Man who can’t speak gives voice to the environment
Ramon Sta. Ana, 67, could barely talk. Six successive strokes permanently damaged his speech motor, leaving the former barangay captain dependent on interpreters for communication.
His words are slurred. But whatever voice is left of him, the mangrove caretaker is dedicating it to the protection of the environment.
Sta. Ana, or Mon to his family and friends, was a former chief of Barangay Cagsao in the coastal municipality of Calabanga in Camarines Sur. Although his chairmanship ended in an election loss in 2013, residents still call him “Kap”.
His stint was marked with a funny love affair with water. Sometimes, Mon fights for it, to help his neighbors get access to potable drinking water. There are times that he fights against it, by ensuring that the barrio is protected from storm surges.
Cagsao lies in the typhoon path of the Bicol region. On sunny days, the sleepy town’s black sand is littered with seashells, which, during low tide, produce chime-like music as waves lap the shore. At high tide, a battering sound of waves pounds the boulders of the mountainside walls like a canon.
Cagsao is practically unheard of except for disasters and its 10-hectare mangrove forest that was planted in 2008.
In the mornings, the towering trees and their gigantic roots were abuzz with fishermen and children looking for fish and shells to catch. At night, it was a sight to behold with fireflies lighting up the rural darkness. If it weren’t for garbage improperly disposed of, the site is a perfect location for romantic films.
Calabanga, meanwhile, is infamous for hellish disasters. The town, located 405 kilometers south of Metro Manila, is part of the typhoon belt in the Bicol region in southern Luzon. It battles multiple storms annually, and disasters often brought its villages, including Cagsao, down to their knees.
In 2004, three successive typhoons lashed Calabanga, leaving the village black and blue. Since then, climate change became a catchphrase for the barrio folk who experienced its fatal consequences firsthand.
As disaster after disaster barrel through his town, Mon asked himself: What can be done?
In 2007, Mon found out that a non-government organization backed by the European Union was helping Calabanga’s three littoral barangays - Punta Tarawal, Balatasan, and Balongay- reforest their shorelines with mangroves. Like Cagsao, these villages were constantly affected by flooding and storm surges.
When Kap heard this, he convinced the project implementers to include his barrio. Awed by Mon’s passion and sincerity, the organization agreed. How could they say no to the passionate old man who was desperate to uplift the lives of the people of Cagsao?
There began his uphill battle for the protection of mangroves as he faced resistance from the townsfolk, who thought mangroves were not the solution to their common curse.
Fisherman Jose Posada was quick to thumb down Mon’s plan. A skeptic Posada stressed that the project was bound to suffer the same fate as the failed reforestation attempts in the past. “Taon-taon naman, nagtatanim, wala namang nangyayari,” Posada said.
But Mon stood firm in his belief. The voters’ cold reception to his unpopular stand did not deter him from carrying out his vision. Instead of a defeatist attitude, Mon launched an information drive to explain why mangroves are the villagers’ best defense against storms and the best guardians of San Miguel Bay.
Cagsao used to have its own mangrove belt before men deforested the area. When the shore turned into the barren land, the community became at high risk of disasters.
While campaigning for the project to push through, Mon suffered a fourth stroke, which further damaged his speech motor. But Mon was unstoppable. He visited homes to convince the public about the benefits of mangroves. Through interpreters, the barangay captain unwaveringly explained how the forest is a natural buffer against disasters. He added that mangroves would provide the fishing community economic benefits because their roots serve as a nursery to marine life.
The people were slowly convinced. In April 2008, adult residents and children joined Mon in planting the initial 150,000 propagules. His critics, like Posada, eventually became forest caretakers, too.
Mon’s battle to protect Mangroves continued. Two years later, a group of fishermen asked for a “right of way” so they could conveniently dock their boats. The request meant cutting several young mangroves, which, at that time, was just beginning to entrench its roots.
Mon said no and passed an unpopular ordinance penalizing the cutting of mangroves.
In 2013, Mon ran again and lost.
Four years later, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) approved the cutting of young mangroves to pave the way for an “eco-tourism” site that resembled the famous bamboo forest in Kyoto, Japan.
Several mangroves were taken down to build a bamboo bridge and resting hut in the middle of the plantation. This attracted an unregulated number of tourists and visitors. It created a buzz and turned Cagsao into an online hit.
The site attracted v-loggers, who talked about the mangroves’ beauty but not its destruction. Ironically, most vlogs on Youtube called for the protection of these trees while standing on a destroyed plantation that was built for tourists.
The bridge around the mangroves eventually fell after three years, and the eco-tourism site shut down. The once “instagram-able” tourist attraction has become a useless garbage at the heart of the forest.
Even villagers wouldn’t dare cross the bridge. Against Mon’s advice, the bamboo pathway was built using metal nails that were not easily visible, especially in mud-filled lands where the plantation stood, making residents wary of accidentally stepping on the metal nails.
This pains Mon, who felt the eco-tourism project came too soon.
“Napakabata pa ng mga mangroves nang umpisahan ang eco-tourism project. Ang mangroves ay para sa storm surges sana, hindi para sa isang tourist attraction,” he said through interpreter Armando Torres.
Mon never made a comeback in politics but continued to watch over the forest as a mangrove caretaker. Despite years in public service, he applied for the job without fanfare. Humility never escaped him as he proudly wears his caretaker ID.
The former barangay chieftain had no qualms picking up pieces of garbage that littered the sea and hung on the roots of mangroves as if they were decorations of Christmas trees.
Some forest visitors thoughtlessly hold tree planting activities at the mangrove site without considering the type of species the area needs. Each time, Mon would carefully pluck them out and replant them where they can survive.
He religiously submitted accomplishment reports to the DENR and never failed to remind them that what Cagsao needs is a second wave of mangrove reforestation. Mon has yet to hear from the DENR for this request.
Mon felt like no one believed his vision just like the doomed Greek goddess Cassandra.
Looking at the mudflats in an interview earlier this month, Mon said: “Ito ang sinasabi kong malawak na lugar para muling pagtaniman. Pero walang naniniwala. Noong umpisahan ang site na iyan ay ganundin naman. Hindi daw mabubuhay at matagal pa bago mapapakinabangan, sayang lang ang resources."
Mon has always loved agriculture and the sea as a young man. But his father, a fisherman, did not want Mon to end up like him. So he sent Mon to Manila for a university degree. But after finishing commerce, Mon went back to the barrio to do what he loved to do: serve nature and humanity.
Months before the March 2020 pandemic lockdown, another bad news reached Mon’s doorsteps. Incumbent barangay officials passed a resolution demanding the demolition of a mound that sprouted near the seashore because the piece of land was blocking the fishermen’s route to the sea.
Mon vehemently opposed the proposal. This time, he had the mayor’s backing. “Hindi yan aalisin." Mayor Ed Severo rejected the whims of the new barangay council. “Kalikasan ang naglagay, kalikasan ang mag-aalis.”
The piece of land that the fishermen petitioned to remove turned out to be a moor or a natural sea wall that the mangroves created through time to protect the community from the punishing whip of storm surges. The Tapar family, who had experienced nightmarish disasters in the past, said they have stopped evacuating ever since.
The plantation’s success improved the fisherman's catch, too. The site benefitted academia after it turned into an outdoor classroom for students and environmentalists alike. The local government now prides itself as a protector of the environment. And international nongovernmental organizations are tapping each other’s back for a job well done.
Mon does not mind to remain invisible despite his efforts. Mon said caring for the mangroves is his last testament to the barrio. He might have lost the elections but in looking after this forest, his constituents win.
(With support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network (EJN) and Photojournalists’ Center of the Philippines)
WORK HARD, PLAY HARD: Children play and pluck shells called “bugitis” for lunch. Jun Santiago III, CSsR
GIFT THAT KEEPS GIVING:. During the pandemic lockdown, hunger was not so much a problem for the barrio. The fishing community reported higher catch since the plantation project took off. Even neighboring barangays are benefiting from Cagsao’s healthier marine ecosystem. Jun Santiago III, CSsR
ROLLING IN THE MUD: Cagsao villagers and the neighboring barrios go to mudflats for “hila-hila”, an indigenous way of catching fish during low tide.The huge mudflats of Cagsao is suitable for a possible mangroves reforestation. Jun Santiago III, CSsR
GUARDIAN of the GUARDIAN: Mon starts and ends his day checking the mangroves. He plucks garbage from the mature trees, and removes barnacles from the roots of the younger mangroves. Jun Santiago III, CSsR
ECO-WARRIOR: Mon uses photos to explain what happened to the 13-year-old mangrove forest. Jun Santiago III, CSsR
MAN and MANGROVES: The relationship between man and mangroves is best defined by the tons of waste people leave behind. These trees can stand against storms and typhoons, but plastic has a way of suffocating them. Jun Santiago III, CSsR
IMPERFECT MATCH: Man-made garbage is entrenched in the seas. Mangroves are known for their sturdy roots but sometimes they are no match for this rubber slipper.Jun Santiago III, CSsR
EVERYBODY WINS: Mother and child from the neighboring of Barangay Cabanbanan benefit from Cagsao’s bount. Jun Santiago III, CSsR
TAKING MATTERS INTO HIS OWN HANDS: Mon insists that the village needs a second reforestation project to cover wider mudflats. While waiting for the local and national governments to respond to his request, Mon is carefully replanting propagules that grow from the mangroves. Jun Santiago III, CSsR