Philippines spill witnessed first hand

Feature story - August 22, 2006
It took Rodolfo Galuna only 15 days to build the small wooden boat he named "Rona". But now the 52-year-old fisherman has no use for it. Black, stinking oil sludge covers the boat’s hull, has crept into Galuna's back yard and quietly destroyed this fisherman's livelihood here on Guimaras Island. "I don't know what we will be living off in the future", said the father of six, "I must find something new". It is day ten of the biggest oil spill in the history of the Philippines.

Greenpeace activists and fishermen attempting to use oil booms made from local materials to protect beaches from spilled bunker oil.

It took Rodolfo Galuna only 15 days to build the small wooden boat he named "Rona".  But now the 52-year-old fisherman has no use for it.  Black, stinking oil sludge covers the boat's hull, has crept into Galuna's back yard and quietly destroyed this fisherman's livelihood here on Guimaras Island.  "I don't know what we will be living off in the future", said the father of six, "I must find something new".  It is day ten of the biggest oil spill in the history of the Philippines.

On August 11th, a single hull oil tanker chartered by Petron Corp., the largest oil refiner in the Philippines, sank in rough seas.  Roughly 320 km (200 miles) of coastline is covered in thick sludge.  Miles of coral reef and mangrove forests have been decimated and more than 1,100 hectares (2,470 acres) of marine reserve badly damaged.

Ground zero

At first sight the situation in the worst affected area, on the south of Guimaras Island, seems deceptively tranquil.  In La Paz, located nearest the sunken tanker, the villagers have cleaned their beaches with astonishing speed.  As our boat takes us across the shallow bay there is no obvious oil slick.  All seems nearly normal - but only to those not familiar with the sea. 

"Normally the water is light green here, and you can see down to the ground", says district counsellor Norma Lariosa - worrying about the new murkiness. "Now it is olive, and you see nothing." The oil has not retreated from La Paz. It has only split up into millions of tiny drops - and that could make it even more dangerous.

Galuna lives a 15-minute boat drive north of La Paz, in a small village called Citio Alman Sur. Here the enemy is still in full view. Galuna's bamboo-house is only 20 meters from the shore. It's built on stilts so the family virtually sleeps above the sea. Now they are sleeping above bunker oil.

The spill hit Citio Alman Sur the evening of Friday, August 12th. Roger was in his backyard when he wondered what was so slippery under his feet. He looked down and found black oil gushing between his toes. He turned and saw the mangroves painted black up to the waterline. That was when he became afraid.

Mangroves

"The mangroves are the breeding ground for the fish in the area", explained local council member Lariosa. She fears a massive decrease in the number of fish in the next generations. Worse, the mangroves might die.  

According to Greenpeace toxics expert Dr. Janet Cotter, who examined the damage on site by boat: "Mangroves breathe through their roots. When these roots are covered with oil for weeks, the plants will slowly suffocate." Dr. Cotter also fears the splitting up of the oil and mixing with water will make it more toxic to the ecosystem.

When Dr. Resurreccion Sadaba, an expert on mangroves with the University of the Philippines, heard about the sunken tanker he was especially worried about one mangrove tree from the species Rhizophora lamarckii. "It is a very rare species, there is only this single tree on the whole island." When Sadaba arrived on the island he found his worst fears had turned reality. His mangrove tree was covered with oil.

"I started crying", says Sadaba.  "Ninety percent of the mangroves in the marine reserve have their roots full of oil."

Communities hard hit

On the next day the wind turns and blows a new oil slick into the bay of La Paz.  Even if the fishermen went out very far their catch will still be contaminated and cannot be sold, says Edgar Garde, chairman of the local fishery department. 298 fishermen are registered in La Paz. Nine out of ten families here depend on the ocean for their living, and now face an uncertain future.

There is also the threat from poisonous oil fumes. One man collapsed when he came back from sea and had to be taken to hospital. Older people have been forced to seek refuge with relatives far from the shore.

Some journalists are comparing the situation with the disaster of the Exxon Valdez, but Governor Joaquin Nava worries it could be worse.  In this case, the tanker is sunk in deep water and continues to leak oil - an ecological time bomb.  The governor has demanded the oil company pay to have the tanker lifted or the oil siphoned off saying, "If not, the situation could be worse than with the Exxon Valdez, because the oil spill will continue for a long time". 

The tanker held 2.1 million litres (555,000 gallons).  Roughly ten percent of this has already spilled, and the ship continues to leak an estimated 100 to 200 litres of oil per hour. 

People in La Paz are already talking about growing vegetables as a replacement. "We know that the supply from the government will not last forever", says village counsellor Gamuya.

As for fisherman Guluna, he now collects wood to make charcoal coal. This provides some income, though not enough to support his family.  Still, he remains determined, telling us, "I am a Filipino. I am resilient, I will find a way."

We meet this attitude in every village we visit in Guimaras. People are angry, they ask for support - but not for pity. They know how to make a living, but for that they need the ocean.

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Take a look at the damage that resulted from the worst oil spill in Philippine history.

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