By LEON DULCE
Obando Fishport bustles with activity at 6:00 in the morning. A colorful and tightly packed flotilla has gathered, fishing boats carefully slipping and sliding past each other for their turn at docking.
The bustle is slowly replaced by an idyllic backwater as we travel via pump boat to the coastal village of Taliptip in Bulakan town, Bulacan province. Its surrounding seas is life to some 5,000 fishers and salt-makers. They get their bounty of fish, mussels, crabs, shrimp, and krill from these gentle waters and mangrove corridors.
On this cluster of small island-communities, a 2,500-hectare reclamation project by the San Miguel Corporation is being aggressively pursued, threatening to convert everything into an aerotropolis composed largely of airports, expressways, and an urban expanse.
The project was kept hidden from Taliptip’s residents until concerned environmental advocates and church workers raised the issue in their communities — and until President Rodrigo Duterte figured in the news signing the project’s deal.
Residents, especially the families who have lived in the village in the last 80 years, are concerned that their life and livelihood are under threat due to this project.
“So long as the sea is here, there is hope … What will we fish if all this were turned into cement?” asked Arthur*, a fisherman from Sitio Kinse, an island community of Taliptip ensconced in a dense shroud of mangroves.
Arthur shared that an average daily fish catch nets them around 500 pesos ($9.60). From this, they deduct the operating costs such as gasoline and other expenses and the share of their boat consigner. During the dry season, some fishers would tend to the salt fields and earn 154 to 254 pesos ($2.95 to $4.86) per sack depending on the quality of the salt.
But a good day’s catch is a rarity nowadays. Gloria*, a woman resident of Sitio Dapdap, explained that fishing families usually store their live catch in makeshift pens and sell these on a weekly basis. A daily trip to and from the central market in Obando is too expensive compared to the dwindling daily catch.
The hardships push the people of Taliptip to be sustainable by necessity. Living off the grid, residents pooled their resources to install solar panels and batteries for their modest electricity needs. The residents take care of the mangroves since the shellfish they harvest live among its roots which serve also as a natural barrier to big waves.
Aside from a 25-hectare eco-park established by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), various other stretches of mangroves are spread across Taliptip’s waters. A huge population of birds such as terns, egrets, kingfishers, and swallows makes a home out of these trees.
It is not hard to see the importance of these coastal greenbelts. The National Economic Development Authority (NEDA), the lead agency that approved the reclamation project, however, apparently has a contrary view.
San Miguel has pronounced that it can pay entirely for the P735.6-billion ($14.1 million) aerotropolis, a hefty price tag that must have been the clincher for NEDA. That amount of money seemed to have been enough for them to ignore the thousands of people to be displaced and the ecologically critical vegetation to be damaged.
Early this year, the Duterte government also signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Dutch government for the crafting of the Manila Bay Sustainable Development Master Plan (MBSDMP). The cart came before the horse, however, with projects such as the Aerotropolis rapidly progressing without the guidance of a comprehensive sustainable development and management framework.
San Miguel personnel were reportedly behind a massive mangrove-cutting spree in Taliptip two weeks ago. Communities had no idea if the cutting had a special tree-cutting permit from the DENR, as required by law.
Almost 30,000 hectares of such projects presently cover the entire length of the bay.
For Arthur, defending the only livelihood they know from the real threat of reclamation is non-negotiable. “We will not leave our homes. We will fight so long as there are people supporting us and giving us the strength to fight,” he declared.
Environment groups and churches are digging in deep with the communities for the struggle to save Taliptip and various other communities across Manila Bay. Will Duterte stand with the people and stick to his rhetoric against reclamation, or will he bow once again to the oligarchs he has vowed to stand up against?
Leon Dulce is the national coordinator of the Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment (Kalikasan PNE). Follow the local people’s struggle to save Taliptip on Facebook, or through the hashtag #SaveTaliptip on Twitter.