The defenders' table

published on page A5, Manila Standard Today, June 22, 2013

One day I found myself surrounded by Greenpeace Southeast Asia folks eager to share what they had been up to. Vince Cinches and Beau Baconguis were in Programs/ Campaigns, Jenny Tuazon was in New Media, Ian Sarra was a volunteer. Vigie Llorin was the media officer who brought us all together.

Cinches had not gone home yet. He arrived that same morning from a trip to Bicol for Defending our Oceans—the latest, but most certainly not the only issue the organization is trying to push. And why not? The Philippines is an archipelago, its coastline—spanning 36,289 kilometers—the fifth longest in the world. More than 60 percent of the people live in coastal areas, with 40 million relying directly on the sea for food and livelihood.

“The Philippine seas are in crisis,” Cinches began. “Corals are dying, mangrove areas are being destroyed, seagrass beds are being eroded and vital populations of fish and other marine species are declining.” The Defending our Oceans campaign has two specific goals: end overfishing and protect marine reserves.

“The causes are many,” he said. “You have unregulated fishing practices, unabated coastal development, cutting of mangroves and seagrass, poaching of corals and reclamation, pollution.”

Baconguis acknowledged that the problem is vast and that it is not confined to the Philippines. Still they have to start somewhere, and that is exactly what they are doing at this point, raising awareness about the issue just so it gets talked about especially by decision makers.

“We have been working so far with the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources of the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, state universities providing studies so that our advocacy may have solid academic basis, the Department of Interior and Local Government specifically local government units where the coastal areas are, and legislators,” Baconguis said.

With the mention of legislation, Cinches agreed that the Philippine Fisheries Code of 1998 needs reviewing. Among the issues are the vague provisions on just how far commercial fishers can go. “It’s subject to different interpretations,” said Baconguis. “Sometimes it’s the mayor who interprets the law as basis for allowing or not allowing fishing.”

The BFAR, they said, acknowledges policy inadequacy. In the meantime, its job is to enforce what is there, so they are working on exactly that. According to Cinches, the fact that the Aquino administration has the semblance of reform-mindedness gives them a good opportunity to engage incumbent officials.

But once the issue of Defending our Oceans gets past the feel-good, awareness creation stage, Baconguis and Cinches foresee that the picture is going to get less pretty. “There will be resistance, for sure, from industry, from politicians especially if they protect some interests, or worse, if they have interests themselves.”

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Then again, that’s par for the course. If they encounter resistance, it means their campaigns are ruffling some feathers. “We do take risks, however calculated,” said Baconguis. “Generally, Greenpeace people including the volunteers try to push the envelope to see how far we can get in agitating the people concerned.” Some of the volunteers have experience being thrown rocks at, or being fired at.

Sarra is one of 250 or so “warm bodies” who show up when they are called for some activity, usually depending on their interests and abilities. Volunteers have day jobs and devote their spare time to Greenpeace activities. From the looks of it, Sarra has been happy being one. “Last year I went on board M/V Esperanza to give relief to people in Davao devastated by typhoon,” he said. “But I also almost fainted collecting chemical samples as part of the water patrol….part of the job required handling hazardous materials.”

Baconguis said they use these samples to strengthen their positions against companies or industries committing environmental breaches and harming the people in the communities where they operate.

Meanwhile, the not-so-warm bodies number around 39,000. Tuazon deals with these non-traditional volunteers who try to make a difference by using technology. “They sign up, we give them stories, and they post these on Facebook or Twitter or blog about them, occasioning discussions or debates and even localizing the issues.”

The cyber-activists, mostly 18- to 24-year-olds, do not even have to agree with what Greenpeace is saying. “We need thinkers who can form their opinions independently and communicate well.” Indeed, only in this way can the discussions be conducted intelligently but also inclusively.

The Greenpeace bunch talked about the ship tours especially of the Esperanza, which is due at the Manila Bay again sometime soon. It turns out that every member of the team has to undergo training on actually staying aboard while it’s on tour, doing its business. It’s not only good for photo ops. “We’re not on a cruise here!”

They said the Esperanza, or any Greenpeace ship for that matter, is “crucial to our campaign.” The ship is seen as a big megaphone conveying our message from one place to another.

In the end, however, it’s people with great passion, like these advocates, Greenpeace employees, ocean defenders— call them what you like—who make sure the message sticks, and stays on the table.