By Atty. Gilberto Lauengco, J.D.

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” -- Dr. Seuss

Fish is one of the staple food sources of our countrymen. Small scale capture fisherfolk (people who fish in the open) or aquaculture groups produce a large portion of local fish sources. Unfortunately, many of them face a constant struggle to sustain their livelihood. It is therefore an existential imperative that they be empowered to ensure their survival. Yet, very few people know of the plight of the folks who fish for a living.

Recently, former Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) Director Nestor Domenden who now heads the Philippine Council for Agriculture and Fisheries (PCAF), invited me to a meeting with some groups of fisherfolk and officials of Municipal Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Management Councils (MFARMC).

FARMCs in every city, municipality and barangays abutting municipal waters, bays, lakes, rivers and dams were created by law to encourage participation by small fisherfolk and small- scale fisheries owner associations in plans and actual project implementation affecting their industry. Standard protocol in government is that projects that assist the small fisherfolk be coursed through member associations of the FARMCs.

The problem with the aforesaid standard protocol is that generally, associations who are recipients of government projects for livelihood are not able to sustain the projects after the infusion of funds or assets. After the initial phase, the project often lapses into a coma till the next infusion. This occurs because associations unaided are not trained to run the project and make it profitable.

Associations are by their very nature non-stock and non-profit organizations. Without proper training and without tweaking the organization, the projects experience difficulty in making it sustainable. In addition, the implementing government agencies are run by government people who have often never run a business in their lives. As such, the protocol as it is, needs additional elements to give these government projects a chance to become sustainable.

During the meeting with this particular groups of FARMCs, however, I was able to meet a FARMC with a success story. In the municipality of Bolinao in the province of Pangasinan, there is a cove filled with fish cages. Many of these fish cages are owned by entrepreneurs or businessmen. Some of these fish cages, however, are owned by a fisherfolk association assisted by the FARMC here.

Initially they were given a few pieces of fish cages and given seven fishing cycles to turn a profit and return the cost of the fish cages. The fisherfolk were able to turn a profit and pay for the fish cages in just one cycle. Encouraged by their success, the fisherfolk association was able to partner with a private corporation who angel invested in the association’s additional fish cage project under a joint venture.

The relative success story of the fisherfolk of Bolinao shows how proper empowerment of the folks of fish can both help improve the lot of the ordinary fisherfolk and improve food production capability.

How can we replicate the Bolinao experience?

First, citizens must support the right people in key government positions in middle management who have the ability to properly utilize government assets, can work with both the stakeholders and private entities and see the big picture. Ordinary citizens must go out of their way and find ways to support these capable officials. Officials like PFAC director Domenden must be harnessed and placed in the right positions

Second, local and national government units must work hand in hand with the FARMC in their areas to provide the proper opportunities for these associations. Areas must be set aside exclusively for these associations to set up their projects and incentives must be granted. The associations must be protected from preying middlemen and predatory big businesses and allowed to grow.

Third, professionals and private individuals must go out, capacitate and help these associations. The Bolinao fisherfolk were taught by private individuals how to run the project like a business cooperative with an eye for profit. A private corporation provided them with capital and assets and inputs for additional fish cage projects and only asked for 20 percent of the net profits. If more social enterprises are set up and partner with these small- scale food producing associations, this story can be replicated. Perhaps, professionals of a certain age who are winding down their careers can go out and pitch in and help with their core competencies. These associations need entrepreneurs, marketing experts, finance people, and of course, aggressive lawyers to protect them.

Finally, the ordinary citizens can help make the plight of the fisherfolk and others like them be known by setting aside some of their social media time and supporting these stories. Perhaps, if their stories are told over and over again, enough people can come together to truly empower them.

This is just my oblique observation.

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the foregoing article are solely the author’s and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of the Philippine News Agency (PNA) or any other office under the Office of the Press Secretary. 

About the Columnist

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ATTY. GILBERTO LAUENGCO, J.D. is a lawyer, educator, political strategist, government consultant, Lego enthusiast, and the director of CAER Think Tank. He is a Former Vice Chairman of MECO, Special Assistant of NFA and City Administrator among others. His broad experience has molded his unique approach to issues analysis which he calls the oblique observation.