Philippine Fisherfolk of the Bataan Peninsula

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During a recent visit to the Philippines, we traveled to the southern trip of the Bataan Peninsula to the town of Mariveles. From Mariveles one can see the island of Corregidor and further across Manila Bay, the Manila skyline.

After walking three miles away from the shoreline along a small river, we arrived at the family homesite of Nanding and Lelia and their four children. Their home was small, 15x15 feet, and was constructed of cast-off materials from the Export Processing Zone at Mariveles. Shafts of light streamed into the house through cracks in the kitchen walls, and hit the dense smoke from the cooking fire, creating strong patterns across the room. Nanding and his family are squatters on the land of a colonel in the Philippine armed forces. They pay rent, but have no legal rights.

Nanding greeted us warmly. We sat at the rough wooden table where all family activity centered. Nanding tried to provide for his family by fishing in his small dugout canoe (banca) in Manila Bay. Lelia raised the children, and augmented their income by making charcoal in pits behind their house. Nanding told about how he had been forced to move his family away from the sea and Mariveles by the mayor who saw the houses of fishing families as "eyesores" on the seashore. One night a fire swept through the fishing community, completely wiping out their homes. Nanding and others suspected arson. The fishing community bordered on the Bataan Export Processing Zone, which Ferdinand Marcos had created to attract foreign investment to the Philippines. Simply put, Nanding said quietly, their land was too valuable for housing fishing families.

Earlier, he had faced a similar situation on the island of Samar, where a landowner had forced them to move away from the sea. White he was on Samar, he had taken up arms against the Marcos regime. He joined the New People's Army because he saw no help coming from the Marcos government. He finally left Samar for Mariveles in 1983 to escape extreme poverty.

While initially the move seemed positive, Nanding quickly discovered that the usually plentiful Manila Bay fish harvest had been depleted by large Japanese trawlers. Marcos had negotiated an agreement with Japanese businesses allowing their fishing fleets to travel along the Philippines Islands shoreline, sweeping the shallow waters of all fish. This agreement had serious consequences for traditional fishing methods. Asian Development Bank funds were used to build an exclusive port for Japanese trawlers in the Tondo region of Manila. Some of Nanding's fellow fishermen, unable to compete with the Japanese, hired themselves out to the Japanese travelers as day-laborers.

Nanding and Lelia proudly told us that all of their children were in school. The parents somehow managed to pay the costs of school uniforms, books and tuition. Yet they also said that their children, ranging in age from four to ten years, had never seen a doctor in their lives. All four had been born at home, on a bamboo bed. We brought the family a gift of avocados, bought in the Mariveles market for US $0.80 per kilo. Lelia told us this was the first time her children had ever tasted the locally grown fruits, because they were too expensive for the family to buy.

Facing the economic struggles on Bataan, Nanding joined the fishermen's union and quickly became a key organizer. The union, like many "cause-oriented" organizations formed during the repression of the Marcos regime, sought to pressure the Manila government so that people would gain a voice in policies affecting their lives. As a key organizer for the fishing union, Nanding was called on to bring the views of his region to national conferences. Lelia told, with a twinkle in her eye, of how their children followed the concepts promoted by their father of "unionizing," and as a "union," came to the parents demanding a higher allowance. The children won.

I asked Nanding why he took the chances he did fighting with the New People's Army and why he worked to organize the fishing community of Bataan. He told me he did not want his children to have to live in a house as they did now; that they would be able to own land and have secure lives.

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