By Zarena Hermogeno and Lance Reamon
Fisherfolk in Masinloc, Zambales recall their experiences of Chinese aggression near Scarborough Shoal in the West Philippine Sea. Taken Aug. 18, 2023. | PHOTO BY ZARENA HERMOHENO, LANCE REAMON
The issue of mental health remains to be an uncharted territory in Masinloc, Zambales, even as fear often creeps into the hearts of fisherfolk in the frontlines of China’s aggression in the West Philippine Sea.
“Andyan na yung Tsino, kabado ka na. Dahil yun nga pag nakapasok ka na sa loob, palabasin ka. Di ka makapagisip nang maganda, nasa isip mo takot na.”
Grief and discouragement filled the silence between Rolando Fuentes’s words as he recalled how China Coast Guard (CCG) vessel 1337 harassed and intimidated them near Scarborough Shoal, a resource-rich rock located 124 nautical miles off Zambales coast within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. It happened in the year 2012 — but for him, it felt as if it were just yesterday.
They were just around 22 kilometers near the mouth of the shoal when Fuentes heard the CCG warning. Along with his two other companions onboard a tiny wooden scout motor boat, they decided to push through, claiming their right to fish within those waters.
To their horror, the CCG blasted them with water cannons, damaging both their equipment and their boat.
Every night since then, he would hear the echoing sounds of the megaphone just minutes before the blast, ringing in his ears: “Filipino get out. No fishing, get out immediately.”
Fearing for their lives, Fuentes remembered what his companion told him: “Huwag natin ipasubo ang buhay natin diyan, delikado na tayo diyan.”
Fuentes is just among the thousands of fisherfolk, many living in Masinloc, that feel the lingering effects of China’s harassment. Fisherfolk like him are unable to address their mental health issues for several reasons: lack of awareness, limited accessibility, and different priorities. After all, their most pressing needs are food and shelter. They have no luxury to worry about their internal perils, as only one thought drowns their minds: the need to live.
Asked directly if they were traumatized by the incident, they uttered nothing and stared blankly ahead. “Wala naman kaming magagawa ma’am, ganyan na po talaga eh,” Fuentes said.
The tense disputes over the West Philippine Sea, the part of the South China Sea within Manila’s jurisdiction, began on April 8, 2012 when the Philippine Navy tried to arrest at least 10 Chinese fishing vessels carrying illegally collected giant marine life inside the Scarborough Shoal, a rock located 198 kilometers away from Masinloc. Philippine authorities tried to arrest the fishermen but they were blocked by two Chinese maritime surveillance ships.
This would end up becoming the infamous stand-off between China and the Philippines lasting for two months. After various diplomatic to-and-fros, the Philippines pulled out its last ship from the Scarborough Shoal on June 2012. The Chinese ships, though, remained stationed there. China has since then controlled the area, barring Filipino fishermen from entering.
Jonathan Miñoza, who also used to fish in the Scarborough Shoal, witnessed how the once peaceful waters there turned into a place of fear and danger.
“Nung 2014, lumapit kami sa boundary ng Scarborough Shoal pero di talaga kami nakalapit sa bantay ng Chinese Coast Guard. Kinukuha yung mga isda tapos biglang umalis. Kasi yung parte ng bunganga ng Scarborough Shoal di ka talaga maka-uno kasi yung mga barko ng CCG nakaharang diyan. Kahit mga isang milyahe tatabuyin ka nung sinasabing water cannon,” he said.
And when push come to shove, the CCGs would take matters into their own hands.
“Wala kang magawa, yung isang kasamahan ko nga binunggo yung isang mother boat, lumubog, tapos inalisan; 2014 na nangyari yon,” Miñoza said in disbelief.
Filipino fisherfolk face fierce aggression from Chinese vessels in the shoal, ranging from verbal challenges to water cannon attacks. It was so cruel, said the fishermen, that some of them have decided to avoid the waters altogether.
“Hanggang ngayon may phobia ako diyan ma’am. Natakot na kami talaga bumalik,” Fuentes admitted.
Fuentes quit fishing in the Scarborough Shoal and decided to endure the meager catch from the nearby waters of Masinloc while also working as a tricycle driver to sustain his family.
Every now and then, he could not help but compare his past and present income. If it weren’t for his harsh encounters with Chinese vessels, he said he would’ve been able to finance his children’s studies.
“Masakit din sa akin ma’am, dahil doon kami naghanap-buhay biglang nawala. Masakit din katulad sa amin may mga estudyante pinapaaral, yun na nga yung isang estudyante ko ngayon di na nakakapag-aral dahil nga kulang sa kinikita.”
In 2016, a tribunal in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines in a landmark ruling that invalidated Beijing’s sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea. The Hague tribunal declared the shoal, within Philippines’ jurisdiction, as a traditional fishing grounds for many nations.
“The Tribunal also held that fishermen from the Philippines (like those from China) had traditional fishing rights at Scarborough Shoal and that China had interfered with these rights in restricting access,” the tribunal said in its 2016 press release.
“The Tribunal further held that Chinese law enforcement vessels had unlawfully created a serious risk of collision when they physically obstructed Philippine vessels.”
But Beijing has still refused to acknowledge the award, citing history in insisting that the shoal is theirs.
A gaping hole
Despite the enormous stress on the fisherfolk, mental health is not a central issue for the municipal government and the people.
To date, there are no mental health programs tailor-fit for the more than 4,500 fisherfolk in Masinloc.
Christian Timothy Ebitner, a psychometrician with the Masinloc municipal government, admitted that such interventions are far and few in between.
He mentioned that the scarcity in resources drastically affects the psychological services and programs in the province.
“Yan din ang isang malaking problema, not just in Masinloc siguro pero most of the provinces kasi given na mas marami pang islands ang Pilipinas kaysa sa ating mga psychologists or psychiatrists; sobrang konti talaga, sobrang kulang,” he said.
He said that the nearest psychiatrist could be found all the way in Iba, Zambales, 26 kilometers from Masinloc.
Even if fisherfolk do want to address psychological issues, they would have to travel approximately four hours on a commuter bus and shell out thousands of pesos for a single session — a price they could not afford.
“Also, malayo. If you want to get checked you have to go sa Iba. Ini-imagine mo yung taong walang pera, walang pamasahe for that parang ang hirap na,” Ebitner elaborated.
Data from the Philippine Statistics Authority’s 2022 National Demographic and Health Survey also showed that only 0.3% of Masinloc residents are aware of existing mental health services. In comparison, 1.3% of residents living in the National Capital Region are aware of such services.
An undergraduate thesis from the De La Salle University-Dasmarinas in 2017 published implications of the maritime disputes on the lives of Masinloc fishermen and found that government assistance was not enough.
The local government of Masinloc, for its part, convened community meetings and consultations, which some criticized as just “pure talks” with “no actions actually being done,” according to the study.
The writers sought the Masinloc municipal government’s comments on September 23, 2023, but it has yet to respond as of writing.
There is a tiny speck of hope, as President Ferdinand Marcos Jr signed in August a law that would create regional specialty centers in government hospitals nationwide. Mental health would be among the priorities of these centers.
But until then, fisherfolk, including their families, are left with little to no option but to put their mental health in the backseat.
As Fuentes and Minoza recounted their harrowing experiences at sea, the two said:
“Hinayaan nalang po namin.”