Thursday, November 27, 2008

Fishers and fish

Nov. 21, Friday last week, was World Fishers Day. How many people in this country, fishers included, knew that? This nation of islands floating between azure skies and azure sea is home to fishers and fish. Yet, among the poorest of the poor among us are the small fishers who subsist on their daily catch that are dwindling by the day.

Those of us who try to live a meatless life or with little meat in our diet extol the greatness of the fish. The gourmets among us know the different flavors and textures in a fish head which non-Asians miss out on because they have a horror for detached body parts.

Fishers and fish were often mentioned and given symbolic meaning in biblical times. Several of Jesus’ disciples were fishermen, Peter among them. Jesus sent them off to the world with the words, “I will make you fishers of men.”

There are more instances when fish, fishers and fishing were in the heart of the bible stories—the multiplication of the loaves and fishes; the coin in a fish’s mouth that Jesus said should be sufficient for tax, and which Peter went to look for as he was told; the resurrected Jesus standing on the shore asking, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?”; then the casting of the nets and the drawing in of a huge catch. So many fishing scenes. Peter, the first Pope, was a fisherman.

The fish became the underground sign of the persecuted early Christians. The Greek word ichthys (fish) is still very much on the scene today. You see it on bumper stickers and pendants. I have a bronze pendant with the Greek letters on it to remind me of the weekly underground (or underwater) Church publication “Ichthys” where I was involved. (Okay, I was often driver and courier.) And my elders in the editorial board at that time were all women—brave nuns who never ran out of subversive stuff to publish.

Their names I reveal: Sr. Emelina Villegas ICM, Sr. Teresita Agustines ICM, Sr. Clare Samonte SFIC, Sr. Helen Graham MM, Sr. Pat Startup MM and the late Sr. Christine Tan RGS whose name is now etched on the Bantayog ng mga Bayani (Monument of Heroes).

So, you see, there is something great about fish and fishing. And there is a lot, aside from climate change and environmental destruction, that plague the fisherfolk today.

Last Friday, World Fishers Day, members of Kilusang Mangingisda (KM) picketed the Department of Trade and Industry, the Department of Agriculture and the Asian Development Bank to protest against policies promoting fisheries trade liberalization.

Last week’s caravan and protest by the fisherfolk were meant to highlight their disappointed over “the Philippine negotiators’ refusal to sign on to the position of NAMA-11 against mandatory sectoral talks in the World Trade Organization (WTO), even though it is clear that any sectoral talks would likely result in bigger tariff cuts than those prescribed in the NAMA tariff binding formula that developing countries already find unacceptable.”

NAMA stands for non-agricultural market access and NAMA-11 refers to the 11 developing nations, the Philippines included, that are supposed to stand up to the developed nations in the WTO talks.

KM fully agrees with the NAMA-11 statement that eliminating tariffs in a range of sectors would be contrary to the Doha Round’s development mandate which calls for developing countries to have smaller tariff cuts than those of rich nations in accordance with the principles of special and deferential treatment and less than full reciprocity.

KM chair Roland Vibal said that steep tariff cuts under the NAMA-binding formula, as well as further tariff cuts in future sectoral talks on fisheries only validate the position of KM that the fisheries sector should be excluded from the WTO negotiations.

Sadly, the NAMA-11 statement that KM supported was not signed by the Philippines’ negotiators. KM denounced the trade and agriculture departments for their leading roles in the free trade negotiations in the WTO and in the regional and bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs) especially with China, Japan and the European Union. Vibal said that these negotiators “are responsible for exposing the fledgling local industries to unfair competition from the heavily subsidized goods of rich countries and for risking the jobs and livelihoods of millions of Filipino workers and small producers.”

KM has stressed that besides the WTO and FTAs, international institutions like the World Bank and ADB have served as instruments of investment liberalization in the fisheries sector. Over the years, KM pointed out, these institutions have promoted investments in intensive shrimp aquaculture for export through massive loans amounting to billions of dollars in the Philippines and other developing countries.

These investments, KM added, have caused the dislocation of artisanal fishers in coastal fishing grounds, and exacted other social and environmental costs, and yet the export profits from shrimp aquaculture have not trickled down to the host coastal communities.

Several weekends ago, I snorkeled in Coron, Palawan and there came face to face with fish of all colors—bright blue, bright yellow, total black, transparent white, name it—and the menacing black sea urchins that guarded the corals. I couldn’t help thinking of the poor subsistence fishers of this country who do not have the luxury to behold such beauty.