Guimarasnons still ask: Where are the fish?

Guimarasnons still ask: Where are the fish?
By Nestor P. Burgos Jr.
Last updated 02:57am (Mla time) 08/11/2007

GUIMARAS, Philippines—Joel Villagracias still clearly remembers that night.


He and his family were asleep in their nipa hut when they were roused by the cries of their youngest child, who had difficulty breathing.


Then the pungent odor struck them, so strong that they felt dizzy.


Only later did they realize that the shoreline, 60 meters from their doorstep, was already covered with a thick, black liquid which villagers later called “bangker.”


“The sea was black and so were the sand and rocks. Our boats were also covered with oil,” Villagracias, 42, said, recalling the scene hours after the M/T Solar I sank 13 nautical miles off Guimaras on Aug. 11, 2006, spilling almost 2 million liters of bunker fuel into the sea and triggering one of the country’s worst environmental disasters.


Villagracias’ family and 200 other residents of Barangay Tando in Nueva Valencia town were forced to leave their homes in September last year after health officials raised fears of serious health risks.


Along with his wife Margie and their six children, aged 3 to 18, Villagracias stayed nearly two months in tents at an evacuation center.


They have gone back to their house in Sitio Iraya but life has not gone back to normal for them.


“It’s like a bad dream that still doesn’t want to go away,” Villagracias told the Philippine Daily Inquirer, a parent company of


He said he had gone back fishing since December last year, but like thousands of other residents affected by the oil spill he still reels from the loss of livelihood and damage to the island’s rich natural resources.


From 3 kilos to 5 pieces


Fish catch has not returned to pre-oil spill levels.


“I used to get three kilos of shrimp before. Now I get five pieces,” Villagracias said.


His wife Margie has started working as a laundrywoman to help him feed their family.


The International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund (IOPCF), a London-based intergovernmental agency that indemnifies oil spill victims, gave Villagracias P12,000 as compensation for pollution damages, but he said this was hardly enough to pay debts incurred during the months he was unable to fish.


Nueva Valencia Mayor Alejandro Araneta said residents needed continued support, especially for livelihood.


Araneta said the rejection of most of the second batch of Guimaras claimants by the IOPCF had dampened the hopes of many residents to get compensation for losses resulting from the spill.


Additional claimants


The IOPCF has paid P169.9 million to 22,644 claimants (P113 million to 11,321 claimants in Guimaras and P56,937,752 to 11,323 claimants in Iloilo) for economic damages, according to a report of the IOPC executive committee dated June 12, 2007.


But the IOPCF report said it would likely reject “most, if not all,” of the 102,000 additional claimants in Guimaras.


It noted that the number, combined with the number of claimants that had previously submitted claims, represented about 80 percent of the population of Guimaras.


“The majority of the claims registration forms were incomplete and a significant number were from people under the age of 18 years, the minimum age at which people are allowed to engage in fishing,” the report said.


Reasons for rejection


Charry Galia, provincial economic and development officer, said rejection by IOPCF of the overwhelming number of second batch claimants had also affected legitimate claimants who have no means of recovering their livelihood.


Galia said that out of the 125,614 claimants for the second batch, only 134 had been considered for payment by the IOPCF.


The rest were rejected for various reasons, such as that the claimants were below 18 years old, not residents of Guimaras, used fictitious names or were not engaged in fishing activities.


The IOPCF has still to settle the claims of around 1,000 other claimants from Guimaras who have tapped a Manila-based law firm to claim compensation reaching P280.3 million.


The Fund said that among the 1,000 claimants, it had already settled the claims of around 166 residents while another 228 had received settlement offers. The remaining 633 claimants need to submit further documentary evidence to confirm they were bona fide fisherfolk and they suffered pollution damage.


The IOPCF has also compensated 49 resort owners for a total of P1,501,195. It is still assessing 317 claims in the tourism sector, mainly from owners of small resorts and tour boat operators, for a total of P147,677,105.


Another 17 owners of beach properties have claimed compensation reaching P5,775,599 for damage and loss of sand from their property due to the cleanup operations.


The IOPCF is also assessing the claims of 407 seaweed farmers amounting to P52,265,526 and of 313 fishpond operators amounting to P340,209,239.


Coast Guard, too


It also has not issued payments for the claim of the Philippine Coast Guard for P439,806,223 for expenses incurred while responding to the oil spill.


The Fund has paid an initial $3.7 million out of the total $4.5 million to three contractors involved in the offshore cleanup and $5,810,726 for the oil removal operations from the sunken tanker.


It has also reimbursed Petron Corp. P118 million for the costs of shoreline cleanup.


The IOPCF is still assessing the proposal of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to conduct post-spill studies and the rehabilitation of coastal natural resources, particularly mangroves, costing P130 million.


It also has yet to decide on the claim of local government units in the towns of San Lorenzo, Sibunag and Nueva Valencia for P18,665,892 to pay for costs and salaries of the municipal staff who responded to the incident.


Economic, tourism slump


But even with IOPCF compensation, Guimarasnons are struggling to cope with the impact of the disaster on their economy.


Tourism, a pillar of the local economy, has slumped despite a campaign to reverse the negative impact of the disaster.


Tourist arrivals went down from 181,915 in 2005 to 172,985 last year, based on data from the provincial tourism office.


Galia said the decrease in tourists was still conservative because the tourism figures for last year included thousands of volunteers, scientists, researchers and other personnel involved in containment and cleanup operations that flocked to the island.


The decline continued this year with only 87,094 tourists going to the island from January to June. This is a drop from the 108,926 visitors recorded for the same period in 2005 and 91,667 in 2006.


Environmental damage


The decline in visitors arrival pushed down earnings from tourism by P37.5 million, from P204,312,500 in 2005 to P166,810,100 last year.


The Department of Tourism initially placed losses incurred by resort owners two weeks after the oil spill at around P3.54 million in canceled bookings and lost opportunity.


While tourism officials had said only 20 percent of the beach tourism was affected by the spill, other destinations on the island also suffered because of the impression that the entire island had been contaminated by the oil sludge.


A rapid assessment report conducted by a multi-agency team said 25 tourism sites, including 11 beach resorts, were directly affected by the spill while another 33 were indirectly affected.


Damage to the environment continues but its total impact remains unquantified.


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