Obando Fishport was bustling with activity at 6:00 in the morning. A colorful and tightly packed flotilla has gathered, fishing boats carefully slipping and sliding past each other to get their turn at docking.

 The bustle slowly fades to an idyllic backwater as we travelled via pump boat to the coastal village of Taliptip in Bulakan town, Bulacan province. Its surrounding seas is life to some 5,000 mostly fishers and salt-makers. It is from the gentle waters and mangrove corridors where they get their bounty of fish, mussels, crabs, shrimp, and krill.

On this collection of small island communities, a 2,500-hectare reclamation project by the San Miguel Corporation is being aggressively pursued, threatening to convert everything in its wake into a an aerotropolis complex of airports, expressways, and urban expanse.

 The project was a well-kept secret from Taliptip’s residents until concerned environmental advocates and church workers raised the issue among the communities—and until President Rodrigo Duterte was seen in the news already inking the project’s deal.

 Residents, especially the families who have lived in the village over the past 80 years, are concerned that their life and livelihood are under threat by this project.

A fisherman tending to his nets in Taliptip. Photo by Leon Dulce/Kalikasan PNE

“So long as the sea is here, there is hope…What will we fish when all this is turned into cement?” said Arthur*, a fisherman from Sitio Kinse, an island community of Taliptip ensconced in a dense shroud of mangroves.

 Arthur shared that the average fish catch for a day would net them around 500 pesos. Deductions from their gross income will be used to defray gasoline and other expenses and pay their boat consigner’s share. During the dry seasons, some fishers tend to the salt fields and get 154 to 254 pesos as payment per sack depending on the quality of the salt.

 A good day’s catch is a rarity nowadays, however. Gloria*, a woman resident of Sitio Dapdap, explained that fishing families usually stock up their live catch in makeshift pens and sell these on a weekly basis. A daily trip to and from the central market in Obando is simply too expensive compared to the dwindling daily catch.

A section of the Bulakan Mangrove Eco-Park. Photo by Leon Dulce/Kalikasan PNE

The hardships push the people of Taliptip to be sustainable by necessity. Living off the grid, residents pooled their resources to set up solar panels and batteries for their simple electricity needs. The residents take care of the mangroves since the shellfish they harvest live among its roots, and serve as a natural barrier to big waves.

 Aside from a 25-hectare eco-park established by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), various other stretches of mangroves are spreadt across Taliptip’s waters. A huge population of birds such as terns, egrets, kingfishers, and swallows make a home out of these trees.

A plethora of birds roosting over makeshift structures put up by fisherfolk. Photo by Leon Dulce/Kalikasan PNE

It is not hard to see the importance of these coastal greenbelts. The National Economic Development Authority (NEDA), the lead agency that approved the reclamation project, however, apparently has a diametrically-opposed view.

 San Miguel has pronounced that it can payroll entirely for the P735.6-billion aerotropolis, a hefty price tag that must have been the clincher. That amount seemed enough to justify ignoring the thousands of people set to be displaced and the ecologically critical vegetation to be converted.

A portion of a stretch of mangroves allegedly cut by San Miguel personnel. Photo by Leon Dulce/Kalikasan PNE

Early this year, the Duterte government also signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Dutch government to cooperate in the crafting of the Manila Bay Sustainable Development Master Plan (MBSDMP). The cart came before the horse, however, with projects such as the aerotropolis rapidly progressing without the guidance of a comprehensive sustainable development and management framework.

San Miguel personnel were reportedly behind a massive mangrove-cutting spree in Taliptip two weeks ago. Communities had no idea if the cutting had a special tree cutting permit from the DENR, as required by law.

 Almost 30,000 hectares of such projects presently cover the entire length of the bay.

A fisherman off the port of Obando. Proposed reclamation projects span the entire coastline of Manila Bay. Photo by Leon Dulce/Kalikasan PNE

For Arthur, defending the only livelihood they know from the real threat of reclamation is non-negotiable. “We will not leave our homes. We will fight so long as there are people supporting us and giving us strength to fight,” he declared.

Environment groups and churches are digging in deep with the communities for the struggle to save Taliptip and various other communities across Manila Bay. Will Duterte stand with the people and stick to his rhetoric against reclamation, or will he bow once again to the oligarchs it has vowed to stand up against?#