Did Petron abandon Guimaras victims?

February 9, 2007

The Philippine Star 02/09/2007

THE tell tale signs of the tragedy was still visible in the seaside barangay in Guimaras I visited last Saturday. There were signs warning residents not to fish or swim in the still polluted waters. Barangay officials complained that Petron abandoned them, accusing the partly government-owned oil company of not finishing the clean-up job. And since they are essentially fishermen, one wonders how they keep body and soul together now that they are deprived of their main source of livelihood.

I was thinking that even if Petron completed the clean-up, it still wouldn’t have been enough. Petron must help the residents who are victims of their oil spill get back on their feet with a long term solution to their livelihood needs. That’s what the Petron Foundation is for, not just to sponsor some amateur art contest. Petron’s presence must still be felt in Guimaras if their supposed adherence to corporate social responsibility has any meaning at all beyond the press releases.

I was in Guimaras to look into a long-term alternative livelihood project for some of the displaced fisher folk. The Lopez family, through its patriarch Oscar Lopez, has offered to donate land belonging to the family holding company to start a communal farming venture for some of the residents of this seaside barangay. Arrangements are now being made for the Department of Agrarian Reform to allow the donation of the land to residents selected by local officials.

In fact, the Lopez Group Foundation has started to prepare the land for farming, with the installation of a deep water well and the construction of water storage facilities for the project. Technical assistance on what to plant and the possibility of the proposed cooperative entering into contract growing with major food processors are also underway. CODE NGO Iloilo has also been contracted to conduct programs that would prepare the coop members and help them understand the nature of the project and what is expected of them.

Oscar Lopez, talking to them in Ilonggo, emphasized to the residents that the Lopez Group is ready to help them but success of the endeavor depends largely on them. This is not a hand-out. This is going to require a lot of sweat and cooperation from everyone. Beneficiaries must learn to think of group interest above personal. This effort is nothing less than a social experiment whose outcome is uncertain.

Communal farming is something new in this country and while it has proven successful in China, its success here depends on how motivated the beneficiaries are going to be. The choice of a communal farm of 30 hectares owned by a cooperative of farmers rather than distributing smaller lots individually titled but without economies of scale to be productive, is a bold move that goes against current practice. The Guimaras folks however, seem ready to embark with the experiment.

I noticed their eyes lighting up when Mr. Lopez told them that what the project aims to achieve is to give them another source of livelihood. Even before the Petron oil spill, fishing was no longer as lucrative as it was in the past. Overfishing and the use of destructive fishing methods have caused the fish stock to dwindle. But can fishermen be turned into farmers overnight?

The barangay leaders however, are confident they can make something out of the opportunity they are being given. I was also impressed with the barangay leaders as they explained why they disqualified themselves from being among the beneficiaries of the project. It doesn’t look right, they said, for their members to think they took advantage of their positions. Such delicadeza is rare these days. I am glad it is still present at the grassroots.

The project is quite a challenge. But it provides hope for long term livelihood opportunities for the fishermen victims of the Petron oil spill. I imagine there would be a lot of work that must be done to get beneficiaries to align their objectives with that of the cooperative. Hopefully, it works.

We need a new template in dealing with victims of natural and man made disasters in our disaster prone country. Beyond the hand outs of the immediate relief efforts, we need a viable program that would enable victims to normalize their lives and even improve it dramatically.

(For the rest of the column, click Boo.)

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