Helping Filipino fishermen in the South China Sea

Iba Diocese has been supporting those barred from their traditional waters by the Chinese
Helping Filipino fishermen in the South China Sea

Filipino activists hold a demonstration outside the Chinese Embassy in Manila on July 12 to call on China to respect the decision of an international tribunal on the South China Sea dispute. (Photo by Rico Ibarra)

 

Alexander Manzano remembers the day he and hundreds of fishermen lost access to their traditional livelihoods thanks to the international dispute over who owns the waters off the western coast of the Philippines.

"For 40 years I fished in Bajo de Masinloc, then one morning in 2012 the Chinese stole my rights," said Manzano hours before an international tribunal on July 12 ruled against China's claim on the disputed waters.

China lays claim to about 90 percent of the South China Sea, basing its case on a "nine-dash line" demarking what it calls its territory on a 1947 map drawn up by the previous nationalist regime.

In its decision, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague said there was no evidence that China had historically exercised exclusive control over the waters or resources in the South China Sea.

The tribunal said China had violated the Philippines' sovereign rights. It also said China had caused "severe harm to the coral reef environment" by building artificial islands.

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Manzano recalled how he and his peers on ten small fishing boats found themselves facing Chinese who were brandishing guns and water canons. A burst of water almost capsized a friend's boat.

"We tried to argue with them, but they moved as if to ram us and we had to leave," Manzano told ucanews.com.

Manzano and some 50 villagers from Zambales joined a protest demonstration in Manila to ask the government to help recover their source of income. 

The fishermen were members of Iba Diocese and priests there have been helping the people overcome their difficult situation.

When asked to comment on the fishermen's plight, Father Jancel Paje referred ucanews.com to Manzano, saying it was the people who should speak about their struggle. 

Manzano said the Catholic Church has been helping the fishermen for two years, helping them organize alternative livelihoods and campaigns.

He said that before the Chinese "blockade," a fisherman could harvest as much as a ton of fish in good weather. Forced into shallow waters, their catch has dwindled to a few buckets.

The Philippine government pointed to the fate of fishermen like Manzano when it filed a protest before the international tribunal against China's forceful imposition of its maritime claim.

But Manzano said affected communities have received no state aid and had to turn to the Catholic Church.

On July 12, the fishermen marched to the Chinese embassy carrying a replica of a fishing boat on which they painted slogans that read, "Take back our seas."

For the first time in years, police allowed protesters to climb the steps leading to the embassy's main doors, while standing by to ensure there was no breakdown of security.

The leftist New Patriotic Alliance issued a statement urging Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to uphold the national interest in relations with the Asian giant.

Duterte has said a favorable ruling by the tribunal could underpin bilateral agreements with China. 

Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay hinted at joint economic undertakings in the disputed waters.

But China plunders our waters, said Buddy France of the fishermen group Pamalakaya. "We do not consider the Chinese people our enemy but we ask President Duterte to stand up for our rights."

Manzano said he did not want any arrangement that would require Filipinos to seek Chinese permission to fish. "These are our waters," he said. 

Neri Colmenares, a former legislator and member of an alliance for independent foreign policy, said the Philippines should take advantage of the tribunal's decision.

"This should make China stop the unreasonable demand for countries to accept its indisputable sovereignty," Colmenares said.

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