Climate and Environment

Mindoro fishers press on in fight for justice a year after oil spill

Gaea Katreena Cabico - Philstar.com
Mindoro fishers press on in fight for justice a year after oil spill
Volunteers and community members unveil a 50 meter mural in oil spill ground zero, Pola, calling for the protection of people and the environment in the critically biodiverse Verde Island Passage, which Mindoro is part of.
Jilson Tiu for Center of Energy, Ecology, and Development

MANILA, Philippines — When oil tanker MT Princess Empress sank in the waters off Naujan in Oriental Mindoro on Feb. 28, 2023, Aldrin Villanueva, a fisherman from neighboring Pola, thought the consequences would not be insignificant. 

“At first, we thought it was just a simple sinking,” Villanueva, who heads fishers’ group Lapian ng mga Mangingisda sa Batuhan (LAMBAT), said in Filipino. 

However, the resulting catastrophe was immense. The oil spill polluted local waters and wreaked havoc on the delicate ecosystems of the Verde Island Passage (VIP). 

This forced local authorities to implement a fishing ban and declare a state of calamity, which, while eventually lifted, severely impacted the livelihoods of Villanueva and other fishers.

“We used to earn a big sum of money just by fishing here. If we’re lucky, the earnings could reach thousands. That’s why it was really difficult when the state of calamity was declared,” Villanueva said. 

While fishing activities in Oriental Mindoro have resumed a year after the oil spill, fishers continue to face challenges due to lingering environmental and economic impacts.

Their fight for justice and compensation also continues. 

Socio-economic losses

A report by think tank Center for Energy, Ecology, and Development (CEED) estimated that the oil spill caused P40.1 billion in environmental damage and P1.1 billion in socioeconomic losses. The total cost of damage was 800% higher than the government’s estimate.

“Before they lifted the fishing ban, we were unemployed for several months. We only received aid, food packs. When we couldn’t fish, we were working in the fields,” fisher Reyge Anigan said. 

“Now we can fish, but not as much as before. We used to catch around 20 kilos, with the most being 50 kilos,” he added. 

For fisher Roberto Bargabino, their “lives were good back when the oil tanker had not yet sunk.” 

Barnabino's child, who was studying civil engineering in Calapan City, had to transfer to Pola Community College and is now pursuing a degree in education. Barnabino hopes his child will return to engineering once their livelihood recovers.

“I hope we will be compensated for what happened because we lost a lot in our livelihood. The government should help give what is due to us,” he said.

According to fishers’ group Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas (PAMALAKAYA), the spill affected 18,000 fishers in Oriental Mindoro and neighboring provinces.

'Fight doesn't end'

In Pola, the town most affected by the oil spill, locals gathered to remember the tragedy that hit their shores. 

Community members and advocates also unveiled a mural designed by environmental activist AG Saño calling for the protection of the Verde Island Passage. A commemorative marker is also set to rise in Pola. 

“Our fight does not end today and we will not cease to fight until we see a clear path towards its recovery, which would only be possible if justice is served, polluters are held accountable, and communities are properly compensated,” said Fr. Edwin Gariguez, lead convenor of Protect VIP. 

The Department of Justice earlier recommended the filing of falsification of documents charges against the officers of RDC Reield Marine Services, an employee of the Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA), and a private person. 

But for Protect VIP, San Miguel Corporation must be also held responsible for the oil spill. A Rappler report identified that SL Harbor Bulk Terminal Corporation, a subsidiary of San Miguel Shipping and Lighterage Corporation, chartered MT Princess Empress from Bataan to Iloilo.

“SMC owes it to impacted communities to pay up, and, even more importantly, clean up from its continued promotion of fossil fuels,” CEED executive director Gerry Arances said. 

Another study by CEED found out that oil and grease levels remained high in several protected areas nearly a year after the oil spill in Oriental Mindoro. But it noted that domestic pollution and leakages of tankers are also potential sources of oil and grease.

The oil spill in Oriental Mindoro was the first environmental crisis under the Marcos’ administration.

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