MEMBERS of the Samahang Mangangwil 79 (Sm79), or the Hook and Line Fishers'Organisation - a fisherfoWs organisation in San Diego, Philippines, did not attend the recent UN Conference on Straddling Stocks and Highly Migratory Species. Nor have they heard about the drama enacted between Canada and Spain off Newfoundland in March this year. But they know a thing or two about fishing and conserving fish stocks. Today, sm79's members work for the welfare of fellow fisherfolk, protect coral reefs and even organise anti-trawler operations.
"Fishing used to be so much easier," reminisces Beloy Alicaya, a hefty man with a broad smile, who was also the chairperson ofsm79. "In the'70s and the early'80s, we used to catch many times more fish than we do now. Before the big trawlers came into our waters, we used to be furious if we made anything less than 400 pesos a day. Now, we'd be thrilled to get that much," he says.
Under Philippine law, the waters within 7 kilometres of the coast are reserved for the country's 700,000 fisherfolk,,Ao use small wooden bancps - a traditional outrigger canoe used by subsistence fisherfolk. But by the early'80s, the San Diego fisherfolk found themselves being edged out by the big trawlers which bullied their way in, flouting all laws.
"Our early efforts against the trawlers didn't amount to much," says Beloy. Complaints were lodged with the local mayors, the coastguard and the ministry of natural resources. As a result, the coastguard was ordered to apprehend any trawler found within the prohibited zone. "But they just paid the fine of 100 pesos and went right back to the same waters to fish," explains Beloy.
At the sm79, people then realised that a different approach was needed. It was decided that members would sail out in their bancas and catc,h the offenders themselves. Beloy chuckles as he recalls an incident in 199 1, when 300 fisherfolk in 30 bancas chased one trawler. When the trawler initially refused to stop, fisherfolk shot down the bows with a shotgun borrowed from a retired colonel and waved their toy pistols menacingly. Bottles filled with sand to make them look like sticks of dynamite also came in handy as they threatened to dynamite their quarry. The trawler stopped and the skipper surrendered, signing a document which the organisation had drawn for just such an occasion. The document said that the skipper had voluntarily given up his catch and registration forms. The forrr@s were handed over to the coastguard. The delighted fisherfolk sold the confiscated catch and used the proceeds to buy rice, which was distributed to every household in San Diego.
Eco-vandals But the battle against the trawlers is not over. Says Beloy, "We've got rid of most of the Filipino trawlers, but we haven't been able to stop the Taiwanese trawlers." The' presence of the trawlers is also a threat to the coral reefs of the area. In shallow waters, the heavy trawling gear employed by the unscrupulous operators often scrapes, the fragile sea floor, breaking up coral reefs.
The coral reefs of the Philippines provide a habitat for some 2,000 species of fish, many of them of commercial importance. Destroy the reefs and thd sea is turned into a watery desert. Understandably, the fisherfolk are furious about the trawlers menacing their entire livelihood. But the municipal fishers have themselves dan;iaged large coral reefs by dynamite-fishing - a crude technique where sticks of dynamite are thrown into the sea; the explosion stuns or kills the fish, which float to the surface. Cyanide-fishing, in which cyanide is used for the same purpose of stunning the fish, has also poisoned the coral polyps in many areas.
Sm79 began working against these destructive techniques of fishing in the early '80s. "At first, we went out and talked to the dynamite- and cyanide-fishers. We explained to them that what they were doing harmed the reefs and was bad for all of us. It was also illegal. When some of them didn't listen, we warned them that if we caught them again, we would take them to the coastguard," says Beloy. Though the seafaring vandals still stealthily persist in other pockets in the Philippines, Sm79 has managed to eliminate the practices in the waters around San Diego. SM79 members had also heard that Community Education and Research for Development (CERD), a Manila-based non-governmental organisation (NGO), was promoting the use of artificial reefs. Initially, these do not increase fish stocks, but help attract fish, making it easier for the hook-and- line fishers to catch them. Over time, these artificial reefs accumulate coral polyps, shellfish and other invertebrates, and hence help increase the biological diversity, and the beauty, of the seas.
In late 1991, sm79, with the help Of CERD, began building artificial reefs, using old tyres bought in Quezon City. The fisherfolk worked from dawn to sundown to lash together 32 tyres, and sank them in up to 30 metres of water, to make one reef. Twenty four such reefs were sunk.
Ilya Aala, secretary of sm79, thinks these have definitely made a difference. "Before we built them, there were many days when we used to go out and catch nothing. Once the reefs were installed, that has seldom happened," he says. Unfortunately, the story has a sour ending. After a recent survey, sm79 found that of the 24 artificial reefs they had sunk, only 8 remained; the rest had disappeared. The Organisation suspects that they have been destroyed, some perhaps deliberately, by trawlers marauding within the 7 kni boundary.
Today, sm79 has come a long way from its beginnings 15 years ago. It was originally set up in 1979, complete with a constitution written by the members and an electoral system, specifically to deter pirates from robbing motors from the bancas. Recalls Beloy, "Once we lost 5 motors, once 5, 2..." The fisherfolk decided to keep night vigils. Since then, a group of fishermen patrols the beaches every night, a practice which continues till today.
Many othdr fronts
The Organisation has today diversified to intervene for the welfare of its members in other ways. In most Filipino villages, land is at a premium. The village of San Diego is a perfect pic- ture-postcard from a distance, with its cluster of huts and the swaying palm trees that skirt the golden shores. But, it is no tropical paradise. Most houses lack electricity; only a fifth have toilets. sm79 managed to procure a 3 -acre plot of untitled land, and 36 families could build small bamboo dwellings. In the meantime, sm79's women's wing, Samasaka-sD, has also been very active. Samasaka-SD initially began working to improve the health standards in the village. It set up a daycare centre where undernourished children were given the much- needed nourishment.
Silving Adicaya, an active Samasaka-SD member, is also quietly optimistic about its first income generating pro- gramme. Started in the early months of 1993 with loans from a credit fund set up by Oxfam and administered by CERD, the programme has enabled 25 women to buy 2 piglets each, and enough feed to fatten them. Silving does not expect the pig project to make them rich, but it will certainly provide a boost to their family incomes.
The women are also apprehensive about the fact that the government has targeted their area for industrial growth. Says Silving worriedly, "If they bring ''industry here, and roads and piers - well, it will be the fishing people who win suffer the most." Although they have not thought of a concrete plan of action on this issue as yet, theyiare clear they will not take it lying down if it harms their interests.
Written b Meera Iyer, based on the article The Hook-and-line Fishers' Organization in The Wealth,of Communities, by Charlie Pye-Smith and GraziT13orrini Feyerband, -A4th Richard Sandbrook