Dagupan City authorities want to build a bangus (milkfish) processing plant with a production capacity of 60,000 milkfish a day. If the local officials have their way, 274 households will be dislocated from their homes and transferred to a place devoid of basic services.
By JONG DELA CRUZ
DAGUPAN CITY – Is bangus (milkfish) more important than people? For the local officials here (200 kms north of Manila), the answer is yes if the people belong to the urban poor.
Urban poor settlers here face a bleak Christmas as their homes may be demolished to give way to a processing plant.
Early this month, Dagupan City Mayor Benjie Lim ordered the formation of a Special Survey and Planning Team through Executive Order No. 101 to prepare the affected community of Sitio (sub-village) Bagong Barrio where the proposed Bangus Processing Plant (BPP) will rise. The 10.38-hectare land is located north of the city facing the mouth of Lingayen Gulf.
The BPP’s total project cost is estimated at P160 million ($2.84 million, based on an exchange rate of P56.315 per U.S. dollar). It is a flagship project of Lim and was awarded P50 million ($887,862.91) by the Macapagal-Arroyo administration.
Affected residents said that the project would not benefit small bangus (milkfish) catchers and breeders but “big stakeholders” including those who won in the May 2004 elections.
Bangus for sale
The proposed processing plant will serve as station for deboned, smoked, dried and canned milkfish that will be exported to the United States and Japan.
According to the local government, the plant has a production capacity of 15 metric tons or 60,000 pieces of milkfish every day. Profits could reach P3 million ($53,271.77) daily or P1 billion ($17.76 million) annually.
In his speech during the Bangus Festival in April 2003, Lim said, “We want the city to be a major exporter of our famous Bonuan Bangus to earn foreign revenues and create jobs for our people.” President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in the same event led the groundbreaking ceremony and extended support to the so-called most modern fish plant in the country.
The project, according to the city government, can provide 3,000 jobs, giving priority to the affected residents of Bagong Barrio. The manual task of de-boning alone shall employ 1,500 local workers, it added.
The Philippine Fisheries Development Authority (PFDA), the project proponent, said the 4,500-square meter plant facility will include site development. The latter will respond to its eco-tourism components such as nature parks, boat port and fish trading center. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) will maintain 4.5 hectares of land for its Urban Forestry Scheme in partnership with the local government.
Since its inception in April 2003, the proposed BPP has earned the ire of the affected residents and various cause-oriented groups.
Joan Mackay, 32, an affected resident and a leader of women’s group Gabriela-Bagong Barrio, revealed that the local government failed to thoroughly consult the residents before it issued a notice of clearing and relocation in April last year.
Mackay decried the “one-way talks” between the representatives of the local government and the sitio’s (village’s) captain Ricardo Mejia. “When the government began to gather signatures from residents to get their consent, it was then that we knew about it,” she said.
Data gathered by Gabriela-Bagong Barrio revealed that 274 households will be affected by the demolition.
Marlyn Vidal, 54, one of the early settlers in the area, said that about 35 years ago, the sitio was still a mass of floating garbage but they were able to develop it by dumping soil and sand that are now the lot they occupy.
“The sitio is just one of the many abandoned lots in the city that are used by the urban poor. We now are called ‘squatters’ by the government just because we are benefiting from the lands they used to ignore,” Vidal said.
In a dialogue with city officials, the affected residents proposed on-site development instead as alternative means to cultivate the land but the local officials countered that putting up the BPP will bring progress not just to Dagupan but nearby towns.
Gabriela-Bagong Barrio condemned the local government’s decision to relocate the affected residents to areas that are devoid of facilities.
Pugaro Island, the first relocation site intended by the government, is almost underwater all year round, the group said. It added that the P10,000 ($177.57) offered by the local government for each house that will be demolished is not enough for them to build one in the supposed relocation site.
The local government also proposed the 53,175-square meter lot within Tondaligan Park, Gueset to serve as relocation site for the affected community. This area will be segregated from the rest of the park to relocate squatter families who would later want to own the land.
In November 2003, the Kalinga Foundation, a non-profit support group, worked with the local government to build a resettlement facility found near the affected area.
However, the affected residents denounced the local government’s attempt to divert the issue between them and urban poor settlers. They said they continue to oppose the BPP because the land they currently occupy provides access to basic services such as school and livelihood.
Should the government pursue the project, a relocation site complete with amenities and access to basic services must be first ensured, the residents said.
Influenced by the Left?
In a radio interview, Lim criticized “left-leaning” organizations that allegedly infiltrated the area and capitalized on the situation of the affected residents to further their interests.
He said the residents should not be influenced by leftist groups because they are not the ones who will provide the solutions to their problems like relocation.
However, Rev. Fr. Eleuterio Revollido, chairperson of the Pangasinan chapter of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN, or New Patriotic Alliance) said, “It is right to take the side of the affected residents since their right to life, dignity and just development is at stake in this issue.”
BAYAN revealed that the proposed plant will provide contractual labor to the affected residents and could lead to exploitation. The wage in the manual task of de-boning is pegged between P15 to P20 ($0.27 to $0.36) an hour within a three-shift workload a day.