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Fr. Jun Mercado OMI

The Venice of the South

October 27, 2008 9:59pm
For years, I have been hearing from OMI confreres that the Philippines has its own version of Venice where waterways and bridges, instead of roads, characterize the place just like its European counterpart. This description has captured my imagination and dream, because Venice occupies a very special niche in my heart on account of my years of stay in Italy.

We took a “slow” boat from Bongao to Sitangkai. As we neared the place, I was struck by the natural and unadulterated beauty of other islands such as Sibutu, Tumindao, Sipangkot, and Omapuy. Their white beaches look like refined sugar. I was told that these islands’ coral reefs stretch into Darbel Bay in Malaysia. Millions of years ago, these coral reefs formed the ancient land bridge that connected the Philippines to Asia. It served as a “highway” of the earlier animal migrations into the Philippines. The monkey, flying lemur, civet, boar and tarsier took this route into the country.

From the “jambatan” (pier), we took a “teririt” (a small pump-boat whose engine gives a “teririt” noise, hence the name) to navigate the waterways into the heart of the town. The sheer beauty of the town center sitting right in the middle of the coral reefs with its natural waterways is simply beyond description. The romantic wooden walks and bridges crisscrossing the waterways are, definitely, no match to the marbles and granites of San Marco Cathedral, piazzas and palaces of its European counterpart. But Sitangkai’s natural beauty and environs speak not of human handiwork but of God’s.

At one time, Sitangkai flourished as a major trading post in the tradition of barter trade between the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia. While it still remains a commercial hub for all the nearby islands and islets, it no longer has the zest and dynamism of international barter trading, because of arbitrary borders and regulations imposed on peoples who, since time immemorial, have actually known no borders except the capability of their boats. Well, Sitangkai is the southernmost municipality of the Philippines and on a clear day one sees in the horizon the mountains of Sabah, Malaysia.

The place is enchanted and the people that inhabit the place are very friendly, peaceful and equally enchanting. The experience of walking through the foot walks and bridges as we window-shop is an experience akin to a walk ala-Alice in Wonderland! The best is to sit in one of the footbridges and simply watch the busy market as people come and go with their “teririt”, “temper” (a bigger pump-boat) and speedboats.

Today, Sitangkai is the biggest producer of seaweeds in Tawi-Tawi. Seaweed farmers from all places in mainland Mindanao have found livelihood in the limitless coral reefs that now serve as farms in the middle of the Sulu Sea. The bustling market and seaweeds farming brought the Christian migrants to this last frontier of the country. The increasing demand for seaweeds worldwide and the months of good price for seaweeds have provided the occasion for the few Christian “farmers” to celebrate the fiesta of San Lorenzo Ruiz with a bang. With “flaglets” planted on both sides of the foot-walks, the few Christians in town had their annual fiesta with their guests from the neighboring islands, islets and “pondok” (group of houses in the middle of nowhere somewhere in the vast Sulu Sea). Our group included Bishop Angelito Lampon, Fr. Somphone (Laos), Fr. Raul (Sibutu), and some lay leaders from the capital town of Bongao. We joined the pastor of Sitangkai, Fr. Marcelo Andamon, OMI, in the celebration of their annual fiesta.

But not all is beautiful and good in this idyllic paradise. Comes the low tide, the ugly face of Sitangkai is revealed. It is appalling to behold tons of garbage – plastics, cans, bottles and many more – destroy the natural beauty of the place. People throw their garbage into the waterways and this has been going on for years. At the beginning, they thought that the garbage would be washed away during the night or early morning when the high tide comes and they could begin a new day with a clean environment. But the “fruits” of this bad habit have come back to haunt them with a vengeance.

To make the place reclaim the title “Venice of the South”, everyone, and hopefully with the leadership of the local government unit, will have to embark on a huge environmental clean-up of the canals and waterways that are the pride of Sitangkai and the province. There is the urgent call to sound the alarm, because the garbage of Sitangkai threatens to destroy not only our own natural version of Kevin Costner’s “Water World” but also the vast seaweed farms that have now become the major industry of the province.

Sitangkai is a tiny settlement, which is barely one square kilometer in size. With the political will of the LGU and the cooperation of its inhabitants, the urgent environmental clean-up is doable. Talking to some leaders in the community during my brief stay in the place, I was informed that the cleaning of the waterways was done before though not sustained. There are no if’s and but’s, we need to respond quickly and thoroughly, with all our strength and will, to the impending environmental catastrophe that menaces the destruction of this paradise in the middle of the Sulu Sea.

The other urgent concern in the place is the fast disappearance of the mangroves. There is an existing working model when it comes to rehabilitation of the mangroves. Mayor Edward Hagedorn of Puerto Princesa City has, in a much larger scale, shown the way not only in re-inventing his city as one of the world’s eco-friendly cities but also in replanting mangroves. No doubt, the Sitangkai LGU can follow the way of Puerto Princesa even in a much smaller scale.

The ARMM–DENR and the provincial leadership including the lone congressional representative of Tawi-Tawi, Rep. Nur Ja’afar, have to assist the LGU in Sitangkai in this great challenge of environmental clean-up and rehabilitation of the mangroves. At the same time, the environment is not only the concern and responsibility of the ARMM, the province and the LGU. It is everybody’s concern. Our commitment to the care of the planet invites us to come to the rescue wherever and whenever the environment is menaced. Before it is too late, come and let us join hands with the LGU in saving Sitangkai – the Venice of the South!
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