ONE thousand seven hundred fisherfolk from more than 12 barangays in Aparri marched on Friday, Earth Day, to protest black sand mining operations in the town, which they say is happening in the guise of river dredging.

This was the first time that a protest of this magnitude was organized in the town.

The fisherfolk were joined by other groups from neighboring towns of Gattaran, Ballesteros, Buguey, Gonzaga, and Sta. Ana.

A prayer service and program were held at the San Pedro Telmo Parish Church where fisherfolk shared the effects of the alleged mining operations to their livelihood and environment.

Mayoralty candidates for the 2022 elections, incumbent mayor Bryan Dale Chan, and long-time former mayor Dr. Ismael Tumaru, were in attendance to respond to their problems.

Fisherfolk report that the supposed river dredging activities produce sound, light, and chemical pollution that have gravely disturbed the ecosystem, messed with reproductive patterns of aquatic resources, decimated the fish and shrimp population, including that of the aramang or spider shrimp, which is endemic in the area.

The dwindling catch has considerably slashed the income of 11,000 fisherfolk and their families. Before the river dredging operations started in the first quarter of 2021, fisherfolk said one boat could catch up to 200 kilos of fish overnight off the coast of Aparri. Now, they would be lucky to take home three kilos of fish. They also shared that from December 2021 to April 2022, each fisherman would earn 300 to 1,000 pesos for three days’ work, a far cry from their 3,000 to 7,000 peso earnings before that period.

Aparri fisherfolk and residents reported the return of mining activity in the first quarter of 2021 with dredging seacrafts and huge sea carriers of the Chinese firm Riverfront Construction Inc. visibly operating in the Cagayan River, the Aparri delta, and the West Philippine Sea.

The Cagayan Provincial government headed by Governor Manuel N. Mamba explained that the presence of large ships is due to the ongoing large-scale dredging to desilt the Cagayan river, not only as a river rehabilitation and flood control project, but also as a necessary “enabling activity for the reopening of the Aparri port and the establishment of an international seaport.”

The project, entitled the Cagayan River Restoration Project, is headed by the Department of Environment and Natural Environment with Mamba as the convenor of an inter-agency committee that includes the Department of Public Works and Highways, Department of Transportation, and the Department of Interior and Local Government.

Mamba has also said he will resign if the people can prove there were indeed mining activities there.

But local fishermen attest that the vessels suck sand at the open sea, right at the areas where they fish, which are several kilometers from the mouth of the river, way beyond the designated dredging segments. Marine traffic tracking reveal back and forth trips of the vessels from Northern Philippines to China which, fisherfolk believe, is the end destination of the mined magnetite from the black sand. For example, Hong Chang, a bulk carrier that can haul up to 64,000 metric tons of sand material has done trips between Aparri to China at least four times since the dredging project started.

Fisherfolk and many Aparri residents also insist that the river dredging project actually brings the threat of erosion to an area that is already perennially inundated by floods brought about by strong rains and typhoons. As a flood-control project, it defeats its purpose, they said.

Mayor Chan speaking at the Earth Day program shared the RCI does not have a permit to dredge the river, but only a general engineering permit.

He also said that the project went into full swing without public hearings and proper consultation with the people. Chan reiterated his support to the fisherfolk in their fight to stop black sand mining.

Addressing government leaders, dried fish vendor Marlyne Bugarin cried, “We plead for your compassion. Our fervent hope is that disaster brought about by black sand mining be stopped. May the Lord touch your hearts so that you will feel and see our call.”

Parish priest Fr. Manuel Catral said the Earth Day event dubbed “Alay Lakad Para sa Kabuhayan, Kalikasan, Kinabukasan” was intended to be a platform for the fisherfolk to express their depressing situation to the people of Aparri and its future leaders.

“Fishing is the lifeblood of Aparri. Its people’s identities are closely anchored in its waters. The Parish of San Pedro Telmo is united with the fisherfolk in their clamor to stop ecological plunder of the river and the seas and claim their economic, social, and cultural rights,” Catral said. (PR)