TALISAY CITY — Proclaimed a city a mere four years ago, Talisay still looks and feels like a rural coastal town, albeit with a few touches here and there of urban blight. Rising above the shacks of poor fisherfolk here, however, is a spanking new building that seems out of sync with the rest of the city. Finished in 2004, Talisay’s new city hall has no rival among the other cities in Central Visayas — not even progressive Cebu City, which contented itself in renovating its own city hall a few years back.
Rep. Eduardo Gullas, who represents the first district of Cebu province, says the three-story structure (including a basement) is “an edifice of love dedicated to the people of Talisay City.” Built during his term as Talisay mayor, its construction alone cost the city at least P135 million while the four-hectare lot on which it stands was purchased for P102 million.
This is the same city where officials have cited extreme poverty to justify the leniency accorded to those engaged in the illegal manufacture of blasting caps, which have been used not only in dynamite fishing, but also in terrorist activities that have resulted in several deaths. Instead of arresting those known to engage in illegal activities, officials have opted to drive them either even deeper underground or to other cities and towns.
A pleased and proud Gullas, for instance, says that the number of blasting-cap makers in Talisay has gone down. He concedes, though, that the problem did not really disappear, but parts of it just migrated somewhere else. “It solves the problem at least in Talisay,” he says. According to some industry observers, those involved in the first stage of blasting-cap making remain in Talisay, while a significant chunk of the second stage now takes place in Bohol.
A military intelligence officer meanwhile says Talisay remains the center of the illegal blasting-cap industry. “The order emanates from Talisay,” he says. “What they’ve done is recruit people in other islands. Those in Talisay remain on top.”
With Talisay’s waters seeing a dramatic decline in fish populations because of dynamite fishing, which continues to this day, many fishing families here had turned to making blasting caps. For every 100 pieces of tin caps formed — the first stage in blasting-cap making — one is paid P17. It is a fairly simple process, which even a child can accomplish. Putting the primary explosive made up of ammonium nitrate and gasoline is another stage and is done by another person. Indications are those who do this are paid more because it involves more training and skill.
Talisay’s illegal blasting caps can fetch P30 apiece, a bargain compared to the legal caps, which are imported and cost double that price. The trade in legal blasting caps, which are used generally for mining or construction operations, is regulated, and buying, selling, and transporting them requires a permit from the Philippine National Police.
Authorities say there is an apparent growing demand for blasting caps, largely from blast fishers across the Philippines. One fisher here says that with P100 worth of explosives, a catch of even just five kilos of fish still means hefty profits for the blast fisher. Yet those who make the caps are earning just enough to feed their families. According to some local authorities and NGO workers, those making a real killing are the financiers, who also sell the blasting caps and ammonium nitrate wholesale, as well as the retailers who often double their investments. Here in Talisay, industry observers say there is only one financier left following the deaths of the illegal industry’s two other bigwigs.
The retailers or dealers, meanwhile, get their supply of illegal blasting caps and ammonium nitrate by the sackful. They sell the blasting caps per piece and the ammonium nitrate by the kilo to blast fishers who then assemble these into dynamite. Fishers who are too poor to pay cash for the caps and ammonium nitrate, which costs some P36 a kilo, get their explosives on credit. They later pay with their catch, which they are forced to sell to the explosives dealers at half the normal price.
In October 2003 environmental lawyer Antonio Oposa, in his capacity as head of the National Environmental Action Team of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, visited Talisay and offered to help then Mayor Gullas eradicate the blasting-cap industry here. Oposa, who was accompanied by representatives from nongovernmental and law-enforcement agencies, was focused on stopping dynamite fishing and believed that one way to do that was to cut off access to the explosives used in the practice.
Gullas asked for a 90-day reprieve from arrests, saying an alternative livelihood had to be provided first. “I gave them a piece of my mind,” says Gullas. “It’s easy for you to come with grandiose ideas, but I know my people. What about their families?”
Gullas says he had used the same tactic earlier with local drug lords, whom he had also given three months to abandon the drug trade. He offered alternative livelihood as well, he says. After three months he met with the drug lords anew and gave them “one last chance,” recounts Gullas. That last chance meant they should either move to Bohol or stay in Talisay and risk arrest.
Oposa agreed to the reprieve for blasting-cap makers as suggested by Gullas. In addition, he promptly raised the needed amount by tapping the support of government agencies like the environment department. “In 10 minutes after the meeting (with Gullas),” says Oposa, “I was able to raise P200,000 for the livelihood project.”
Three months later, however, there was still no blasting-cap maker availing of the livelihood assistance, which was supposed to be given as loans. Oposa soon learned from the local police that some of the blasting-cap makers had left Talisay and moved to nearby Bohol.
Current Talisay Mayor Soc Fernandez also says that reports from his barangay captains indicate that those involved in the illegal blasting-cap trade have left his city. Asked if he believes these reports, Fernandez says that the barangay leaders “are very close to the place” and therefore are in the know about the activities in their areas.
When he was still mayor, Gullas had also asked the barangay captains to produce lists of the known blasting-cap makers in their respective areas. Many of the names included in the lists submitted to Gullas belonged to individuals who were already dead; according to the barangay officials, this meant that the trade was also in its death throes. One community leader, however, quipped, “Anong patay? Pati mga apo niyan marunong gumawa (What do you mean the industry’s dead? Even the grandchildren of those who have passed away know how to make the caps).”
The military intelligence officer, for his part, says that there are still places in Talisay where blasting caps are being manufactured. But he says as well that there are fewer blasting-cap makers here because some have transferred elsewhere. “Before it was also easy to buy blasting caps in Talisay,” he adds. “Nowadays those we ask to buy caps for us have to go to an island nearby to get some.”
Fernandez, though, says his administration has an ongoing livelihood program for the fisherfok in his city, which should benefit even those involved in the blasting-cap trade. Unfortunately, fishers interviewed for this report had not heard of such a program.
Fernandez also says he recently formed a fishers’ organization, for which there is already a budget allocation. But he admits there is still no plan of action or program of activity that would guide it.
Perhaps this is why a staff at the Office of the City Agriculturist, which has jurisdiction over any program intended for the fisheries sector of Talisay, knows nothing about such an organization. Then again, there was really no need for Fernandez to form such a group, since all he had to do was activate the Talisay Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Management Council (FARMC), the creation of which at the local level is mandated by Republic Act 8550, or the Philippine Fisheries Code. The same Act also states explicitly that it is the government’s duty to ensure “poverty alleviation and the provision of supplementary livelihood among municipal fisherfolk.”
The Council, whose members are fisherfolk, is supposed to address the fishers’ concerns as well as monitor compliance with the Fisheries Code. Because of Talisay’s problem with dynamite fishing, some members of the Council double as fish wardens who patrol the waters and watch out for violations of the Code, including blast fishing. One of the fish wardens admits to being a former dynamite fisher. He says he had found himself wondering what would happen to his children if there were no longer any fish left.
Some Council members say that they were even recognized for their patrol work during Fernandez’s previous term as mayor, and were each given an allowance of P50 a day, plus meals. This time around, though, Fernandez seems to be taking a bit of a while activating the FARMC, leaving its members unable to resume their patrols. The Council has to be reactivated every time there is a new administration. During his term as mayor, Gullas had also failed to revive the FARMC.
In the meantime, lawyer Oposa no longer seems interested in pursuing his offer to help eradicate the blasting-cap trade in Talisay. But he says the money he had raised for the alternative livelihood program for the blasting-cap makers remains intact and is with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, which was among the agencies he had tapped for funds.
According to Oposa, dynamite fishers and not blasting-cap makers had expressed interest in availing of the loans. But then politics apparently got in the way after Gullas and his vice mayor, who was supposed to be the head of the alternative livelihood committee, had a misunderstanding. In the end, no one got any of the money raised by Oposa.