How protecting the fish secured the peace in a once troubled Lanao town

In the small, picturesque town of Sultan Naga Dimaporo on the shores of the  Illana Bay in Lanao del Norte, several communities stand as a witness to marine sanctuaries that not only secured their fishing livelihoods, but forced a change in attitudes to forever unify the once disparate and conflict scarred Muslim and Christian neighborhoods.

According to local fisherfolks leader

Zainoden Abdela of the Samahan ng mga Mangingisda at Magsasaka sa Sigayan (SAMAS), time was when even without actual physical conflict there was a lot of prejudice between Muslim and Christian neighbors.

This all changed, however, when the idea of a marine sanctuary to protect their livelihoods from illegal fishing activities was proposed by a non government organiztion called the Lanao Aquatic and Marine Fisheries Center for Community Development (LAFCCOD) Inc. around the year 2000.

Another fisherman Johnny Balindong recalls that when LAFCCOD first came in, they were not easily impressed and inspired because they were primarily Christians. As time passed, however, attitudes changed.

“When LAFFCOD started organizing us and giving us training on the Culture of Peace and Community Based Coastal Resource Management, our perspective changed,” he said in the local language.

This, according to him, became stronger with the implementation of the marine sanctuaries, as they saw the value of working together to schieve the common goal of protecting and enhancing their common fishing grounds.

Another fisherman Abbas Maruhom related how the trainings eventually encouraged them to form the Muslim Christian Organization of Farmers and Fisherfolk.

“The leadership was mixed, The Chairman would be Muslim while the Vice Chairman would be Christian,” he explains in Cebuano.

According to Fermin Flores, Executive Director of LAFCCOD, the initiative was a means to build peace by achieving better social cohesion between Muslim and Chistians in neighborhoods.

“When we entered in 2000, potential for conflict was high and the possibility of unrest and voioence was always present, ” he explains.

“Our entry point to get them together was the common aspiration to  build sustainable livelihoods, from the fishing activities they both do” he said.

Establishing the sanctuaries, he said, was a multipronged approach that achieved community harmony and peace while helping them improve livelihoods in common municipal fishing grounds and prevent illegal fishing activities that depeleted their common supply of fish. In turn, he explains, the sustained livelihood also promoted peace.

He explains further that the three sanctuaries located in Barangays Sigayan, Tantawon and Banga became a focal point for the residents, These are now co managed between the local government and the Peoples organizations.

On a cultural level he says, the sanctuaries gave them something upon which to foster cooperation and eventually, mutual acceptance and respect.

“The trainings and shared effort in establishing the sanctuary over the years helped them

warm up to the idea of working together despite their being from different religions and past experiences,” Flores explains.


Volunteers and partnerships played a big role

To this day, Johnny fondly remembers a volunteer named Dave from a London based organization called Voluntary Service Overseas Philippines (VSO) who helped them understand the benefit of having a sanctuary. VSO provided technical volunteers that helped them define the bounds of the sanctuaries in 2001.  Celebrating 60 years this year, VSO has been providing such assistance around the world since 1958.

As a result of this cooperation between LAFCCOD, VSO and the various peoples organizations, the sanctuaries are covered by a municipal ordinance and have applied for protected area status.

This allowed better enforcement of regulations governing the use of the common fishing grounds.

The secure livelihoods and common efforts built partnerships that manifest in harmonious relationships between government and civil society, making the area more productive.

In the last year, the local government reported a slight increase in agricultural production of important crops like rice and corn, despite the Marawi conflict raging some two hours away.

Of equal, if not greater importance in this experience, Flores says, is the cohesion and peace achieved between Muslim and Christian fisherfolk and farmers.

Thus, as the sun sets over the bay, the calm waters resonate the peace on the town’s shores, and the hearts of its farmers and fisherfolk.