Fisherfolk maimed by dynamite fishing resist ‘PWD’ label

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SAN ANTONIO, Zambales—Some 20 years ago, Jose Jimenez lost his right arm and the sight of his left eye when a dynamite blew up in his hand, but he and others like him refuse to be called persons with disability.

Jimenez's fate is shared by Pascual Cerizo who lost an arm and who is among the many fishermen who used explosives to blast schools of fish in the sea off the coast of Barangay San Miguel here.

Dynamite or blast fishing is rampant here in this second class town as it is in many parts of the Philippines. Fishermen use homemade devices, usually powdered  potassium nitrate and pebbles or ammonium nitrate and kerosene mixed inside a glass bottle thrown into the waters to kill or stun a school of fish for easy catching.

Dynamite fishing has contributed to the massive destruction of the country's coral reefs and the disappearance of aquatic species. It has also turned fishermen into PWDs, if not killed them altogether.

There are no statistics on how many fishermen have died or been maimed by dynamite fishing. Here in Barangay San Miguel, only one person is officially listed as a PWD, even if in reality, five were injured for engaging in the practice of dynamite fishing. For the first half of the year one has died from the blast of dynamite fishing.

But Cerizo and Jimenez, along with other fishermen who became PWDs due to dynamite fishing, don't see themselves as disabled and refused to be classified as such.

"Ayaw nila, kahit na may tulong sana na ipaparating sa kanila yung local social welfare department para sa may kapansanan, ayaw nilang matatawag silang disabled (The don't want to be called PWDs even if it would mean getting help from the local social welfare department)," said San Miguel barangay chairman Antonio Abling.

Now 41, Cerizo considers losing an arm a simple challenge he overcomes daily. He continues to continue to earn a living from fishing, and goes out to sea alone almost every day.

"Eh pang isa lang din yung bangka ko, saka mas maganda yun kasi walang kahati sa kita (I have just one boat, and it's better because I don't need to share profits with anyone)," Cerizo said. Unlike other fishermen, his house is made of concrete, and financially supports his wife, 2 children, and a grandchild.

Unlike Cerizo, 52-year-old Jimenez had to stop fishing when the dynamite he was holding blasted in his hand, leaving him without a right arm, and blind in the left eye. Jimenez, who heads a family of three, now sells fish in order to earn money for his family. Sometimes, he also ventures into real estate, selling pieces of land for friends, but money proves very hard to come by.

"Eh dahil sa kalagayan ko, hindi ko na nagawang makapangisda. Kaya ito, nagbebenta na lang ako ng napapakyaw kong isda sa mga dati kong kasamahan (Because of my condition, I could not fish anymore. I now sell fish caught by other fishermen)," Jimenez shared.

Both have sworn never to touch dynamite again, with Jimenez regularly reminding other fishermen not to use dynamites.

But fisherfolk never seem to learn from other people's tragedies, Abling said. Many fishermen still practice dynamite fishing, despite being aware of the possible injury and even death it might cause.

"Matagal na naming silang pinakikiusapang tumigil, pero ayaw nila, at yung iba din naman diyan eh galing sa ibang barangay at dito lang nangingisda (We've been asking them to stop but they don't listen. Others are not from our barangay, they just fish here)," Abling said.

Cerizo, a fisherman since he was 14, confessed that he used dynamite to catch more fish even if it meant a prison term of 10 years if he were caught. But in 1992, he figured in an accident.

"Nasa laot kami noon, tatlo kami. Akala ko hindi ko pa nasindihan yung dinamita, pagdampot ko para sindihan ulit, ayun sumabog sa kamay ko, (The three of us were at sea then. I thought the dynamite was not yet lit but when I held it, it blasted)" Cerizo said.

His companions rushed him to a nearby hospital, where he spent a more than a month recuperating.

"Ang mahal noon, buti na lang tumulong yung mga kasamahan ko sa pag iipon ng pambayad (It was very expensive, good thing my friends helped me save to pay up the expenses)," Cerizo said.

"Madami pa din gumagamit, pero karamihan eh galing sa ibang bayan (Many still do it but mostly from other towns)," Cerizo said, citing low catch to justify the dynamite fishing others still engage in. He adds that the seas nearby have been overfished.

Jimenez echoed the view and blamed big fishing companies which he said used artificial reefs or payao, a floating structure topped with coconut fronds or some other similar materials that attract the fish to stay under it. These big fishing companies end up netting both big fish and fingerlings.

But according to Abling, the barangay is set to receive two payaos, provided by ALE partylist. San Antonio also benefitted from BFAR, with four payaos already set up within the municipal waters, including two near the barangay shores. The payaos will be placed in a "safe and short" distance from the shore, and will be off limits to big and commercial fishing companies.

Still, the problem of illegal fishing activities persists, causing more harm to the environment and to the fishermen themselves.

(This story is part of Reporting on Persons With Disability, a project of VERA Files in partnership with The Asia Foundation and Australian Agency for International Development. VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. VERA is Latin for "true.")