The cutting of trees in the hills and the river banks, waste water and garbage, the government’s cut-off channel, and the shift to road transportation are some of the major reasons for the deterioration of the Bikol River and its banks and the present scarcity of fish.
These are some of the conclusions of senior citizens who participated in the Salba Istorya, Salba Buhay project in Camaligan, Canaman, Magarao, the 2017 National Literature Month project of the Sumaro sa Salog (SULOG).
These three riverine towns were once thriving ports for commerce and trade, technology, culture, and the arts, according to historian Danilo M. Gerona. In the early 1900s, the people of the riverine towns traveled by boat and brought their farm products such as rice, vegetables, nipa, as well as lumber and fish to the market via baroto and motor (rowboats and motorboats).
“Progress” came at a very large cost to these now fourth and fifth class rural municipalities. A bigger population brought with it tons of garbage from upstream, decimated the trees, and killed or drove the fish away from the river. A road network shifted transportation to land and killed off river-based trade and commerce. Government planners’ lack of vision and an imbalanced concept of “development” skewed to humans resulted in severe damage to the environment and eventually the people.
The seniors remembered the quantity and variety of fish harvested daily from the river – vat loads to sell after taking what they needed. Some of these fish have disappeared from the river; others are scarce or very small. The runoff from pesticides and herbicides contributed to killing the fish in their breeding ground in the rice paddies.
Human-caused disaster. Though the seniors of all three towns have similar stories about the river, each town focused on particular problems. Those from Camaligan remembered three American barges carrying amphibian boats that docked in Camaligan and stirred up the river bottom in 1945, after World War II. The river bed has since been covered in muck, they said.
Entrepreneurs who quarried sand and stones from the river were faulted, as well as one big capitalist who set up a fishing business and cut down all the trees in their area. His trawls spilled oil on the river and the implements he used scraped the river bottom. His workers put up their shacks along the riverbanks, used the river as their toilets, and eventually squatted there.
The senior citizens were matter of fact about the floods that beset their low-lying towns, though they mentioned destructive typhoons, houses on stilts, and swimming or boating in the flood. Instead the elderly of Canaman and Magarao decried a cut-off channel built to stem those floods.
In the 1950s, planners saw the need to protect low-lying areas along the river. A cut-off channel was built at a bend of the Bikol River as a flood-control system. Another artificial structure was a dam in Canaman Creek in the late 1970s, to prevent the salt from San Miguel Bay from entering the Bikol River. While the dam was being built, the water in the Canaman creek stagnated and became putrid. The residents complained to the government, which in turn blamed the contractor. After the construction, a water tender was assigned to open and close the gate of this control structure to prevent the salty water from entering the river. The residents of Magarao said that the gate is hardly ever closed now, and salty sea water continues to flow into the Bikol River.
While noting less floods, the seniors however noted the cut-off channel as the cause of bigger problems, particularly the destruction of rice farms due to salt water intrusion, the isolation of some villages into islands, the swifter current making it difficult to fish or travel on the river, and the massive erosion of river banks. Planners had not foreseen that eventually, the resulting swifter current from the San Miguel Bay during high tide would salinate the river and the farms especially during summer, endangering the region’s food basket. The swifter current also sweeps as much as 20 tons of garbage into the river every day, and even more during floods, downstream from Bula and Naga, a village elder said. Water hyacinths trap the debris and capsize fishing boats.
In Canaman’s Mangayawan village, the school is often under water, and one of its islands is disappearing. It has also become more expensive for the residents of some riverine villages to transport their produce to the city via land. In Magarao, the proliferation of “golden” snails, sponsored by Marcos’s martial law government as a “source of livelihood,” eventually added to the widespread destruction of rice farms.
The general impression is that humans intervened in the natural flow of the river without a proper understanding of the power of water, a thoroughgoing study of the topography, nor a clear vision of the future. They toyed with nature based on bad science.
Salba Istorya, partially funded by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) with some assistance from the Metro Naga Development Council (MNDC), facilitated the transfer of memory and lessons to the youth and ordinary people who should learn from past mistakes. - Sulog, Inc.
“There are no more crocodiles in the river; they’re now all ‘up there.’”
Senior citizens of Camaligan, Canaman, and Magarao seniors remember the water of the Bikol River as having been very clean even up to the 1960s. They fetched their drinking water from the river and streams, bathed and swam in it, serenaded and courted along the river banks, spotted creatures such as the laki, tambuloslos, and tamulmol, a golden cow crossing the river, and a tibor (jar) full of silver coins at the roadside. Circumcision was a summer rite of passage on the river banks.
The elders recounted their memories, problems, and aspirations in usipon and rawitdawit (stories, poems), and memory maps in workshops conducted in April 2017 by the Sumaro sa Salog (SULOG, Inc) in celebration of National Literature Month, an activity sponsored by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) with help from the Metro Naga Development Council (MNDC) and town officials.
One interesting cultural activity was recounted by a Camaligan senior, paglalabog, literally “muddying.” Every Holy Thursday until the 1970s, carabaos with their owners leading them were made to walk back and forth in their creek until the water became muddy. This caused the fish and shrimp to move to the sides of the creek where children could catch them. The catch was served when the pasyon (The Passion of Christ) was chanted for hours on Good Friday until Easter Sunday.
Other stories focused on riverine palms used to provide food, shelter, and livelihood. Mentioned were nipa for roofing material; buri for fans, mats, baskets, brooms, and to bind nipa shingles; and anahaw. Palm wine, vinegar, and oil are extracted from the palms, and the fruit, eaten.
Stories about crocodiles infesting the river and creeks were highlights, how a young man rode a captured croc like a cowboy, how its delicious meat was neatly layered. Then the inevitable irreverent joke: there are no more crocodiles in the river; they’re now all “up there,” referring to government officials.
RiverRun. The senior citizens as well as the youth dream of a river that is clean again, so that their children and grandchildren can swim, fish, and boat again in the river.
They say, however, that any clean-up of coastal communities should be coordinated because the garbage comes all the way from Rinconada and Naga. The debris could be gathered and recycled as fertilizer and charcoal briquettes. They ask that capital for river-based projects such as water hyacinth baskets and ornaments be sourced by government.
The problem of septage should also be addressed.
They also ask that the use of toxic pesticides and herbicides be controlled so that these do not flow into the river, that the erosion of the riverbanks be addressed at once, and that the river should be dredged in areas where it has become shallow and silted. The people need bridges to facilitate transportation, and request a boat for each barangay for emergencies.
The road network has rendered the old highway on the river as no longer feasible. Life on the river banks is therefore now slow and tedious, just like in certain towns which had many commercial activities along the road until diversion roads were built bypassing them.
To revive in some way the riverine areas which have been forgotten, and for people to experience, first-hand, the river or see its present condition so that more attention and care can be given to it, all suggest that the river be turned into a tourist area through organized river cruises, with stopovers in former wharves with souvenir shops, fish barbecues, and other food places. While are on the cruise, the townsfolk could sponsor cultural activities such as harana on the boat, fishing, storytelling. Reminders about caring for the rivers and keeping it clean should also be conducted.
The seniors and youth, some of them, the seniors’ own grandchildren, all recited and signed Susog Salog’s pledge to care for the river.
The notes of the Salba Istorya project have been transformed into a script for a community theater presentation in the three towns of Camaligan, Canaman, and Magarao. The senior citizens and youth in the workshops will participate in this play. The stories will also be used in story books for children in the region, and for short films for Sulog’s advocacy to save the Naga and Bikol River.
The Salba Istorya project was conceptualized by Merlinda Bobis and implemented by Sulog, Inc. Facilitators in the three towns were writers Estelito Jacob, Fer Basbas, and Sari Saysay. – Sulog, Inc.
(Next week: Part 3 – Gainza, Balongay, Minalabac, Libmanan)