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.
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
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.
"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
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
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.