Bangka Buhayan project and the spirit of self-reliance

By Theresa C. Carino,  Amity Foundation Senior Research Consultant

Fiberglass bankas lined in front of Ajuy Municipal Hall

On the morning of 22nd March, more than three months after typhoon Yolanda had struck, close to a hundred people from island barangays milled around the Ajuy Municipal Hall, faces bright with anticipation and hope. They tried to hold their excitement in check as the KAISA team arrived for the handing over ceremony of 50 fiberglass pump boats, each complete with a brand new engine, to fisher folks who had suffered total loss of homes and boats during the terrible disaster.

Fiberglass boat with engine

KAISA’s Bangka Buhayan project hopes to restore the means of livelihood for more than a thousands badly affected households in affected regions of the Philippines. Donations for the boats had come from various organizations including the Chinese-Filipino Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Rotary Club and the Royal Yacht Club of Hong Kong.

Consultant Theresa (left) informs herself about the impacts of the relief and rehabilitation project

The lawn fronting the Ajuy Municipal Hall was lined with colorful bangkas, with engines propped atop their bows, lending it a festive air. I spotted Rhylene Toquero from the island barangay of Punta Buri whom I had interviewed a month before when KAISA and the Amity Foundation of Hong Kong had been distributing relief packages. In my earlier interview with her, 42 year old Rhylene had been in tears as she recalled her family’s terrible ordeal during the storm surge that had swept away her home and her boat.

Elderly lady next to her new boat

Today, her back straight and her face lit with a smile, she was busy helping others in lining up for their boats. A recipient herself, she said her bangka will be shared with her cousins. She explained that, on the average, fisher folks could earn around 150 pesos a day by selling their catch in the local market. Depending on the season, they could earn approximately 1,500 pesos (US$ 36) a month. A good day could bring in 400 pesos but during the rainy season, rough seas would dictate fewer catches and fishermen often return home empty handed. Small catches may just be sufficient for Rhylene’s 8-member family’s own consumption. Since bangkas are small, nets are difficult to use and fisher folks rely heavily on the use of hook and line for gathering their marine harvest. Fishing times are from 4 a.m. to noon. There is also night fishing when squids, attracted to “white” and to light, are easy to catch.

Men lining up as recepients, eager to regain self-reliance

The income that fisher folks garner will seem a pittance to many living in urban centers. There is little doubt they count among the poorest of the poor in the Philippines. To augment their income, many of them have little choice but to join the ranks of migrant laborers working domestically or overseas.

Besides secure livelihood, boats strenghen self-respect and independence of fishermen

For the fisher folks of Northern Iloilo, the bangkas provide a subsistence livelihood but at least they can hold their heads up in pride knowing they will not be on the dole. Bangkas help them redeem their self-respect, a sense of self-reliance and independence. We had noted how fishermen were reluctant to frequently queue up for relief packages. It was obvious they preferred to send their wives, older children and elderly parents to line up for the goods. Scenes of food distribution always saw more women and the elderly queuing up. But today, there were more men folk lining up as recipients.

Proud family with their new boat

Their faces beaming with gratitude and anticipation, the men gently stroked the sides of the bangkas and the brand new engines as they checked the boats. Project Bangka Buhayan was uplifting spirits.

This was just the beginning. Recipients signed an agreement promising to “pay it back” later so that more people can benefit. KAISA’s aim is to ensure greater responsibility on the part of the fisher folks for their own welfare as well as that of their neighbors.  This would reinforce the Bayanihan spirit in local communities and there would be greater ownership of the project on the part of recipients.

Agreement between the local and provincial government, Kaisa, the local Red-Cross and Amity to supervise future follow-up actions

KAISA leaders are conscious that doling out food and materials is only a temporary and necessary measure, but in the long run, relief work is more about rehabilitating and rebuilding community. We learned later that some of the barangays have organized simple cooperatives to manage the project of paying back in ways and measures affordable by the fisher folks.

Beneficiaries signing social agreement to share their income

For the long haul, maintenance of the boats is a priority concern and the ownership of fiberglass boats is something quite new for many. At the handover, announcements were made encouraging recipients to report any defect in the boats or engines. Workshops to teach them about repairs and maintenance of fiberglass boats were scheduled in Ajuy.

Woman shake hands with Anthony, the director of Amity HK

Extending help to the typhoon victims was a moving experience for most of us, especially when seeing that the relief and rehab efforts were making a difference. Volunteers in the distribution process felt involved in lives of people and a greater identification with the larger community.

Young family with their fishing boat

One could not help but think of what their future would be. Having met some of the victims, having seen their gratitude and inspired by their resilience, we understood more fully that giving was not simply a one-off thing. We became acutely conscious of the poverty that Typhoon Yolanda had exposed in these villages.

Anthony explaining the purpose of the social agreement

The lack of adequate water sources and supplies, the inadequacies of infrastructure, the extreme imbalance in land distribution such that farmers and fisher folks had to rely on the patronage of landowners in deciding where they could rebuild their homes. Damaged homes and damaged schools with rusting, unpainted GI sheets, rotting wooden chairs and tables in school rooms, all testified to the appalling conditions that had been allowed to fester in the poorer barangays. Certainly, rehabilitation must involve local participation in reshaping, not just reviving, livelihoods of local communities.

Beneficaries and transport of their new boats - a new lease of life