Filipino fisherfolk suffer from oil price hikes

From bad to worse.

The poverty of fisherfolk in the coastal and fishing areas of the Philippines is now worsened by increasing crude oil prices. While 90 percent of the Philippines’ oil imports come from the Middle East, local oil companies are using the Russia-Ukraine war to justify a series of oil price hikes that began long before the war started.

In March, some 40 fishermen under the group Pambansang Lakas ng Mamalakaya (PAMALAKAYA, i.e., “fisheries”) in Binangonan, Rizal south of Manila staged a work stoppage in protest. This was widely covered by the media and the strike was replicated by fishermen in Cavite and Zambales in the weeks that followed.

The group’s spokesperson, Ronnel Arambulo, said that more fishermen are certain to join a growing number of protests and work stoppages given that oil prices continue to rise. In extreme cases, fishermen in some provinces may even stop fishing altogether.

“Fish supplies in the country may fall by 50 percent if the country’s fishermen shift employment. We don’t want to stop fishing, but given the worsening hardship we face because of the relentless oil price increase, we are being pushed against the wall. We also need to survive, we have families to feed,” he said.

Fishermen’s livelihood at risk from high oil price.

Livelihood at risk

Arambulo said that many fishermen are now doing “sideline” work, taking jobs on construction sites. The wives of fishermen, in the meantime, try their best to find work as “kasambahay” i.e., household help or market vendors.

Fisherman Norito Lucso said that this was not a good development in some cases because the children are left with no parents to look after them. “Both fathers and mothers are away every day and the children have to fend for themselves,” he said.

Because of the increases in diesel fuel price, fishermen have also been forced to shorten their fishing trips. From six to eight hours, they go to sea for only four to seven hours. Instead of fishing four times a week, they go only once or twice.

A fisherman from Samar said that the high prices hurt hundreds of fishermen and their families.

“We usually fish twice a day, once during the midnight hours and just before sunset. We load our motorized boats with two to three liters of gasoline, depending on the distance we’re going. A liter of diesel costs P94 (US$1.80) here, so multiply that by four and that’s already P376 per trip. The first goal is to catch enough fish that we can sell to cover the fuel costs, and what remains is what comprises our earnings,” Edmundo Reyes said.

Sadly, however, there have been more and more days when the catch was very scanty, and they ended up losing what they spent on fuel.

“It’s a very good day but also a very rare one when we catch so many fish that our boats almost tip over from the weight,” he said wistfully.

The Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN, the New Patriotic Alliance) on the island of Aklan said that significant numbers of farmers and fisherfolk there are now considering leaving their farmlands and fishing grounds for other employment. The group added that this move will threaten the country’s agri-fishery production in the country.

Fishermen could not afford to pay the high oil prices and have to cut down on the number of fishing trips.

Oil prices keep climbing up

The Department of Energy (DOE) reported that the Philippines uses 425,000 barrels of crude oil daily. This is equivalent to 0.4 percent of the global supply. The international requirement for crude oil as of October 2021 was 100.32 million barrels daily. In 2020, the Philippines imported 32.94 million barrels, with 15 million barrels coming from Saudi Arabia.

It is not only the country’s transport sector that relies on oil but also the local fishing industry. Specific to small fishermen, what they spend on fuel is equivalent to 80 percent of their operational costs.  

Pamalakaya said that small fishermen have been paying more and more for fuel. For example, in Zambales wherein as of the latter part of 2021, fishermen paid P8,960 monthly for diesel as compared to when they used to spend P7,200 previously.

A few months later, the amount has certainly increased further. While diesel prices were at P56 per liter in the last months of 2021, they are now as of May at P76.20 per liter or P288.44 per gallon.

Protesters saying no to oil price hikes.

Policy reforms in oil industry needed

Can nothing be done to stop the oil price hikes? Public welfare advocate and human rights lawyer Neri Colmenares insisted that there is.

“We have long called for policy reforms to address the exorbitant oil prices.  The first thing for the government to do is to repeal or drastically reduce the excise tax and the expanded value-added tax imposed on oil and petroleum products. We’ve been telling the government to do this since 2018,” he told Maritime Fairtrade.

Atty. Colmenares also said that there should be transparency in the pricing of oil and petroleum products, and this can be done through the unbundling of their prices.

“The public needs to know where every peso spent per litter goes. By unbundling the costs, we can identify what causes the excess fees and how to ease these prices,” he said.

When it comes to more comprehensive steps, Colmenares said that it was high time that the government buy back the previously publicly-owned Petron oil company to provide Filipinos with a state-owned alternative to acquire oil and petroleum products. 

The government, he said, should also support the establishment of a National Petroleum Exchange Corporation to serve as the central distribution hub of oil and petroleum to private companies and help oversee oil prices in the market.

“All these measures were being proposed in Congress but were not considered. These measures can help relieve the burden Filipinos have to endure because of the relentless series of price hikes,” he said.

In an attempt to pacify the growing outrage, Department of Agriculture (DAR) secretary William Dar announced that the government will release P1.1 billion to benefit 366,000 fishermen and corn farmers. The latter group is also hard hit by oil price hikes. While the first tranche of the subsidy was released in March, the second tranche has yet to reach the beneficiaries. The delay was caused by the May presidential election.

Protesters near a Petrol kiosk.

Bigger Subsidies for Fishermen

Sadly, as the three-month electoral campaign went as scheduled, so did the oil companies’ price increases.

Agriculture advocate and senator Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan has been questioning the delayed release of the fuel subsidy. He said that in a visit to a fishing community in Pangasinan, the fisherfolk admitted to him that they were already in deep debt to money lenders from whom they get loans to buy fuel and nets. The small nets of the fishermen were regularly damaged by big passing vessels, and replacing the nets added to their operational costs.  

Fishermen also told Pangilinan that there were days when the fish were too few or not enough to sell in the market. Fishermen ended up taking home their catch to feed their families instead, and they did not have money to buy other necessities.

“This is the sad reality that our fisherfolk faced. They earned too little and they ended up with debts. In many cases, they worked just so they can pay the money they owe,” Pangilinan lamented. 

“Our oceans are wider and bigger than our land territories. There are many opportunities to make a living from the ocean if only there is sufficient help from the government. Our fishermen are very hard workers, but their lives will never improve if they are not given the support they deserve and need.”

Pangilinan earlier filed a bill pushing for the creation of a Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (DFAR).

Legislators under the Makabayan (patriotic) bloc on April 12 filed House Bill (HB) 9192 which seeked to distribute P15,000 to at least one million small-scale fishers to support their production and livelihood expenses. They said that the government subsidy, including the fuel discount cards, is far from enough. 

Fisherfolk, with 10 liters of diesel, enough for 16 days of fishing, may earn P150 a day, or P2,400 a month. The P3,000 subsidy being offered by the agriculture office is enough for only three days of fishing.

Fishermen earned too little and ended up in debt.

Higher food prices  

As could be expected, in conjunction with the increases in oil prices, prices of basic commodities also increased. The national vice president of the party-list group Anakpawis (Children of the Toil), Lana Linaban, said the impact of the price increases was devastating to ordinary Filipinos all over the country.

Based on the findings of the group, the oil price hikes have caused food prices to rise by 11 to 14 percent from 2019 to January 2022. The highest increases were found in the poorest regions in Centra Visayas and Bicol. 

Vegetable prices have risen by up to 70 percent in Western Visayas, while meat prices up north in Cagayan Valley went up by 31 percent. Fish prices went up by 33 percent in the Zamboanga Peninsula, and fruits and sugar prices in Bicol were up by 33 percent.

From January 2021 to February 2022, diesel price has risen by P21, gasoline by P18, and kerosene by P8. From February to March, gasoline price again increased by P4.50, diesel by P6.65, and kerosene by P4.85. The price of liquified petroleum gas in 110-kilogram cylinders was up by P110.  

“So many people have been forced to abandon their jobs that rely on gasoline, like the drivers of public utility jeepneys. They had to shoulder an additional P16,620 every two months to pay for 20 liters of diesel. Farmers have had to scrape together an added P7,500 for every hectare they farm, and fisherfolk need P9000 more every month,” Linaban said.

The oil price increases are only one of the serious concerns Filipino fishermen have to contend with. The continuing excursions of Chinese military and fishing vessels that forced them away from their traditional fishing grounds are another. The government’s plan to import more fish is also posing a threat to their livelihood.

Basic food prices, including for fish, went up.

No expectations for new administration

Will things be looking better under the new government? Fisherman Bobby Roldan from Masinloc in Zambales said that they cannot hope for any improvements under Ferdinand Marcos.

“He has no track record when it comes to agricultural and fisheries development. His stand on China and its illegal encroachments in Philippine waters are not strong, either,” he said.

“We have been already battered with various livelihood crises because of the Covid-19 pandemic and the strong typhoons that came one after the other. Instead of providing subsidies and support, the government has adopted a soft approach when dealing with the local oil cartels. We have no choice but to continue our protests.”   

Photos credit: Pamalakaya Pilipinas, Ina Silverio.

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