On Pag-asa, hope and fighting spirit keep far-flung island community afloat
MANILA—Everything that the 300 people living on Pag-asa island need is in one of 4 sari-sari stores.
If the item isn’t there, they’d have to wait until ships haul stock in from Palawan. How long those trips take and how often the boats make them depend mainly on the weather.
When lives are at the mercy of conditions that are out of people’s control — conditions generated either by nature’s unpredictability or by unwelcome human forces — resilience is a characteristic that can’t be short of supply.
On this 37-hectare speck of land in the middle of an oceanic nowhere, the story of Pag-asa’s people is more than just hope; it’s about making things happen whenever they can.
LIFE ON THE ISLAND
Most Filipinos have probably heard about Pag-asa Island because of the tension in the West Philippine Sea. The presence of Chinese vessels has put the island on the map, but what is life like on the small island?
Loren Jay Ricudo, 29 years old, is one of two teachers at Pag-asa Island Elementary School. He is a native of Roxas in mainland Palawan, but has been assigned to Pag-asa since 2017, at a time when the island was practically isolated from the rest of the country.
At that time, there was no Internet that he could use to catch up with his family; electricity ran for only a few hours a day.
Loren Jay was married earlier this year but when school started, he had to leave his wife in the mainland to continue teaching.
Four hundred kilometers from Puerto Princesa, Paga-asa, with its distance and remoteness, poses a lot of challenges to the community there, Loren Jay included. His first battle: homesickness.
Depending on how fast the boat is, it usually takes several days to cover the distance between mainland Palawan and Pag-asa. Currently, there is no regular commercial air or sea transportation servicing that route.
The residents would have to wait until there is a trip from the local government or the Philippine Navy, where they hitch a ride to reach El Nido or Puerto Princesa.
“Nu’ng una mahirap talaga kasi wala pang kuryente, tapos kapag summer napaka-init dito sa room, parang iniihaw kami dito sa classroom,” Loren Jay says.
“Tsaka mahirap din ’yung pagpasa namin ng report. Halimbawa po, ’yung kapag may mga seminar, hindi kami maka-attend ng seminar kasi ang layo, tapos gusto namin mag-masteral. Hindi kami makapag-masteral kasi bago kami makababa, katapusan ng school year na.”
There are only 23 enrolled students in the school from Kinder to Grade 6, and Loren Jay handles half of them. He teaches Grades 4 to 6.
Most of the students moved from mainland Palawan to Pag-asa together with their families. Their parents counted on the promise of a better life and employment, basing their decision on relatives who had taken that path.
There are no high schools in Pag-asa, so after Grade 6, students would have to go back to the mainland to pursue their education. That is, if a boat is available.
“Mga estudyante dito, hindi rin taga-dito. Taga-Taytay, Roxas, Puerto Princesa, kung saan po sila, kung saan ’yung locality nila, balik po sila doon (kapag graduate nila). Pero inaayos ng division na kung ’yung mga estudyante dito willing mag-aral ng Grade 7 to 8, magtatayo ng division dito ng Grade 7 to 8,” Loren Jay says.
Of the 23 students, 5 are in Grade 6. Mark Angelo Hugo is one of them.
Mark Angelo is the son of Jonnel Hugo, a fisherman. Like other kids, he also endures days in the sea whenever they travel from the island to the mainland.
“Sa susunod na taon, doon na ako sa Puerto Princesa mag-aaral, sila tito po kasama ko. Sila mama dito lang maiiwan,” he says. Mark Angelo lives a simple life, too: roaming by the sea, swimming after school, or watching pawikans hatch.
Asked about his dreams, he says he wants to become a pilot to give his family a better life.
“Nagpapagawa kami ng bahay sa Puerto Princesa. Kapag natapos ’yun, du’n na sila mama. Pero babalik po ako dito sa (Pag-asa Island) para magbakasyon,” he adds.
Pag-asa Island Elementary School returned to face-to-face classes this year, because there is no single COVID-19 case recorded on the island and because a weak internet connection cannot support online learning.
“Nu’ng nakaraan, nag-module din kami. Ngayon year lang bumalik sa face to face. Nagpaalam sa division kasi zero case naman sa island,” Loren Jay says.
The children in Pag-asa might have been used to the quiet, simple life, but they are not detached to the reality around them. Young kids are being taught how to take care of the ocean, and a favorite activity is watching pawikan eggs hatch near the sea. They also know that the boats on the horizon, visible on the beach where they play, are not local.
“Minsan nagbabasa, minsan naglalaro. Nag-swimming kami sa may runway, tumatalon kami,” Mark Angelo fondly recalls.
While most students only moved to Pag-asa, there is one lone girl who was actually born on the island -- Chinalyn.
Her name and its origin spark interest among her peers, and the most frequent question she’s asked is: “Why Chinalyn?”
“Dahil malapit sa China,” she says.
THE PAG-ASA ISLAND COMMUNITY
There are about 300 people residing on Pag-asa Island, not including the construction and ice-plant workers sent to the island for brief projects. Additional roads are being constructed and the airstrip is being renovated.
Besides residents, there are also personnel of the Philippine Navy, Marines, Air Force, Maritime Police, and the Philippine Coast Guard deployed on a rotational basis. Over 500 people are on the island at any given time.
Most of the residents are natives of Roxas and Taytay, Palawan, who moved to Pag-asa because there are jobs. A recurring narrative is that most of the men were recruited for construction projects in the late 90s to early 2000s.
Finding solace in this faraway island, they started building homes and eventually brought their families there. Other residents were invited by relatives who earlier settled on the island.
“ ’Yung ate ko ’yung nakaraan na island coordinator po dito. Dinala n’ya po kami dito para magtrabaho sa LGU. Dito ako naka-assign sa garden," says Cherel Embrad, who moved to the island in 2017.
Life in Pag-asa is slow and simple.
“Sa bahay lang, trabaho sa bahay. Namimiss din namin mga kaanak sa mainland pero walang magawa kasi nandito yung magandang trabaho. Medyo OK dito kesa sa mainland, kasi doon bibilhin talaga eh, dito kahit wala kang pera ok lang, parang wala lang,” says Jenalyn Balaran, another resident.
Besides at least 4 sari-sari stores, there are practically no businesses in Pag-asa. There are no carinderias (food stalls), no markets, no shops, and no church except for a chapel that’s military property.
There are no courier services, too, to send money or packages to and from the island. Everything is within walking distance, so public transportation is pointless. There is also no cemetery.
Most of the houses are concentrated on the eastern side of the island, where most of the fishing vessels are docked. Many of those are owned by the local government, and each house is numbered and labeled by the name of its owner. With a tight-knit community, everyone almost knows each other.
Pag-asa is the political center of the Kalayaan Island Group, also known as the Municipality of Kalayaan. At the middle of town is a flagpole and a marker. Behind it is the municipal hall, but officials are usually in mainland Palawan.
There is an island coordinator in charge of local affairs, and there’s no crime to solve; a tight-knit community makes that possible.
Fronting the municipal hall is a long airstrip where military aircrafts land. On one side of the island is Camp Emilio Liwanag, where soldiers are stationed; on the other is the newly built evacuation center, a COMELEC office, a school, and a small health center with 2 isolation rooms with 5 beds, run by a nurse and a midwife. Basic medicines are free, but since there are no specialist doctors, those who are severely sick are airlifted to the mainland with the help of the Western Command of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
“ ’Yun pinaka-problema namin dito, walang doctor. Nagrerequest ng eroplano, kukunin may sakit dito,” says Cherel Embrad.
What gives them peace is that there is no case of COVID-19 detected on the island yet. Everyone entering must present a negative RT-PCR result, and undergo quarantine before arrival. As such, it is common for people to roam around without face masks.
“Three years po kami dito saka kami nakababa. Sa ngayon, wala pa plano, kasi mahirap doon, may COVID-19 du’n. Dito walang iniisip,” Jenalyn adds.
With the establishment of a National Power Corp. plant on the island earlier this year, the residents now have electricity 24/7. The Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) also recently connected the island to the internet, providing Wi-Fi in 3 spots on the island. It’s common to see people converging in these spots, especially now that watching videos is a growing pastime.
At night, the community gathers to watch basketball games. The Navy, the Coast Guard, the Air Force, construction workers, and the community form teams. On Thursday afternoons, they hold community Zumba sessions.
There are small community gardens in Pag-asa where they plant some vegetables made available for free, but one challenge on the island is supplies can dry up quickly.
Local government ferries groceries and supplies, usually good for a month. When the weather is bad, such trips are cancelled. They have a term for it: “kanas-kanas”.
“May time dito na nawawalan talaga. ’Yung mga tindahan dito minsan nagkakaubusan din. Ganu’n na lang, antay na lang na may byahe. Maliban na lang kapag may ganitong masamang panahon, may nagbabyahe naman,” says Jenalyn Abayan, who has lived in Pag-asa for 4 years.
“Katulad ’pag ganitong panahon, kapag walang biyahe talaga, walang mga ano, mga pagkain. Walang isda. Wala talaga. Papaya muna (ang kakainin), malunggay. ’Yan mga tanim namin dito,” Cherel Embrad says.
Sometimes, kanas-kanas lasts for a few weeks. Residents have turned to raising chickens and ducks, which they eat only on special occasions or when there’s nothing else to eat anymore. Some residents sell a whole chicken for P500, considered expensive.
It’s always a big relief whenever the ship carrying supplies arrives.
FISHING AND LIVELIHOOD
With vast waters surrounding the island, the men of families mostly turn to fishing. In Pag-asa, all types of fish are priced the same, at P80 per kilo. The most common catch are tanigue, tulingan and yellowfin.
The usual customers are members of the Navy and Coast Guard. Besides cash, fishermen also accept a liter of diesel as payment for every kilo of fish.
There are 43 fishermen on the island, and they have banded together to form a fisherfolk association; 2 work full-time, the rest part-time. They sail early in the morning before going to their job at the local government at 9 a.m.
When the weather is pleasant, they can fish up to 60 kilos per day; when it isn’t, they usually go home empty-handed.
Fishing used to be a thriving activity in Pag-asa, until Chinese ships started positioning in 2015.
“ ’Yung bahura na nararating konti na lang gawa ng may presensya na ng ibang bansa. Kami mismo nag-aalangan nang pumunta sa mga bahura dito kasi nand’yan presensya nila kaya kami na lang umiiwas,” says Ronnie Cajamco, a full-time fishermen.
“Kapag nakikita nila ’yung mga bangka namin sa bahura dito, tatakbo sila para harangin kami, kaya ang ginagawa namin ’yung fishing ground namin, ’yung na lang sa parte na ito na lang pinupuntahan namin.”
Numerous Chinese vessels have been seen close to Pag-asa, some as close as 6 to 10 nautical miles. Last May, the Department of Foreign Affairs lodged a diplomatic protest against Chinese activity in Pag-asa's vicinity. But the situation remains. Using the naked eye, one could spot as many as 30 Chinese vessels near the island.
This has had a damaging effect on the livelihood of local fishermen.
“Dati nakakarating kami ng sandbar 1, 2, 3. Ngayon di na kami makalapit doon. Doon pinakamarami ang isda, at malaki epekto noon sa pangingisda. Sarili nating bahura di natin malapitan dahil nand’yan ’yung barko ng mga Chinese, ’yun epekto sa’ming mangingisda, nabawasan ’yung kung saan kami pwedeng kumuha ng maraming isda,” says Larry Hugo, acting president of the Pag-asa Fisherfolks Association.
“Nakakasama rin ng loob at nakaka-low morale kasi alam natin na mga bahura na ’yan ay sakop ng Pag-asa at napakalapit sa atin, abot ng maliliit na bangka, limitado na di na kami nakapunta doon dahil nand’yan barko ng Chinese, napakadelikado din sa’min.”
Just a few months ago, Larry’s boat almost collided with a Chinese vessel when he tried fishing near the area.
Most of the Filipino fishermen’s boats are small, only able to accommodate 5 people max, no match to the giant Chinese ships. Larry and the Filipino fishermen now avoid the area to not cause any further tension. They know, though, it’s their right to fish there.
This trend is quite alarming for Atty. Jay Batongbacal, executive director of UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.
“ ’Yan ’yun di maganda dito sa mga nangyayari na parang napapabayaan natin itong mga lugar na atin na. Tayo na ’yung kusang-loob na umaalis at nag-iiwan sa kanila kaya nagkakaroon ng opportunity yung kabila na talagang angkinin at kunin na siya,” Batongbacal says.
“Dahil takot tayo, dahil ayaw natin ng gulo, eh hindi na lang natin pupuntahan. ’Pag ganyan, kalaunan, baka makuha ng kabila ’yung mga lugar na yon natin.”
Besides Chinese vessels, fishermen also complain about Vietnamese vessels who are allegedly using illegal fishing methods around the island.
“May epekto kasi ’yung iba iligalista na rin. ’Yung Vietnam, minsan nag-cyanide dito sa’min. Di kami natatakot, nag-iiwas na lang kami,” says Jonnel Hugo, also a fisherman.
The fishermen thus have a plea to the next administration.
“Sa susunod na mamumuno sa bansa natin, sana mabigyan ng aksyon ’yung tungkol d’yan dahil alam naman natin na sa atin ang isla na ’yan. Bakit nand’yan presensya nila? Sana magkaroon tayo ng isang salita na kapag sinabi natin na kaya natin iprotekta mga mangingisda natin, gawin natin. ’Yun lang naman hinihingi namin bilang mamamayan sa Kalayaan,” Cajamco says.
“Kailangan sana namin ng protekta ng namumuno sa atin. Sana mabigyan kami ng konting kaluwagan sa pangingisda sa bahura.”
SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH IN THE ISLAND
For the second time this year, a team of scientists and experts from the UP Marine Science Institute, UP Cebu, National Fisheries Research and Development Institute, and UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and the Law of the Sea visited Pag-asa.
They opened the Pag-asa Island Research Station, a hub of scientific study catering to Filipino experts.
Once fully functional, the station will be manned by Filipino scientists who will find more ways to make living more sustainable on the island.
“The research station isn’t just for marine studies. Pwede s’yang terrestrial. Ano ’yung island ecosystem, ano ’yung mga puno pwedeng itanim, agricultural practices na appropriate for a small island, ano ’yung available technologies na pwedeng gamitin, ano ’yung technologies na pwedeng iimprove,” says Dr. Fernando Siringan of the UP Marine Science Institute.
The Kalayaan island group (KIG) is a vast yet relatively unexplored area. It is home to 30 percent of the country’s coral reefs, making it an invaluable resource of fish.
“ ’Yung area covered by KIG is very large. It’s even larger than the whole of Visayas, and yet we do not know a lot about what’s going on. So importante na may research na done regularly including monitoring ng environment,” says Dr. Cesar Villanoy, chief scientist of the expedition.
“A lot of this is baseline information. Mahirap kasing malaman kung paano gamitin ang isang resource kung di natin alam kung nasan s’ya, ano s’ya, at ano meron. Ito ’yung initial and from here alam na natin na may ganito palang klase ng resource, may ganito palang ecosystem. We can then invite more scientists to contribute to the research,” says Dr. Deo Florence Onda of the UP Marine Science Institute.
But on top of their scientific pursuit, expeditions to Pag-asa is also a form of asserting sovereignty.
China has claimed almost the entirety of the South China Sea, with ships invading Philippine waters. Pag-asa, with its Filipino settlement, remains largely untouched.
“ ’Yung overall na objective ay una, to assert our sovereignty, and by the way to do that is do things that are necessary for us to discover, to understand the resources that are available to us in this area and be able to manage it and be able to use it wisely,” Siringan adds.
With this endeavor, the scientists are hoping government will allocate more resources for research in the West Philippine Sea.
“Sana makita ng gobyerno ang importance ng siyensya at pag-aaral at sana maraming suporta regardless kung kaninong administration man ’yan, ’yung mga ginagawa ng mga scientists para sa bayan, it goes a long way at para ito sa mga Pilipino,” Onda says.
PREPARATIONS FOR HALALAN 2022
Like the rest of the country, more Filipinos from Pag-asa are gearing up to participate in next year’s elections. There are 164 additional residents who registered to vote, on top of the 357 eligible voters.
National candidates are not expected to campaign on the island because of how far it is and given the sparse population, traveling there isn’t feasible, but the election officer in Pag-asa and residents are expecting a peaceful conduct of the elections.
“Very peaceful po ito. Since then very peaceful ang Kalayaan, walang election-related violence. Prior to election period, nagre-request na kami ng assistance sa Wescom [Western Command] at Coast Guard para magbigay ng assistance in terms of aircraft of any sea vessel, ’yun sa aircraft ng airforce ng Wescom,” says Juan Gonzales, the election officer.
Two candidates for mayor, 3 candidates for vice mayor, and 18 Sangguniang Bayan members are running for the local government of the Municipality of Kalayaan.
The foremost challenge of the next local administration is in their political name: protect the freedom of fishermen and residents from foreign presence.
Come election day, the residents will flock to Pag-asa Elementary School to cast their votes, each one hoping for a better future and a better life in Pag-asa.
Life on the island is slow and simple. And as the sun sets and the night creeps in, the ships by horizon lights up, even brighter than the lights from the island.
With that, everyone in Pag-asa knows that the challenges the new administration will face are not internal to the island.
What future awaits the children of Pag-asa island of Kalayaan, such as Mark Angelo and Chinalyn?
One, they pray, that is free of foreign intrusion and one filled with hope, as the name of their home suggests.