Tuesday, November 08, 2005
an island Paradise/
"THERE was a time when we would set up our pots and a fire on the beach, close to the water. We would then paddle the water and the fish would jump out of the sea, straight into the pots! That was how much fish we had then!"
That was Toti Menguito, guardian of the Gilutongan Marine Sanctuary in Cordova town in the province of Cebu, describing what it was like at one time on his island to a group of about a dozen visitors from different organizations invited to visit their project.
Was he giving us a fish tale? I don't think so. It wasn't the first time I've heard such stories from Filipino fisherfolk. They all talk of a time, not too long ago, when the oceans and rivers were filled with fish. And as an anthropologist, I can believe that, because all over the Philippines, I've found that many of the traditional fishing gear that's been developed-rattan baskets for example-were clearly meant for fishing not too far from the shore.
My guess then is that Toti wasn't exaggerating about the abundance of fish in Gilutongan. Even today, the area around Gilutongan still has some marine resources that residents are trying very hard to preserve through their marine sanctuary, one that is managed by the community, from patrolling the waters to doing periodic reef checks to see if they had managed to slow down the destruction of marine life to family planning education.
Now, you might ask, how did family planning get into the picture? Several Filipino nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), notably Path Philippines and Save the Children, are now combining family planning with environment programs, which really makes sense. We can't keep romanticizing environmental conservation by reducing it to an admiration of mountains and trees and birds; we have to deal with the human population that depletes and destroys these resources.
The stress on the environment is always most obvious in coastal communities. Maybe because our marine resources were once so abundant, coastal areas have always attracted settlers who, perhaps because of the easy life, quickly grew. The demographic surveys have always shown fishing communities to have higher fertility rates. In Gilutongan, I found several households with more than six children, with gaps of about a year between siblings. In one case, there was a couple with six children occupying a hut not more than 10 square meters, the space used as a bedroom, kitchen, living room. The mother was 36 years old but looked like she was in her 50s.
Everywhere I went there were children with scabies and other skin infections, their stomachs bloated from intestinal worms. Childhood ends early in such a setting-there was an 11-year old boy, stunted and underweight, who came in with some fish he had caught. Path's survey shows that in these communities, the males are dropping out earlier from school to help with fishing.
The options are narrowing for fishing communities, the seas not even providing enough for a family's subsistence needs. A report from the Department of Environment notes that fisherfolk in the area sometimes have to go fishing in Bohol, Surigao, Palawan or even as far as Malaysia to bring in aquarium fish, abalone, octopus, sea cucumber, and sharks' fin, all of which are meant for export. They do this using the simplest of equipment, described as pinobreng panagat (poor man's gear) that cannot compete with large commercial fishing ventures. The temptation to use cyanide is always there.
Gilutongan has developed alternative livelihoods. There's some seaweed farming going on. There's an eco-tourism program that charges entrance fees to divers, and it's been quite successful, bringing in some two million pesos in fees, part of which has gone back into community development, including the construction of a guardhouse and the installation of solar power. But the island still does not have its own health center or health personnel. Neither does it have a potable water supply. Residents are also aware that tourism, even eco-tourism, has its risks, and are thinking of imposing a quota on visitors.
When I visited, the island was already inundated with election posters and stickers. One sticker caught my eye, something about "Kontra Aborsyon" (against abortion). I asked about the sticker, but no one was sure which candidate had put it up. I found it almost a cruel joke, trying to get elected on an anti-abortion platform. This is an island where the most basic health services are not available, where family planning was only recently introduced. Here, women become pregnant year after year and abortion is probably not an option -- no money and lots of gossip.
It was a hot day when I visited, but I decided against going out swimming. Some of those who did go out came back glowing, describing the colorful corals and fish, and how you could just float there all day in perfect bliss, in this tropical paradise. Unfortunately, for too many of the children in these fishing communities, the reality is that of paradise lost.