LITTLE VOICES: The Vanishing Subsistence Fisherfolk of GenSan

GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews / 11 March)The subsistence fisherfolk who are eking out a living in the once economically bustling Sarangani Bay, used to be one of the most dominant economic sectors in the City of General Santos. Today, however, they are the most neglected sector, almost decimated as a  primary social and economic force in the city.

In fact, local government departments and offices do not have basic statistical data or information about them. This only goes to show that the supposedly concerned apparatuses and instrumentalities of the local government do not include them in any of their development plans and programs.

As we all know, information and statistical data are indispensable for each and every governmental plan and action. Without these basic statistical data or information, the local government can never contend that they are working for the interest and welfare of about 1,800 remaining subsistence fisherfolk in General Santos City.

This is a pity. During this time and age when government cannot provide jobs for its people; when incidences of unemployment are rising; and, worse, when more and more people are losing their jobs every day (it was reported that about 500,000 workers had lost their jobs in the whole country in 2017), it is supposed to be obligatory for concerned agencies of the local government to protect and develop Sarangani Bay, which serves as the main source of livelihood for thousands of subsistence fisherfolk in General Santos City.

There are actually so many factors that cause the continued decimation in number, and marginalization of, subsistence fisherfolk in General Santos City. Foremost of which, however, is their lack of access to the city’s foreshore areas and public easements, where they could dock and keep their bancas after a grueling fish catching activities. Big corporate ventures, to include beach resorts owners, and moneyed individuals in the city and elsewhere have already privately appropriated wider sections of the city’s foreshore areas and public easements.

Under the law, a foreshore land (a land located between the highest point of the high tide and the lowest point of the low tide); a foreshore area (a ten-meter mass of land from the highest point of the high tide upward); and a public easement (a 20-meter mass of land from the tip of the foreshore area upward) are not subject to private appropriation either by purchase or by lease. The intent of this law is to ensure that the right of the people to make use of these gifts of nature is respected.

But before the Boracay and the El Nido scandals took center stage, big corporate ventures and resorts and influential and moneyed individuals had long secured certificate of titles for the vast portion of foreshore lands, foreshore areas and public easements in General Santos City. Until today, their illegal occupation of these supposedly inappropriable public lands remains unperturbed, owing to their almost unbridled power.

Some of these areas are covered only by lease contracts but since the duration of such contract is either for 25 or 50 years, subject to unlimited number of renewals, their control and occupation of these public lands are, operationally, a form of private appropriation.

Worse, similar to the case that resulted to the dismissal of Gwen Garcia from the House of Representatives (HoR) by the Office of the Ombudsman, some of the portions of the sea within the Sarangani Bay are also covered with certificate of titles in favor of business entities and influential individuals.

As of now, there are only very few colonies of subsistence fisherfolk still found along Sarangani Bay. They are described in official governmental jargon as squatters or illegal occupants to distinguish them from business entities and moneyed individuals which/who are also illegally occupying vast portions of public lands and public easements along Sarangani Bay.

There are various attempts by the city government to remove what they stereotype as “squatters” or “illegal occupants,” mostly subsistence fisherfolk, inhabiting public lands located along Sarangani Bay, but they have, thus far, failed.

Today, a hunt for relocation sites for these so-called “squatters” or “illegal occupants” continues as the local government seems hell-bent to remove them from the city’s foreshore areas and public easements.

This move, I belive, has dubious intention. The city government intends to relocate them from the city’s foreshore areas and public easements without any ordinance that will govern the usage of these public lands that may be vacated by marginalized fisherfolk in line with the city’s continuing relocation program.

Our suspicion is that this relocation project is actually an insidious scheme to put the city’s foreshore areas and public easements totally under the stranglehold of moneyed and influential individuals and entities. The moment the subsistence fisherfolk are relocated, these areas that may be vacated by them shall become open to all sorts of contestations by local economic and political power wielders.

Thus, without an ordinance ensuring free public access to foreshore lands, foreshore areas and public easements within the city, all governmental undertakings with an end in view of removing the subsistence fisherfolk from where they are now should be strongly opposed as a capitalist scheme being dubiously pursued at the expense of the city’s subsistence fisherfolk and other members of the marginalized sectors who consider Sarangani Bay not only as a source of life, but life itself.

What we expect for the local government to do under the circumstances is to, first, cancel the certificate of titles and demolish all the giant structures of powerful and influential individuals and entities in the city’s foreshore lands, foreshore areas and public easements along the Sarangani Bay, like what it is doing now in Boracay and El Nido.

In doing this, all the people, especially the poor and the marginalized, would have free access to this God’s gift which was made for everybody to benefit, cherish and enjoy. [MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Ben Sumog-oy is Action Officer of In Defense of Human Rights and Dignity Movement (iDEFEND) in General Santos City]