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Our Living World is Dying

Stacey Worman, 2006-2007 Michael B. Keegan Traveling Fellow

 

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Date: December 17th, 2006

To: Undisclosed recipients

Re: Catch as Catch Can, as Fast as You Can...

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Last time I swam in the sea, I looked ashore at a land where (by and large) the ocean enhances people's enjoyment of life; high-rise real estate with high-priced ocean views ...tourists catching rays and surfers riding waves...fancy dinners overlooking ocean sunsets...stylish dinghies for recreational fishing, beautiful yachts for sailing, and large vessels for cruising and diving. To simplify, generalize, and stereotype -- in Australia, 'life is good'...and life only gets better when you get the chance to have some form of an oceanic encounter.

Now when I swim in the ocean, I look ashore at a land where the ocean is life . In the Philippines, an archipelago of more than 7,000 islands, the ocean is the one and only thing that many of these people have ever known. And for many of these people, the ocean remains their one and only source of life.

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Welcome to the island of Palawan! In the post-WWII era, this long thin island...home to the penal farm, a leper colony, and infested with malaria...remained largely outside the country's development frontier. And as a result, today it is nature's last strong hold in the Philippines.

Over the years, around the country and the world, marine resources have been exhausted. Consensus is that 'catches just aren't what they used to be' and that 'our planet's fisheries are collapsing'. But here in Palawan , the waters are still exploding with life...placing increasing pressure on them to supply food for the expanding country and world...

And now, welcome to a typical seaside village just like any other small, quiet, coastal, fishing community anywhere else in the Philippines...

As domestic and global demand for Palawan 's abundant seafood has escalated, the fishermen here are no longer just catching fish to feed their families and communities. Now, more people are catching more fish for more people...diminishing the stocks along the shorelines and pushing the festivities further off-the-shore.

But fishing further off-the-shore requires boats...and building a boat...requires capital. But capital is a foreign concept to these 'squatter' families, who are lucky if they have enough money to make it through the present day...

And to their 'rescue' has come a group of foreign investors who have launched a loan system to enable these fishermen to build the boats that they need to catch the fish they need to provide them with their basic needs. And so these Filipino's are able to borrow the 50,000-ish Pesos they need to construct a boat and another 50,000-ish Pesos they need to buy the engine...

But lent money is never free of strings...and a weekly interest rate of 10% is charged. This means that every week, the fisherman must pay 5,000-ish Pesos in interest alone. And every week, a representative from the foreign investment group visits this village to collect and the debtors are called forward to pay the money that they owe...

But since everyone in the seaside village fishes as their main source of income and food...a local market is practically non-existent...and the fisherman depend on the national and global market to actually make money to repay their debt. And because they need their catch to make it to the larger market, they are at the mercy of those who control transportation and distribution to that larger marker...meaning that, regardless of the market price, with only one avenue to make that exchange...they must take whatever price they are given...

And with a 10% weekly interest rate...time is money...and the fisherman feel the heat to pay back their debt as quickly as possible...requiring them to catch as much as they can, as fast as they can...

And visit the fish market in Puerto Princesa (this island's major city), and you'll see just that...you'll see anything that can be captured in an one-inch net dragged from the back of the boat...there are no special nets, no quotas, no size or species regulations...it's simply a catch as catch can world over here...as the people attempt to keep their heads above water, any way that they can...

To give you a better idea...the 5,000-ish Pesos in interest is approximately $100 USD. But unlike back home, where fresh-caught wild-fish might run upwards of $20/Lb (and only half of one fish could cover that weekly interest payment)...here, a whole meter long fish might be worth 250 pesos ($5USD for a westerner who hasn't tried their hand at haggling).

And now let's pretend for a minute that a single fisherman in this village has no debt...and that he becomes 'educated' about 'environmental issues'. And now that he 'knows better' he decides not to fish (or to only fish in moderation) for the sake of a 'conservation ethic'. But with virtually no other source of income, he will not be able to provide the basics for his family or an education for his children...And despite what he has done for 'the betterment of the planet'...his neighbor will now just catch and sell those fish that he has passed up...and the huge personal sacrifice that he has made will be for nothing at all...

So let's now pretend that the whole community unites and agrees to more sustainably ration their marine resources...so that tomorrow there will be fish for their children and their children's children. Great! But soon, word of lively waters gets out...and that's when the migrant fishers come...from other villages, other islands, other countries...And with no long-term personal stake in the health of those waters...and fast boats and big nets...they are able to rob the community over-night of everything they've worked so long and so hard to save... and trade it all in to the larger market to make their pretty penny.

And so even if we ignore the ' foreign investment ' factor...the problem would still exist...

I've been describing a concept that economists refer to as 'the tragedy of the commons'. And since coming to Palawan, I've seen it in action...And in these such cases, where the 'market fails'...some say it is the 'job' of the country's government to 'step in' with policies to 'fix the problem'...

The good news is that the marine life is now even better than it used to be here. Dynamite and cyanide fishing, which used to be widespread fishing techniques, are now almost entirely a thing of the past...thanks to government legislation, community patrols, and environmental education...

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Scale this particular story upwards and you have the story of the Philippines; a country whose post-WWII development has been 'debt-driven, resource-plundering, and export-orientated'...

"The Philippine government, like many others, is so laden with debt and fiscal crises that its potential as a dynamic social and economic actor is severely curtailed" (Source: Plundering Paradise, Robin Broad and John Cavanagh).

And although this land's once abundant natural resources have been liquidated, the cash-in that has taken place has failed to increase (and in fact it has decreased) the standard of living for the majority of the country's people...and today, while the ample fertile lands and rich tropical seas are feeding oversea consumers....most Filipinos are starving...

As usual, I've got more information and thoughts on this....but also as usual, they will be coming sometime soon...in another installment, on another day...

In the meantime...as the chaotic holiday season is already under full swing back home, I hope you all will pause at least once for a deep breath...and that you use that moment to reflect and remember what is really important. And if you still happen to be searching for a gift for a child, I highly recommend The Giving Tree and The Lorax...written for children, but two quick reads we all can get a insight or two from as well....

Until next time,

With love and white sandy beaches....

Stace

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December 1st, 2006, My Dream Destination & an Indigenous Filipino Family...

November 8th, 2006, An Old Forest, A Feral Ship, and Discarded Paperů

November 3rd, 2006, It's all Fun and Games Until...

October 17th, 2006, Ends Justifying Means?...

October 4, 2006, Different Industries Down Under...

September 28, 2006, Close Together, Worlds Apart....

September 15th, 2006, Andrew, Jane, and Emma...

September 10, 2006, Final Thoughts, the Life/Work Dichotomy....

September 8, 2006, She's Beautiful...

September 7, 2006, The Party Eventually Ends...

September 4, 2006, Under the Sea, with Scientific Spectacles...

September 3, 2006, Off the Ship...

August 8, 2006, Back on land, but not for long...

June 24, 2006, Our maiden voyage(s)...

June 19, 2006, Not another mass email...

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