Continued from last week
THE stories of the senior citizens of Gainza, Calabanga, Minalabac, and Libmanan are very much like those of the other riverine towns of Camaligan, Canaman, Magarao, and of Naga City.
The river was essential to the people as a source of livelihood, as a means of transport, and as a cradle of local history and culture.
Clean and Green Source of Livelihood. They remember the water of the river as crystal clear, a source of drinking water, food, and irrigation. In Libmanan, people used the fine sand in the river to clean their teeth.
People who lived by the river were mostly farmers but also fisher folk. The seniors remember a bounty of fish and shellfish. They also made a living out of making tiklad or nipa shingles, as nipa grew thick along the banks. Then there were the flora in the area such as dapdap, narra, kuyapi, mangrove, talisay, nipa and buri. Among the wildlife along the river were the goto, layagan, amid, wild boar and monkeys, and the tikling, talaod, kanaway, riwariw, and naga (wild duck).
According to a senior in Libmanan, life was sustainable if one had a farm, a plow and a harrow, a tambobong (storage shed), a boat and fishing tools. He was able to send all his six children to school from his work as farmer, fisher, and paratiklad.
River Highway. From the 1940s up to about the 1970s, the people traveled by boat to Capalonga or Libmanan or Naga on the other end. Sipocot and Canaman were short boat rides across the river from Libmanan and Calabanga. Farmers, many of whom were near the river, did not have any difficulty transporting their products on boats. The same was true for vendors of nipa, vegetables, and water.
River Stories. The river was also a keeper of culture and tradition. Places from the Bikol epic fragment Ibalong figure in Libmanan, such as Handong and Malbogon Island, the legendary home of witches Hilan and Laryong.
As children, the seniors could easily swim across the river, bathed, played and did their laundry in it. The boys were circumcised by the river, and later courted along its banks. When the seniors were children, anyone who shouted in Punta Tarawal in Calabanga could be heard across in Cabusao.
The seniors talked about seeing encanto such as the fiery santelmo when it rained near the water and along fences, how they looked like a demon’s eyes, and how they screamed. Folklore has it that santelmo were the souls of condemned and cruel people, pulling chains or barrels, and the people’s metaphor for paraanab nin daga or landgrabbers. In Balongay, the seniors say there are no more santelmo; they’re dead, drowned, and buried because “people no longer have souls.” Santelmo, a metaphor for landgrabbers
Elders told their children not to swim too near the railway bridge because an angungulkul would drown them. This was probably a way to frighten children away from swimming in the dangerous burong burong or whirlpool there.
There were fluvial processions during fiestas in Gainza and Minalabac. Boys aged 8-11 danced the Tumatarok (Planting Rice) of San Felipe-San Tiago in Minalabac and celebrated on colorful pagodas (boats with roofs) while musicians played. In Libmanan, people cooked and slept in their boats days before setting off to join the fluvial procession in Naga for the Peñafrancia fiesta.
Brgy Cagbunga in Gainza is home to the “Tolong Hinulid,” three century-old statues of tortured and bloody dead Christs said to have been found during floods in Gainza. A senior citizen from Cagbunga said that during World War II, the images saved Gainza residents from being strafed by Japanese machine guns. During the strong typhoon Sening in 1970, the flood carried everything away from the chapel of the Tolong Hinulid, except miraculously for the three statues.
A famous healer, Nana Lucia, had a kambal halas or snake twin in the Minalabac river. A white lady, the soul of a bride on the way to her wedding, haunts the spot where she drowned. Attempts to salvage a huge bell in Kirirayon Creek bring on lightning and thunder. A burirawan (eel) living underground is held down by the feet of San Felipe Santiago. When people are bad, the saint raises his foot and the eel turns into a giant monster to drown the barangay. A footprint of the giant Kulakog can be seen in Minalabac, while it’s other foot is in Bula. A huge shell midden in Sitio Bingkay is said to be the giant’s leavings after eating the clams. In Libmanan, clam shells (tibubulaka) were used as lime for cooking.
Crocodiles also figured in their stories. Co Say, a wealthy Chinese merchant in Pili searched for his pet crocodile in Calabanga after a typhoon. A man had power in water because of a magic stone implanted in his arm. Crocodiles followed him, like banana tree trunks towed by his boat, so they were easily caught. Crocodiles nested in one area of Libmanan; in fact, the banner of Libmanan has a crocodile in it. Locals did not bother them, but the “Moros” caught them for their meat and bones which were made into buttons.
The seniors said that in past wars, Filipino guerrillas, American, and then Japanese soldiers used the river in Minalabac to escape their enemies. Food was abundant even during the Japanese time because of the many clams that filled their boats. In Baliuag, Minalabac, Gen. Ludovico Arejola helped American soldiers escape the burong burong or whirling water. A Japanese straggler who had resorted to stealing food to live was stabbed to death with a sarapang by the locals.
A Degraded Riverscape. Because of the lack of trees, even a little rain brings floods, the seniors say. The trees were cut by chain saws by the Bicol Sugar Development Company to give way to sugar cane plantations because sugar cane is a cash crop. Charcoal makers also cut trees, most of them with medicinal and food uses, in Minalabac.
The river is now also very wide, shallow, and very dirty. It is full of garbage that does not rot. An oil mill, masses of water lily, and garbage from upstream municipalities and elsewhere all end up at the mouth of the Bikol River and San Miguel Bay. They are stuck in the river and sink as sediment down to the river bed. Septage goes through drainage pipes into the river (hurusan). There are piggeries on the banks. When asked to pinpoint when garbage started piling up, the seniors said it was in the 1980s, when plastic started to be commonly used.
In Libmanan, the river stayed clean until the 1990s mainly because Mayor and then Governor Jose Bulaong, a medical doctor, was very strict about cleanliness. There was a system of collecting trash, and no one abused the river. After his term, the river started to become dirty again. Eventually, part of the river in the poblacion was reclaimed to provide space for the market. A patch of earth on the river expanded and is called “Surrender Island,” now full of settlers, also a source of trash.
There are therefore fewer fish in the river. Any catch is barely enough for consumption. Ironically, many people from Gainza who used to sell fish in Naga now go to Naga to buy fish.
Another cause for fewer fish in the river, the seniors say, could be the chemicals and insecticide sprayed in the farms which leach into the river. A third cause is the use of dynamite and electricity to catch fish, although these have been declared illegal by the Fisheries Bureau. The biyakos or filter net which caught even undersized fish was also banned in 2016, and some seniors in Gainza said this resulted in the increase in the number of carp in the river.
Two sources of livelihood along the river are now badly, fishing and nipa shingle production. The Bureau of Fish and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) declared biyakos (filter nets) illegal and said that after a few months, the fish would come back. The seniors in Calabanga say there are still no fish in the river. They ask why the BFAR bans the use of biyakos which do not move, since no one gets rich anyway from backyard fishing. Besides, the use of biyakos is seasonal, they say, after the fish lay eggs and after they get bigger. On the other hand, why does the BFAR not go after the trawls and illegalize them when those are what actually sweep up all the fish in the river and destroy the river bed? The government favors big capitalists with trawls and kills the small fisherfolk who use biyakos they say.
Likewise, in the tiklad home industry, there is also pressure from government. Nipa is a minor forestry product so those who sell tiklad are stopped at checkpoints and required expensive permits which eat up any income. The irony is that the provincial government has declared nipa single production as a livelihood. The different agencies of government have no coordination.
Cut-off Channel. In the past, whenever there was a typhoon or strong rain, Gainza was flooded for about a month. Motorboats were used even in the town center. People died and houses and farms were destroyed. Nevertheless, the seniors said that people did not suffer much because of the bounty of fish. In Minalabac, the denuded hills and landscape caused the river to overflow. Nothing was left after the flood, even the rice that was just turning red and many were drowned. In Malbogon island of Libmanan, people simply evacuate to higher ground during floods.
The seniors say that the cut-off channel built in the 1950s from Cabusao to Minalabac to Canaman, as well as a drainage system within Gainza changed things for them. Instead of a month-long flood, the flood now lasts only two to three days. In addition, the land dug up to build the cut-off channel has lent stability to some areas in the riverine villages so that houses could be built on them.
On the other hand, the narrow cut-off channel has caused massive erosion of the banks so that “the channel is now a river.” The banks of the Bikol River have also been massively eroding. In one private property in brgy Malbong in Gainza, two-thirds or 26,000 sq m of a 34,000 sq m. farm has been eaten away by erosion. The Gainza seniors downplay the effect of those floods and mention the erosion in passing. Perhaps this is because the properties that are eroding belong to wealthy private individuals rather than the participants themselves.
What is worse for the residents is that a faster river current has made fishing more difficult, as well as salinated both the river and the rice fields, resulting in lower rice production. When water lilies start dying on their estuarine river in Libmanan, that is a sign that the water is becoming salty. The saline water intrudes into the rice farms and destroys the crops. In the 1980s even the nipa groves died because the water became very salty. According to the seniors of Calabanga, whoever did the development planning gave priority to farmers and left the fisherfolk behind. The consequence, both fisherfolk and farmers now suffer because of salt intrusion in the river and the farms.
Livelihood from farming also changed when business people or capitalists took over in the 1990s. A few made money while many others suffered. Farmers could not pay their loans to the capitalists when typhoons struck and became mired in debt. Some eventually lost their land.
The road network has rendered the river irrelevant as a means of transport. Now, farmers have to rent expensive vehicles and travel longer periods to transport their farm produce.
A particular problem in Libmanan is a dredging machine on the river. Residents question its operation there because they believe that the machine is not doing dredging work but rather, are quarrying the sand on the river bed.
What is to be done. To address the problems of a degraded river, the seniors suggest sustainable septage and solid waste management programs by the government. Each municipality should have a system for managing its waste so it does not end up in the river, with proper ordinances and implementation. Piggeries along the rivers should be dismantled and the river and its banks should be cleaned every month in a synchronized coastal clean-up. There should also be individual responsibility for one’s own trash.
The hills and banks should be greened again, as in the 1980s, when the late Senator Raul Roco initiated the planting of bamboo, mambog, and mangrove. Planting along the banks should be done in a sustainable way, with monitoring and maintenance. Groups that plant mangroves in Calabanga usually just take selfies and leave, to plant again the next year, the Calabanga seniors say. Very few of what they plant survive.
The seniors also said that their memory of the importance of the river should be shared with the youth so that they could also take action to save it. The river is no longer appreciated by the present generation because it does not provide the livelihood from fishing or the means of transportation that these had in the seniors’ time. The young therefore generally ignore the river as just being there, and many even consider it as a place to throw garbage. They can no longer even relate to the stories of life along the river. “Show them, let them understand the river’s value to human life as they have forgotten, through story telling.”
One senior in Gainza expressed the expectation that the SULOG team was there to gather data for what would eventually a riprap project for the eroding banks. This was the only time erosion was highlighted in the conversation. The facilitator clarified that any change should not be dependent on a savior or a politician but should come from collective thought and action of the residents themselves.
Change should come from collective thought and action of the residents themselves.
As to livelihood, people still benefit much from the river in Libmanan as a source of irrigation. The government should however favor small farmers, fisherfolk, and nipa shingle makers, not only those in business.
The seniors ask that the river be made deeper again and that a riprap be built on the eroding portions of the river banks. They want a program for gathering the water lily and trash in the river and find a way to use these. The LGU has a tourist program for the river in Minalabac, and there is a need for trained storytellers for that. Seniors say that boats should be used again.
All in all, there should be a program to rehabilitate the Bikol River and its tributaries and all should be involved in a synchronized way.
The Salba Istorya Salba Buhay project is based on a concept of Merlinda Bobis and implemented by the Sumaro sa Salog (SULOG, Inc.) with assistance from Totoy Badiola of the Metro Naga Development Council, municipal local government units, and senior citizens, with some funding from the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA). Facilitators in these last four riverine towns were Rico Raquitico, Badette Duro Ibarbia, Fer Basbas, Vic Nierva, and Doods Santos. – Sulog, Inc.