Co-creating a path towards a community-led development for fisherfolk communities in the Philippines

Photos and texts by Carlo Manalansan

“There are a number of so-called development programs and projects but they have never uplifted the lives of the people especially fisherfolk communities,” — Roque Cris Chavez, Secretary-general, PAMANGGAS

This article is also available in Hiligaynon.

Fishermen preparing their boat and fishing gear before sailing out

Fisherfolk spend their daily grind in the middle of the sea from dusk to dawn, trying their luck at finding a good catch for their families. Some would even sail out as early as 4:00 in the afternoon when the target fishing ground is far. They are usually back home at around 5:00 in the morning, with a group of expectant — residents, family members, ambulant vendors, and tricycle drivers — waiting ashore. This has been the life of most residents in coastal communities in Barangays (villages) Santiago and San Francisco in the municipality of Barotac Viejo, Iloilo province, Philippines. Although simple, village life has gone through the ebb and flow of struggle to survive.

Drawing lessons from the past

According to residents in Barangays Santiago and San Francisco, their grandparents told them that their community only had a few houses in the 1960s. But after the road construction in the 1980s, in-migration began. Families of migrants from other provinces settled in the community because of its favorable location and available resources. Nanay (mother) Jonna recalled how simple their life had been and how they built relationships with villagers. “Even if you are a new resident here, you would easily get along with everyone because we treat each other like a family. If you do not have food for today, your neighbors would share some dried fish and vegetables, sometimes rice,” she added. As a small community, they easily established their sense of neighborhood.

Jojo, a member of the community-based organization AMMS, drying fish on a wooden grid and net for their household consumption

However, in the 1990s, the once peaceful life they had enjoyed was disturbed and their unity was put to the test. The villagers noticed the presence of unfamiliar people coming in and out of their community. Later, they learned that the people and vehicles entering their area belonged to the Malampay Mining Company. Community members organized themselves and discussed possible community actions they could take amidst efforts from the government to sow conflict and division among villagers. They launched a community-led campaign against mining and they started educating the residents on the potential impacts of mining on their livelihood, health, and environment. They reached out to government authorities to forward their collective opposition against the proposed mining project and request dialogues. They also linked up to wider civil society in Panay Island such as peasant groups, human rights organizations, and the church sector to gather the broadest support possible for their campaign.

Communities fought hard on all fronts in the hopes of denying the entry of the destructive project that would displace them from their land and poison the sea. They put up a people’s barricade at all entry points and frequently visited the target mine site to monitor if there was any mining-related activity going on. Community members who were active in the anti-mining struggle were later demonized by project proponents and government authorities. They were afraid that something unfortunate might happen. But for most villagers, it was more worrisome to think that if they would not act collectively and win the fight, the future of the next generations is jeopardized. Maximizing community organizing, alliance work as well as campaign and advocacy strategies, the villagers successfully pulled the company and the project out of their community.

Crest and trough of village life

Since the mining struggle, the community has strengthened its linkages with people’s organizations and alliances such as Paghugpong sang mga Mangunguma sa Panay kag Guimaras (PAMANGGAS), an alliance of farmers and farmworkers in Panay. Local leaders and community members have closely worked with PAMANGGAS on issues related to agrarian reform, livelihood, environment, and human rights. Furthermore, PAMANGGAS has been instrumental in the formation of Asosasyon sang Magagmay nga mga Mangingisda sa Santiago (AMMS), a community-based organization in Barangay Santiago. PAMANGGAS provided technical support such as training on organizational development and planning, mounting campaigns, and community organizing.

While the establishment of a community-based organization has become a testament to their collective aspirations, AMMS serves as a fortress against unfair state policies and development aggression.

Joseph Araza is the president of AMMS while helping his fellow villagers fix their damaged boats

AMMS and PAMANGGAS have been critical of policies such as the Fisheries Code of 1998, that directly governs the aquatic and fisheries resources of the Philippines. Fisherfolk organizations claim that the implementation of this law is detrimental to the rights and welfare of the fisherfolk and their families. Under this law, fisherfolk are compelled to undergo costly and tedious registration procedures that require them to submit documents and identification cards that are difficult to get. Penalties and fines, when caught fishing without a permit, are high that a small fisherfolk could not afford. Consequently, they opposed the imposition of a 3-month fish ban on herring, mackerel, and sardines because it only brought food shortage and loss of income particularly to the poorest of the poor. During peak season, one fishing vessel — considered as one team consisting of four to five people — is able to earn P9,000.00 (approximately 180 USD) gross worth of fish catch on a single trip. Meanwhile, they only get P2,800 (around 50 USD) during off peak. Net earnings are then equally divided among team members. With the implementation of a fish ban, their income has become more scarce, forcing them to go to urban cities and even abroad to work as domestic helpers. They somehow understand the implementation of the fish ban however, the policies should not just end in prohibiting them from fishing. According to AMMS, there should be genuine community consultations and a clear government program to support affected communities in mitigating the adverse socio-economic impacts while the fish ban is enforced.

The negative effects of policies governing fisheries and marine resources are being aggravated by the impacts of climate change. During typhoons, the community suffers from big tidal waves damaging their boats and fishing gears and paralyzing their main source of livelihood. They had to look for temporary and alternative sources of income to support the basic and daily needs of their families. But for the majority of households, loans from microfinance institutions have been the most accessible and dependable means but it has drowned them in debt. Failed government responses as well as limited subsidy and financial aid in times of calamities have only worsened the condition of the fisherfolk sector.

Villagers working together to recover their fishing nets after a typhoon hit their community that destroyed some of the fishing boats

Community leaders and members who are critical of the government’s policies and programs are labeled as terrorists and rebels. They feel unsafe because of multiple security risks associated with terrorist tagging. In the Philippines, terrorist labeling has led to forced disappearance, judicial harassment, and killing. Melbert Balbon, a community leader in Barangay Santiago, fears that someone suspicious is following him every time he’s in the town center running errands and attending official meetings. Community members feel like terrorist labeling is the price for standing up for their rights and this should not be normalized.

Melbert Balbon maneuvering his boat to go back home after visiting his relatives in Barangay San Francisco

The presence of military elements has caused tremendous distress to villagers. In recent years, there was an incident where military men stayed overnight in the community without any clear objective and residents were afraid that something bad would happen.

Some residents fear that if they join any activities organized by AMMS and PAMANGGAS, they will also be subjected to political persecution. Some members of AMMS became inactive because of the potential threat of reprisals.

Expanding horizon with a global collective

The unabated human and environmental rights issues faced by communities in Barangays Santiago and San Francisco underscore the need to build more allies and networks in the Philippines and other countries. The opportunity that the Global Advocacy Team (GAT) presents has been of great importance for community organizers and activists like Roque Cris Chavez and PAMANGGAS.

Roque Cris Chavez, one of the GAT members, from PAMANGGAS in the Philippines

When Roque Cris Chavez learned about the work of the International Accountability Project (IAP) and the Global Advocacy Team (GAT), he instantly knew that community-led research will be a good addition to their arsenal in organizing and empowering communities towards building a more community-led development framework that is responsive to their needs and priorities.

In the past, PAMANGGAS has been involved in various research initiatives as a critical component in their community organizing. “To organize the people, you need to know their issues, realities, and struggles. Therefore, for community organizers, investigation and data collection are important in analyzing the situation and understanding the power dynamics in the community,” Roque Cris told. Gaining the community’s trust and confidence is vital in getting their support and cooperation.

Currently, Roque Cris and the GAT research team in Panay are undertaking a community-led research on the economic impacts of the fisheries laws on communities in Barangays Santiago and San Francisco. Thematic processes in the form of individual surveys, key informant interviews, focus group discussions, case studies, and even informal talks were conducted to encourage people to talk and engage in the discussion.

A community meeting organized by AMMS and a partner organization to inform the people about the status of the livelihood project and collectively assess the implementation of the project

Based on their reflections as a GAT research team in Panay, community-led research — if tools and strategies are used properly — has mobilizing and organizing effects. When the research team explained to villagers the objectives of the research and the concepts of community-led research and right to development, the villagers said that the process is inclusive and their participation is integral to development. Community members appreciate their vital role in decision-making processes related to projects and policies that could impact them. Throughout the research process, the community members have realized that the power-that-be has disenfranchised them for the longest time, and their development priorities and concerns were not being heard and discussed.

As a GAT collective, everyone shares ideas and challenges, strategies, and plans taking into account their local context. In the process, learning sessions widen one’s horizon and perspective on various issues that confront their communities. It is a collective of sharing and learning, of working for a community-led development where everyone enjoys the fulfillment of their rights.

Fisherfolk visit their tambon, a fusion of traditional and modern fishing methods, that also serves as a fish sanctuary

The communities felt they had found reliable partners in the GAT collective as they shared common experiences and expressed solidarity. “We need to foster solidarity and collective action between and among communities to affect genuine social reforms and social justice,” said Roque Cris.

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This article is part of a series that features stories from the 8 community organizers from 8 countries who are part of IAP’s Global Advocacy Team. The Global Advocacy Team initiative brings together incredible community organizers from around the world to conduct community-led research and mobilize their communities to change how development is designed, funded, and implemented. Learn more about the Global Advocacy Team focused on community-led development planning.

IAP’s training materials on community-led research are available in 13 languages, including Tagalog.

Carlo Manalansan is the Southeast Asia Community Organizer at the International Accountability Project (IAP). He is also a photojournalist for Bulatlat.com — an alternative media organization in the Philippines.

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International Accountability Project (IAP)

IAP is a human and environmental rights organization that works with communities, civil society and social movements to change how today’s development is done.