A dermatologist who belongs to a wealthy and influential clan in Tarlac province believes that some skin diseases are caused by a serious social problem.
When Isa Cojuangco Suntay, a dermatologist at Saint Luke’s Medical Center in Quezon City, organized a medical mission in Tarlac in 2009, she discovered that skin diseases among indigent residents in remote villages were just symptoms of a more serious concern. They were caused by poor nutrition, or the lack of food, she says.
“We gave them the proper treatment, the proper medicine. However, what happens when we leave the place?” she says in an interview at a restaurant in Makati City.
“The root of the problem is really poverty,” says Suntay, who tried to dabble in Tarlac politics in 2013, but now heads a foundation that aims to make a difference among the lives of poor Tarlaqueños.
Suntay felt she had to do something more than medical missions to cure the problem. As the chairperson of the Tarlac Heritage Foundation, which her mother, Doña Isabel Murphy Cojuangco Suntay founded, she convinced the foundation to take extra steps not only to preserve the cultural heritage of the province, but also to improve the health of the poor.
Aside from the foundation, she counted on the support of her mother to build a nutrition movement in Tarlac. Her mother, Doña Isabel, is a sister of tycoon Eduardo Cojuangco Jr. Suntay, herself, is a second cousin of President Benigno Aquino III.
Doña Isabel says being related to Cojuangco, the chairman of San Miguel Corp., does not mean they have the same wealth. “We belong to different planets. I hate to say it, because people might think we have the same resources,” Doña Isabel says in the same interview.
Isa’s desire to help the people of Tarlac convinced her to run for governor as an independent candidate in 2013, but she found out that she could also help outside politics. “I ran honorably. I lost honorably,” she says.
Now, she concentrates on an innovative, but an ambitious project of Tarlac Heritage Foundation – putting up organic gardens or hardin ng lunas.
“Hardin ng Lunas addressed the void not met by medical missions. After the medical mission, there is hardin ng lunas. Why do people get sick in the province? Because many of the indigent people don’t have proper food, proper nutrition. So education suffers, work suffers, everything suffers,” she says.
Hardin ng Lunas is an organic garden that encourages military personnel and civilian employees to plant organic vegetables, fruits and medicinal herbs as well as raise fish and livestock in vacant lots of military camps and village backyards. Harvests from the garden are provided for free to poor residents in the area.
Suntay says the Hardin ng Lunas project has not only helped the poor but also brought the soldiers closer to the people. She recalls that in a recent medical mission in a remote village in Tarlac, an 11-year-old skinny boy approached her for skin treatment. She says the boy was suffering from malnutrition and needed immediate attention, so a young Philippine Military Academy lieutenant decided to bring him to a hospital for proper diagnosis. The boy was indeed undernourished, according to the hospital.
Suntay gave the boy a two-month supply of medicines and vitamins. After two months, she received a text message from the young soldier, who is a family man, informing her that the boy gained 10 pounds and is now healthy.
The action of the young soldier impressed Doña Isabel. “Here is a young PMA lieutenant, who has his own family. Out of his own pocket, he brought this young boy to the hospital. How much does a young lieutenant earn? I’ve never seen that in all these years,” she says.
An eight-hectare Hardin ng Lunas was established at Camp O’Donnell in Capas, Tarlac in 2012. The garden featured 69,829 vegetable seedlings, 25 varieties of herbal plants, 287 fruit-bearing trees and 2 tilapia ponds.
Suntay says the project was established in 2012, after a meeting with Major Gen. Nicanor Dolojan and Brig. Gen. Mayoralgo dela Cruz. Camp O’ Donnell has a vast track of land, and they agreed to lend eight hectares to be the site of their version of “garden of cure.”
Herbal medicinal plants used for the project are raised and nurtured at the Tarlac College of Agriculture.
The project was supported by the Tarlac Heritage Foundation in cooperation with St. Luke’s Medical Center’s Department of Dermatology in Quezon City, East-West Seed Philippines and B&O Green Corp.
Another military facility, Camp General Servillano Aquino in the village of San Miguel in Tarlac City, also had its own hardin ng lunas. The pilot Hardin ng Lunas was put up in the village of Camangaan East in Moncada, Tarlac.
Suntay says no less than President Benigno Aquino III attended and inaugurated the first Hardin ng Lunas on Oct. 12, 2012.
“When we asked the president to inaugurate it in October 2012, he is the highest official of the land. We want a project that is good, that he would not be ashamed of, especially that we are related... Somehow, we are related. When you ask a guest of honor to inaugurate a project...you owe him that much to keep the project clean and above any controversy,” she says.
“The president inaugurated it in October 2012. What year are we now, it is still ongoing, with no government funding. The AFP [Armed Forces of the Philippines] has not spent anything, but provided land,” she says.
Doña Isabel says the success of the project in Tarlac has also inspired the soldiers to try to replicate it in other areas. “Even the officers have opened up their hearts,” she says.
“When these [military] officers saw it, they said they would like to bring it to Mindanao. But we have limited resources,” she says.
Suntay says hardin ng lunas proved successful in Tarlac because it is a peaceful province, unlike in Mindanao where the troops heavily focus on anti-insurgency campaign.
Doña Isabel says the project was borne out of their desire to help the less fortunate. “In the province of Tarlac, we know that there are a lot of people who are less fortunate. We think that we have been blessed, and so I think it is our obligation to try to help, in whatever way we can.
“Beyond that, as our parents told us, Tarlac has been very kind. All of us, I think it is our obligation to share, in whatever way we can,” Doña Isabel says.
Doña Isabel pauses, looks at her daughter and says: “She is very committed.” RTD
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