Since the fisherfolk have begun opposing the oil and gas exploration activities of NorAsian Energy Ltd, an Australian company, along the shores of Argao and Sibonga, the military has intensified their operations in the are, tearing down posters, confronting leaders and members of the local fisher folk organization, and interrogating village officials regarding the activities of “leftists”.
BY RITCHE T. SALGADO
Early October 30, Anselmo Semoran, vice chairman of the Simala Bantay Dagat Association, received a text message informing him that President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo would be visiting Argao that day. Semoran thought that this would be the best time to bring their concerns to the President.
He gathered the streamers they used in a previous demonstration against the oil and gas exploration along the shores of Argao and Sibonga. Semora then asked the members of their association to help him post the streamers in prominent areas where they were sure the President would visit or pass by. Suddenly, vans began to appear and stopped right in front of them.
Military-looking men in plain clothes poured out of the vans, confronted them, and tore down their streamers. Seomora and his fellow fisher folk were terrified. Yet they were defiant and continued to put up new streamers. But every time they put one up, members of the military would tear it down.
To make matters worse, intelligence officers of the military started to question officials of their barangay (village), threatening them and asking information about certain people whom the military identified as “leftists”.
The Cebu Chapter of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP), upon hearing about the harassments committed against the fisher folks, sent a letter to the regional office of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) requesting for an investigation on the presence of the military in Argao and Sibonga.
Gloria Estenzo Ramos, a lawyer and the chairperson of the environment committee of IBP, said, in a phone interview with Bulatlat, that Alejandro P. Alonzo, regional director of CHR and also a lawyer, has already expressed his intention of sending a fact finding team to investigate the matter.
“But we will not wait for them,” said Ramos. “We will call for a stakeholders’ dialogue on the problem.”
Ramos also questioned the presence of troops from the Philippine Coast Guard who are guarding the boat conducting the exploration. Ramos asserted that the duty of the Coast Guard is to enforce maritime pollution laws, not to escort mining boats.
“Ironically, oil drilling is a major polluting activity and contributes to global warming,” the letter to the CHR read.
Justification for the military’s presence
Semoran, who also chairs the Alyansa Sa Mananagat Batok sa Hulga sa NorAsian, said armored vehicles were also deployed at the shores of Argao before the arrival of the President.
“Wala ko kalakaw kahapon kay gi-atngan man ko sa military para dili ko makalihok ,” (The military was watching my every move so I wasn’t able to leave home.) said Semoran.
Major Christopher Tampus spokesperson of the Central Command of the Armed Forces of the Philippines said, in an interview with Bulatlat, that the deployment of the 78th IB in the area was in line with the guidelines set by the commanding officer of the Central Command Lt. Gen. Pedro Ike Inserto regarding the conduct of civil-military operations.
He said that they are there to conduct dialogues with the fisher folks in coordination with the local government, the Department of Energy (DoE) and other government agencies. This, he said, is “because of the growing organization of militant groups.”
“We are there to unravel the real intention of these groups,” Major Tampus said.
“We are not against these groups,” he clarified, adding that they are only against certain individuals whose intentions are questionable.
Semoran, however, said that before members of nongovernment organizations started to help them, they approached the government regarding their opposition to the exploration activities of NorAsian Energy Ltd., an Australian company with three service contracts in the Philippines.
“Before mi midangop sa ilaha gi-agi na ni namo sa barangay dayon sa syudad, pero wala man taga-i ug action. Dayon gitudlo mi sa BFAR ngadto sa FIDEC (Before we approached them, we already raised our concern with the barangay and then to the local government but they did not act on it. Then the BFAR or the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources told us to go to FIDEC),” he said.
FIDEC or the Central Visayas Fisherfolk Development Center, Inc., is a nongovernment organization involved in the identification and implementation of development projects that provide support to the socio-economic and political well-being of small local fisher folk.
Declining fish catch
Semoran said that since NorAsian started its activities in the Bohol Strait, their livelihood was severely affected. He said that before the entry of NorAsian, they were able to catch an average of five to 10 kilos of fish per day. Since the exploration started, they are only able to catch a maximum of one kilo of fish per day.
He said that contrary to the claims of the DoE that their fish catch is dependent on the season, the fishermen never had any problem catching a considerable amount of fish before the exploration. He added that the shore of Argao is a known fishing ground.
“Gagamit mi ug fish aggregation methods para magpatapok sa mga isda,” (We use fish aggregation methods to gather the fish in a certain area.) Semoran said.
Since the cease and desist order against NorAsian and the DoE was issued by Governor Gwendolyn Garcia early last month, fish catch in the area has improved considerably. Semoran said that last Friday, October 31, one of the fishermen in the area was able to catch 40 kilos of fish, not including those that he gave away to those with less catch.
“Bisan nakatilaw nami ug hulga gikan sa military, mopadayon gihapon mi sa among pakigbisog kay ang among panginabuhi-an man ang naapektuhan ni-ini,” (Even if we have already experienced intimidation from the military, we will continue with our struggle because it is our livelihood that is affected.) Semoran said. (Bulatlat.com)