China is dragging Filipino president down

Local fishermen are just trying to make a living and they want protection against Chinese fishing militia.

Philippine president Duterte is losing public support due to his soft stance toward China in the South China Sea maritime row.  

By Liz Lagniton, Philippine correspondent, Maritime Fairtrade

More than five years after he voted for his favored president in 2016, fisherman Domingo Cabacungan Jr. still professes support for Rodrigo Duterte, whose six-year term ends in less than 13 months.

But like most of the 16 million farmers and fishermen who were disaffected by policies of the Duterte administration, Cabacungan, who admits to being a diehard Duterte supporter, also concedes to cracks in his resolve.

Fisherman Domingo Cabacungan Jr.

“Sure, I’ll vote for him,” Cabacungan told Maritime Fairtrade in vernacular Tagalog. “But if there is another candidate who is more resolute in helping fishermen, I’d vote for him instead.” 

This position is becoming more common among farmers who have been suffering from rice and pork tariff cuts as well as fishermen who have lost access to fishing grounds, like Scarborough Shoal, which is worked by their ancestors for generations.

Still, the 49-year-old Cabacungan tries to downplay growing criticism of the president he elected into office and maintains that he and his mates can still fish in Scarborough Shoal, which China seized in April 2012.

“We fish in the waters near Scarborough Shoal. That’s our fishing ground,” Cabacungan said, contradicting the claims of other fishermen who have complained that they were being driven away by Chinese-flagged vessels around the shoal.

“There are days we fish there, depending on the weather. It’s not frequent because it’s quite far from us here in Infanta, Pangasinan. There are times we take shelter on the shoal when the storm is a bit strong. We go there to hide,” Cabacungan said.

The Chinese has a permanent presence in Scarborough Shoal

In the end, Cabacungan inadvertently admits that non-Chinese fishermen can no longer fish in the shoal itself, like before, but only beyond the limits specified in international maritime law.

“We fish about 40 miles from Scarborough, so we can fish freely there. We are a little far from the shoal itself,” he admitted.

“But from our fishing ground, we see the Chinese vessels. They just patrol the area and don’t harass or drive us away. Sometimes the Chinese go down with their rubber boat but only to check if there are small boats inside the shoal,” Cabacungan said. 

Chinese ships remain around the shoal to this day, he added. “They have always been there. They never leave the area. And they are even more numerous now. The last time I went there, I saw many blue ships anchored on the reef.”

“Just don’t enter the entrance to the shoal’s lagoon, so they don’t drive you away. That area remains off-limits to non-Chinese fishermen. If you insist on entering that area, they will certainly drive you away,” he said, adding that he and his mates were last there in March.

New Chinese law permits use of weapons on foreign boats

But in April, more than 1,500 fishers from the town of Masinloc in Zambales province totally stopped going to Scarborough Shoal after China passed a new law that authorizes the Coast Guard to fire weapons at foreign vessels in their territorial waters, even disputed ones claimed by other countries.

Cabacungan himself experienced being harassed by Chinese militia vessels which fired water cannons on his small fishing boat before Duterte became president.

“Luckily, we were not hit when they fired their water cannons. Chinese Coast Guard aboard rubber boats drove us away and told us that they own the shoal. We were forced to leave the area in fear that they will shoot us. They had guns.”

“That was when China was very strict in Scarborough. So, our group would only go there secretly at night. But even if we sailed there at night, they still saw and drove us away,” he recalled. “I did not return there since that harassment because of fear. I only went back there when Duterte became president. We were free to fish there again.”

Fishermen fear for their livelihood

Several recent similar incidents have raised an international outrage over China’s disrespect of international law and the rights of local, artisanal fishermen. 

“We don’t see any vessel of Philippine Coast Guard patrolling the area when we were there last March. Maybe the government is avoiding the tension of escalating even more since China is asserting the ownership of Scarborough Shoal,” Cabacungan said.

“For us, even if we wanted to see our Philippine Coast Guard there, we are worried that the tension would further escalate. What if the Chinese Coast Guard there gets mad and they suddenly ban us from fishing in the whole of West Philippine Sea and also taking refuge on the Scarborough Shoal during bad weather? We will be the ones to suffer in the end.” 

It’s just not worth it, Cabacungan said, particularly as he also noted a decrease in the fish population since the Chinese occupied the shoal. He has not been near there since March, not because of fear of being harassed by the Chinese but because there are no longer enough fish there due to the activities of the many Chinese commercial fishing vessels. 

“Back then, there were many fish in the area. We could catch a lot even if we only use a hook and line. But now, there are fewer fish already. Sometimes our catch there is just only enough for food,” he added. 

Relocate to new fishing grounds

“We have our own boats, so we do not rely much on the West Philippine Sea now. The ones we catch here (in Philippine municipal waters), like yellowfin tuna, are still okay. Even if we don’t go to Scarborough, we will still have income. We can still survive,” Cabacungan said.

In his more than 30 years of fishing, Cabacungan is able to purchase two large boats that can carry approximately 10 metric tons of fish and 16 people, just enough to feed his family and send his three children to school.

Cabacungan said he has no plans to stop fishing despite the physical strain and the many dangers of his life at sea.

“Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always relied on fishing to survive, and I don’t want my children to end up like that. I don’t want them to go through the hardships I went through. Being a fisherman is not an easy job. Not every day there’s a good catch,” he said.

He does not want any of his children, one of whom already graduated from college, to follow his fishing career although he is fond of the sea.  There is sadness in his voice as he considers that the Philippines lost a valuable asset in Scarborough Shoal.

“The reef there is almost ruined because Chinese vessels continue to fish it with no regards for sustainability. So, I don’t go there often anymore. We only go there once in a while, and only when we need to take refuge from bad weather.”

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