Through the facades of modernization projects lie the fisherfolk left behind

Corporate giants greedily reclaim land and sea to build mega infrastructures, causing the fisherfolks’ loss of livelihood and homes.

Tandang-tanda ko pa,” Glenda*, the wife of a fisherman from Bulakan, Bulacan, reminisces. “Una naming nabalitaan [‘yung New Manila International Airport (NMIA) project] sa mga taong simbahan [at] nagulat kami na meron talagang itatayo.”

(I still remember when we first heard of the news about the NMIA project from members of the church and we were shocked to hear that an airport would really be constructed.)

Desperate for the truth, residents of their sitio tried to reach out to then-Bulakan Mayor Patrick Meneses. But their concerns were dismissed as “fake news,” while the local police tried scaring them off from pressing any further. Soon, however, the hearsays they picked up became true.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, hundreds of fisherfolk families in Taliptip, Bulacan were forcibly displaced from their homes to make way for the construction of the NMIA, a key part of former President Rodrigo Duterte’s revised “Build, Build, Build” program. These people were convinced by grandiose promises of progress and support pledged by the project’s spearhead, the San Miguel Corporation (SMC).  However, the locals found themselves left on edge with no guarantee of a once fruitful tomorrow; their hopes for a comfortable life crushed by the reclamation project.

As more of these projects get approved in the guise of a necessity for the country’s development, people tend to overlook the injustices enacted toward those evicted. But what encompasses progress for modernization—does it only include projects that exclusively benefit the privileged, threatening the democratic rights of the common Filipino?

Pandora’s box

The NMIA is not just an airport—it aims to be the vision of a modern Philippine city to be built in Bulakan. But for locals like Glenda, this shiny vision of progress is a step toward endangering her people’s lives. “[Sa pangingisda ng] asawa ko, mahina na ‘yung isang libong kita sa isang araw kasi pumapatak ng [limang libo hanggang pitong libo] sa isang linggo. ‘Yung tindahan namin na sari-sari store, maliit langyung kita niya—isang libo, isang araw,” she recollects from the time when they still resided by the coast.

(In my husband’s job as a fisherman, an income of P1,000 a day would be low. His income usually falls from P5,000 to P7,000 every week. Our small store only has a small income, earning P1,000 per day.)

When the time came to clear the land for the airport, SMC initially gave the residents considerable aid and support; they were given monetary assistance that they saw fit for the displaced families. However, Glenda reveals, “Hindi po matutumbasanyung kita ng mga mangingisda sa coastal ng kanilang ginagawang tulong ngayon.”

(The help they provide doesn’t equate to the income we used to have when we lived in the coastal area.)

As of writing, the residents are still recuperating from the huge loss of their livelihood. “Kung hindi nila kami inalis dun, sana maayos kahit simple lang [ang] pamumuhay namin, ‘di kami namomroblema sa pang araw-araw naming kabuhayan,” she shares. Since her husband doesn’t work as a fisherman anymore, they face the dangers of poverty as they make ends meet with what’s available.

(If they didn’t displace our community, we would’ve had a good and simple life. We wouldn’t be worrying about our daily needs.)

Facing a corporate goliath

In the wake of urban development, reclamation projects have rarely occurred without committing environmental crimes. National Chairperson of the Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamalakaya ng Pilipinas (Pamalakaya) Fernando Hicap recalls that they repeatedly asked the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) for the environmental impact assessment (EIA) of the aerocity. He recounts, “Kailangan meron kang [EIA] bago ka i-issue ng environmental compliance certificate (ECC), [para] mag-proceed ‘yung proyekto.” But the DENR only granted an ECC to the airport proponent in June 2021, six months after the megaproject was already greenlit by the law.

(You need an EIA before being issued an ECC to proceed with a project.)

He worries that these reclamation projects are causing irreversible effects to the nation’s seas. Two years before the airport megaproject was granted its franchise in 2020, mangrove trees in the proposed area of the airport started being illegally cut down, which has brought permanent environmental damage: resulting in a decrease in fish and aquatic life, storm surges and flooding, soil salinization, and subsidence to the remaining sitios around the airport megaproject.

To this, Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment Programs Manager Mathias Dans opines, “The rationale of urban development has always been about extracting the most amount of profit.” He adds, “Ecological balance will always be secondary to market and capital growth.” Urban developers may commonly boast of their “green projects”, yet they are ironically built through the decimation of natural environments.

 With the loss of communal fishing grounds and fishermen, both Dans and Hicap see a bigger threat to the nation’s food security. The latter claims that small-scale fishers are key contributors to the food supply of the population; before their eviction, the fishermen of Taliptip and Obando, Bulacan supplied fish products to Bulacan and Metro Manila. Thus, the dwindling fishery sector of the country is bound to upscale food importation. “If we rely on food importation, it will kill our local economy,” Hicap remarks in Filipino. “The poor cannot afford increasing food prices.”

As the former fisherfolk of Taliptip find themselves buried deeper in poverty, SMC promised them—along with the rest of the nation—a million jobs they can pursue once its aerocity comes into fruition. But Hicap contends, “Ang kumikita dito, [SMC] lang. Habangyung mga manggagawang Pilipino na mae-employ diyan ay [makakatanggap ng] aliping sahod,” noting that the Filipino working class cannot truly benefit from the airport megaproject.

(Only SMC is gaining profit while Filipino workers receive slave-like income.)

Similarly, Glenda questions if SMC will consistently provide support for the livelihoods of the fisherfolk they displaced even after the project’s completion. “Paano naman ‘yung mga mahihirap?” she argues. “Kakapiranggot nalang pagmamay-ari ng mga mahihirap, kinakamkam pa [ng mga mayayaman].”

(How about the poor? The poor barely own anything, but the rich still seize it.)

Not black and white

The dream of every working Filipino is simply to earn enough for their needs; a simple dream trampled on by conglomerates that take away their source of livelihood and ransack their years of hard work. Dans elaborates, “The fisherfolk’s human rights are being disregarded, and the reclamation projects target these communities since they are seen as having little to no power and are easy to silence.” This is the true cost of so-called development, brought upon by corporate greed with no regard to the people they are meant to serve.

With the increasing number of infrastructure projects dealing with invasive and potentially permanent repercussions to the people and the environment, there is a need for development to go hand in hand with community participation within ethical and moral grounds. This is what Glenda hopes progress looks like, adding, “Ang kaunlaran [ay] andiyan kapag pinagkaisahan ng mga mamamayan at ng bayan ang isang project, pinagplanuhang mabuti, at talagang wala kang napapabayaang komunidad.

(Development is there when the people and the nation agree on a project, plan it well, and leave no community behind.)

As such, Filipinos must join in with affected communities to bring collective action against those who may try to destroy their way of life. But as the lands of its long-lived and hardworking residents are left alone to be exploited by corporate giants, Hicap ends with a thought to ponder: “Kailan ba kayo sasama sa amin?”

(When will you side with our plight?)

*Names with asterisks (*) are pseudonyms

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