IN A small and obscure town called Cortes in Surigao Sur, the bountiful harvest from the sea and the coconut farms are celebrated in typical small town fashion.
As expected, there is the mass at its lone Catholic church of the usual wide façade festooned with myriad buntings, a colorful morning parade with the usual suspects -- public school teachers herding their young students to march in line, frisky high school drum and bugle corps with majorettes swaying in shimmering short skirts matched with knee-high patent boots, young queens dressed in resplendent gowns with makeup melting under the merciless heat, senior citizens hiding under the shadow of colorful umbrellas, and street urchins hypnotized by the cacophony.
The celebration is called Kalogatan Festival, a portmanteau of “kalubihan” and “kadagatan.” It is probably not the first of its kind in the Philippines but it is for Cortes as part of its 64th Foundation Day.
This year is probably its proudest fiesta, too, since the town bested 15 other regions all over the Philippines in Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources’s (BFAR) “Malinis at Masaganang Karagatan” (MMK) and has been declared as having the cleanest and most well-managed shorelines. Cortes is the first winner and along with the national recognition is P20-million worth of livelihood projects funded by the BFAR. Now, that is not typical.
The MMK “recognizes outstanding initiatives and contributions of coastal municipalities/cities to sustainable fisheries development and has four general criteria: (1) absence of illegal fishing and observance of fishing closed season, (2) establishment of protected marine sanctuary, (3) clean coastal waters without domestic and industrial wastes and, (4) effective mangrove protection and rehabilitation program.”
All four criteria have been crystallized in the way the local government unit of Cortes has managed its municipal waters under the leadership of its mayor.
William Angos, a CPA and a lawyer, and Mayor of Cortes confessed his “selfish” goal when he ran as mayor was because he wanted “to spend more time scuba diving” in his hometown. He has been Cortes’ mayor since 2013 and to date, he has only donned his scuba gear once. And yet, under Angos’ leadership, the number of marine sanctuaries has expanded to ten and various fishing organizations have become partners in managing the coastal areas. He has also partnered with groups like Rare.
Rare is a marine conservation non-government organization who works with municipal fisheries “in order to boost livelihoods, protect marine habitats, and enhance community resilience to climate change.” This sits well with Cortes, after all, it has more coastal than land areas and crucial to Surigao Sur as major supplier of fresh seafood and first-class fish. Aside from managing coastal and marine resources, Rare has also introduced financial literacy and has encouraged saving clubs where children and adults can contribute.
The biggest marine sanctuary in Cortes is Burgos and on a clear day, one can see several minion-yellow bancas plying the entire stretch of the sanctuary as fisherfolk feed the fish, clean the sanctuary of waste especially, plastic. To quote our Burgos host, Gigie Pame, “Magyawyaw si Mayor kung makakita og plastic sa dagat or daplin dagat (Mayor will launch a tirade when he sees plastics on or by the sea).”
The Kalogatan’s highlight was the coronation of the winner of the Ultimate Fisherman’s Challenge. Twelve fishermen endorsed by their barangays competed in a series of physically- demanding feats including a Q&A portion that examined their awareness of their environment (e.g. ‘Unsang abono ang gigamit sa kalubin-an nga organic nga dili makadaut sa kinaiyahan?). But what brought the house down was the talent portion where the heavily muscled fishermen wore grass skirts, bra tops and danced the hula or tried to do something akin to dancing.
My gender buttons were nearly triggered that night but I will reserve the fire for some other time, maybe when I am ready to don my fins and spend time in the other nine sanctuaries.
William has promised to be my guide. As of now, I’m just gloating at the thought that I’ve been introduced to Cortes and will be coming back soon. Fish are friends.