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The Murder of Abatan River
« on: October 07, 2018, 04:12:59 PM »
Abatan River Under Massacre 
Published by The Bohol Chronicle on January 29, 2003

"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter," says civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. three decades ago. For residents in Maribojoc, Antequera and Cortes towns living by Abatan River, this food-source river matters to them. A lot.

Recalls 33-year-old Bernar-do Docdoc: "I used to catch big fish here. Not anymore today." "Paji, tuway, bebe, and susu were once abundant. Today you can scarcely gather some for dinner," notes Meliton Tolop, barangay captain of Sto. Rosario, Antequera. 

Residents say massive river sand extraction, which started as early as in the 70s, destroys fishing grounds and erodes soil, forcing trees, coconuts, nipa palms, buri to yield to floods on heavy rains. 

The people know the river is for them, but "pipila lang ang nakapahimulos, (only few benefited from it)," says Tolop, 33, youngest barangay captain in Antequera. "Because we are poor, we are powerless, these sand extractors take advantage of us," laments a resident.

But what took them long to unzip their grievances when the damage has been done?

For one, the powerful would murder the courage of the powerless. A local official who spoke on condition of anonymity reveals to the CHRONICLE he received threats when his constituents attempted to stop the river sand extraction. "Gusto ka moundang kaon ug bugas? (Do you want to stop from eating rice?)" an extractor reportedly said to him in public.

Some residents in Antequera, one time, hurled stones to the extractors, who would sip sand as early as 1 in the dawn. They drove them away momentarily. But their stones are too little to crush the giants, who are reportedly leaning over the fat legs of some government officials. Well, a local official now board member was once even desirous to operate in Abatan. The offer to employ a dummy was turned down by a local official, sources say. 

Meanwhile, the victory of Busao people spawns seeds of courage to neighboring barangays. Earlier Gov. Erico Aumentado issued a cease and desist order to Trinidad Recemilla, an extractor in Busao Creek, which water source is from Abatan. Documentations by Environmental Legal Assistance Center (ELAC), Task Force Kabukiran and Diocese of Tagbilaran's Social Action Center proved factual to reports of environmental havoc wrought by a voluminous extraction. 

Later barangay Sto. Rosario in Antequera joined the crusade in Busao on a joint council session of local officials. Barangay Loreto in Cortes also locked arms with these two barangays. The dream, the struggle of the people: stop the massacre of Abatan River. Says Loreto barangay captain Roberto B. Lacastesantos: "These extractors have no permits from our barangay. Our people have long been condemning their operation."

Aside from void of permits, extractors, according to officials and residents, did not consult those who would be directly affected by the operation. "They just show us papers, and we don't understand what they are," sighs Juanito Coquilla, 62, of Loreto. 

There must be social acceptability before extraction commenced, reminds Bohol Environmental Management Bureau (BEMO) head Nunita Pinat. 

Why their battle often ended in frustration? Lacastesantos says they had gathered 200 signatures to air their plight, had sought DENR's and BEMO's intervention, but, he says, only empty promises were sent for their rescue. Lacastesantos recalls that the two past governors were indifferent to their state, including mayors of Cortes, Antequera and Maribojoc are seemed apathetic towards Abatan. 

"We have not asked Aumentado's help," says Lacastesantos. Tolop hopes: "Aumentado redeemed Busao - he could be our hope for Abatan." 

"They should put their concern in writing and send it to the governor's office," advises Pinat. "We haven't received formal complaints, so far."

Nestor Canda, Environmental Management Bureau (EMB) head, says he has received complaints about Abatan. EMB ensures that extractors followed the provisions stipulated in their ECC. Absence of trees in the upland, Canday says, causes soil erosion - but sand extraction is not the absolute culprit to the river destruction. 

On the other hand, extractors or financiers hide in shadows. Except Felix Humoc. His extraction started in 1974. But he's willing to abandon this lucrative business when the environment faces risk. 

"When people demand me to stop, I'm willing to stop," says Humoc. 
Other financiers use proxies or dummies as permittees, like the alleged posing of Recemilla as one. Dummies are ordinary men and women, obviously without sampan of money to run this business. A permittee would just put their signatures on DENR's Environmental Compliance Certificate (ECC) and the governor's permit. Their masters processed the documents. 

Pedro Paña, a Cortes kagawad for 15 years, has been a proxy since in the early 90s. Last year he called it quits. "Enough is enough" was his reply when asked why he refused thrice Manuel Cabang's nagging him to sign a permit paper. 

"I have realized of the destruction in the river," says Paña, who turns 77 this April. Besides, his six children (one is in US, another works in DENR) detested his being a dummy for dread of taxation complexities. "For years I wonder why the government has not collected me taxes when in fact I acted as supposed concessionaire," he quips, adding laughingly, "Wa ko kadawat bisag usa ka dako sa akong pagka dummy ni Cabang (I never received even a single centavo as Cabang's dummy)." "I want my name be cleared from now on."

Since these barangays received not a penny from the extractors, in Loreto and Sto. Rosario there was a time residents formed a cooperative for which they themselves would finance their own sand extraction. But two months after, Tolop says, DENR snubbed their application to renew permit, and instead awarded it to Cabang, M-R Restaurant owner. Says Lacastesantos: "The government is inconsistent, puzzling sometimes."

The CHRONICLE, meanwhile, asked Cabang if he could present any document for his operation. "I will produce documents only when other extractors will do it first," he quips. "Those who oppose the extraction are the next interested parties in the area." Cabang, however, claims he has the governor's and the DENR's blessings.
Now residents of these three towns cast their hopes to Aumentado who proved earlier his heart bled upon learning of Busao Creek's fate. 

On the other hand, the provincial government should listen to a heartbroken resident, saying about Abatan's condition, "Kung dili pa lang sayop magrebelde, dugay nakong nagrebelde (If only becoming a rebel is not wrong I have long been a rebel myself)." 

Perhaps, that would matter. 

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