Cover Story : How the green warriors of Guimaras are fighting back

September 17, 2006

By Ma. Diosa Labiste
Inquirer Sunday Magazine

LIKE a warrior who prepares for a drawn-out battle, Melvin Purzuelo has stockpiled his weapons to defeat the enemy: the oil spill from the wrecked tanker MT Solar I, which sank in the waters off Guimaras Strait and Panay Gulf on August 11 with its load of 300,000 liters of bunker fuel. Purzuelo surveys his munitions: piles of rice straws, lines of fishing nets, heaps of coconut husks, some old clothes, sacks of corn cobs, bamboo poles and whorls of hair from beauty parlors. All these, and the determined spirit to race against time to contain what is said to be the worst oil spill ever to hit the country.

“Nothing was said in books about using indigenous materials against an oil spill. But let’s keep our faith that, given our limited resources, we can work things out,” says Purzuelo, 43, who heads the environment watch group Green Forum Western Visayas.

Purzuelo’s team, the Task Force Save Our Seas (SOS), has rallied people to donate absorbent materials to clean up the oil spill that can destroy the rich but fragile marine ecosystems of Guimaras.

The donated materials are taken to the Iloilo Fishing Port Complex, where they are made into oil spill booms to be installed in shallow waters or a mile offshore. Bales of rice straws tied together form a long line that traps the advancing slick of bunker fuel. Coconut husks, corn cobs and discarded clothes are stuffed into huge bags made of discarded fishing nets that will be anchored by floats of plastic water bottles and bamboo. Globs of bunker oil are known to stick to these makeshift booms that form the first line of defense against the oil slick before it laps the beaches.

Dying a little

The hair whorls are a problem. While bags of hair have been arriving from beauty parlors and prisons, the task force has yet to devise a way to make them into a boom, because it has no idea how long it would take for the hair to degrade, and whether it can effectively absorb the oil. Yet, says Purzuelo, it’s some sort of sacrifice to shave one’s head or cut one’s hair to dramatize concern for the damaged environment. It’s like dying a little, he adds.

Purzuelo and his team credit their training in disaster preparedness for their ability to respond immediately to the oil spill. A few hours after hearing news about the sinking of MT Solar I, Purzuelo assembled his squad of six, composed of Jorge Abordom, Dennis Taborno, Rey Beatisula, Mila Cabrera, Roy Latap and Greg Azares. While the news focused on the search and rescue of the tanker’s two missing crew members, the Green Forum was already thinking about the looming disaster from the oil spill.

Purzuelo recounts how they had wanted to survey the waters where the tanker was last seen, but storm surges prevented them from doing so. Instead, the group started working closely with the Philippine Coast Guard, Greenpeace and marine scientists from the University of the Philippines in the Visayas to map out plans on how to deal with the bunker oil already seeping into the coastal villages of Nueva Valencia, Guimaras the morning after the sea disaster.

(For the full story, click Green Warriors, Sept. 17, 2006.)

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