The vanishing coral of Bohol

The main island group of the Philippines is the Visayas. The major islands are Bohol, Cebu, Leyte, Negros, Panay, Romblon, Samar and Siquijor. Andrew Garton interviewed Maria Socorro, a community lawyer from PROCESS (Participatory Research, Organisation of Communities and Education Towards Struggle For Self-reliance), Bohol, and discovered the popular tourist retreat is far from paradise.

Bohol, known for its “Chocolate Hills” and the smallest monkey in the world, the rare tarsier monkey, has lost 95% of its coral reefs in less than 40 years. Silt from the heavy deforestation of the island, cyanide fishing, blast fishing and the encroachment of large private fishing boats have all contributed to the death of Bohol’s coral.

The waters are policed to prevent those without permits from fishing in the restricted regions. Many local fisherfolk, as they are commonly known, cannot afford the permits but continue to fish “illegally”, under constant threat of harassment, fines and often violence.

But even the private fishing vessels that enter these waters do so illegally and often bribe the local constabulary. These boats are owned by millionaires, generals, businessmen and government officials. Their boats are heavily armed and carry the most sophisticated radar equipment to find their catch, often at the expense of the local fisherfolk who must subsist from fishing, and have been doing so for centuries.

These boats often dredge the ocean floor. This destroys the coral, which can take up to 50 years to rejuvenate.

Blast fishing is taken up by some of the local fisherfolk frustrated by dwindling stocks and the restrictions imposed on them. This method enables them to haul in a reasonably sized catch for very little effort in a short space of time.

Cyanide fishing is more harmful to the coral than blasting. Cyanide, released from small capsules, temporarily stuns the fish. The coral is killed instantly. On release, the cyanide turns the reef black. At least with blasting, the coral is “redistributed” across the ocean floor and gets a another chance.

In a recent incident between local fisherfolk and a private fishing boat, one of the locals had been shot. He was later paid 21,000 pesos to keep quiet. The wounding kept him from feeding his family for over a fortnight, so he accepted the bribe.

The shooting occurred in May, when there was an embargo on

weapons because of the national elections. Local community workers are charging the owner of the vessel for bribery, entering municipal waters and carrying firearms during the embargo. The local police chief has been implicated as an accessory.

Maria Socorro spoke of some disturbing health problems on the islands around Bohol. Water-related epidemics strike the islands during the months of June, July and August.

Worst hit are the children. At least three die each day. The heat depletes fresh water, so the islanders must drink bottled water from the mainland, the quality of which is questionable.

There are no communal toilets. The islanders take to the shore, where they cover their excrement with sand. Pigs and chickens roam around the shore line accompanied by thousands of flies. There are no doctors; locals cannot afford the high salaries they demand.

Recently, questions have been raised about the handling of funds for the Bohol Water and Sanitation Project. Reports produced by the local government reveal a “ghost project”. In the original program, funded by the Australian International Development Assistance Bureau (AIDAB), the local government was to provide water pumps, concrete and labour to install them; AIDAB was to provide pipes from Australia. The report indicated that pumps were purchased and distributed. A physical inspection of the proposed sites revealed that no pumps had been delivered. With funds now spent and the reporting complete, it has been difficult for local NGOs to get further funding, though there is talk of a German agency offering support for the project.

One of the main concerns around funding of such initiatives is that there is no allocation of resources for training. The funds are normally provided to establish organisations to administer the project but not to train personnel or initiate the project itself. It becomes, as Maria called it, a “ghost project” where there is an “infrastructure” but no productivity.

Andrew Garton, 1992.

Published by GreenLeft Weekly, Issue 80, 1992.

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