Criselda Yabes is a journalist based in the Philippines. She is author of “The Battle of Marawi,” her 10th book, which was published last year.
If there is one thing the Philippines can boast of, it is the marine biodiversity surrounding its thousands of islands, and the rich fishing grounds therein.
While the homemade outriggers navigating these shoals and currents add a halcyon touch to the white sands and coconut trees, what lies beneath is the desperate poverty of the country’s fishing families.
The paradox is almost unimaginable: How could a people surrounded by so much wealth, and who charter such plentiful tides for a living day and night, be among the archipelago’s poorest of the poor?
Partly, it is the result of insular policymaking that has paid more attention to land issues. Oddly, the Bureau of Fisheries still falls under the purview of the Department of Agriculture, in many ways skewing priorities away from marine resources that should instead be used to uplift the lot of fisher families whose work methods remain primitive.
But over the past few years, the Philippines’ Les Miserables have learned to strike back against poverty. People are not raising their arms in protests or marching into the cities. What many fishing communities have discovered is the power of the simple concept of a piggy bank that has enabled them to endure the COVID-19 pandemic.
With most fishing families earning 2,000 pesos ($41) on a good day, little did they know that setting aside as little as 250 pesos a week could help amass savings in a club that has many of the functions of a bank.
Under the piggy bank approach, cash savings are stashed inside a metal box and locked with keys given to trusted hands within the community. Because access to a real bank has often meant paddling to the nearest town, often on another island, the approach has given many fishing families the feeling of having just been introduced to the trappings of civilization.
Suddenly, loans from pooled social funds are providing the means to upgrade homes from shelters made of nipa palm leaves to ones made of concrete, as well as sending children to school and repairing worn-out gill nets.
With most of these savings clubs cropping up in municipalities in the central Visayas region, where fishing communities stretch back generations, feelings of financial independence have injected a measure of social empowerment rarely, if ever, seen. What is so refreshing is being able to see people make their own decisions, and not have to rely on handouts.
In normal times, if a fishing family had the means to send a family member abroad, usually to become a domestic worker, they would do it in a jiffy. But stuck at home due to COVID, where the most basic and common aid they can get from the government is in the form of conditional cash transfers from a poverty alleviation program, many people understood how little opportunity they had.
Financial cooperatives and microfinance programs could help other poorer regions too, such as Muslim Mindanao, where financial institutions are almost obsolete. The only Islamic bank, the Al Amanah Bank, has only three branches spread across the region’s five provinces, with no ATMs or even a building to call its own.
This is what survivors of the long-running Marawi siege of 2017 had to do. When a group of female refugees running a hole-in-the-wall pastry store started saving money from every box they sold, they were eventually able to obtain a loan at virtually zero interest rate, in accordance with Shariah law. The women would not have been able to get such a loan from an ordinary bank, which would have required a slew of paperwork and official documents that they had lost during the siege.
In this particular case, it was a handful of Muslim female entrepreneurs who gave the seed money, and to everyone’s surprise, repayment was achieved in a short time. That process was replicated in other Muslim towns. It’s a small beginning, but they have gotten the ball rolling toward becoming bankable.
The fishers in the Visayas will soon go digital with the help of Rare, the conservation NGO that started the piggy bank program, and the Bank of Philippine Islands will offer smartphones to savings club treasurers to enable online banking.
In a span of just five years, those fishers have generated more than 120 million pesos in savings, loan payments and neighborhood kitties. Such a ripple of success has defied the fabled image of the poor Filipino as Juan Tamad, or Lazy Juan.
“I think the poor deserve more respect than what they seem to be getting from the rest of us,” said former socioeconomic planning secretary Cielito Habito. That certainly hits the gut when one would hear a fisher’s wife saying that at the end of a long, difficult year, all they want is to be able to take their grandchildren to a fried chicken meal at Jollibee.