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As livelihoods dwindle, so does the population

Philippine sea gypsies battle for survival

As livelihoods dwindle, so does the population
Sea gypsy children beg for money
Ronald Reyes, Tacloban City

February 25, 2013

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Kevin Maramakami met his wife Marikita when they both scratched out a living in Cebu.

They would make ends meet by diving to the bottom of the bay in search of coins thrown over the side of arriving and departing passenger ships.

Known as Badjao, or sea gypsies, this couple came together after leaving their home in Mindanao.

Maramakami and his wife have since moved to Tacloban, a developing city in Leyte province, in a bid to find a more stable source of income.

“Before we liked the sea but we’ve found out we can also change,” he says in broken Tagalog, the Philippines national language. “There is no more money in the sea, no more fish to hunt, and diving in deep waters for a few coins was getting tiring. It was no longer attractive – my wife also didn’t like it.”

Theirs is a vicious cycle which is common among sea gypsies, an ethnic minority here.

Mainly based in Mindanao, an island to the south, many of the country’s estimated half a million sea gypsies are leaving their homes as their way of life – based around fishing – is slowly disappearing.

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center of Norway has reported that more than a quarter of million people were displaced in Mindanao between January and October last year alone, almost all due to conflict and natural disasters.

The degrading Philippines coastline is also playing its part in this migration.

The Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) has reported that 10 out of 13 fishing grounds in the country are heavily exploited due to illegal and unregulated fishing off this archipelago.

Home to the second largest reef system in Asia, only four percent of this marine habitat in the Philippines remains in excellent condition, BFAR says.

“About 1.2 million jobs in the fishing, tourism and the food sectors would be directly affected by poor ocean management,” says Vince Cinches of Greenpeace Southeast Asia.

As migration from Mindanao to other economic centers of the country has gathered pace, Maramakami says Cebu became overrun with other sea gypsies diving for coins near the port. Earnings inevitably shrank.

That’s why he again moved on to Tacloban where he goes door-to-door selling trinkets – necklaces, bracelets and earrings made of sea shells and other materials mostly taken from the sea, the only source of livelihood he has known.

“We’ll continue roaming until we have a permanent place where our future is secured,” he says.

He earns between 150 and 200 pesos (US$3.75 and $5) per day.

But there are many sea gypsies living in Tacloban who beg for a living, he adds. “They don’t have much in the way of an education to get a job.”

Still in his mid-20’s, Marakami and his wife are among the lucky few sea gypsies to have received a small plot of land from the government just outside of Tacloban in the town of Isabel.

“I haven’t thought of my future children yet,” he says. “For now, the important thing is that the two of us survive each day.”

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