The disappearance of Manila Bay

July 2, 2014
by 
Mary Hanson, Member of Development and Peace
One of the last mangrove forests in Manila Bay.

A group of 12 Development and Peace members from the Prairies and the Atlantic provinces, accompanied by two staff members, are on a solidarity trip to the Philippines. They will be visiting eight Development and Peace partners and some of their projects in the capital city of Manila, in southern Mindanao and on the islands of Leyte and Samar – where Yolanda (the Filipino name for Typhoon Haiyan) first made landfall on November 8th of last year. We invite you to follow their adventures and learnings as they travel through the Philippines for the next two weeks.

It is our second full day of activities in Manila. It’s Sunday and we’re all off to Mass. Our itinerary says we will be going to Manila Cathedral. Our Development and Peace host, Aida, leads us instead to a very busy part of the city, full of vendors and stalls with every item you could think of for sale. Where is the church? We keep walking around a tall fence that houses merchant after merchant and then… voila! The Minor Basilica of the Church of the Nazarene.

Immediately, I hear beautiful music and singing coming from the church’s entrance. It seems like we must be late for Mass but we soon realize that this Mass is almost complete. There are hundreds of people waiting outside to enter the church for the next one. We follow Aida into the entrance space. The entire church is crammed with people of every age. As we wait along a back wall, the Mass ends and hundreds, perhaps thousands, stream out of their pews or standing spaces. Others like us move toward the front, toward the altar space. We are fortunate that, thanks to Aida, ushers have saved us some pew space near the front. The next Mass begins even before we have time to sit. Most of the Mass is in the national language, Tagalog. The whole experience is quite remarkable. Thousands of people singing and praying together. But as huge and overwhelming as this Eucharistic gathering is, it is basically the same Mass that we all partake in as a community of the faithful.

Over lunch, Development and Peace partner, the Center for Environmental Concern (CEC) immerses us in the issue of land reclamation. In the Philippines, this term refers to the process of dumping land into Manila Bay to create new ground viable for human use. Sounds like something positive, right? We quickly came to learn that the only people who gain from this process are large multinational corporations, influential wealthy families or conglomerates. One can guess that some political pockets get fatter too.  The losers in this game are the fisherfolk and the environment.

CEC collaborator Dr. Joseph Carabeo (Dr. JoJo) takes us on a tour of areas that once formed part of Manila Bay but are now covered with luxury hotels, casinos, amusement centres, malls and high-end residential towers. He tutors us all the way to the Las Pines-Paranaque Coastal Habitat and Ecotourism Area. Here we meet Rey Aguinaldo, a botanist with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources – and a proud supporter of the nature preserve we are visiting.

Rey leads us, along with a group of Filipinos, on a joyous and spiritual eco-tour that takes us onto a bamboo boardwalk winding through Manila Bay’s one remaining mangrove forest, another likely victim of reclamation. Afterwards we meet with householders whose barrios (neighbourhoods) will experience regular flooding after the reclamation process. We are introduced to Alex, a fisherman. I pick up the look of helplessness on his face as he describes the long struggle to protect the ecology of his fishing grounds and the broken promises made by politicians. He is overcome with emotion as he talks of wanting to leave a place for his children to fish. Dr. JoJo finishes the talk, with his hand on Alex’s shoulder.

After such a full day and still reflecting on the issues faced and the people we met, I think of words like passion, commitment, and perseverance.

It was an honour to meet people such as we met today.