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The Online Magazine for Sustainable Seas
February, 1998 Vol. 1 No.2


The Women of Apo Island
By Asuncion Sia


They are the first people I meet up with when I set foot on Apo Island: three women chatting idly under an overhanging rock, hawking shirts and loose batik wear they call "square pants." Having been directed to the island by development workers who said the "women of Apo Island" were great subjects for a story on leadership in coastal resource management, I keep a watchful  





    eye on them, mentally cataloguing their actions. Nothing out of ordinary there, these are workaday women doing workaday work. I am to piece together their story of uncommon valor bit by bit.

Apo is a small (72-hectare) volcanic island of 600 people about 25 km off the southeast coast Negros Island. It’s a pretty enough spot to make a postcard -- there’s a nice quiet cove developed as a resort, a nice rock formation a few feet from the shore, coarse sand the color of hay. Up close, the island reveals its harsh side: It is not a particularly habitable place. Freshwater is a scarce resource here; the land is rain-fed and supports only sustenance farming. The people are a hardy lot, expectedly warm and hospitable as most tropical islanders are. Husbands go out to sea, wives stay at home to mind the children and, with whatever spare time they have, weave mats which they sell in the mainland.

The most remarkable thing about these people, however, is their sense of pride in their community, a sense of pride born out of their experience in the establishment of the Apo Island Marine Sanctuary, perhaps the best managed community-based marine sanctuary this side of the ocean. All islanders, including preschool children, know and understand what the sanctuary is about. Some of the elders can even recall to the day when the sanctuary was officially declared as a protected area: November 3, 1986, when the municipal council of Dauin (to which the island belongs) adopted an ordinance protecting the Apo Island Marine Sanctuary "from all fishing methods or other ways destructive to the coral reef habitat." Indeed, the sanctuary has become grist for heartwarming anecdotes of people determined to protect their future by protecting the seas on which they all depend. But it was not always so, and here lies the legend of the women of Apo.

"In the beginning, hardly anyone wanted a marine sanctuary. People were afraid Silliman would take away Apo, just like they did Sumilon," says Liberty Pascobello Rhodes, who at 37 is considered a community "elder." At 19, barely out of high school, Liberty was elected village chief of Apo, a position she accepted after much prodding and promise of support from the rest of the the community. It was the early eighties. Silliman, a private university in the capital city of Dumaguete known for its pioneering efforts in establishing marine sanctuaries, wanted to establish a sanctuary in Apo, one that would be run and managed by the people themselves.

But in those days, Silliman had an image problem in Apo, a problem that went back to the early seventies when the university, armed with a memorandum of agreement with the mayor of Oslob, Cebu, established a marine sanctuary in Sumilon, an uninhabited island under an hour by motorized outrigger from Dumaguete. This sanctuary was to be Silliman’s field laboratory, where marine scientists could seek answers to questions such as "What is the maximum fish yield that people can get from reefs?"

On a purely technical and economic basis, the experiment was a great success. In the 10 years that Silliman managed the sanctuary, fish yields in the waters surrounding Sumilon hit, as one report put it, "unheard of heights". Here, scientists discovered that a square kilometer of healthy reef could produce up 30 tons of fish (six times as much as they first thought). Here also, they developed a formula for reversing the decline of fisheries: protect 25% of the reef, harvest the rest with hook-and-line and other nondestructive methods, and the reef will always stay productive and healthy.

But these things were not immediately obvious or widely appreciated. Fishermen from Cebu were reportedly resentful of Silliman’s "usurping" of their fishing grounds. In 1984, a new man was elected to the mayor’s post in Oslob and quickly rescinded the agreement that gave Silliman the authority over Sumilon. A free-for-all situation ensued, and all forms of destructive fishing practices prevailed in the island.

Silliman was to be vindicated in 1986, when another mayor took over and, alarmed by the rapid decline of fisheries in Sumilon, reinstated the sanctuary. But back when Liberty assumed her post as village chief of Apo, her constituents had heard only the buzz of discontent emanating from Oslob. Silliman, they feared, would "take away" Apo; they would have nowhere to fish.

Liberty says she knew differently. Her mother was Apo’s village chief for many years and, as a young girl, Liberty would tag along to every meeting called by the community organizers from Silliman. From these meetings she learned that marine resources were finite resources and that fish habitats had to be protected to remain productive. She also realized that it would take a long time for the fishers of Apo to fully trust Silliman, the outsider, the interloper, the "usurper".

And so, despite her constituents’ resistance to the idea, Liberty decided to push a resolution calling for the establishment of the marine sanctuary. "I knew only a small percentage of the Apo community approved of Silliman’s proposal, but I was encouraged by the support of the village council," she says. True to their promise, council members stood by their young "kapitana" (captain), braving the displeasure of the rest of the community.

"There were only 28 of us in the beginning," recalls Liberty. "They called us rebels. They said we didn’t care about what the greater number of our people wanted. It bothered me that they thought that, but I knew we were doing the right thing."

Francia Candido, 48, hardly fits your profile of a "rebel." She stands less than 5 feet tall, her brisk manner punctuated by occasional bursts of girlish giggle. She was not an instant convert to the sanctuary idea, she confesses, "but I attended meetings and, little by little, I started to think: ‘These Silliman people are right.’ In any case, they said we could go back to our old ways after two years if the sanctuary didn’t work." Francia is very much a child of Apo: She weaves mats, like many of the women here, and she goes out to sea to fish, as do most of the men. She’s only had elementary education, but she can easily out-talk college graduates on the finer points of community organizing.

"We used to go about our own way, each to his own," she says. "But because of our work in the sanctuary, we learned to get together, and then to work together. Before, when there was a problem, we’d point fingers at each other. ‘He’s to blame,’ we’d say. Or ‘It’s not my fault, so why should it be my problem?’ Now, we say, ‘What can I do to help?’ Especially the women."

It had to be the women, Francia figures. "The men were too busy fishing and didn’t have time to attend meetings." She herself had to convince her husband to support the sanctuary, "after all, Alex, the social worker, was our friend." When her husband came around, she "volunteered" him to help in the construction of the community center on the beach facing the sanctuary. Here, for over a month following the sanctuary’s establishment, Francia and other women, along with their children, took turns watching the sanctuary.

In the beginning, watchers had to be posted round the clock because few people knew about the sanctuary, and even those who knew would violate rules, just to test the waters, so to speak, to see how much they could get away with. Francia recalls a time when she spotted a poacher in the sanctuary. "I called out to him, "You’re not supposed to fish there, get out!" But the man ignored her, "so I reported the incident to the police and the man was arrested." The police had earlier been called in from the municipality of Dauin after armed poachers were reported to have entered the sanctuary.

The women and their children no longer have to keep vigil to watch the sanctuary. Now that the whole community has embraced the sanctuary as their very own, protecting it has become a way of life for everybody, and there are always enough people to keep a watchful eye on any sign of illegal fishing around the island. Also, the word is out that the sanctuary is off-limits to fishing. Now everyone in Negros and beyond knows that all of Apo would rise up in arms against anyone who disregards the rules of the sanctuary.

Such dedication to protecting the sanctuary has become part of Apo’s lore. Annie Omilig, an articulate woman in her late thirties, tells an anecdote, apparently a local favorite that has spun off two or three slightly different versions: Some children once saw a tourist fishing with a spear gun in the sanctuary.

They immediately reported the incident to the local sea-watch group, who wasted no time in going to the sanctuary. The tourist was no longer there, and the sea-watch group had to follow him to his boat to apprehend him. He begged pardon, saying he didn’t know spear guns were not allowed in the sanctuary, but the sea-watchers would hear none of it. After much discussion, he was meted a fine and warned that the next violation would get him a jail term. People cannot now recall how much the fine was -- some say P3,000, others P6,000 -- but everyone remembers the tourist’s words: "I caught two measly, tiny fishes! These must be the most expensive fishes in the world."

Annie says the women, especially, would never allow anyone to destroy what the Apo community has accomplished. "Of course," is her prompt response when I ask her if they are willing to defy people in power who might have other plans for Apo. "We will not give up the sanctuary, even if it’s the mayor or the governor or the president who asks us. It’s our livelihood that’s on the line here. Politicians are paid handsome wages, but fishers depend only on the sea for their livelihood. We have to protect it for our own and our children’s sake."

I hear echoes of this theme as I move around, speaking with more of the women of Apo. There’s Ma. Pinky Pascobello, the 24-year-old first councilor, saying, "The sanctuary is important, we know that now. Fish can breed and grow there undisturbed, and when they’re bigger, they move to deeper waters, where fishers can catch them." This cycle of life must not be broken, she adds, or Apo stands to lose its very lifeblood. "Even the children understand that now."

There’s also Leonila Cublan, Apo Island Cooperative’s storekeeper, whose only wish in life is to see her sons properly equipped for the future. Separated from her husband, she supports her family with the P1,000 or so that she receives monthly as her share of the store’s earnings, and the few hundred pesos more she gets from selling mats she herself makes when she isn’t too busy minding the store. "I was born and raised here. I got married here. I raised my sons here. This is home," she says of Apo. She is not certain that her sons would want to remain on the island when they come of age, or leave like many of Apo’s young people do, but if they did stay, "I think they would have a better chance for a good future because of the sanctuary."

And then there are the three women selling T-shirts on the beach. As I approach them, they spread out their merchandise. "T-shirt, ma’am?" offers Candida Toquero, who appears to be the spokesperson of the group. I smile away her sales pitch and ask for an interview. She agrees, and I throw her my now trite question, "Has the presence of the sanctuary affected you in any way?" She quips, "Before we sold seashells, but it’s not allowed anymore, so now we’re selling T-shirts." Her companions, Sandra Jalapa and Petronila Suan, nod in agreement, happy smiles breaking on their sun-browned faces -- at P120 to P150 apiece, the shirts earn for the women up to P1,200 on a good day. And how has business been? Their answer is typical, "Up and down with the seasons." These are people who understand their business. They are grateful, they say, that there are tourists on Apo that they can sell T-shirts to. But tourists come to Apo because of the sanctuary, they reason, so the sanctuary must be protected, even from the tourists themselves.

Tourism is an added benefit that the community is now enjoying, one that has, however, its own downside: the word about Apo has spread far and wide, attracting both good and bad, experienced as well as inexperienced, divers. Complaints are mounting about those divers who, inadvertently or intentionally, destroy corals in the sanctuary. In response, village authorities recently passed a resolution calling for, among others, admission fees and a limit to the number of divers that may enter the sanctuary (10 a day) -- the resolution has been approved by the municipality of Dauin and is expected to take effect in another four weeks after review and approval by the provincial council. "It’s only right," Candida says, with conviction. Then she resumes her sales pitch: "And you’ll buy a shirt, of course," she declares.

I buy a shirt and bid goodbye, struck by a comforting thought: The women of Apo Island are just ordinary people working together to protect their children’s future. In embracing the task of protecting the marine sanctuary as an integral part and fact of their daily lives, these women have given us the best assurance that Apo will remain, in the words of poet Epet Sargent, "A life on the heaving sea, A home on the bounding wave!"


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