The water turns dark where the river meets the sea in Cagayan

By Mark Z. Saludes

November 18, 2021
A boatload of fishermen moves away from a ship used in dredging sand along the Cagayan River in Aparri town. Photo by Mark Z. Saludes

“Ya ya ya.”

That was what the Chinese just said when Edison Palattao, a 48-year-old fisherman in Aparri town, Cagayan province showed them the pieces of the damaged fishing net.

The incident happened on July 4: a Chinese vessel ran through a floating line of Palattao’s fishing net a few hundred meters away from the mouth of the Cagayan River. The confrontation happened on board the Chinese ship when Palattao, hoping that he could ask for compensation, approached the men on the ship. But it didn’t last a minute because no one from the ship spoke Filipino or English. 

“I felt helpless. If they can’t be liable in this kind of situation, what more to other destruction that they can incur to us,” he said in an interview on October 29. 

He lodged a complaint before the municipal government and the local office of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) “but it’s been months and it is still unclear if they will pay for the damages.” 

Aparri fisherman Edison Palattao shows what was left of the fishing net that was destroyed by a Chinese vessel used in the “dredging” project along the Cagayan River. Palattao said he confronted the crew of the ship but “no one speaks Filipino or English.” Photo by Mark Z. Saludes

It was not the only occasion that a huge vessel, which frequently goes in and out of the Cagayan River, ran over a fishing net.

On September 8, 23-year-old RJ Pacubas quietly wept as he went home after a vessel destroyed the fishing net that was given by his late father. 

“It was the only inheritance that my father left when he died last July 5. Now, I have no idea how to acquire a new one. That was my family’s only source of living,” he said. 

It was already dark when Pacubas noticed that the vessel was approaching the river channel. “I was on my boat near the nets at that time,” he said. 

Pacubas said he tried to signal the vessel to change its direction but “it ignored me and ran over the fishing net,” adding that the ship “could’ve hit me if I didn’t move.” 

Palattao’s fishing net got caught on the dredger ship’s propeller. The fisherman lodged a complaint before the local authorities but it is unclear if the company will pay for the damages. Photo by Mark Z. Saludes

The vessel with an all-Chinese crew that got involved in the two ramming incidents is called the Endeavour 1, a dredger vessel equipped with excavation and extraction tools. 

It is capable of weeding off deposits such as sand, gravel, and sediments from the riverbed or seabed. The vessel can carry up to 8,000 metric tons of sand materials. 

It hauls sand materials to HONGCHANG, “the mothership that transports sand materials out of the country.”

Fr. Manuel Catral, the parish priest of the Catholic Church in Aparri, said HONGCHANG has ferried sand materials from the Philippines four times already since the dredging operation started.

“Based on the current location of the vessel, it transports black sand materials from Aparri to China,” said Catral, who is the lead convenor of the group Cagayan Advocates for the Integrity of Creation. 

HONGCHANG, a 25-year-old bulk carrier that is currently sailing under the flag of Panama, can haul up to 64,000 metric tons of sand materials.

Another type of vessel present and anchored in the Cagayan River is the Cutter Suction Dredger, which utilizes a combination of mechanical excavation and hydraulic dredging with centrifugal dredge pumps and rotating cutter head. 

At least five Cutter Suction Dredger vessels – four (4) 3500 m3/hr and one (1) 7000 m3/hr – are expected to drop anchor in Cagayan province. 

The most controversial of the vessels docked in Aparri is the Zhon Hai 68, which was recently renamed to Fei Fei 1. It is a dredger ship under the Sierra Leone flag and operated by HK Weifeng Hangyun Co. Ltd. 

In January, authorities seized Zhon Hai 68 for “illegal and unauthorized presence” in the Philippine waters, around 13 kilometers southwest off Orion Point in Bataan province. 

The ship that allegedly run through Palattao’s fishing net is the Endeavour 1, a dredger vessel. Photo by Mark Z. Saludes

“Restoration” project or mining? 

The presence of large ships in the waters of Cagayan province is due to the on-going “large-scale dredging activity” aimed at rehabilitating the Cagayan River to pave the way for the re-opening of the Aparri port. 

In a letter sent to Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu on June 8, 2020, Cagayan Governor Manuel N. Mamba said the local government will “venture with [the] private sector” to undertake “desilting and dredging” of the heavily silted Cagayan River “without cost to the local government.” 

Mamba said the involvement of the private sector is due to the provincial government’s “lack of necessary funds” to address the problem that “poses great peril to communities around the rivers due to flooding and soil erosion.”

He said the dredging activity “is not only meant to be a river restoration and flood control project” but it is also “envisioned to be the enabling activity to ensure the re-opening of the Aparri port and establishment of a functioning international seaport.” 

Aparri residents and fisherfolks, however, claim that the large-scale dredging operation “is not just a river rehabilitation project but a black sand mining operation.” 

Endeavour 1 is capable of weeding off deposition such as sand, gravel, and sediments from the riverbed or seabed. The vessel can carry up to 8,000 metric tons of sand materials. Photo by Mark Z. Saludes

Geric Umoso, a 24-year old fisherman, claimed the dredger vessels “are operating not just in the Cagayan River but also at sea” – in the Babuyan channel. 

Babuyan channel is the waters between mainland Cagayan province and the Babuyan Islands in northern Philippines. 

“If the purpose is really to rehabilitate the river and address the flooding problem, why are they collecting sand from the deep sea?” said Umoso. 

One night in July at around 10 o’clock, Umoso and his fellow fishermen were preparing the boat when “a dredger ship exited the river and started sucking sand at sea.” 

“The ship’s lights were all on. We could hear and feel the vibration in the water as the vessel collected sand,” said Umoso. 

The vessel which Umoso was referring to was one of the dredger ships commissioned by Riverfront Construction Incorporated (RCI), one of the proponents in the river restoration project. 

Endeavour 1 is a dredger vessel equipped with excavation and extraction tools. It is capable of weeding off deposition such as sand, gravel, and sediments from the riverbed or seabed. The vessel can carry up to 8,000 metric tons of sand materials. Photo by Mark Z. Saludes

According to the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) prepared by RCI, the site of the dredging activity is “approximately 6.0 kilometers from the river mouth.”

“The project site (Cagayan River Restoration Project Thru Dredging Activities, Phase I, Segment 7) which covers Segment 7 at Sta. 6+000 – Sta. 8+500 for the proposed ~2.5km river dredging activities is located in the Municipality of Aparri,” the EIS reads. 

The location of Segments 7 and 8 are adjacent to Toran village and a few hundred meters away from the boundary of Aparri and Camalaniugan towns. 

Umoso claimed the vessel was operating beyond the area designated as Segments 1 and 2. In a map presented by the proponents, Segments 1 and 2 are located where the river meets the sea. 

Fisherfolk in Aparri also complained about the indiscriminate dumping of waste materials from the dredger ships back to the river. 

Fisherman Carlo Capalunan said the ships are “ditching sand materials back to the waters” after loading sand to the mothership HONGCHANG. 

“Ships emit water with sand or mud back to the river and to the ocean where we are fishing. I think that will be a problem in the future,” he said. 

Another type of vessel present and anchored in the Cagayan River is the Cutter Suction Dredger, which utilizes a combination of mechanical excavation and hydraulic dredging with centrifugal dredge pumps and rotating cutter head. Photo by Mark Z. Saludes

Ricardo Umoso, president of Aparri Federation of Aramang Fisherfolk Stakeholder, said he receives complaints about ships dumping waste materials into the river “where aramang (spider shrimps) and other marine life are spawning.” 

Umoso reckons, “It will definitely become a problem and it will affect the livelihood of the fisherfolk in Aparri. If this practice continues, catch will soon deplete.”

There are at least 11,000 fisherfolk in Aparri town. Majority of them are catchers of the famous aramang, which is being exported in other countries such as Japan and China. 

Fr. Catral said the river rehabilitation project in the province “is a fraud because in practice and in reality, it is a black sand mining operation.” 

The priest warned against the “impacts of the mining activity” on the environment and the community. 

“Dredging will disturb the habitat of the aramang, which is the primary source of livelihood of the people here,” he said.

Catral said the destructive extraction project “alters the migration paths and patterns for catadromous fish and euryhaline fish due to disturbance of usual environs.”

“We are against the way dredging is being implemented. It is irresponsible… We are against the deception and the lies that will hasten the dredging operation,” 
Catral said. 

Aparri fisherfolk claim that the crew of this dredger ship are all Chinese. It is Cutter Suction Dredger vessel that separate black sand materials from the impurities. Photo by Mark Z. Saludes

On October 30, the parish church in Aparri gathered at least 100 fisherfolk and several lay leaders from its 72 basic ecclesial communities to consolidate testimonies and come up with campaign plans against black sand mining. 

On November 11, Governor Mamba dared those opposing the rehabilitation project “to prove that there is black sand mining operations.” 

“Tell them this! I will resign as governor if they can prove it. Or if you want, I will kill myself,” said Mamba in a 12-minute phone interview with this reporter. 

Mamba, who heads the Inter-Agency Committee on the Restoration of the Cagayan River, challenged critics to join the authorities during the inspections of the vessels. 

“They should go on board the vessels and audit if there is really a separator that is capable of collecting black sand,” Mamba said in Filipino. 

The governor was referring to the “magnetic separator,” an equipment that can collect iron sand from the sediments. It can be installed to any dredger vessel.

At least five Cutter Suction Dredger vessels – four (4) 3500 m3/hr and one (1) 7000 m3/hr – are expected to drop anchor in Cagayan province. These ships separate black sand materials from the impurities. Photo by Mark Z. Saludes

No clear guidelines

Both Palattao and Pacubas need at least PHP 60,000 to pay for the materials and labor to produce a new set of fishing nets and get back to their routines.

However, it remains uncertain if the dredging firm will take the responsibility and pay the full amount. It is also unclear which government office has the authority over the matter.

Lawyer Jane Tadili, municipal administrator of Aparri, said the local government has received the fisherfolks’ complaints and endorsed them to the local office of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG).

The PCG is the agency that is supposed to forward the complaints to RCI. Tadili said PCG acts as the bridge between the local government and the dredging firm. 

Tadili, however, admitted that “it is unknown who or which government agency imposed” that process of a grievance mechanism. 

“We don’t understand why the municipal government cannot talk directly to the dredging firm,” said Tadili in a phone interview on November 10. 

Zhon Hai 68, a dredger vessel docked in Aparri, was recently enamed to Fei Fei 1. It is a dredger ship under the Sierra Leone flag and operated by HK Weifeng Hangyun Co. Ltd. Photo by Mark Z. Saludes

The lawyer said she was forced to call the local office of PCG on Tuesday, November 9, “because there was no response yet from the PCG regarding the complaints.” 

On the same day, the municipal government endorsed another set of complaints against a dredger vessel to the commander of the coast guard station in Aparri. 

The endorsement letter signed by Aparri Mayor Bryan Dale Chan indicated that on November 7 at around 3 o’clock in the morning, the fyke net and fishing gears of fishermen Mark Jellicoe Capalungan, Francisco Gonzales, and Denis Rigunan were “rammed by the dredging vessel.” 

The complaints, which were first received by Toran village chief Jane Siriban, said that the fishing gears and nets “are destroyed and beyond repair.” 

On November 10, the Coast Guard station in Aparri said that it “has already forwarded the letter to the RCI” and “we are also waiting for their response.” 

The “loss of fishing incomes due to disturbance to fishing operation” is included in RCI’s EIS as one of the potential impacts of the dredging activity.

“Any substantiated loss of income from fishing due to project activities will be compensated. Loss of permanent gears such as fish pots and baklads will be replaced, if applicable,” the company said in the EIS.

A fisherman passes by a barge that hauls sand materials in Aparri. Photo by Mark Z. Saludes

RCI also indicated that it will establish a “grievance mechanism” and conduct “close coordination” with the provincial and municipal governments. 

Tadili said the Department of Environment and Natural Resources “has not issued clear guidelines” to address loss and damage that the dredging project will incur. 

“The municipal government has very little authority over these companies even if they are operating within our area of responsibility,” she said. 

Tadili said the municipal government “cannot impose sanctions and penalties” if the companies commit violations because they are only answering to the provincial and national governments and to the environment department. 

“There is no prior consultation or close collaboration with the municipal government. We even haven’t seen yet the program of works or the comprehensive plan of this dredging project,” she said.

There are at least 11,000 fisherfolk in Aparri town. Majority of them are catchers of the famous aramang or spider shirmp. Photo by Mark Z. Saludes

Governor Mamba assured that his office is “already addressing the problems” of the affected fisherfolk in Aparri.

The provincial chief executive called on critics “not to take advantage” of the protesting fisherfolk, adding that “they should not agitate” the fishing community into holding out against the river rehabilitation project and the government. 

Mayor Bryan Dale Chan of Aparri on October 30 vowed to issue an executive order that will create a “multi-stakeholder resource committee” that will look into the “protection, management, and conservation” of the Cagayan River.

He said the municipal government is now looking into how it should insist on its authority and impose sanctions, especially when the dredging activity is already affecting the economic rights of the people. ###

Environmentalists say that mining activities in the Cagayan River disturbs the marine ecosystem that could result to depletion of marine life. Photo by Mark Z. Saludes
A fisherman stitches a set of fishing nets that is worth at least PHP 60,000. Photo by Mark Z. Saludes
The group Aparri Federation of Aramang Fisherfolk Stakeholder said the livelihood of at least 11,000 fisherfolk is threatened by the on-going dredging operation in the Cagayan River. The group decried the alleged dumping of waste materials into the river. Photo by Mark Z. Saludes
There are at least 11,000 fisherfolk in Aparri town who heavily rely on the Cagayan River and the Philippine sea. Photo by Mark Z. Saludes
The on-going restoration project of the Cagayan River will pave the way to the re-opening of the Aparri port, according to local authorities. Photo by Mark Z. Saludes

This report is commissioned by Caritas Philippines, the national secretariat for social action of the Catholic Church in the Philippines, through the Eco-Convergence Project supported by the Foundation for the Philippine Environment. It is the first part of a series of reports on the ecological concerns in the province of Cagayan. 

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