‘Direct hit’ Bulacan fisherfolk most affected, least consulted on SMC reclamation

fishing community
A typical fishing community in Bulacan rivers draining close to Manila Bay (Photo by M. Salamat /Bulatlat)

2nd Part in a Series of 3 (DENR in mock Battle for Manila Bay rehab?)

What is common in the stories of the residents in various coastal sitios of Bulacan is that the “news” about their impending displacement is coming to them in trickles of information packaged in a threat.

Read the 1st Part: Bulacan fisherfolk, women want genuine, inclusive Manila Bay rehabilitation

This is one of the reports in a series produced by Bulatlat.com with the Asia-Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD) Media Fellowship. The series aims to report on linkages between gender, ecological conflicts and climate change.

By MARYA SALAMAT
Bulatlat.com

MANILA — Until April of last year, the fisherfolk communities in coastal Bulacan were hearing only unconfirmed talk about the San Miguel Corporation’s 2,500-hectare aerotropolis and new city project. The news about the proposed reclamation affecting the island-communities along Manila Bay in Bulacan formally broke out in April 2018, when the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) Board approved the San Miguel Corporation’s proposal. But the buying spree of former salt farms along the rivers and mangroves has been happening for years already, the residents said. Some said they have been told they have to leave the area soon.

“Hindi kami hinaharap ni Mayor. ‘Hindi namin alam yan.’” (The town mayor of Bulakan, Bulacan) won’t talk to us. If asked about the SMC project, he’d reply, ‘We don’t know about that.’) For one and a half years this is how the Bulacan fisherfolk say they have been treated, until they mounted protest actions, said a UP professor who conducted a series of research among the Bulakan fisherfolk since last year.

In the village of Capol, the residents have been seeing land surveyors taking measurements of the shallow pool. Asked who sent them, some surveyors replied their company is just a contractor in charge of titling the land, among others.

In another sitio called Camansi, Flor Salvador, 77, said she first heard about some developers’ plans for Taliptip three years ago. They have been told also they will have to go.

She said that in her heart she refuses to believe that someday, as they were being told informally, they will be forced to leave the place to give way to these “developments.” When Bulatlat interviewed her, she was still tending to her small yard. Her house faces hectares of former saltbeds turned into fishponds.   At the time the fish had just been harvested and the water drained out to the Manila Bay.

Bulacan coasts
Old fisherwoman and former saltfarmer shows the recently drained fishpond (former saltfarms) beside her family home in Taliptip, Bulakan. (Photo by M. Salamat / Bulatlat)

She arrived here in 1969, Salvador said. Like many here, she worked at the salt farms before her family turned to full-time fishing. In her old age, she has found work watching over someone else’s fishponds and planting stringbeans on the soil embankment.

But she hasn’t heard yet of relocation for “fishpond caretakers.”

What sounded common in the stories of the residents in various sitios is that the “news” about their impending displacement is coming to them in trickles of information packaged in a threat. Other residents told Bulatlat, on condition of anonymity, that they were being castigated by the mayor, some by the village captain, if they were seen joining meetings with supporters from “outside.”

Though they have lived and worked as tenants in Bulakan salt farms for decades until most of it stopped operating and were sold off to developers, they remained deprived of land tenure for lack of land reform or other tenurial support from the government. Now, the resulting poverty and landlessness is being used against them to speed up their forcible displacement.

Even the BFAR (Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources) told the fisherfolk representatives in a dialogue late last year there were only two registered leaseholders in Taliptip.

Without tenurial rights over the land or the fishing grounds, the communities of fisherfolk have been automatically denied a say in land use and planning concerning their river-and-bay-based livelihood.

It took the residents various pickets, requests for dialogue with the local government and agencies, with representatives of San Miguel Corporation, with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, among others, before they were told bits and pieces about the reclamation project. And before some vague “relocation” was floated. Even when the local government executives in Bulacan had already welcomed the plan of SMC, confirming what they had long avoided saying to their enquiring constituents, the residents were still kept blind as to who and where the project will directly hit.

Some residents interviewed by Bulatlat said they were getting warnings against joining protest actions or meetings. They were told they will receive no aid or no chance at this unnamed relocation.

When two representatives of San Miguel Corporation (SMC) met with church people and women leaders of Bulacan fisherfolk in Malolos City November last year, they avoided mentioning “reclamation”. They refused to answer questions regarding where or how their proposed aerotropolis will be built, considering there are fishing communities in the (then) rumored proposed site.

“You are not likely to build a hanging airport over rivers and mangroves, right?” a woman from Taliptip asked.

On February 4, the fisherfolk finally heard the first concrete plans through an SMC contractor. In a “public hearing” held at an evacuation center in Bulakan, Bulacan, representatives of SMC contractor, Silvertides Holdings Corporation, confirmed the company had acquired a total of 2,375 hectares of titled “fishponds” in the coastal villages of Bambang and Taliptip in Bulakan, Bulacan. This contractor’s job is to perform the reclamation.

Map Philippines
This is where San Miguel Corporation (SMC) proposes to build an international airport and new city over fishponds, rivers and mangroves populated by fisherfolk communities. The map below zooms closer to the Bulacan coasts.
reclamation of Bulacan coasts
L to R: Bambang (dark red, left on circled portion of map) and Taliptip (red, right on circled portion of map), are the villages/areas to be “direct hit” of planned reclamation to pave way for San Miguel Corporations’ airport, real estate, infrastructure projects (map lifted from Silvertides’ presentation during a “public hearing” in an evacuation center in Bulakan, Feb 4, 2018.)

The Feb 4 hearing is second to the last requirement for the SMC contractor to get an Environmental Compliance Certificate (ECC) that would pave the way to reclamation.

The report Silvertides presented to the fisherfolk bears also the mark of the Environment Management Bureau (EMB) in Region 3.

Silvertides confirmed that the fisherfolk in Taliptip and Bambang are at the “direct hit areas” while the villages two to three kilometers surrounding it are the “indirect hit” of the reclamation project.

The SMC contractor said they will “backfill” the 2,375 hectares of fishponds by at least 3 meters. This is estimated to require 205 million cubic meters of fill materials that they may source from Pampanga.

“Why did the government just approve such a proposal without even thinking of us?” asked Taliptip fisherwoman Monica Anastacio, 63, one of the spokespersons of the Network Opposed to Reclamation and Aerotropolis in Bulacan.

The “public hearing” last February 4 centered on the contractor stressing the mechanics of the reclamation and mitigating measures for those who would be adversely affected. It was not about the communities having a say in whether the reclamation will push through or not. Rather, it was about notifying those who will be affected and informing them there are other livelihood opportunities. It mentioned there will likely be aid for those qualified to receive it.

fishpond and woman in Taliptip
A resident looks over the fishponds where they have seen surveyors taking measurements in Capol, Taliptip. It turned out the surveyors came from a company subcontracted by SMC to prepare requirements for its planned reclamation. (Photo by M. Salamat / Bulatlat.com)

To compile the report they presented to the “public hearing,” Silvertides said they held scoping and fieldwork from October to November last year. That’s the same period some fisherfolk in the villages of Bulakan and Obando convened the Network Opposed to Reclamation and Aerotropolis in Bulacan.

The SMC contractor submitted their draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) to EMB Region 3 in December last year. They held the “public hearing” as part of a “review process” from which they will submit an assessment report to the EMB Region 3. The EMB Region 3 will then decide on their application for ECC.

No to SMC aerotropolis reclamation
Some of the Bulacan fisherfolk, environmentalists who convened a network opposed to reclamation in Bulacan coasts along Manila Bay October 2018 (Photo by M. Salamat / Bulatlat)

An estimated 5,000 fisherfolk stand to lose livelihood and homes in SMC’s $14-million plus airport project. Others more stand to lose their fishing grounds given the volume of backfilling that will be carried by barges and heavy machineries to the coastline.

To questions whether the fisherfolk could maintain their livelihood, the SMC representatives, in a dialogue facilitated by the Bulacan Ecumenical Forum in Malolos, replied the fisherfolk can avail of retraining, livelihood opportunities and priority employment instead. In a different forum, Silvertide’s presentation mentions relocation for “fishpond caretakers”.

But in the same way that not everyone in the “direct hit areas” are considered “fishpond caretakers” and thus qualified for relocation, not all of the mangroves in the direct hit areas seem safe.

Silvertide’s presentation pointed to just two “patches of mangroves” closest to the Manila Bay that they will “incorporate in the design.”  They leave out the patches of mangroves along the river of Taliptip and Bambang.

Planned reclamation contrary to calls for rehabilitation

As early as January this year the group Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment has warned against the dangerous haste of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) in ordering the removal of informal settlers as if doing so is the main answer to Manila Bay pollution. In reality, the government has much to answer for, not the poor.  Kalikasan and Pamalakaya have both cited as bigger culprit the government failure in providing sufficient waste management facilities, including its support to problematic positioning of waste diversion facilities themselves.

Kalikasan cited the data from National Solid Waste Management Commission that says only 32 percent of villages across the country are serviced by a Materials Recovery Facility, and only 24 percent of local government units have access to Sanitary Landfills as of September 2018.

PAMALAKAYA cited as example the Obando sanitary landfill located in Obando, Bulacan owned by Ecoshield Development Corp. (EDC) and supported by the government. It has polluted not only the waters of Obando but brought its stench to residents of nearby Navotas City and Malabon City in Manila. Other waste disposal facilities operated in Manila Bay, Pamalakaya said. This includes the landfill in Pier 18 in Tondo, Manila that had been reported before for dumping toxic wastes in Manila Bay.

The destruction of mangrove, seagrass, and other coastal and marine ecosystems that serve as the natural pollution filters of Manila Bay is also a major culprit in its worsening pollution, Kalikasan said in a statement. Not only this, the environmentalists and urban poor in Manila Bay have long noted the disastrous effects of reclamation not just on fish catch but also in helping to break the fury of storms. Various independent and scientific studies on reclamation in Panglao, Bohol, Cordova (of Cebu) and in the Manila Bay have extensively demonstrated how it resulted in reduced productivity and biodiversity, disrupted vital ecosystem functions, increased vulnerability to floods, and displaced and dislocated thousands of families dependent on the affected environments for their livelihood.

At least 28,647 hectares of currently approved reclamation projects are clearly overlapped on the remaining mangrove expanses and seagrass beds along the whole stretch of Manila. A part of it is in Bulacan, 2,500- hectares as announced by the San Miguel Corporation, but the contractor set to conduct the reclamation says the areas two to three kilometers surrounding the 2,500 hectares will also be affected.

The fisherfolk interviewed by Bulatlat cannot imagine life away from their banca and fishing. “Every move we make is on the river,” a fisherman who grew up in Taliptip said. His sentiment is echoed by his neighbors.

To hear and to get a glimpse of fisherfolk community in Sitio Kinse, a picturesque island-community opposing the proposed reclamation for aerotropolis building of SMC, click here to watch the ‘Save Taliptip’ video report by Altermidya.

fisherman in Manila Bay
A Taliptip fisherman putting some of his catch on ‘standby’ before bringing it to a fishport. (Photo by M. Salamat / Bulatlat)

The fish and seafood produced from the rich brackish waters for reclamation in SMC drawing board are currently being sold on fish ports of Navotas, Malabon and other towns, said the survey itself of SMC contractor Silvertides.

“We are really dependent for our livelihood on these rivers and on these mud,” the second-generation fisherman in Taliptip said. His now senior citizen parents also cannot think of life away from the river.

As of this writing the fisherfolk communities are gearing up to hold assemblies in defense of the river and the bay.  ()

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