Ka Dodoy: Guardian of Zamboanga Sibugay mangroves | Inquirer News

Ka Dodoy: Guardian of Zamboanga Sibugay mangroves

/ 05:00 AM September 12, 2021


Fascinated by his fisherman father’s skills in mechanics, Roberto Magbanua Ballon would have pursued a career in mechanical engineering after graduating from high school in 1991 had his family’s income allowed.

The eldest in a brood of nine, Ballon, even at a young age, already joined his father in fishing trips in order to feed the family and earn cash for their other needs. They would spend five to eight hours at sea in a given day for a catch of 2 to 3 kilos.


Dodoy, as Ballon’s family fondly calls him, learned from older fishers that catching fish was not that arduous two decades back. Even without venturing far into the sea, and just tending the nets or line along the river, 7 to 10 kilos of catch can be had in three to five hours.

In 1981, when the Ballon family relocated from Capiz in search of greener pastures in the coastal village of Concepcion in Kabasalan town, Zamboanga Sibugay province, large tracts of mangrove forests along Sibuguey Bay were being cleared and turned into aquaculture farms.


That time, there was a boom in the business of raising shrimps for export, and in Mindanao, Sibuguey Bay—particularly the coastal stretch of Siay, Kabasalan and Naga towns—and Panguil Bay hosted major aquaculture farms.

Ballon recalled that along with the massive clearing of mangrove forests, there was also brisk buying of cut mangrove trees for firewood. “The traders haul by boatloads. It was massive,” he said.

Rising up to challenge

Throughout Southeast Asia, home to a third of the world’s mangroves, Global Mangrove Watch estimated in 2017—using satellite images from 1996 to 2010—that half of the region’s mangrove areas were denuded due to the expansion of aquaculture farms.

As mangrove trees vanished, more time was required for fishing a dwindling catch, Ballon recalled, pushing the families of small fishers deeper into destitution that they could not afford to send their children to school.

To increase their catch and lessen their effort, many fishers resorted to the use of dynamite and cyanide poisoning—methods that further destroy the marine habitat—hence perpetuate the vicious cycle they were already in. In desperation, many fishers left Concepcion and joined fishing fleets in Palawan in order to survive.

A young Ballon who was just starting a family in late 1992 would rise up to the challenge, rallying fellow fishers to work to bring back the bounty of the sea, the results of which eventually fished them out of poverty.

Three decades on, Ballon, now 53, would be recognized as “the key mover” of that transformation among the coastal communities along Sibuguey Bay, making it among five recipients of this year’s Ramon Magsaysay Award, Asia’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize.


The Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation (RMAF) cited Ballon for “his inspiring determination in leading his fellow fisherfolk to revive a dying fishing industry by creating a sustainable marine environment for this generation and generations to come, and his shining example of how everyday acts of heroism can truly be extraordinary and transformative.”

Ballon will deliver a public lecture on Oct. 13 before he and four other awardees are formally recognized in a ceremony on Nov. 28.


Born on May 24, 1968, Ballon was 13 when his family settled in Kabasalan from Capiz. Growing up, he was active in organizing fellow youth for activities of the local Catholic parish.

Because he has the writing ability and the knack for dealing with government offices, Ballon was chosen as secretary of Kapunungan sa Gagmay’ng Mangingisda sa Concepcion (KGMC), formed by 36 fishers in 1986.

He was the group’s youngest member and was mainly responsible for paperwork, displaying his dedication to KGMC’s thrust, early on. “I spent time, talent and treasure for KGMC,” Ballon told the Inquirer in Bisaya in a Zoom conversation. He helped shape the direction of the group while working for an automotive technician’s certificate in evening classes.

When it was starting out, KGMC had the single-minded focus of rehabilitating the mangrove forests in the hope of restoring the breeding ground of fish to improve their catch, Ballon said.

They also agreed to end their use of destructive fishing methods.

“It was a sacrifice but we wanted to start the change with us,” Ballon said.

With each member pitching in time and money, they started planting mangroves in abandoned fishponds. When shrimp exports slumped by the 1990s, many fishponds in Sibuguey Bay were abandoned, opening ample opportunities for KGMC to expand the coverage of its mangrove reforestation effort.

Facing ‘powerful people’

By 1999, when Ballon was chosen to lead KGMC, the group had covered some 50 hectares of mangrove area, helping improve fish catch among the fishers of Concepcion.

And by this time, they also knew who were the “powerful people” behind the destruction of mangrove areas and large-scale destructive fishing operations.

“Some of them were officials of government. Most are moneyed individuals,” Ballon said.

This had a chilling effect on many fishers. From 36, KGMC’s active membership plummeted to only five.

Ballon admitted that even as they went about planting mangrove trees, they already harbored apprehensions about what would happen if the former fishpond operators, who presumably hold lease agreements with the government, retake the areas.

It was a blessing that in 2001, KGMC was among the groups assisted by the Western Mindanao Community Initiatives Project of the Department of Agrarian Reform. This opened a learning opportunity for KGMC.

Ballon credits the training provided by Xavier Agricultural Extension Services Foundation and Forest Foundation Philippines for having strengthened their organization and its membership, improved their leadership and management skills, and widened their knowledge about fishery laws and ecology.

“We became knowledgeable and confident about protecting the gains of our effort,” Ballon said.

Empowered KGMC leaders would soon initiate dialogues with government officials, fishpond operators and other resource users of the Sibuguey coasts.

“We visited them, bringing our offerings of seafood. We persisted in explaining our goals and intentions. We were lucky to have gained the support of various government agencies,” Ballon said.

But there was an instance when they had to sue certain government officials, he recalled.

These approaches paid off. KGMC was able to secure tenure over a 50-ha mangrove area they first restored. This would expand to 500 ha today, all in Kabasalan.

Guarding the gains

With a vastly improved marine environment, catch rose threefold with reduced fishing effort, at an average of 7 kilos for three to five hours, bringing an average of P400 a day to a fisher.

Yet, KGMC did not stop there. They guarded against mangrove poachers as well as fishers who persisted on employing destructive methods. In support of their effort, the local government deputized KGMC members for Bantay Dagat and Bantay Mangrove.

But instead of reporting violators to authorities and have them punished, those caught were made to undergo learning sessions on the importance of a healthy marine ecosystem for sustainable fisheries. Ballon credits this approach for driving the replication of their efforts in other coastal villages of Sibuguey Bay.

According to Forest Foundation Philippines, from 2009 to 2015, 550 fisherfolk from three municipalities along the bay have worked together to reforest 600 ha of denuded mangroves.

“What was once a desert of abandoned fishponds is now an expanse of healthy mangrove forests rich with marine and terrestrial life,” RMAF noted in conferring the honor to Ballon.


RMAF president Susan Afan said at a media briefing on Thursday that the story of Ka Dodoy and KGMC is about the importance of leadership.

“We want to show other places in the Philippines and in Asia that if we have the right leader and the right organization working together, achieving change is possible,” Afan said.

The KGMC experience was instrumental in forming the Coalition of Municipal Fisherfolk Associations in Zamboanga Sibugay (Comfas) for the protection of the marine environment across the province’s coasts, and a platform for sharing approaches on how to further improve the economic lot of fishermen. Ballon chaired the group since 2014.

Comfas is working to secure a tenure over the mangrove areas in 13 coastal towns of the province. So far, it has 300 ha in Siay town, 150 ha in Naga, and 60 ha in Ipil.

Through the years, KGMC has become a well-rounded community-based organization, engaged in other activities such as enterprise development. It hopes to foster a venture into raising oysters, king crabs, sea bass, snapper and grouper in cages to further increase the income of fishers.

Out of these income opportunities, KGMC hopes that its 320 member households allocate some money for the future through its savings mobilization drive led by women, who comprise 60 percent of the group’s active membership.

To sustain the drive against destructive fishing, Ballon said they had talked to traders not to supply fishers with illegal materials for use in catching fish. “We have told them that if the fish are gone, they also lose their business.”

Today, Ballon is proud to say that most of his 11 children have taken a strong interest in fishery as their source of livelihood, even as many of them finished college degrees in various fields.

“We have 60 active young fishers among our membership. Of course, they already grew up seeing that fishery is an economically worthwhile activity,” Ballon said.

The fishers who migrated to Palawan have also returned to Concepcion village, Ballon noted.

Recently, Ballon said that there were stirrings from old fishpond operators to retake the mangrove areas for raising king crabs. But they are determined to stand their ground, he assured.

“If we were not a strong and empowered organization, all these things we achieved will just go to waste. Amid these pressures, organizations need courageous and patient leaders. And that is my role,” Ballon said.

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TAGS: Ka Dodoy, Roberto Magbanua Ballon, Zamboanga Sibugay mangroves
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