Being an archipelago in the heart of the Coral Triangle, the global center of marine diversity, it is not surprising that the Philippines is one of the top fish-producing countries in the world. Yet, the tragic irony is that fishermen—particularly municipal fishermen, who constitute 85% of over 1.6 million people employed in the fisheries sector—are among the poorest labor groups in the country. Traditionally unorganized, small-scale, with meager assets and access to outside assistance, they have suffered over past decades as their life-sustaining resource, the marine environment, is severely degraded.
One 53-year old fisherman has broken the mold by leading his community in preserving the coastal environment that has been the life-source for generations of fishing families. He is ROBERTO BALLON (fondly called “Ka Dodoy”). His Visayan parents migrated to the village of Concepcion in Kabasalan, Zamboanga Sibugay province in Mindanao, when he was in his teens. KA DODOY knew the realities of diminishing fish harvests in once rich fishing grounds; how his father, like other village fishermen, would spend long hours at sea and come home earning barely enough to buy rice for the family. Poverty prevented KA DODOY from going to college; so he knew he would have to “go back to the sea.” Having started his own family, he had to take command of the situation he was in.
In 1986, DODOY and thirty other fishermen started Kapunungan sa Gagmay'ng Mangingisda sa Concepcion (KGMC), or Association of Small Fisherfolk of Concepcion. Seeing how rampant fishpond conversion was, and how the abandonment of these fishponds when the business collapsed had destroyed the mangrove forests, KGMC decided to focus on mangrove reforestation. With little help and meager returns (since the benefits of reforestation are not felt quickly), the association saw its members dwindle to just three but KA DODOY, the association chairman, persisted.
Their perseverance attracted government support, reaching a milestone in early 2000, when the fishermen were granted tenurial rights to the reforested land under a government forestry co-management program. The fifty hectares they replanted by 1994 had expanded to five-hundred hectares of mangrove forests in 2015. What was once a desert of abandoned fishponds is now an expanse of healthy mangrove forests rich with marine and terrestrial life. Fish catch has improved dramatically from 1.5 kg per fishing trip of eight hours to as much as 7.0 kg in three-to-five hours of fishing. The improvement in the fisherfolk’s quality of life has been evident in their ability to buy a boat engine or simple household appliances and send their children to school.
From a handful members in the 1980s, KGMC now has a membership of 320 households. The group’s success led to other projects. In partnership with the municipal government, KGMC members were deputized to conduct the local Bantay Dagat or Sea Patrol volunteer program, aimed at protecting municipal waters from illegal fishing and mangrove logging. They have also attracted partnerships with development institutions in livelihood and social enterprise projects like oyster production, shell and crab culture, and seaweed farming. KGMC’s initiatives have been replicated in other towns in Zamboanga Sibugay and even beyond. These and other changes have given new life to Kabasalan, now regarded as the seafood capital of the province and an ecotourism destination.
The key mover in this transformation is DODOY BALLON. His exceptional dedication to serving others and self-sacrificing leadership that puts the group’s interest before his own have transformed his community. When KA DODOY and his fellow fishermen were starting out and it seemed like there was no one to help them but themselves, he said: “Our families depend on the sea for our survival, not on politicians or other people, so it is only right that we make its protection our priority.”
In electing ROBERTO BALLON to receive the 2021 Ramon Magsaysay Award, the board of trustees recognizes his inspiring determination in leading his fellow fisherfolk to revive a dying fishing industry by creating a sustainable marine environment for this generation and generations to come, and his shining example of how everyday acts of heroism can truly be extraordinary and transformative.
“Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start.” These words from Pope Francis in his encyclical letter – Laudato Si exemplify the choices I made and continue to make, as an ordinary fisherman - to dauntlessly see riches from ridges to reef and thereby choose to rise, to choose what is good, and to choose to make a new start. By God’s grace, standing before you at this moment, remind me of these humble choices that yielded fruits and even earned international recognition.
I am profoundly honored and pleased to be chosen as one of the Awardees of the most prestigious award in Asia, in honor of the legacy of the late Pres. Ramon Magsaysay. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I will be counted among the array of great community leaders to be recognized by the Foundation.
As a simple fisherman, I only have one desire for the community that makes me do what I have been doing: to offer myself to help provide a better environment, sustainable livelihood, and an empowered community to realize our vision and mission in life – that is, to have 3,8…agahan, tanghalian at hapunan, tatlong kainan in English, breakfast, lunch, dinner, so 3 eat. If we have 3 eat, 3 meals in a day, I believe we would be content.
But more than this, I see a hunger that not even three full meals could satisfy. Day after day, I see the need to strive for progress, to live a harmonious life propelled by a sustainable and equitable co-existence in the coastal vicinities of Zamboanga Sibugay. This has always been our aspiration as municipal fisherfolks together with our government and other stakeholders in preparation for a better and productive environment for the next generations.
Because of this Award, I am exceedingly grateful and hopeful that this platform could be a great mechanism to help our poor fisherfolk sector attain more leverage to sustainably manage our coastal resources. Through this stage, I am advocating my fellow fisherfolk in the entire archipelago that this initiative will not stop with this award but will serve as a vehicle to sail smoothly and navigate towards sustaining our natural wealth.
What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up? Asks Pope Francis using the lenses of the same encyclical. Today and in the years to come, we respond to the daunting task of making the earth truly a home. To my fellow fisherfolks, let us help our government by keeping our coastal habitat protected and sustainably utilized.
My fellow fisherfolk, it is not our government leaders who brave the waves and the storms to earn a good catch from the seas. While others just stand at the stretches of the coast, we find ourselves delving into the deep because we are confronted with much deeper and greater responsibilities.
This is where we earn a living. But beyond quenching this human need is the vocation to give life to our natural resources, to see life from ridges to reefs, and eventually bring life to our common home.
To our family in the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, I am deeply thankful that you have recognized, if I may say, the collaborative efforts that empowered poor fisher folks like us, and thus take our initiatives in a larger arena which now garners greater consciousness for the protection and conservation of our coastal environment. Thank you for making us realize that even the smallest efforts that we exert for such advocacies are not futile and never stupid. Convinced that we shall reap more bountiful harvests, we are able to see that all these are appropriate actions - most valid and ethical contributions that we can offer to our future generations.
Let me take this chance to render my sincerest appreciation to our community development workers on the ground who have always been my company even when the sail goes rough and perilous.
Let me say it again, no matter how simple we are, we are capable of rising above our weaknesses, capable of choosing what is good, and ever capable of making a new start. May this crusade continue until we can achieve our goal of becoming successful and progressive Filipinos in the entire nation and to the whole of Asia and the world.
MABUHAY ANG MANGINGISDANG PILIPINO! DAMO GUID NGA SALAMAT SA INYO NGA TANAN!