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Filipino fisherman hooks brighter future for his community

Ramon Magsaysay Award winner Roberto Ballon's environmental work has improved the livelihoods of fisherfolk

Filipino fisherman hooks brighter future for his community

Fisherman Roberto Ballon has helped communities improve their livelihood by taking care of the very environment that gave them a living. (Photo: Ramon Magsaysay Foundation) 

When this year’s list of Ramon Magsaysay Award winners was announced on Aug. 31, I expected someone from the Philippine government or political sector to be one of the recipients of the prestigious award dubbed the Nobel Prize of Asia.

The annual award is named after former Philippine president Ramon Magsaysay to honor individuals’ integrity in governance, courageous service to the people, and pragmatic idealism within a democratic society.

With the country’s present political situation, I thought someone from the political or legal arena would surely be inspiring. But I was wrong.

I had become accustomed to the tradition that Filipino awardees are first recognized by the media — musicians, politicians, social activists — before becoming a recipient of an award. Publicity comes first, the award after.

But the tradition was broken this year when fisherman and community environmentalist Roberto Ballon was named among the five Magsaysay winners.

Ballon, 53, has spearheaded the conservation of the fishing environment in Zamboanga Sibugay province in the Mindanao region. He has helped communities improve their livelihood by taking care of the very environment that gave them a living.

By planting mangroves, we are providing a haven for marine life

Born in a fishing village, Ballon believes that environment and livelihood are closely linked. As a child, he saw how fishermen had empty nets because of fishpond conversions that destroyed hectares of mangroves in coastal areas.

Unlike most young men and women in his community, he did not dream of making a career in the corporate world. Instead, he chose to stay in his province and devised ways to preserve fishing, the primary source of income of his community.

Ballon noticed that the diminishing number of mangroves in their region had led to smaller catches.

“I revived the dying fishing industry by preserving the coastal environment in various fishing areas in our province. By planting mangroves, we are providing a haven for marine life,” he told the media on Sept. 1.

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Zamboanga Sibugay province has suffered mangrove deforestation due to rampant fishpond conversion that destroyed vast mangrove plantations.

Mangroves are communities of trees in coastal waters, extending inland along rivers to provide sanctuary for marine life.

A 2005 World Bank report said the current rate of mangrove deforestation in the Philippines has reached an alarming rate of 2,000 to 3,000 hectares per year.

Harvested for their durability and resistance to water, mangroves are sold abroad as embellishment for yachts and other sea vessels. Their roots are also used to make furniture and pilings.

For Ballon, it was clear that deforestation was killing fishermen’s livelihoods. He formed a group of fishermen to stop fishpond conversion and other activities that led to deforestation.

It was not easy because there was limited government support. They needed to finance their own projects, he said.

Ballon and his team took pains to change the mindset of local people about the temporary benefits of fishpond conversion.

“There is money in converting coastal areas to fishponds but the disadvantages far outweigh the advantages. We were able to instill in the consciousness of people that the real measurement of progress in not individual success but the entire community,” he said.

His efforts have made his town of Kabasalan the province’s seafood capital and an ecotourism destination

In 2015, Ballon and his group of fishermen grew 500 hectares of mangrove forests in his province.

Their catches quickly grew from 1.5 kilograms per trip to 7.9 kilograms in just 3-5 hours of fishing. Their bigger catches allowed fishermen to improve their standard of living by building stronger houses and by sending their children to college.

Ballon convinced the people that taking care of the environment is significant for them to earn a living. Now they protect the mangroves by patrolling their waters for illegal fishing and mangrove logging.

His efforts have made his town of Kabasalan the province’s seafood capital and an ecotourism destination.

When everyone’s eyes were fixed on leaders who are failing to deliver basic health services to Filipino people during the Covid-19 pandemic, the Ramon Magsaysay Award put the spotlight on community builders.

After all, farmers and fisherfolk are the building blocks of an economy that often neglects the poor.

It is fitting to recognize the efforts of a humble man who perhaps did not dream of changing political structures but made a big difference by the simple planting of mangroves in rural communities in Mindanao.

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