By Ilang-Ilang Quijano
Talim Island used to be a thriving community of fisherfolks who comfortably made a living off Laguna Lake. Laguna Lake, the largest freshwater lake in the Philippines and the third largest in Southeast Asia, was after all, home to 23 unique fish species. The massive lake, covering 900 square kilometers (90,000 hectares), used to yield an abundant fish catch: a daily average of 10 kilos of fish for every fisherfolk.
It was a joyful period that Ronel Arambulo, 36, recalls well as a child: "My mother and I would pick off excess fish caught by my father's net." Ronel is a resident of Talim Island, a distinctive blade-shaped island in the province of Rizal, the only one located on the lake.
Today, Laguna Lake is considered by many fisherfolks as a dying lake. Its ecosystem has been destroyed by the government's forced prevention of the entry of seawater, pollution from factories and cities surrounding the lake, and continuing reclamation and development projects under the government's Public-Private Partnership (PPP) programme.
A dying lake
The woes of fisherfolks living off Laguna Lake started in 1982, when the Marcos government constructed the Napindan Hydraulic Control Structure (NCHS), a World Bank-funded project. The NCHS has a channel that prevents the flow of saltwater from Pasig River and Manila Bay to the lake, ostensibly to keep the lake as a source of potable water for residents in Metro Manila, and to prevent flooding in the cities.
The NCHS, however, harmed the lake and its surrounding communities. Scientists and experts believe that saltwater is essential to the survival of the lake's fish species. Hence, decades after the NCHS was constructed, only six fish species remain. The NCHS also made the lake a catchbin of floodwaters, preventing the flushing out of the lake's excess waters into Manila Bay. As a result, communities living along the lake-inhabited by an estimated 400,000 families-experience horrible flooding during storms or monsoon rains.
Moreover, the Laguna Lake Development Authority (LLDA), a government body created by former President Marcos to oversee the lake's protection, allowed the operation of large, commercial fishpens, further contributing to the degradation of the lake. Another factor that contributed to the lake's pollution is that majority of the land area surrounding it, amounting to 83,620 hectares, are occupied by more than a thousand factories, many of them without proper waste disposal facilities.
Nowadays, Ronel and his fellow residents only fish "out of luck," expecting nothing and often getting the same. "I will put out my net and leave it overnight. In the morning, I catch only a handful of fish, most of them night fish or janitor fish," he said. Night and janitor fishes are predator fish species which are considered by fisherfolks as nuisance species that cannot be eaten nor sold. Ronel's father has long hung up his nets. Like thousands of other fisherfolks at Talim Island, the declining fish catch has forced them into other, irregular jobs such as making charcoal or barbeque sticks. Such livelihood earns them a pittance. "People who come to the island are surprised that we live in nice, cement houses. But these houses date back from the time when income from fishing was enough to put food on the table, send children to school, and build houses. Now, we live in nice houses but have nothing to eat," said Ronel.
Lakeshore development project
Ronel is also the vice-chairperson of Pamalakaya (National Federation of Small Fisherfolks in the Philippines)-Binangonan chapter. As a fisherfolks leader, he leads dialogues with the LLDA and local protests, such as fluvial parades, to urge the government to open the NCHS channel and let saltwater back into the lake. They also oppose PPP projects that will further degrade the lake and convert it into commercial use.
Recently, President Aquino replaced a cheaper and much more beneficial lake dredging project with a Php 200 billion (US$4.8 billion) project that will construct a ring dike around the lake. Covering a 100-kilometer stretch, the ring dike will serve the Lakeshore Park Development project, a project which aims to make use of the dredged silt from the lake to reclaim land or build a business park within the lake.
Both the ring dike and lakeshore development project will displace hundreds of thousands of families living in communities along the lake, in favour of commercial establishments and eco-tourism. The government also plans to construct a 3,000-hectare international airport on reclaimed lakeshore land. Prospective local and foreign investors have already been tapped.
Private water concessionaires Manila and Maynilad Water are also eyeing the lake for profit. The former is already planning to build a Php 2 billion (US$48.1 million) water treatment plant in Laguna Lake, benefiting from the continued closure of the NCHS channel and the construction of the dike.
Sharpness of the 'blade'
According to Pamalakaya, the government is obviously no longer within the framework of restoring the lake's natural ecosystem and providing livelihood for small fisherfolks. "On the contrary, it obviously wants to clear the lake of fishing activities before they offer it to businesses," said Fernando Hicap, Pamalakaya chairperson.
Back in the '90s, Ronel said, the fisherfolks movement was strong enough to temporarily force the opening of the NCHS channel. It was also strong enough to stop the acceleration of the government's so-called development projects. "That is probably the reason why Talim Island has relatively been untouched," he said. But with investors also eyeing the island's mountains for mining and eco-tourism, and with fisherfolks unable to make a decent living off the polluted lake, it won't be long before landgrabbing begins. "If that happens, then we are prepared to put up a fight. They will taste the talim (sharpness) of the blade which the island is named after," he warned.
This article is part of a series of feature stories on land grabbing in selected countries in Asia, as part of an awareness-raising campaign on how land grabs worsen hunger, in commemoration of 'World Foodless Day' on October 16 by PAN AP and its partner organisations. (http://www.panap.net/wfd)