FISHERS OF THE VISAYAS
Fishers of the Visayas*, a book published in 1994 and edited by Iwao Ushijima and Cynthia Neri Zayas, attempts to provide some baseline data and information toward the development of a maritime orientation in the interpretation of Philippine society and culture. The 11 papers included in this volume of Visayas Maritime Anthropological Studies give a detailed, composite glimpse not only of the fishers’ maritime environment but also of their life struggles, worldviews and rituals.
The studies are based upon extensive field research in the Visayas, an area known to be the country’s biggest source of fish catch. Despite the prevalence of fisheries in the Philippine archipelago, the dearth of anthropological studies focusing on this aspect of national life is a yawning gap in Philippine social science. Philippine anthropologist Prof. Ponciano Bennagen notes: “Maritime anthropology in the Philippines is young and poor relative to upland and even lowland ethnographies, which is ironic for an archipelagic country.”
The studies presented in the book were part of a two-year research project affiliated with the University of Tsukuba’s Institute of History and Anthropology and the University of the Philippines in the Visayas. With support from Japan’s Ministry of Education, Science and Culture, the project brought together a team of Japanese and Filipino scholars interested in the study of maritime cultures.
Then UP Visayas Chancellor, Dr. Francisco Nemenzo, now UP President, took pride in this collection of insightful studies. He describes in his “Foreword”: Among the most memorable features of the Visayas is the overwhelming presence of the sea … The volume and variety of catch may impress us of the richness of maritime resources in the region, until we overhear the fishers complaining of fast-depleted fishing grounds.”
Dr. Nemenzo further explains: “As casual observers, we are tempted to blame the old-fashioned fishing gears, the inadequate methods of capture and the constant poaching by foreign fishing vessels.” But to the book authors, the issue is more complex, “involving a vast web of factors, including a variety of maritime environments—from rivermouths to migratory schools of fish in the open sea and an equally varied land topography.” He observes that the authors conclusions are more convincing than our opinions” because they have actually done extensive field work in the fishing communities of the Visayas.
Takao Yano of Japan’s Waseda University describes the characteristics of fisherfolk culture in Panay Island from the viewpoint of fishing ground exploitation. Yano examines the development of traditional fishing in relation to natural and ecological conditions in some parts of Panay Island. Among the factors that influence fishing operations are topography, bottom materials, wind, ocean and tidal currents, and the type of marine life that exist in the hydrosphere.
ecological systems have been identified by Yano based on a survey of the island’s
coastal areas––the muddy-tidal, the coral reef, and the sandy or rocky beach
ecosystems. He also presents a corresponding hypothetical model of fisherfolk
culture for each ecosystem to describe the essential characteristics of traditional
small-scale fishery, and draw attention to some of the problems and issues
For Yano, the development of large- and medium-scale commercial fishery has not eased out fishermen engaged in traditional small-scale fishery. Fishermen continue to hold on to their “crude” methods of fishing which are well adapted to natural and ecological conditions. Instead of being wiped out by new technology, traditional fishery has become more diversified; traditional fishing methods have been consolidated and transformed as the fisherfolk, in their continuing struggle for survival, made room for innovations.
Iwao Ushijima of Japan’s University of Tsukuba studies the types of fisheries, selection of fishing grounds, and the distribution network of fish catch which have become diversified in Bantayan Island. Such is due to various factors, including the need to adjust fisheries to the varied sea forms; the influence on fisheries by the northeast monsoon (amihan) and the southeast monsoon (habagat); and the differences between commercial and municipal fisheries. The development of diversified fisheries noted in Ushijima’s paper has resulted from ecological and economic adaptation, which means that every fisherman elects a different type of method based on his economic condition.
Cynthia Neri Zayas, then with UP Diliman’s College of Social Sciences and Philosophy (CSSP), examines the strategic role of the Gigantes Islands in the dynamic world of the rich fishing grounds of the Visayan Sea. The islands have served as a sheltering port for pangayaw (sojourning fishermen) from the islands of Panay, Masbate, Cebu, Negros, Samar, Leyte, and Bohol.
As sojourners came to Gigantes, distinct fisherfolk settlements were formed; they live in groups, or enclaves where fishing techniques differ, depending upon their place of origin. A complicated system of economic, social and cultural exchange relations between the pangayaw and the tumandok (local residents) also evolved which contributed to the development of maritime culture and social organization in the area.
Carmelita E. Veloro, then with UP Diliman’s Asian Center, dissects the themes in folk constructs of fishing in two coastal villages of Palawan, comparing the social organization of production, marketing structures, and cultural representations of fishing. Veloro focused on the ideology of production embodied in the notions of swerte (luck) in subsistence fishing versus diskarte (strategy and tactics) in small-scale commercial fishing. Conceptions of luck and ability relate with hierarchy in fishing organization, relations of production, and society.
In another paper, Ushijima discusses the kobkob (ring net fishery) complex in a small fishing town of Suba in Bantayan Island, Cebu. The kobkob is a medium-sized commercial fishing operation, with the combined capital provided by agricultural businessmen, including poultry raisers and fresh-fish dealers. This system has created employment opportunities as well as spawned family business dealing with the production of dried fish.
Makito Kawada of Japan’s University of Tsukuba documents his personal encounters and systematic observations of various forms of suki relationship in the different sections of the public market in Bantayan. Kawada notes that the suki system—which is commonly accepted by buyers and sellers to be reciprocally advantageous—seldom results in an equitable transaction. This is because there is an intense effort to pit one’s interest over that of the other’s, or to exact personal advantage in the transaction. Also, a third party may come in to pry into the competitive negotiation in order to advance his or her own interest. Moreover, Kawada points to one crucial effect of the suki relationship in the market place: the integration of the fishers and farmers from remote islands into the social organization of the local community.
Nicolas C. Cuadra of the Philippine National Museum features the fishing rituals in two important fishing centers of Daang-bantayan and Bantayan in Cebu Island. These communities are engaged in large-scale and small-scale fishery. Despite the inroads made by modern fishing techniques and Christianity in these islands, the fishermen retain traditional beliefs and practices in their daily routine.
Cuadra says that through the various rituals (i.e., the priest blessing newly acquired vessels and the local shaman invoking the powers of the sea spirits), the fishermen both internalize and express social values such as respect for property ownership and sharing. These rituals also enable the communities to exercise a measure of control over their life source—the vast and mysterious sea—and therefore conquer what could otherwise be the hardest living conditions.
Mamoru Takakuwa of Japan’s University of Tsukuba and CSSP graduate student, Lilian dela Peña narrate the life story of an 84-year-old fisherman that dramatizes the process of adaptation and technological change in fishing methods in a small Panay Island. The fisherman tells of his migrant grandparents in the island and how his family changed its status from mere pangayaw to become tumandok, two generations later. His story is woven with the development of small-scale fishery in the island.
Carolyn Israel-Sobritchea of UP Diliman’s Asian Center presents the social and economic changes brought about by the advent of commercial fishing and the decline of production which has altered the traditional positions of gender role in fishing communities. Women are no longer confined to domestic chores, but have also had to play important roles in fishing communities in Central Visayas, usually without pay. Women’s participation is only recognized in salaried activities.
Sobritchea remarks that women’s lives have changed because of the deterioration of the fishing economy and the depletion of marine resources brought about by the intensification of modern fishing technology and population pressure. The decline in household incomes from fishing, which implies a decline in the men’s economic contribution, has increasingly led women to participate in gainful employment to help augment family income.
Alicia P. Magos of the UP Visayas College of Arts and Sciences highlights in her paper the prevalent culture-based concept of mari-it (dangerous) that defines the communities relationship with their environment. This sense of danger has bred a deep respect for the unknown and developed a set of beliefs and practices conducive to environmental preservation. Magos gathered data from five coastal villages in Panay Island located in Dao, Antique; Buenavista, Guimaras; Gigantes Island, Iloilo; Buntad in Panay; and Malay, Aklan.
Magos proposes that among traditional societies, sustainable development can only be realized by explaining some folk concepts and their associated beliefs and practices that can enhance environmental conservation. Magos observes that the government’s own fisheries program has been too narrowly focused, its prescriptions relieving symptoms rather than dealing with causes. She argues that folklore can help bridge the gap; identifying and utilizing certain folk beliefs should be a step toward more meaningful laws in local marine resources.
Efren Flores, then Chief of the Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center in Iloilo, reviews the community-based coastal fishery management in the Philippines. Silliman University initiated this management scheme for coral reef fishery resources in four island communities in Central Visayas, namely, Sumilon Island, Apo Island, Balicasag Island, and Pamilican Island. Flores describes the experience of the community-based coastal fishery resource management, the problems encountered in its implementation as well as its successes. Moreover, the author identifies the long-term effects of involving the fisherfolk in Balicasag and Apo islands in managing their own resources using experiential knowledge and technology introduced by an educational institution.
According to the editors, the publication of the above studies is an attempt to bring the results of the research project to a wider Filipino audience. Moreover, they hope to generate a fruitful academic exchange toward the development of maritime anthropology in the Philippines.
*1995 First Prize - Best Book
Award, UP Diliman Exposition Competition