Sen. Cynthia A. Villar: Woman, Advocate, Maverick

Sen. Cynthia A. Villar: Woman, Advocate, Maverick

By Katherine L. Magsanoc

Our interview with Sen. Cynthia A. Villar was scheduled for 10 a.m., and so this writer was at her Villar Farm School before 9 a.m., to “nest.” At 9:20 a.m., though, in walked the Senator, merienda and lunch for us in tow.

This small thing — coming in earlier than she was asked to — represents a small part of her nature: professional, pragmatic, empathetic, and someone willing to go beyond what is asked. She is surprisingly very motherly, your favorite “cool tita” in family reunions.

While we want to celebrate her achievements as a public servant, we also want to celebrate her life — from her childhood to her beginnings in business, and her motherhood towards her children and her home city, Las Piñas.


Clockwise from left: Wetland Center, Visitor Center, Vermiculture, Bambusetum and Composting Facility

As soon as she sat down, true to her post as Chairperson of the Senate Committees on Environment and Agriculture, CAV immediately eagerly told us about the Las Piñas-Parañaque Wetland Park.

“It’s one-half Las Piñas, one-half Parañaque,” she begins. “‘Yung Parañaque is Freedom Island, ‘yung Las Piñas is Long Island.” The Wetland Park is also home to a Wetland Center, Wetland Museum, Visitors Center, a hall for lectures, and offices for the use of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR).

The Las Piñas-Parañaque Wetland Park also has thirty-five hectares of mangroves, which help fish reproduce as well as protect the land and its residents against storm surge.

“It is the biggest spawning ground of fishes in Manila Bay, and it is giving livelihood to 300,000 fishermen in the area,” CAV says.

A HEART FOR WILDLIFE. Sen. Cynthia A. Villar points to a Chinese Egret which probably flew to the Las Piñas-Parañaque Wetland Park from winter in China, Japan, or Siberia.

She then gestures to the Las Piñas-Zapote River behind us, where we could see a long legged bird relaxing by the water. “That Chinese Egret flew to the river from the Wetland Park, where we host 159 species of birds, both local and migratory,” CAV says happily. “They stay here during winter in China, Japan, and Siberia. Some stay permanently.”

Among the birds that have found a home in the Las Piñas-Parañaque Wetland Park are the Philippine Duck and Black-Winged Stilt — both endangered species. “We have 1,000 of the remaining 100,000 in the world, here in Las Piñas,” she says about the Black-Winged Stilt. “This is why the Wetland Park was declared a Ramsar Site.”

Ramsar was a treaty signed in Iran in the early 1970s which was signed by 170 countries. If one is listed in the Ramsar list as one of the most important wetlands in the world, the government is mandated to protect it.

“We’re listed together with Tubbataha Reef, Palawan Underground River, Agusan Marsh, Olango Island in Cebu, Nauhan Lake in Oriental Mindoro, Negros Occidental Wetland, and the Sasmuan Pampanga Wetland,” CAV says with a huge grin. “Number six tayo, and then siya lang ang nasa Metro Manila, and in a major city.”

“We should be proud of it.”


As we were chatting on one side of the Villar Farm, the sound of Prinza Dam in the background proved soothing, even therapeutic (Listen to rain or water sounds at night on Spotify or YouTube and you would know what we mean. It helps one fall into deep, continuous sleep, which also has an impact on overall health.).

LAS PIÑAS RIVER DRIVE: (From left) Las Piñas river drive CAA-C5L, Zapote river drive (from CAVITEX-MCX) and Daang Hari to Nomo Road (Molino river drive)

We looked at the residential areas around the dam and the Las Piñas-Zapote River, and felt wistful about how blessed they are: the river is clean, which means it is not only good for the eyes but for the nose as well. Not to mention this is the view of motorists who pass through the Zapote River Drive, a project CAV made sure to complete.

“We clean the river and dam everyday,” CAV tells us as we drive in a golf cart to tour her Farm School and Tourist Farm. “We use those to clean the river,” she says, pointing to rafts made out of recycled plastic soft drink bottles. (On our way home from this interview, we saw an actual person cleaning the river while on the raft. That’s recycling in action.)

RIVER CLEANUP: (From left) Zapote River, Molino River and Las Piñas River

The Zapote River Drive is 20 kilometers long. The Las Piñas River Drive is 10 kilometers and Molino River Drive is 10 kilometer for a total of 40 kilometers (the Pasig River Drive is 25 kilometers long) — a result of CAV’s focus and funds as a Senator. “We built the River Drive to give motorists an alternate route since Alabang-Zapote Road already has a big congestion problem,” she says. “The River Drive is used by people in a hurry, those who like driving beside the relaxing river, and those who have emergencies, like ambulances.”

Other roadways nearby, though, CAV and husband Mr. Manny Villar built using personal funds — which they let the public use. “Itong island na ‘to, between Molino River and Zapote River, it’s an island,” she says, pointing to the Farm House. “The two bridges connecting this island to Las Piñas, we built out of pocket; also because they connect directly to our land.”

One road outside the farm was also built by Mr. Villar, and vehicles are freely allowed to pass.

HISTORIC SITE. The Prinza Dam (also called the Molino Dam) was built in by San Ezekiel Moreno. Back then, Moreno was the parish priest of Las Piñas. He was beatified in 1975 and canonized in 1992.

It is not possible to talk about the river without highlighting the Prinza Dam, built by San Ezekiel Moreno in 1882. Back then, Moreno was the parish priest of Las Piñas. He was beatified in 1975 and canonized in 1992. Today, Prinza Dam provides water to the Farm School and Tourist Farm (plans of building the system to make the water potable for drinking are in the idea pipeline).

According to the Senate of the Philippines website, in 2005, the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP), recognized “the statue of St. Ezekiel Moreno and two historical markers in Molino Dam in Las Piñas and Bacoor City to commemorate the important contributions of the St. Moreno and the Molino dam in Las Piñas and Bacoor Cities’ colorful history.”

A museum honoring the saint is right beside the dam. The San Ezekiel Moreno Church built by Villar Foundation which CAV also heads, is about six kilometers away. It safekeeps two bone relics of San Ezekiel given by the Father General of Recoletos.


CHILDLIKE EXCITEMENT: Sen. Cynthia A. Villar gets ready to go around the Villar Farm School and Tourist Farm with her team.

We often see CAV in television or official events in Senator mode — polished, strong, dignified. While she more or less maintains the same grace off-cam, we delved deeper into the facets people don’t see or know of.

Cynthia as a daughter

CAV is a true daughter of south Metro Manila: her mother is from Muntinlupa (Alabang), while her father is from Las Piñas.

“I’m so surprised that kids now normally have nannies,” CAV says, settling into her seat for our lunch. “Ako nung six years old ako, nakatira kami sa farm. It was one kilometer from Muntinlupa Elementary School.”

CAV grew up in a farming family, her parents running a poultry farm and rice mill when she was a child. Her father, Filemon Aguilar, was a long-time mayor of Las Piñas and congressman. “Alam mo, naglalakad kami — six years old ako — one kilometer from our farm to the school,” she recalls. “Kalahati ng nilalakaran ko walang bahay kasi rice field.”

She adds with a laugh, “Sabi nga ng nanay ko, ‘Pag may kumausap sayo ‘wag mong sasagutin, tumakbo ka na baka kidnapin ka’.” Her mother was Lydia Ampaya.

“Nanay ko ayaw ako bigyan 10 centavos para sumakay sa jeep,” CAV continues, waxing nostalgic. “But I appreciated that, kasi it taught me lessons in life.”

Cynthia as a mother

CAV is mother to three kids: Manuel Paolo who is following in his father’s footsteps as a businessman; Mark who is also serving in the Senate; and Camille who is serving as a Congresswoman. Having come from a comfortable but simple upbringing, CAV made sure that her children also led simple lives, no matter how successful the family business was.

“Mahigpit ako sa mga anak ko. I believe education is the most important thing,” CAV says, referring to her husband Manny who grew up poor in Tondo but attended the University of the Philippines where they both earned degrees in Business Administration.

“Kailangan ang anak ko well-educated kasi kahit na sila mapamanahan mo kung hindi sila well-educated at hindi sila magta-trabaho, mawawala din lahat, ‘di ba?”

“So ang first priority ko as a mother is the education of my children,” she adds. Both her boys pursued higher learning at Wharton, a prestigious business school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her daughter pursued hers at IESE in Barcelona, Spain.

Other than the importance of education, CAV taught her children the importance of prudence when it comes to money. “Ang turo ng nanay ko sa amin noong bata pa kami, ‘Pag kayo kumikita, mag-ipon kayo, kasi hindi kayo laging kikita. Pag kayo hindi nag-ipon at hindi na kayo kumikita, maghihirap kayo’,” she recalls.

Cynthia as a businesswoman

WASTE MANAGEMENT: (Clockwise from left) Waterlily weaving, Plastic Recycling Factory, Coconet Factory and Kitchen waste composting facility

CAV’s story and success as a businesswoman is tied to her husband’s, because they met and fell in love in college, and built their life and business together from there.

“Pinaghirapan namin ‘yan,” she begins, when asked about it. “We started our business as a gravel and sand business when we were 25, at naghirap kami diyan,” she says. “Two years nga kaming nakitira sa magulang ko para makatipid, para makaipon ng puhunan.” They moved to their own home also in Las Piñas in 1977, and it is their home until now — 48 years and counting.

Their business saw its beginnings as a small company, selling gravel and sand to companies building houses. “Nagde-deliver si Manny ng graba at buhangin sa mga nagtatayo ng bahay, nakita nya na madali palang magtayo ng bahay,” she shares.”So nagsimula siyang magtayo ng bahay.”

Once they started doing this, in a year, they had managed to build 90 houses. From their earnings, they built their first Camella development that would be Camella I and II. They also started this in the south. After six developments, they began developing nationwide.

When asked about the secret to their success, CAV goes back to the basics: hard work. “Kami ni Manny, alam mo noong kami’y nag-ge-gravel and sand, pitong taon akong nag-pabaon sa truck namin, kasi nagtitipid kami sa salary kasi gusto naming makaipon to build a business,” she recalls.

Every business needs a capital, and aspiring entrepreneurs really need to save for their seed money and investment.So talagang si Manny ang nagbebenta, siya ang kumukuha ng order tsaka naniningil. Ako ang nag-papabaon sa truck, early in the morning and late at night.”

Cynthia as a wife

If you have ever come across the Villar husband and wife, it is easy to see that they are not just successful business partners, spouses, public servants, and grandparents. They are also — first and foremost — friends (who started as classmates and batchmates) for 49 years and counting.

“Siya ‘yung sa business, ako sa foundation,” CAV says matter-of-factly. “May sarili akong business, ‘yung mga asset na pinamana. May mall ako sa lupa niya.” She builds the establishments on land Mr. Villar owns, then he pays her rent. Now that’s a stellar business partnership arrangement, even for those who are not necessarily spouses but do business together.

At home, CAV and Mr. Villar are also as complementary as night and day. CAV loves detective stories and watches them on HBO, HBO Hits, and Cinemax. Her husband is a Netflix aficionado. “Magkahiwalay kami ng pinapanood. Magkaiba taste namin,” she says. They are both homebodies, though, who go out as part of the performance of their duty as public servants and community leaders.

CAV does not hesitate to admit, though, that — to this day — she is the one who makes their bed in the morning. This was a habit she formed as a child, with her sister whom she shared a bed with. “Itong si Manny, pagkagising eh iiwanan ang kama, ako magliligpit,” she retorts with a laugh. “Sabi ko ito parang hindi anak ng mahirap, hindi tinuruan. Ako magliligpit ng lahat ng kalat niya.”

Humor also plays a big part in their steadfast marriage. “Minsan tinatakot ko, ‘Manny, parang mahina ka nang lumakad’,” CAV says, laughing. “Daig ko nga si Manny eh, siya ang jogging nang jogging. Siguro napapagod sa jogging kaya pag hindi na nagjo-jogging, mahina na maglakad.”


PAMPERED CARABAOS. Sen. Cynthia A. Villar looks affectionately at the carabaos of the Villar Farm School. A visit to their shed is a highlight for many visitors of the farm, she says.

When speaking with CAV, it is very evident that when she speaks about farmers, fishermen, and sustainability, her eyes and entire face light up. When she was taking us around her Farm School and — on the other side of Nomo Road — her Tourist Farm, it was evident in her energy that she was happily (like a child) right at home.

CAV was brought up by farmers, after all. Her hope is that what she has started will continue and grow. The Philippines being an agricultural country, should be strong in this aspect. This is central to her work as a Senator, but this road paved with good intentions is not spared from misunderstanding and bad politicking.

“The poorest people in the Philippines are the farmers and the fishermen. If you want to do poverty reduction, you do it through agriculture,” CAV says. “This is why our family is all about poverty reduction — also because Manny came from a poor background.”

The Villar Farm School

Villar Farm School

CAV was among those who supported the passing of Republic Act No. 10816 or the Farm Tourism Development Act of 2016. It mandated that a farm school be established in every town in the Philippines. It was lost on its intended beneficiaries though, which were the farmers and farm owners. So CAV decided to put her own.

“Yung pinag-aaralan sa college, BS Agriculture ‘yun. Ito vocational lang ‘to para sa mga farmers,” she says. “Kinausap ko si Manny, kasi ito gagawin niya dapat na subdivision. ‘Wag na lang, gagawin kong farm school. So I started this in 2016.”

The Farm School offers farmers free courses in partnership with other agencies. According to the website, they are:

Farm Business School with the Agricultural Training Institute
Rice Seeds Production and Mechanization with PhilRice and PhilMech
Aquaculture Production with the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources
Livestock Production with the Bureau of Animal Industry
Cacao production intercropping with coconut with the Philippine Coconut Authority

The property where it sits surrounded by beautiful nedra trees features a rice farm, vegetable farm, aquaculture, a dairy farm with 50 carabaos, a coconut and cacao farm, a forage farm, and a dormitory for the students aside from the earthy all-kawayan classroom.

The Rice Tariffication Law

A conversation with CAV would not be complete without bringing up Republic Act 11203, also called the Rice Tarification Law (RTL) which she authored. In an article on the Department of Agriculture website, then Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez said, “The law opened up the rice market, imposed tariff on imported rice, created the Rice Competitiveness Enhancement Fund and lowered the price of the commodity in the market for the benefit of the general population.”

It was met with mixed feelings, though, which CAV is well aware of.

“Ang umaayaw diyan ‘yung mga middleman. Kasi sa provision na ‘yan, i-e-empower ang mga farmers,” she says. “Eh ang mga farmers dito sa Pilipinas maliliit. Kaya ginagawa ko, magtayo kayo ng co-op, tapos tutulungan ng co-op ang farmers.”

“Ang mga farmers, hindi mo pwedeng bigyan ng machinery, ang liliit (ng lupa), two hectares. Eh milyon ang halaga ng machinery,” CAV continues. “It has to be given to a group of farmers, kaya magko-co-op.”

She says this co-op model for farming is utilized in other countries. Their government, in turn, supports the co-op — a more streamlined approach. “Tinutulungan ng gobyerno ang co-op para ma-mechanize sila at matuto sila. Binibigyan sila ng milling and drying para ang product nila rice, hindi na palay, at deretso na sila sa supermarket.”

According to CAV, when we implemented land reform and two hectares of land were given to farmers, it was too small an ownership for them to then afford buying machines of their own. They would end up selling their land and then farming for someone else. “Walang economies of scale ‘yun. Ang gusto natin, mag-co-op sila para may economies of scale, oo. Hindi ‘yung ipagbibili nila lupa nila uli sa mga landowner, hindi,” she says.

For CAV, this is the best way to help farmers and their families, so their children will not decide to work abroad instead of farming. This would cause the Philippines to lose crucial food security. “Kung hindi natin mapro-produce ‘yung pagkain natin, kawawa tayo,” she says.

It begs to be said that CAV created the Rice Competitiveness Enhancement Fund and the financial assistance to rice farmers owning five hectares and below, which are 1.6 million Filipino farmers.

She also gave funds to the Technical Education And Skills Development Authority (TESDA) and Agricultural Development Institute (ADI) to train farmers when it comes to inbred seeds. Then there were the funds given to Landbank to be loaned to farmers.

“We discovered na ‘yung mga farmers, hindi marunong umutang sa mga bangko kasi mga small farmers lang sila,” she shares. “So sabi ko sa Landbank pautangin niyo ‘yung co-op, at sila ‘yung magpautang sa mga farmers.”

As the saying goes, one cannot please everybody. There will always be detractors waiting for a reason to attack. To them, CAV has a clear response: “I will just do what I have to do. I don’t care if I am misunderstood, if that’s the right thing.”


Seafarers vaccination

“I always tell the truth, so ayoko talaga ng politics,” says CAV as she takes a cookie she tells us was a gift from a friend. Hours spent with her at her Farm House, Farm School, and Tourist Farm (which has a Children’s Farm with a zipline, playground, and horseback riding facilities) allowed us to see all her sides — from her demeanor as a Senator to when she let her walls down and we saw her as simply Cynthia.

For all the years of public service she and her family have rendered, what is she most proud of? “Syempre, ‘yung Daang Hari. Without that, ang hirap to connect to Cavite,” CAV answers quickly.

From left: MBV widening of CAA Bridge, CAV road improvement San Isidro Subdivision Brgy. Pamplona 1 and Road rehabilitation Doña Paz Brgy. Pulanglupa 2

Daang Hari is also known as the Las Piñas–Muntinlupa–Laguna–Cavite Link Road, dubbed “collector road” because it links southern Metro Manila to Cavite. According to Internet sources, it was “built as part of then-Senator Manny Villar’s initiative to decongest traffic in southern Metro Manila.” Daang Hari was inaugurated on Dec. 13, 2003.

From left: MAV road and drainage Tramo — this covers Barangay Zapote to Manuyo 1, Dear Joe Bridge and Onelia Jose Bridge

At 73, CAV thinks about retirement, yes, but not about stopping from helping others. “Nag-iipon ako ng income para pag ako’y retired na, may income pa rin akong maipamimigay sa mga tao,” she says thoughtfully.

“It pays na [maging] mahusay na tao. I don’t care if they misunderstand me, basta alam kong tama ang ginagawa ko, I’ll do it.”


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