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Howie Severino

Ate Vi's governance challenge on Taal Lake

May 6, 2009 3:44pm
"May mga kumokontra at hindi kaagad makapasok yung aking mga tao doon (fish cage areas). Medyo may mga maiinit ang ulo but it's ok, umaatras muna kami."



Taking on one of the more ambitious governance projects in the country is none other than one of its most glamorous governors, Vilma Santos Recto of Batangas, who is attempting to stop Taal Lake's ruin. Surrounded by 11 Batangas towns, the lake produces nearly half of Calabarzon's entire supply of tilapia. But it has been doing so in a growing quagmire of fish pens that were polluting the lake and decimating native species, like the endemic delicacies tawilis and maliputo.

A campaign was launched in June 2008 by the first-term governor to start reducing the fish pens by half, from 12,000 to 6,000, by next year. That became a job creation program for the 200 or so lake-side residents I witnessed taking apart abandoned fish cages and cleaning up the coastal area around Talisay municipality. The narrow Pansipit River, the only exit for lake water into the sea, has already been cleared of fish cages, opening up the ancient passageway of the maliputo from Balayan Bay to the lake where they grow up to become a much desired food fish.

Talisay Mayor Florencio Manimtim Jr. is currently in a battle of wits with Governor Recto, who has been careful to convince, some would say charm, lakeside mayors into cooperating with her plan. But Manimtim's town has the most number of fish cages, about 6000, so he's been dragging his feet in choosing which 4000 of these cages will be demolished so Talisay meets its quota of 2000. Recto has not imposed a deadline, or even threatened to do so, still hoping she can talk the mayor into start winnowing the cages. But the stand-off is a test of Recto's nerves and political will.

Backed by a crackdown consensus among local governments around the lake and an active network of environmental NGOs, Recto took charge of the enforcement of lake policies last year with a sophisticated mix of diplomacy, muscle, and seriousness. Her role was sparked by yet another example of the tough-talking but spineless Environment Secretary Lito Atienza's failure to do his job (the DENR has been inutile too in Isabela's efforts to crack down on illegal logging). As a protected area, Taal Lake is actually a national responsibility, but the national government through the DENR sat on its hands while the fish pens were rapidly turning the lake into the world's biggest toilet. The first-term governor explains below why she had to take action. I interviewed her last week.

Howie Severino (HS): Bakit kailangan nang umaksyon sa Taal Lake?

Gov. Vilma Santos Recto (VSR): Give it let’s say another 5 to 10 years, burak na ilalim eh. I was there and I saw it. The report that I got, hindi na maganda at nabababoy na talaga ang lawa ng Taal. Unang-una alam natin na ang maliputo at tawilis, sa Batangas lang nakikita yan at doon lang sa Taal, ...Meron nang mga nakakaing isda na medyo naglalasang putik na.



HS: Mga dalawang daang tao yung nakita naming nagbabaklas ng mga kawayan doon, ng mga fish cage.
VSR: This project is no joke. Ah political will lang, kailangan talaga political will.
HS: Tsaka may political risk din yan dahil...
VSR: Of course may mga magagalit sa iyo, may tatamaan...

HS: At tsaka marami ring mga livelihoods na naaapektuhan.
VSR: Yeah may mga natulungan na tayo, nabigyan natin ng mga baka.



HS: Ilang beses sinabi ni DENR Secretary Lito Atienza na ang gusto niya zero fish cages sa Taal Lake.
VSR: Twice na kami nag meeting with Secretary Atienza and parang yun yung sinasabi niya na walang negosasyon, kailangan complete wipe out at talagang walang matitirang fish cages diyan. But you see sometimes kailangan magpakatotoo tayo. I mean there are things madaling sabihin pero mahirap gawin. And pag ginawa namin yang drastic move na yan, kami ang babalikan ng tao. Kung tutuusin mo ang ang responsibilidad talaga ng Taal Lake ay national DENR), dapat yung provincial government nag au-augment lang o tumutulong but the way things are going, kami lahat ang sumasalo even financially. The budget, nanggagaling lahat yan sa provincial government, and the budget na ginagastos namin diyan is no joke, last year six months, we spent about 5 million, and now we allocated 10 milllion, for just Taal Lake.

HS: Sabi niyo kayo ang babalikan ng tao, ano ang ibig sabihin na kayo ang babalikan ng tao?
VSR: Hindi natin maiaalis na magkakaroon ng resistance, lalo na yung iba diyan tinatamaan yung kanilang hanapbuhay, although kahit tanungin mo sila, alam naman nilang illegal. Pero dadaanin ka nila sa 'saan kami kikita ng pera?' Kaya nga sabi ko we cannot move drastically, kasi pinag-aaralan yan. Ok tinamaan 'to, meron naman kaming nakalaan sa inyong alternatibo muna. And then later on pagka naayos naman namin lahat yan, I think we will go also doon sa suggestion ng BFAR na allowed yung 6,000 fish cages na kahit paano’y makakatulong pang rolyo sa mga mangingisda doon kasi sa BFAR allowed naman yung 6,000 fish cages around the lake eh.



HS: Ano yung mga naging resistance sa ginagawa niyo?
VSR: May mga kumokontra at hindi kaagad makapasok yung aking mga tao doon. Medyo may mga maiinit ang ulo so its ok, umaatras muna kami. Sasabihin lang namin, sige we’ll give you another day and then maybe dialogue muna tayo. So hindi naman kami yung nakikipag-away, hindi naman ganun. Pagka medyo may resistance at ayaw muna ng mga tao, papahingahin muna, hindi tayo makikipag-away, and then after a day or two, let’s go back and have a dialogue with them. Ipaliwanag niyo kung ano yung programang ito, and then later on, with the support of our livelihood program, ask them, saan kami pupwedeng makatulong naman sa inyo.



HS: Malaking porsyento ng fish production ng Southern Tagalog at kahit sa Maynila ay galing sa Taal Lake.
VSR: Of course, 40%, 40%.

HS: Hindi kaya makakadagdag sa gutom ng mga Pilipino yung programa ninyo?
VSR: Siguro naman na may kailangan tayong konting sakripisyo kasi mas mahirap naman na masyado tayong sigurista and then after 5 years wala na, hindi na makakakuha ng isda doon dahil ang makakain na nila lasang putik. I’d rather sacrifice now, and then do it little by little kesa naman give it what, 5 years, 10 years from now, hindi mo na rin papakinabangan ang ibang mga isda diyan.

HS: Ano yung political risk sa inyo?

VSR: Ang political risk dito, hindi mo maiaalis na may magagalit sa iyong mga tao, dahil siyempre tatamaan mo yung kanilang pangkabuhayan. Pero para sabihin natin na takot ako, baka magalit sila at hindi ako mananalo, I’m not scared of that, hindi ako takot, because maganda ang intensyon ko. Plus I personally believe ang lahat ng bagay nakukuha sa dialogue, nakukuha sa tamang pag-uusap. That’s why I told them I don’t want to make drastic moves na hindi pupwede, kailangan dialogue kasi. Kailangan malaman ng mga tao na we really have to do this whether you like it or not. Kasi later on, kami mapapalitan, pero ang Taal Lake will remain in Batangas and ang makikinabang niyan, mga anak ninyo. At pag hindi natin ginalawan yan ngayon, balang araw, wala nang tawilis, wala nang tipalia, wala nang maliputong aabutan ang mga anak ninyo.

Excerpts from this interview and coverage of Governor Recto's crackdown on Taal Lake fish pens on my documentary tonight, Taalapia, on GMA7's I-Witness.