Accompanying Fisherfolk in Their Local Struggles for Social Justice and Human Dignity

Human Rights Dialogue 1.9 (Summer 1997): "Innovative Human Rights Strategies in East Asia"

We strongly believe that the sea is our life. We commit ourselves to future generations. We profess our commitment in the name of sustainable development, in the spirit of the promotion of human rights and people’s empowerment, and in recognition of the pro-life movement.
—Commitment to Life, a national campaign of BIGKIS-LAKAS

In the late 1970s fragile fisheries in Laguna Lake, located in Southern Luzon, Philippines, and the communities of fisherfolk dependent on them for their subsistence came under attack by a production- and export-oriented decree issued by then-president Ferdinand Marcos. The decree, Presidential Decree 704, aggravated an already lopsided treaty, Republic of the Philippines–Japan Treaty of Amity, Commerce and Navigation, by increasing Japanese access to Filipino fisheries. Large-scale Filipino commercial fishermen proceeded to construct oversized fishpens that occupied about half the lake’s total area, pushing the fisherfolk to its peripheries and monopolizing the sale of fish. In the words of the fisherfolk, “The public lake has become a private lake.” Pollution from some one thousand factories dumping into the lake and the siltation of rivers and shorelines due to subdivision of land parcels and golf course development by local and foreign investors further decreased the fish catch. The end result was the depletion of fish stocks, the degradation of the coastal and marine environment, and the further marginalization of the fisherfolk.

The crisis resulting from depriving the fisherfolk around Laguna Lake of the rights to livelihood and life catalyzed a partnership between the fisherfolk communities and the Family Center of the Asian Social Institute (FCASI), the action arm of the Institute dedicated to strengthening the Filipino family, people’s initiatives, and people’s movements as a means of social transformation. From 1970 to 1978, FCASI operated twenty-six Family Life Centers around the country to respond to the population problem. In 1978 the wives of the fisherfolk participating in FCASI programs in the Laguna Lake area began to voice their concern over the proliferation of commercial fishpens. Through the women, FCASI workers met the fisherfolk, listened to their problems, and began to work with them to seek solutions. The result was the launching of an initiative that placed fisherfolk at the center of development work, as social actors in struggles for social justice. An atmosphere for growth and development was created by emphasizing personhood (pagkatao) and dignity, and engaging the fisherfolk in a liberating process of self-empowerment.

In tandem with FCASI, the fisherfolk initiated processes for identifying and determining the root causes of their problems and for building leadership skills. They established people’s organizations, among them CALARIZ, a federation of fisherfolk groups from the provinces affected—Cavite, Laguna, and Rizal. They were then able to build alliances at the local, national, and international levels and push for laws to protect their rights and livelihoods.

FCASI used a method of organizing the fisherfolk that relied on easily recognizable cultural symbols. These symbols—such as a mangrove tree with spreading roots to signify strength, resilience, and leadership, and a boat propeller to signify power and movement—helped fisherfolk to express, share, and analyze their struggle and to articulate their values and aspirations. Through the process they began to discover and understand their humanity, their rootedness, their culture. The lasting work of FCASI in capturing and synthesizing the genuine concerns and reflections of the fisherfolk has been praised by members of the participating communities. One fisherman remarked, “We realized that our simple contributions when put together became meaningful and enriching, touching our lives as fisherfolk.”

After five years in full partnership with FCASI, CALARIZ is a strong, responsive, and humane fisherfolk confederation that manages its own programs. Its leaders have led campaigns for lake reforms, like the dismantling of illegally constructed fishpens, the systematization of navigational lanes, fishpens, and cages, and the pro-hibition of illegal fishing. This challenging process has not been without pain. Some fisherfolk have lost their lives, and fisherfolk families have been uprooted. But as one leader of the fisherfolk said, “Since the unjust situation is going to kill us, we might as well die fighting for a cause.”

The fisherfolk’s struggle continues to the present, now in opposition to the current government’s industrialization plan. Laguna Lake plays a vital role in MARI--LAQUE, the Growth Trade Zone around Manila, Rizal, Laguna, Cavite, and Quezon. Under the industrialization plan, the lake will primarily be used as coolant for industries constructed around it, with only 3 percent of lake water allotted for recreational fishing.

Inspired by its partnership with CALARIZ and responding to the mandate of the 1984 World Conference of Fishworkers in Rome, FCASI entered into a partnership with the Catholic dioceses in Luzon in 1986. In 1988, with the support of the dioceses, FCASI sponsored the formation of BIGKIS-LAKAS (“putting together strength”) Pilipinas, a nationwide alliance of fisherfolk. The issues, philosophy, and principles presented and discussed in consultations among the fisherfolk, church representatives, and government leaders drafted the basic framework for a national Fisheries Code in 1989. Once approved, the code will replace Presidential Decree 704.

The process behind drafting the code and lobbying for its approval entailed the hard work, commitment, and dedication of fisherfolk from various organizations and their partner NGOs. People’s lobby groups were formed to make the voices of fisherfolk echo in the streets, at conference tables, and in the halls of power at the local, provincial, and national levels. This advocacy work continues today, for although the Fisheries Code was declared an administration bill of President Fidel V. Ramos in 1996, two contested provisions were inserted by congressional committee members: one allows many more and larger fishing vessels into the municipal waters than the fisherfolk want, and the second privatizes public fishpond areas under the Fishpond Lease Agreement. Like the rest of the draft, these provisions will not be implemented until the Fisheries Code is approved.

Expansion and strengthening of the BIGKIS-LAKAS Pilipinas organization continues as it pursues efforts to mitigate the deleterious effects of globalization and industrialization—land conversion, deforestation, and pollution, as well as the siltation and degradation of aquatic and marine resources—around the country. BIGKIS-LAKAS Pilipinas, together with other local and national fisherfolk groups, has become involved in sea patrols and localized management of coastal resources. It has been deputized as “fishwarden” and “guardian of natural resources” by the government to apprehend violators of fisheries and agrarian laws. Members patrol their areas and apprehend those engaged in forms of illegal fishing, like dynamite fishing and trawling.

In recognition of the fisherfolk’s efforts and those of their NGO partners, the government has passed the following policies:

The Local Government Code or Republic Act 7170: This 1994 act promotes the participatory role of people’s organizations and NGOs in the development process by recognizing their membership in various development councils in local government units.

The Social Reform Agenda (SRA): This is an early intervention program whereby the government will seek to improve the welfare of disadvantaged groups and the early integration of these groups into the political and economic mainstream. SRA makes operative the government’s human development goals embodied in the 1992 Medium Term Philippine Development Plan through interventions meant to alleviate poverty and attain social justice, equity, and lasting peace.

Executive Order 240: This order creates Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Management Councils in barangays (villages), cities, and municipalities. It institutionalizes the major role of local fisherfolk and other resource users in the conservation, development, and protection of fisheries and aquatic resources of municipal waters as defined by the local government code.

As a result of these policy directives, fisherfolk are now active at various levels of government—the barangay, municipality, province, and congress—as well as in the National Reform Council, the National Sustainable Development Council, and other networks of government and private organizations. They are playing a role in the resolution of community issues and the formulation and approval of policy. The right of the fisherfolk to a dignified life as social actors, not passive recipients of government charity, is fulfilled by their participation in the transformation of the development process.

Read More: Justice, Human Rights, Cultural Rights

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