Flores, a son of Malaybalay Mayor Florencio Flores Jr. (the mayor died in February this year from COVID-19 complications). It marked the first time that a Zubiri lost in an election in Bukidnon.

Nonetheless, the Zubiris remain the most dominant political force in the province, a stature that they, the patriarch in particular, nurtured through a public display of generosity, pampering of allies, and a gift of common touch. The governor walks around or travels with no armed bodyguards in tow, eats in carenderias, and rubs elbows with anybody. He would love to cite the names of individuals he had helped financially. “I have touched so many lives in Bukidnon,” he said during the same press conference in 2000 where he declared his plan to run for governor.

The rulers of Bukidnon after EDSA 1986. MindaNews

A former cockfighting aficionado, Zubiri Jr. used the sport to boost his image as somebody the masa can relate to. He would settle the biya (difference in bets) so that a match could proceed and dole out his winnings in hometown cockpits, although he also joined bigtime derbies in Metro Manila.

He would like to appear as simple as possible. In one meeting with NGO workers in Malaybalay sometime in 2002 where they had a few bottles of beer while he had Tanduay, he said in jest, “Kanang beer para man na sang mga elitista (Beer is for the elitist)” drawing laughter from his guests who lobbied for his support to their campaign against the proposed field testing of Bt corn in the province. He subsequently voiced his support to the campaign, although son Juan Miguel, an agriculturist, declared he was keeping an open mind on the issue. 

Poverty amidst plenty

Various studies have shown a correlation between political dynasties and the perpetuation of extreme poverty in a given locality.

Bukidnon, the country’s sixth biggest province, is no exception. As of 2020, Bukidnon ranked as the 5th wealthiest province nationwide with assets worth P18.56 billion. Yet, its poverty incidence has remained one of the highest in the country, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA).

Lumad children in Barangay Songco, Lantapan, Bukidnon. Widespread poverty remains a problem in the country’s 5th richest province. MindaNews photo by H. MARCOS C. MORDENO

In a report covering the first semester of 2021, the PSA said poverty incidence in the province was 32.8 percent, an increase of 0.6 percent compared to the same period in 2018. The 2021 figure is lower than that for Lanao del Norte excluding Iligan City (39.1 percent) but higher than the regional average of 26.2 percent.

“Among Filipinos, the poverty incidence was 23.7 percent in first semester of 2021 or about 26.14 million poor Filipinos,” the report said.

A study done in 2012 (Political Dynasties and Poverty: Chicken or the Egg?) by Ronald U. Mendoza, Edsel Beja, Victor Venida and David Yap arrived at the findings that “higher poverty incidence increases the chance for dynasties to grow (become ‘fat’) and dominate the political positions under analysis,” and “there are more dynasties in regions with higher poverty and lower human development.”

Fishing for tilapia at the hyacinth-covered man-made lake in Maramag, Bukidnon. Widespread poverty remains a problem in the country’s 5th richest province. . MindaNews photo by H. MARCOS C. MORDENO

As in many other areas of the country, the continuing impoverishment can be traced to a feudal economic setup where resources, lands in particular, are concentrated in the hands of a few who, in most cases, happen to be the local rulers themselves.

The Fortich family, for instance, operated logging concessions and accumulated vast landholdings (ranches and sugar cane plantations). These estates were left untouched by the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program that started during the Corazon Aquino administration. Sometime in 1991, the year before he won again as governor, Fortich got wind that a group of farmers was planning to occupy his sugar cane plantation in Valencia City. He sent armed men to the area to deter the planned occupation, a witness told this writer a few days after the incident. 

As governor, Fortich also opposed the “win-win” resolution issued by then Deputy Executive Secretary Renato Corona on 7 November 1997 awarding 100 hectares of the 144-hectare Quisumbing estate in Sumilao town to the Mapalad farmers and converting the remaining 44 hectares from agricultural to agro-industrial area. Corona issued the resolution in response to the hunger strike staged by the farmers in front of the Department of Agrarian Reform compound in Quezon City the month before. 

20071010 sumilao
Farmers from Sumilao in Bukidnon begin their protest march from their hometown in Bukidnon all the way to Malacañang on 10 October 2007. Their struggle to own the 144-hectare land began a decade earlier, their case becoming a test case of government’s sincerity in its Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program. They eventually got their share of the land. MindaNews photo by FROILAN GALLARDO

The resolution modified the earlier decision of then Executive Secretary Ruben Torres converting the entire estate into an agro-industrial area. Together with then Sumilao mayor Rey Baula and the Norberto Quisumbing Sr. Management and Development Corp., Fortich filed a petition asking the Supreme Court to annul the “win-win” resolution. The SC granted the petition.


This year, the Zubiris are running under the local Bukidnon Paglaum Party (BPP) and Roque and Ayon under the People’s Reform Party.

Roque’s wife Laarni Lavin-Roque, a councilor of Valencia City, is seeking to replace him in the House. She is facing BPP’s Babba Garcia, a lawyer and a colleague at the city council.

Roque, who belongs to a rich clan in Valencia, could give Manuel Zubiri a good fight if his hometown would rally solidly behind him and he wins in neighboring Malaybalay. 

In the 2nd District, which includes Malaybalay, Flores Jr. (Nacionalista Party) who died in February, was substituted by his younger brother Bobby as candidate for mayor opposite BPP’s bet Mayor Jay Warren Pabillaran. Florencio’s son Jonathan Keith is seeking reelection as congressman. Challenging him is Zubiri protégé Richard Macas, currently the Indigenous Peoples Mandatory Representative to the provincial board.

The elder Flores was first elected mayor in 2001 beating three-term congressman Reginaldo Tilanduca, Gov. Zubiri’s close friend and a Marcos-era mayor of Malaybalay. Flores served as mayor for three terms (2001 to 2010), sat as 2nd District representative from 2010 until 2019, and was elected again as mayor in 2019 against former vice mayor and Zubiri ally Roland Detecio.

In the 1st District the BPP fielded Jose Manuel Alba, husband of incumbent Rep. Malou Acosta-Alba, against his brother-in-law Nereus (LP). The Acosta siblings, however, are both supporting the tandem of Vice President Leni Robredo and Senator Francis Pangilinan.

Former representative Nereus “Neric” Acosta of the first district of Bukidnon. MindaNews file photo by H. MARCOS C. MORDENO

Except for the period from 2007 until 2013, the Acostas have alternated as representatives of the 1st District since 1987. Candido Pancrudo Jr., a Zubiri ally, beat Malou in 2007 but lost to Jesus Emmanuel Paras in 2010. Malou won the seat in 2013 as an LP candidate and is now serving her third and last term.

The Acosta matriarch is again running for mayor of Manolo Fortich under the LP. She is up against an old nemesis, Vice Gov. Rogelio Quiño, who defeated her in 2007.

Back to the Marcos fold

During the UniTeam rally in Malaybalay on March 31, Governor Zubiri endorsed Marcos Jr. He only had high praises for the late dictator’s son and namesake, calling him a person with “haluag nga kasingkasing” (a huge heart). In the 2016 election he endorsed then vice presidential candidate and eventual winner Leni Robredo, Marcos Jr.’s  strongest rival for the presidency.

Grand rally of the UniTeam of former Senator Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. and Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte in Malaybalay City, Bukidnon on 31 March 2022. MindaNews photo by H. MARCOS C. MORDENO

In that same rally, Senator Zubiri appealed to Bukidnon residents to vote for Marcos Jr. and his running mate, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte.

“We can really do nothing in terms of programs and projects if the president and vice president are not with us. Really nothing. That’s why we’re asking you with all our heart that on election day never forget our future President Bongbong Marcos Jr. and Vice President Inday Sara Duterte,” the senator said in Cebuano.

Brothers and rulers in Bukidnon. The Zubiri brothers’ father, 81-year old Jose Maria Zubiri, is ending this three terms as Governor and is seeking to return to represent the 3rd congressional district of Bukidnon, the district held by no other family but the Zubiris since 1987. The patriarch represented this district from 1987 to 1998, followed by three terms each for his sons Juan Miguel and Jose Maria III. Another son, Manuel Antonio, is not running for a third term as the patriarch is running for that seat. Manuel Antonio Zubiri is now running for Governor, the seat his father will vacate by June 30 this year. MindaNews photo by H. MARCOS C. MORDENO

The younger Zubiri’s endorsement ended speculations on who he would support for the two highest positions of the land. He had previously been mum on the matter and simply wished luck to all the aspirants.

As for the elder Zubiri, his endorsement was sort of coming full circle for someone who, like most other Philippine politicians, had hopped from one party to another. He’s back into his original political home now, being run by the son of his former patron. (H. Marcos C. Mordeno / MindaNews is a resident of Bukidnon)

(This special report was produced with support from Internews) 

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