Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Zanjeras of Ilocos Norte

By Carlos D. Isles

Unknown to many Filipinos is the existence of the “zanjeras de Ilocos Norte.” Zanjeras (from the Spanish word “zanja,” meaning ditch or canal) are communal or community irrigation systems that can rival the world-famous indigenous irrigation systems in Bali, Indonesia, called “subak.”
For years, scores of foreign and Filipino irrigation engineers, sociologists, community organizers and anthropologists have visited the subak in Bali to learn about its efficient system of water management and system maintenance. Unfortunately, however, scant attention has been paid to the zanjeras in Ilocos Norte, which are a rich source of lessons in social organization, equitable water distribution, voluntarism, and strict implementation of rules and regulations.

Zanjeras, which farmers built and manage with hardly any government assistance, irrigate small pieces of land ranging from 5 to 150 hectares. Some date as far back as Spanish times and still exist today, such as Zanjera Diniega (1774), Zanjera Sales (1791), Zanjera de Ganagan (1792), and Zanjera Surgui (1811). Each is legally independent of the other, is duly registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission, and has its own democratically elected officers, clearly defined rules, and roles for officers and members alike. Every member understands and follows policies related to water-sharing, payment of dues, and sanctions on members who deliberately violate regulations, like regular attendance during canal maintenance works.

There are an estimated 2,000 zanjeras in Ilocos Norte that draw water from the mighty Laoag-Vintag river.

Generations of farmers have served as owners and managers of the zanjeras, which remain strong and useful to thousands of farmers in producing rice and other staple crops. What is the secret of their strength that is not found in other community organizations, which often die almost as soon as they are set up?

First, the leaders of zanjeras are selected based on competence and proven honesty. They are not ruled by patronage politics (walang palakasan). Members of zanjeras belong to the same communities. This accounts for their intimate and proven knowledge of one another in terms of honesty and dedication to hard work. In the election of leaders, the padrino system does not enter the picture. Hence, even without vote-counting machines, votes are counted accurately and the right leaders get elected. The infamous dagdag-bawas (or vote-padding and -shaving) is unheard-of during zanjera elections.

Second, the zanjeras’ financial records are transparent. Every bona fide member is entitled and welcome to check the documents. Officers act quickly on financial complaints to avoid losing the confidence of members. Financial reports are regularly discussed in the general assembly.
Third, through the general assembly, all the members participate in the planning, crafting and distribution of an equitable system of water-sharing so that each member gets the “right amount of water, at the right time and at the right place.” This is further ensured through a unique system of water distribution in which farmers whose lots are at the end of the zanja is given water first and those closest to the source receive water last.

Fourth, strict attendance during meetings and obras (maintenance work) on the system is strictly observed. Members contribute manual labor and materials like logs, rocks, tree trunks and anything else that will strengthen the temporary dam, commonly called “brush dam.” Absentees without valid reasons like illness are fined a certain amount or assigned extended work hours in the next obras. The money from the fines is used to buy materials for the repair of the irrigation system and for the snacks of members during maintenance work.

Another quality of zanjera management is the so-called komun, a piece of land owned, not by individual members, but by the association of zanjeras. Members of the association take turns in farming the komun. The money earned is used for the maintenance and upkeep of the zanjeras, including the brush dam.

It is interesting to note that one of the key officers of the association is the cusinero (cook). This person occupies a very special place in the organization because it is he who cooks the food when all the zanjera members do maintenance work to repair the brush dam and remove silt from the canal to allow the unobstructed flow of water to the fields.

One remarkable quality of the zanjeras is their sense of self-reliance and independence from the government. Unlike thousands of other community organizations in the Philippines, whose lifeblood is the funds provided by the government, zanjeras do not seek government assistance as much as possible. In the words of a zanjera leader: “We are proud to be able to stand on our own feet. We will not reject the government’s help, but neither will we beg for its assistance. Independence from the government’s largesse shields our zanjeras from political pressure.”

Carlos D. Isles ( is a former irrigation consultant of the National Irrigation Administration.


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The Mail Man

Author & Editor - The Philippines' Web Magazine on Agriculture.

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