WAYWARD AND FANCIFUL: Those who help themselves

KOLAMBUGAN, Lanao del Norte (MindaNews/10 August) – The fishing village of Muntay is one of the 13 coastal barangays of Kolambugan in Lanao del Norte. This settlement was founded by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) Commander Dante in the 1970’s to relocate Muslims from Pendulunan in Munai at the height of the Martial Law (1972-1981) offensives against the Bangsamoro.

Today, it is home to a mixed population of Maranao and Christian households that earn an average monthly income of PhP4,500, mostly from fishing and from harvesting corn and rice. Over three decades since its founding, many Muslim and Christian residents have intermarried and are living together in harmony.

Muntay occupies a little pocket of land between Kolambugan Proper and Barangay Kulasihan. Because it sits adjacent to the town center which has often been a target of violent attacks, Muntay is still judged to be conflict-vulnerable, although the actual number of violence in the village itself has been quite low in the last 10 years.

As with most Muntay residents, August 18, 2008 is indelibly stamped in the memory of former Barangay Captain Julius Montecillo. Days after the failed signing of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD), there was talk that armed bands of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) troops loyal to the disgruntled Commander Bravo would attack neighboring Maigo town. But on that fateful morning, the village awoke to explosions signaling the attack on Barangay Kulasihan and on the town of Kolambugan.

“We were unprepared. We did not know we would be attacked,” he narrated.

The frightened people fled to the beachfront and scampered to the boats. On the beach, they could make out fire and smoke coming from the houses that were burning in Kolambugan Proper. Rosalie, a 32-year-old mother of two, remembers that the boats tried to carry as many of the residents.

“We just grabbed the children. Never mind where their mothers were. We thought they would just meet up when we all got to safety in Ozamiz City.”

Ozamiz City was seven kilometers across the bay. Boatmen normally charged PhP25.00 per head to ferry passengers across, but on this day, those who had money paid and those who did not were allowed to hitch. At the moment of crisis, everyone recognized the need to help each other get to safety.

Caught unprepared, many of the boats were low on fuel. Some made it to the middle of the bay, only to helplessly float adrift, overloaded and out in the open. Looking out past the bridge to Kolambugan Proper, the passengers could make out armed men scurrying on the coast, some of whom appeared to be headed for the village they had left. They watched helplessly and in panic, until the boats sent by Ozamiz City Mayor Ronaldo Parojinog came along to refuel their vessels and guide them to safety.

Meanwhile, back on the shores of Muntay where many residents were still milling in panic before any of the boats could come back to their rescue, Julius Montecillo took charge and herded the people to hide among the mangrove clumps. He made sure that all of the residents got out of Muntay in case violence would come to the village. Julius only has kind words for Mayor Parojinog who immediately responded to get the people across. The mayor also provided emergency relief for the evacuees who sought refuge on his shores. Meanwhile, Julius stayed on in Muntay.

“I was the barangay captain. I had to make sure nobody was left in harm’s way. With the people gone to safety, it was my responsibility to secure the homes they left behind,” he declared quietly.

“It was a good thing that we started this effort to rehabilitate the mangroves. It really came in handy in 2008. Otherwise, there really was nowhere for us to hide,” he added.

The mangrove rehabilitation project was started in 2004 by the Muntay Fisherfolk Association (MUFA), largely as an effort to arrest the erosion of the beachfront from the big waves brought on by what MUFA president Jocelyn Bongcal refers to as “climate change.”

“The waves were eating up the beach, destroying homes,” Inday, as she is known, said. “The mangroves helped to calm the waves. And it is also spawning ground for fish. We now observe a lot more fish species here.”

As most of the Muntay residents lived off the bounty of the sea, rehabilitating the mangroves was a project that the MUFA believed would help them all.

“We learned a lot,” said Inday, as she stood proudly beside the MUFA mangrove nursery which, earlier in the day, had sold PhP21,000 worth of bakhaw seedlings to the provincial government. Like Muntay, the other coastal villages have also begun to rehabilitate the mangrove on their respective stretch of the beach. They look to Muntay to supply the seedlings. Some of them have also started their own modest nurseries.

“But the other barangays are benefiting from what we had to learn painstakingly from trial and error,” said Inday.

She remembers how disappointing it was to plant the seedlings only to have them washed out by the big waves next day. Over the years, the villagers have learned to recognize what months would be a better time to assure optimal seedling survival. Muntay resident Eduardo Awid observes that survival rate is up to 20 percent these days from a low of four percent in years past.

“Our first success really was from the seedlings we acquired from farther away. The mangrove that grew here previously was not of very good stock,” said Eduardo.

MUFA had also learned to use mangrove soil to grow bakhaw seedlings. They noticed that the soil on the sea bed was lighter and easier to pack. The decomposing organic material on the sea bed seems to be a healthier breeding ground for mangrove species like nipa, bakhaw, and a few others.

“Black plastic bags – the thick ones – would have been ideal, but they’re expensive,” observes Inday. MUFA makes do with recycled juice tetrapacks which seem to be sturdy enough.

At start-up, the mangrove project was supported by the United Nations Action for Community Transformation for Peace (UN ACT for Peace) and the Food for Work Program of the World Food Programme. Today, it is a community-based project that appears to be sustainable, managed as it is by residents who are committed to the good that the project brings to their lives. On Saturdays, children join their parents to plant rows of mangrove seedlings as mapped out by the village planners.

Looking out to the neat rows jutting out of the shallow beach, Eduardo said, “The ACT for Peace and Food for Work have helped us, and for that we are grateful. It is really up to us to help ourselves now.”

(Wayward and Fanciful is Gail Ilagan’s column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Ilagan teaches Social Justice, Family Sociology, Theories of Socialization and Psychology at the Ateneo de Davao University where she is also the associate editor of Tambara. You may send comments to gail@mindanews.com. “Send at the risk of a reply,” she says.)